Easy is a Relative Term

There is one cake recipe that I make over and over again–in fact, it’s one of the few dessert recipes I’ve made more than once, let alone more than ten times.  (It’s not that I don’t like the desserts I make, just that I’m continually interested in new things).  This cake, though, is supremely easy to make, and usually sends people into transports of delight.

I first noticed the recipe in my mother’s copy of The Good Fat Cookbook, renowned for including copious amounts of nuts, avocados and/or coconut in most recipes.  This recipe, for a coconut-orange-almond cake, struck me because of the wet ingredients: aside from the eggs, the only moist things in the cake were two oranges, simmered for two hours and then ground whole.  The entirety of both oranges, pith, peel and all, went into the cake.  At the time that I first made the recipe, I knew nothing about culinary technique or baking chemistry or anything like that; I just thought the recipe sounded neat.  The cake itself–just ground almonds, coconut, sweetener, baking powder and eggs mixed with those pureed oranges–was a dense, moist round that tasted like it had been soaked in orange syrup.  I was hooked from the first bite, but each bite after the first revealed more depth: the cake got better for every day it sat in the fridge.

I made the cake several times after that, both for my family and once I’d moved out on my own, but it wasn’t until I saw a similar recipe in Nigella Lawson’s first cookbook, How to Eat, that I thought of changing the recipe up a bit.  She makes her cake with clementines instead of oranges and uses only almonds instead of almonds and coconut.  Further still, at the end of the recipe she notes that she sometimes makes the cake with lemons instead of clementines.  Instantly attracted, I made the cake with lemons and no coconut; I liked it even better than the orange version.  (Lawson also acknowledges that she’d noticed that her recipe–which wasn’t original to her, and the discovery of which she has forgotten–is so very similar to a cake invented by Claudia Roden that she assumes that her own recipe is derived from Roden’s). 

Soon after discovering the lemon version of the cake, I began to see variations of the basic recipe everywhere.  They ran through every citrus fruit in existence–grapefruit, ugli fruit, key limes, kumquats (the last of which must be agonizingly fiddly to time)–and, astonishingly to me, moved into other fruits as well.  I’ve seen the cake made using stone fruits, pommes and berries, all cooked down and blended into a thick puree.  Even Lawson presents a very similar apple-based cake in her latest cookbook, Feast. 

Inspired by a plum version I saw online, I once made a sour cherry-almond cake.  It was quite tasty, but a rather terrifying shade of dull magenta.  In the end, I’ve decided that though the many-flavored versions of the cake are delicious, lemon is the very best.  No other flavor causes my guests to look at me in shock when they taste their first bite. 

Whenever anyone asks me for my favorite easy cake recipe, I try to give them this one.  I never manage to make it past the first instruction, though: Take two lemons, cover them with water, and simmer them for two hours, until soft.  “What?!” people shout.  “Are you kidding?!”  “You want me to put that in a CAKE?”  Everyone thinks I’m trying to trick them into making an awful, sour, pithy cake.  Even if recipients believe my tales of softening and sweetening, they balk at the timing: “Two hours?  You think I have that kind of time?”  Yes, two hours in which you don’t have to do a single thing but occasionally walk by and make sure the water is still blooping, after which you spend approximately five minutes grinding the oranges and whirling the ingredients together in your food processor.  In spite of what I consider the criminal easiness of this recipe–all the more so because of the transcendant results and how far ahead one can make it–I have not managed to successfully pass this recipe on to a single person.

I made the cake again for a potluck party this last Thursday.  I was a little worried about it, since the only lemons I could find were rock-hard and extremely thick of skin (the boiling might soften the pith, but the flavor is still there).  The batter tasted slightly off to me, no matter how I tweaked it.  Finally, even after I screwed my courage to the sticking point and put the pan in the oven, I managed to overcook it a tad, leaving the outside shiny and almost hard instead of its usual near-stickiness.  With an ordinary cake it would be easy to disguise any shortcomings with lavish accompaniments.  This cake doesn’t need, and really can’t take any.  I threw up my hands, wrapped the cake in foil and stashed it in the fridge for the few days before the party. 

As we walked up the steps to the house I made Teacherman promise to abet me in quietly pitching the cake if it turned out to be terrible.   He agreed, but was confident that things would never come to such a pass.  And lo, he was correct.  The main portion of the meal was over, the cookies and cakes and potent potables came out, and almost everyone took a slice of cake.  It was a loud party, everyone talking to everyone else at the same time, all crowded into a small space (there was a much larger space we could have been in, but you know how parties are).  One by one, everyone took a bite of cake, then stopped short in complete silence.  “Oh my god,” they each said, astounded, staring at their plate, the rest of the conversation swirling around them and covering their words.  The rest of their pieces of cake were inhaled before another word was spoken.  I thought it was pretty fabulous cake, too. 

Published in: on March 30, 2007 at 7:32 pm  Comments (2)  

Ambrosia

I have been to comparatively few American Greek restauarants in my life; I can count the number on less than half of one hand.  I have no early memories of spanikopita or moussaka, had no knowledge of grape leaves until at least high school.  Surprisingly, though, the first sauce I ever learned how to make was avgolemono sauce.  This is even more surprising when one considers that the only time I’d ever had avgolemono sauce before said attempt was at my first meal on an archaeological study trip to Greece, immediately after which I became ill with food poisoning. 

I don’t necessarily blame the avgolemono; it might have been the lamb it was surrounding, or even just random Greek microbial beasties that my stomach wasn’t used to.  Nonetheless, I dealt with an irrational two-year aversion to dill after a similar incident involving tuna salad, so it wouldn’t be out of line to expect a rejection of all things lemon.  On the contrary, when I returned to America it was the egg-lemon sauce that I remembered above all things.  (Well, that and the fantastic feta in the Greek salads I ate at almost every meal after that).

I was living alone that summer, in an illegal sublet from a person with next to no cookware.  She did, however, possess a single pot and a single saucepan, and no matter how destitute I became, trying to live alone on the salary of a part-time library page, I could still afford eggs, lemon juice and chicken broth.  These days I make my own broth and use fresh juice, but at the time I used the cheapest boxed brand and the juice in the little squeezy bottle.  The results are different, but always good. 

I am tempted to make dramatic pronouncements about my first sight of the alchemy that is a successful custard, for avgolemono sauce is really a custard.  Simply scalded chicken broth, lemon juice and a violently whisked egg, stirred together over low heat until thick and creamy, it’s like the savory version of lemon curd.  The first time I made it I poured it over an inexpertly-sauteed chicken breast and found myself unexpectedly sitting down to A Meal.  The chicken breast was dry and underseasoned, but the avgolemono sauce transformed it into _food_.  I ate it all in about two and a half minutes and licked the plate when I was done.

Since then, I’ve poured my various version of avgolemono over pasta, fish, stuffed grape leaves, steamed greens, even lentils.  Sometimes I add herbs, usually oregano or marjoram, sometimes a prodigious quantity of black pepper.  Tonight, though, I made the unadorned basic recipe to acompany roasted artichoke hearts, a combination I adore.  The brininess of the artichokes and the crispiness of their charred edges contrasts with the creaminess of the sauce, the lemon spark just keeping it from being cloying.   It isn’t the nectar of the gods, but it’s a delightful and soothing way to finish a plate.

Published in: on March 28, 2007 at 9:21 am  Leave a Comment  

The Last of the Buttermilk

Admittedly, two big loaves of soda bread does use up a fair amount of buttermilk.  It does not, however, use up as much buttermilk as comes in the very smallest container a body can find in the entire metropolitain area.  It doesn’t even use up half of that. 

As previously mentioned on this blog, I have a horror of wasting food.  After a week of opening the refrigerator to a glowering bottle of buttermilk straining for its expiration date, I gave up waiting for a dairy-based miracle, and baked.  Or rather, I forced Teacherman to bake.  Right around the time that I determined that the buttermilk MUST be used, I came down with the latest iteration of the cold I’ve had all winter (very irksome when the temperature has finally reached 70).  I didn’t have the strength to knead two loaves worth of the whole wheat buttermilk bread* that I’d decided to make, so I measured the ingredients, called Teacherman away from his computer and bade him roll up his sleeves. 

That man can knead dough like no one I’ve ever seen.

It is a fact that he is well-muscled, due to intense bouts of weekend fencing, but more than that, he seems to have unlooked-for skills.  The Touch, even.  When I knead bread dough, the goopy mixture crawls up the not-inconsiderable distance to my elbows, I need to add extra flour and stop for breaks to catch my breath, and I never get the dough to the consistency that I truly want it.  Teacherman added no extra flour at all.  None.  He spent only slightly more than half as much time as I do to knead the dough 600 strokes, and the dough was beautiful–soft and elastic, springy to the touch and not remotely sticky on the outside.  And, due to the lack of extra flour, not at all dry, some thing my own loaves are prone to.  The bowl he’d kneaded in was clean on the inside–it didn’t even need to be wiped before we set the dough to rise in it.

And rise it did.  It rose so much that I was worried that it would over-proof and turn sour, so I gave the dough its second rise in the refrigerator (something I like to do anyway, since it allows the yeast to develop an almost sourdough-like flavor).

The next morning I took the dough out of the fridge, punched it down and formed it into four small half-loaves.  They whooshed up into almost straight-sided tuffets on their baking sheet, and might have risen more if I hadn’t been too nervous to let them.  Into the oven they went, where they browned (but not as appreciably as white-flour loaves would) and became crusty. 

Teacherman took the first loaf for lunch today, thereby, he tells me, inciting the envy of all the Teacher’s Lounge denizens, who covetously watched the fall of each crumb.  Maybe if they’re lucky, he’ll bake for them sometime. 

*(The bread, I must point out, is from The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book, a tome that I basely stole from my mother when I left for graduate school.  It is the only book that I really trust when it comes to 100% whole wheat or other-interesting-grain bread, and I’ve never had a failure.  Some other favorite loaves therefrom are the Loaf for Learning, a yogurt-based yeast bread, and Fruited Loaves, for which one steeps dried fruit in tea before adding the tea-infused fruit [and the fruit-infuseded tea] to the dry ingredients).

Published in: on March 26, 2007 at 7:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

Going Soft

When I was a child, I drove my parents crazy by insisting that any egg dish I was served be completely and thoroughly cooked. Any hint of jiggle was met with shrieks, revulsion and, usually, tears of betrayal. (My own mother was trying to POISON me!) My fried eggs were rubbery, my omelets were cremated and my scrambled eggs, in spite of the copious amount of cheese my family adds to said dish, crumbled off the fork in little pellets and fell to dust. I ate eggs like this for years, the yolks so dry that they were practically colorless and the whites shriveled up around the edges. To my shame, I can even remember making a bit of a scene in a diner in Texas when I was served eggs that I deemed ‘over easy’ when I had ordered them ‘over hard’. “You know,” said my mother, “MOST people do order their eggs over easy, so it was an understandable mistake.” My glowering look of scorn and petulance would be less retrospectively embarassing if it wasn’t for the fact that I was twenty-one at the time.

Enter Teacherman. He adores soft-boiled eggs. Even though by the time I met him I had mellowed slightly when it came to the dessication of my breakfast, I had never tried such a thing. It is true that I had read about soft-boiled eggs in many cookbooks, and even thought wistfully of how nice the recipes sounded, but concluded that I could never stomach the eggs themselves. The desire to please the one you love, however, has a powerful effect. And Teacherman already owned two egg cups, which I had to admit were pretty adorable.

So last spring, with great trepidation, I made soft-boiled eggs for the first time. We had them for a late Sunday breakfast with the season’s first asparagus, steamed and ready to dip in the liquid yolks. I followed the instructions for a 6-minute egg in How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, taking some comfort from the fact that the timing was supposed to produce fully cooked whites, at least. I cooked them, ran them under cold water to stop the cooking, dried them on a kitchen towel, and plunked them into the egg cups. We carefully cracked and peeled off the top half-inch of the shells and broke through the yolk. The whites were, in fact, cooked through. The yolk was molten and, once salted and peppered, extraordinarily tasty. The asparagus made an excellent dipper, and the combination called up memories of asparagus in hollandaise. I was definitely a soft-boiled egg convert.

In the past year I’ve made soft-boiled eggs several times, often exactly how I made them the first time, with asparagus to dip in. Once I tried a recipe that called for tipping in a bit of caramel syrup and mixing it into the egg yolk. It was a bit like a deconstructed custard; not bad, but a bit too rich without the mitigating presence of a dairy product. A few weeks ago I was looking through a new Asian cookbook and discovered a chapter entirely on eggs, mostly softboiled. The lead picture showed a soft-boiled egg, completely peeled and split on a plate, sauced with a mixture of soy sauce, ginger and sesame oil, and sprinkled with scallions and chiles. This was immediately appealling.

For this past Sunday’s breakfast I prepared the recipe, liking the idea of Asian flavors after the previous night’s meaty Irish excess. It was a qualified success. Qualified because though the flavors were perfect and exactly what I wished, I took issue with the eggs’ cooking time. I followed the recipe exactly, plunking room temperature eggs into boiling water and letting them bubble for 4 minutes. I removed them, ran them under cold water for a second, and, with Teacherman assisting, began to peel.

“Ack!” he shouted, halfway through his first egg. His careful fingers were still too violent for the egg, which, just as he finished peeling it, split down the middle. He hurriedly tranferred it to one of the waiting plates. I was horrified to see that the egg was essentially raw in the middle. The membrane holding the yolk was intact, but surrounding it was a thick layer of gelatinous, near-transparent egg white. I wouldn’t say that I felt faint, but I was definitely non-plussed (and, admittedly, a little ill).

We finished our peeling and looked at the eggs. Given that two of them were split, we couldn’t put them back in the hot water, and even if we could, we wouldn’t have known for how long. I sighed and cheated: we stuck the plates in the microwave for a few seconds. The whites remained translucent, but at least they stopped being so jiggly. We poured over the sauce, sprinkled on the garnishes, and dove in. It really was extremely good. The sesame, soy and ginger both cut and blended with the richness of the egg yolk, reducing the ultra-creaminess that is sometimes too much early in the morning. The raw scallions and chiles perked up our tastebuds and cleared our palates for the next bite. It really was quite enjoyable, even if I did have to occasionally avert my eyes. Sadly, I’m not completely reformed from my egg tyranny; I will definitely make this dish again, but next time I plan to cook the eggs for six minutes.

Published in: on March 21, 2007 at 8:41 am  Leave a Comment  

Cakes and Mistakes

Would you believe that I forgot to give them the mustard?

Indeed, a fabulous party has come and gone, and more than six pounds of corned beef were consumed all without the benefit of mustardy accompaniment. I think I received more astonished praise about this party’s food than I have for that of any other event. The two biggest hits, though, were the baked items: the soda bread and the dessert.

The soda bread recipe I settled on, after brief guilt induced by the article in last Wednesday’s New York Times about what does and does not become a “true” soda bread, was in almost no way traditional. The recipe, from the February 2006 issue of Bon Appetit, contained no eggs (traditional!) but did include browned butter, fresh rosemary and black pepper. I itched to fiddle with the recipe even more (whole wheat flour! maybe some mustard seeds!) but I restrained myself. The rosemary bush on the front porch, after several months of subzero temperatures and no water, is miraculously still alive, and yielded up ample fresh needles–on soft stalks, even–to chop into the dry ingredients.

The flour, baking soda, salt and seasonings were mixed with the buttermilk and browned butter. The dough was shaggier than I anticipated–far too sticky to even contemplate cutting fancy crosses on the top of. I just glopped two mounds onto an ungreased baking sheet, shoved them into the oven, and hoped. After 45 minutes the breads looked lovely (pristine white dough with deep golden spikes on the top, flecked through with black and green from the rosemary and pepper) and smelled quite divine. I usually don’t like the smell of melted butter (an interesting abberation, since I’m certainly willing to scarf it down in great quantity), but browning it first eliminates that problem. Cooking something with browned butter already in it further intensified the nuttiness that the browning brought out, ending with an aroma that noticeably filled the mouth sooner than the nose, the very definition of mouth-watering. The breads hadn’t risen nearly at all, however, so it was with great trepidation that I whisked them onto the cutting board on the serving table.

The locusts descended. Silence reigned. I picked at the cheddar and looked at other things.

“Wow,” said somebody. “This is really good!”

The soda bread was the first thing to disappear from the buffet table, and there were plenty of people hovering nearby to vulture up the crumbs after the last slice was consumed. I don’t make soda bread very often–on St. Patrick’s Day every few years, if then–but I may be required to make this bread for all future parties of any persuasion. I think, though, that now I can trust myself to try variations. No mustard seeds do I see in my future, but whole wheat flour is definitely in the offing.

The second slavered-after baked good was my dessert. I made my standard flourless chocolate cake (10 oz unsweetened chocolate, 1 stick butter, 1 cup liquid of some variety, 1 cup sweetener of some variety, 4 eggs, 1 Tbsp vanilla and other flavorings as desired). Inspired by the visions of Irish Coffee that Teacherman had been having all week, I flavored this one with espresso and Irish whisky, which each made up half of the liquid element. The cake came out very dark and very bitter, rich enough to be a confection rather than a cake. I made it in a ten-inch springform pan (as opposed to a six-cup Bundt pan, my usual receptacle) and cut it into 20 pieces, each about an inch wide and equally high. Given the fact that it was almost a triangular truffle, this was the perfect size for the corner left in everyone everyone’s stomach and the cake was consumed (along with strawberries and clotted cream) with great alacrity.

I had hoped to have a few pieces left over (there’s always someone who doesn’t want dessert after a hearty dinner), but there weren’t even any crumbs left when I glanced at the platter, halfway through my own piece. The cake wasn’t as popular as the soda bread, but my favorite compliment of the evening resulted therefrom. “This is so adult,” said my choir director, a description that is rarely applied to me or my accoutrements by anyone. I’m absurdly pleased by that, and it makes up entirely for the fact that tonight’s dessert was half an apple.

Published in: on March 18, 2007 at 7:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Party Day: Three Hours to Go

Who knew that corned beef could shrink so much?

Yesterday I slow-cooked a corned beef brisket all day long while I was at work. When I arrived at home, the two and a half pound roast had merrily cooked itself down into two fist-sized pieces of finished beef. Delicious, yes; tender, no doubt, but tiny. With twenty people to feed, this would not do. I was not planning to feed twenty people on only two pounds of brisket, but I was planning to feed half of them thusly. With premonitions of doom, I slow-cooked my second brisket overnight in the same way. It didn’t shrink quite as much, but it still lost half of its starting weight.

Well.

To the grocery store! (Insert Batmobile theme music here).

A third corned beef brisket has been purchased and is simmering away, this time with its cabbagey cohorts in the same pot. (I had been planning to roast the cabbage, but if I have to mess with a corned beef on the day of, I might as well put the cabbage in with it anyway). As of three hours in the pot, it hasn’t become appreciably smaller (though it is still distressingly tough), so there is yet hope.

Instead of hovering and gnashing my teeth, however, I’m focusing on the most positive part of the day: the mustard. Over the last year I’ve made mustard from scratch several times, with an almost 100% success rate. When I decided to make a spicy horseradish mustard to accompany our corned beef, I brought all of my accumulated knowledge to the bowl with me.

The recipe I used was from Epicurious, albeit one that the comments section indicated had a few problems. The ingredients were simple–cider vinegar, mustard powder, mustard seed, garlic, horseradish, salt–it was the proportions that presented a problem. Apparently the finished product was too thin and liquid to really be considered a mustard; the cooks who left comments tended to solve this problem by adding three times more mustard powder than called for.

To my mind, though, the real problem wasn’t with the ingredients, but the technique: the mustard wasn’t cooked. In all of the successful mustard recipes I’d made, after the ingredients were mixed and left to settle for a few days, they were blended, then simmered down to the cook’s favored consistency; only after appropriate reduction was the mustard potted and aged for anywhere from a few days to a few months. For this recipe I decided to follow the same route.

I put all the ingredients into a mason jar, lidded it, shook it, then put the jar in the back of my refrigerator for two days. After that time was up, I poured the contents of the jar into my food processor and buzzed it until it the mustard seeds, softened by two days soak in cider vinegar, had been completely pulverised. I decanted the blended mixture into a small nonstick pan and turned the flame onto lowish heat for about 30 minutes. I stirred it once or twice, walking by the pan on my way to another task, but mostly it minded itself.

When it was about as thick as the Dijon I buy at the store, I turned off the heat and poured it back into the mason jar. I let it cool for about an hour, with the cap on, but with the ring screwed on but loosely. Once it had cool, back into the fridge it went to be ignored for two weeks. Today I tried it for the first time–quite perfect. Some might argue that it’s too much work to make mustard when it’s so easy to buy hundreds of flavors thereof, of good quality even, at every dinky supermarket. I’m certainly not above buying mustard; I do so 90% of the time. I also don’t claim that the mustard I make is infinitely better than the mustard one can buy in the store. I do, however, claim that it is equally as good, sometimes at least a little better, and the fun of Making My Own trumps what paltry kitchen work it requires.

It’s a good thing I love it so much, though. I might have more mustard than I do corned beef.

Published in: on March 17, 2007 at 2:18 pm  Comments (1)  

Pulchritudinous Pickles

Next Saturday we’re having a St. Patrick’s Day party for twenty people. I’m not entirely sure how I ended up at such a pass. I knew that I wanted to have a party, but I didn’t know that I wanted to invite the entire population of my home state; Teacherman has a lot of friends.

In any case, because we are insane, Teacherman and I will be feeding this multitude on a vast array of superior–and homemade–comestibles. The usual St. Patrick’s Day suspects will be in evidence: corned beef, braised cabbage, champ, etc. I had wanted to corn the beef myself, but I was dubious about presenting a cured meat product that I haven’t mastered to that many people. I’m willing to risk my own health on the duck pastrami that I made the other week, but not that of Teacherman’s sister. Nor all of those other people, even. Instead, I wimped out and bought the corned beef, which I still feel guilty about, especially as Teacherman chose this party to begin his forays into alcoholic beverage creation. Another one of his Christmas presents this year was a book on home-brewing, and scarcely had the new year begun before he’d sent away for all the required ingredients for making an Irish stout. I do not care for beer, except as an ingredient in stews, but I hear that this batch turned out particularly well. In addition to the bubbly stuff, there is a big bottle of home-mixed Irish Cream in the fridge, mellowing.

As lovely as a St. Patrick’s Day party is, though, the expected menu leaves considerably little scope for creative cooking. I expect that the beef and vegetables will be lovely–I have no problem with meals based around slabs of protein–but it’s very difficult not to have something fiddly to do. I’m sure I’ll come up with something interesting to for dessert, and I’m not above noodling with the soda bread recipe to make it more my own, but I wanted something exciting to add that wasn’t baked. While contemplating the plainness of the planned appetizer (good Cheddar cheese and the aforementioned soda bread) I was suddenly struck by the idea of a ploughman’s lunch. Even when in Britain I had never consumed such a meal (or at least never purchased one billed as such), but I recalled descriptions of the requisite bread and cheese being accompanied by an onion pickle.

Aha!

I am a bit of a fiend when it comes to pickling–in season, no vegetable is safe from me, and even flank steak was once subjected to an Asian soy-pickling treatment (and very well it turned out, too). Earlier on the very day of my revelation I had made up a southern recipe for pickled corn, and I had all of the base ingredients readily at hand. I swung by the store for a small bag of red pearl onions, blanched and peeled them, then wedged them into a pint-sized canning jar. I boiled cider vinegar, a little sweetener, allspice berries, black peppercorns and a crumbled bay leaf or two, then poured the mixture over the onions. As soon as it cooled I put the lid on and slid it into the fridge. (As you may notice, I did not seal or boil the jars–the pickles I make are refrigerator pickles and thus do not require actual preservation techniques).

The onions’ red flesh deepened to ruby under the heat of the pickle brine, and they are now bobbing in their jar like tiny stained-glass orbs. By Saturday they should be ready for consumption and will make an excellent accompaniment to an extremely aged Irish cheddar and an as-yet-to-be-determined variety of soda bread. (The pickled corn, though, will be ready to eat by tomorrow, and if the scent of the mace- and turmeric-infused brine is anything to go by, it will be an excellent accompaniment to anything, even down to just a spoon in a very greedy hand).

Published in: on March 12, 2007 at 8:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Vegetarians, Avert Your Eyes

Teacherman and his family have a very straight-forward approach to Christmas presents. Halfway through December, while out on some errand or other, he called his sister:

“Hey, Sis, have you bought me a Christmas present yet?”
“Nope, what’s up?”
“Well, I’m just right now buying the present you’ll be giving me.”
“Okay, bring the receipt the next time you see me. ‘Bye!”

This is a bit more nonchalance about the Deep Mystery of Christmas Presents than I’m used to, but it does produce satisfactory results. This year, Teacherman was the recipiant (so to speak) of a medium-sized electric deep-fryer. Its’ frying chamber is entirely enclosed and the exterior has many little lights that go on and off and handles that move the basket up and down while the lid is still closed–I haven’t played with it yet, but then, I don’t need to. Teacherman is in love with it and has been producing item after delicious item out of it at every opportunity. We’ve fried chicken and cheese and slices of sausage and onion rings and catfish and just about everthing we could lay our hands upon.

Until this Friday, the undisputed best result was deep-fried hard-boiled eggs. Yes, really–don’t make that face at me! I remembered that I’d read about such a thing in an Asian cookbook one time, so we slightly under-hard-boiled some eggs, peeled them and tossed them into the fryer. About a minute later we pulled out eggs with a golden, crispy exterior that could have been breading, but wasn’t. I don’t know the alchemical process behind it, but the top layer of egg fries into a puffy, crunchy shell while leaving the inside still soft and yielding. I pretty much defines the word appetizing, especially when dipped in a mixture of soy sauce and lime juice.

You might have noticed, however, the sneaky word _until_ in that beginning superlative. This Friday we deep-fried something that was not only delicious, but actually slightly shameful. We deep-fried chicken skin. Earlier in the week the grocery had been out of boneless skinless chicken thighs for our stir-fry, so we bought whole legs and boned and skinned them. The bones went into an already-started chicken-carcass bag in the freezer (for stock-making), and the chicken skin, because I cannot stand to throw anything away, went into its own bag in the freezer, though for what future purpose I knew not.

A few days later, though, when delving into the icy depths for a snack, I noticed the bag of chicken skin and had a brain-wave. When ever I make duck breasts, I peel off the skin and fat before cooking, then cut it up and oven-render the resulting cubes into duck cracklings. Chicken skin doesn’t have nearly as much attached fat, but that wouldn’t matter if it were deep-fried. I am inordinantly fond of the crispy skin from a roast chicken (though I am always disappointed about the wasted skin from the bottom and sides that ends up soggy, flabby and greasy). This idea struck me as one that would produce similar, if not better, results. I immediately hatched a plan.

The next night (after some defrosting of the main ingredient), Teacherman cut up the chicken skin into strips, placed it into his contraption, and closed the lid. Five minutes later we had shatteringly crisp, bronzed shards that, after draining on a paper towel, weren’t at all greasy. We sprinkled them with salt, pepper and poultry seasoning and served them on top of a romaine salad dressed with a garlicky vinaigrette. In my opinion, it was just as good as a frisee au lardon–the cracklings combined the characteristics of both the lardons and the croutons, the the texture of the romaine lettuce and the cracklings contrasted just enough to be interesting, and it was still possible to get both on the fork, which is often difficult with a crouton.

Unlike bacon, though, chicken skin is not an ingredient that one would seek out on its own. I don’t know when I’ll next have any leftover chicken skin, but when I do, I can think of nothing else I’d rather do with it besides deep-fry it.

Published in: on March 11, 2007 at 2:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Lemon Triumverate

Why do people associate lemons with springtime? Last time I checked, they were (barring horrible West-Coastian ice storms) available all winter long, starting early enough in the season for most people to still be excited by the prospect of snow and ice. In November and December we concentrate on apples and pears, though, and after the new year on exotic tropical fruits. Come March, however, and we all unerringly trot out the lemons to try to brighten up the remaining root vegetables and winter stodge.

Tonight I knew I’d be slightly late getting home from work, so I left Teacherman a recipe to start for dinner: braised fennel with Meyer lemons. Fennel is one of our favorite vegetables, though neither of us grew up liking it. (I’m trying to keep this from becoming the How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Scary Foods Blog, with, as you can see, only partial success). In both of our cases, we only became enamored of fennel after learning to cook it long enough to soften its unyielding texture and sweeten its licorice-like bite. Our favorite preparations are either high heat roasting, which brings out the best in anything (as Teacherman says, “Mmm, carcinogens”), or braising, a flavor-rich shortcut to stewing. Since I am still getting over my aforementioned cold, braising fennel into a soft and comforting tangle seemed the way to go.

The recipe calls for searing the fennel in a large skillet until browned on both sides, then adding a little chicken broth, the juice and zest of a single Meyer lemon, and letting it bubble away, covered, until soft. It would be a decent enough recipe if it stopped here, but it continues on to require that one remove the fennel from the skillet, reduce the sauce to a glaze, and then stir in the cooked fennel along with some chopped fennel fronds. Tangy, spicy, sweet and toothsome. Quite quite lovely.

After dinner Teacherman did the dishes and the leftover lemons stared at me from the counter. I shouldn’t have, but I took those lemons and, for the tenth time in the last two months, made myself my latest favorite indulgence. This delicious item, and the reason that I am probably guaranteed never to have scurvy, is Lemon Jam, a recipe I found in the new cookbook The Improvisational Cook. One simply cuts up and seeds lemons (or clementines), puts them in the food processor with a little salt, some sweetening and maybe some compatible spices or herbs, and then whizzes it to a chunky puree. Then–and this is the exciting part–one whirls in some flavorless oil until the mixture emulsifies, as if one were making a mayonnaise or vinaigrette. Instead, one ends up with a cross between a lemon curd (due to the oil) and a lemon marmalade (due to the included pith and peel). I have been known to consume nearly a cup of this grainy goodness, bite by bite off of the spatula, pretending that there isn’t enough room in the jar I’m scraping it into. This time I added a bit of ginger to the chopped lemons, resulting in a marmalade-curd redolent of spice and almost as strong as my similarly-flavored herbal tea. I managed to get most of this batch into the jar, but I don’t know how long the jar itself will last.

I did restrain myself somewhat–I didn’t use up _all_ of the lemons on the counter. Twelve organic lemons are lying in wait for a bottle of vodka, ready to turn into homemade limoncello. And from limoncello, I immediately mentally leap to the idea of ripe strawberries with limoncello and cream; the months cannot pass fast enough.

Published in: on March 6, 2007 at 9:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Fruit (Well, Vegetable) of the Season

It is still not spring.

I am still not happy about it, but I’m solaced by one thing: rhubarb.  I adore rhubarb, and could eat it every day.  My mother disagrees with me, though, and so I didn’t realize my adoration until I was grown up and living on my own.  I’d never eaten it, never (since I was a typically unaware teenager) seen it in the stores, and had formed a strange idea that it was one of those things that people only ate in old books.  I recently learned that my friend Chris’s family had a big rhubarb plant in his backyard that I must have looked right through hundreds of times (have I mentioned that I was unaware?).

I was introduced to rhubarb by Nigella Lawson, whose first cookbook How to Eat was a birthday present several years ago.  In the book she rhapsodizes about rhubarb and features it in more than one exciting-sounding recipe.  Upon reading her adulatory prose, I immediately went to my favored grocery store and bought a pound.  I was a little taken aback to discover that it looked and acted like ruby-red celery (an item which, at the time, I still loathed), but I persevered.

I chopped up the rhubarb, sweetened it, put it in a pan in the oven (Lawson’s preferred cooking method for rhubarb), and promptly forgot about it. I don’t recall what was occupying my mind (though I would hazard a guess that it was one of my myriad pointless grad school assignments), but I left the rhubarb in the oven for considerably longer than the recipe called for. When, in a sudden panic, I remembered its existence, I yanked the pan out of the oven to discover not the described discrete pieces of rhubarb swimming in pink syrup, but an amalgamated sludge of rhubarb and cooked down juices. I’ve heard that childhood exposure to just such a sludge has prejudiced many a rational being against rhubarb forever after, but to me, the rosy expanse at the bottom of the pan looked appealing. I spooned up a bite, blew on it, and with admitted trepidation, put the spoon in my mouth.

I loved it.

The consistency was that of pudding, but with the slight textural contrast that occurred when a still-discrete piece of rhubarb would melt away at the slightest pressure. And it was tart. I love tart things like citrus fruits and yogurt, and this beat them all. I had planned to eat the cooked rhubarb over yogurt for several breakfasts, but I ended up eating it all by the end of the day; I kept going back to the fridge for more spoonfuls until, dumbfounded, I hefted a surprisingly light container and discovered only a scant scraping left across the bottom.

Since that day I’ve been a fiend for rhubarb. I’ve made into custard, ice cream, pie, preserves, sweet pickles, stirred it into muffins and cakes, even made a drink syrup out of the cooking juices. My favorite way of eating it, though, is still as a spoonable, pudding-y compote.

On Saturday I cooked rhubarb on the stovetop, letting the sliced pieces melt into each other until my favored texture was reached. Sometimes I add a handful of raspberries, or sprinkle on some ginger or cinnamon, to change up the flavors, but none of my usual ideas appealed. This time I added a little rosewater to the finished product. The rhubarb flavor was still dominant, but the rosewater added a floral background that contrasted with the innate tartness and made the rhubarb taste more fruit-like, more like a berry. It was a very successful variation on my usual sludge. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have this spoon in my hand, and. . . .

Published in: on March 4, 2007 at 6:54 pm  Leave a Comment