Mushrooms and More

I am a mushroom lover, something deplored by both members of my own family and certain of my colleagues. The mushroom stand at the farmers’ market is one of my favorite stops, and in August, almost every type of mushroom is available for devouring—porcini, oyster, shiitake, Portobello, puffball, and my favorite, chanterelle.

I first ate chanterelles in Germany, on my honeymoon, and they were a revelation. Both sweet and nutty and utterly themselves, I ordered them at every opportunity, delighting in their burnt orange color, so different than the dark browns and pearls I was used to.

When the first chanterelles of the season appeared at the market this year, Teacherman was out of town. I thought about waiting until he came back to buy some, but couldn’t wait: I bought 6 oz for my very own self.

I barely did anything to them, just swished them through salted water to clean, sautéed them in butter, and scrambled three eggs around them. With the addition of a vinegary salad, it was, as cookbooks of 70 years ago used to say, The Perfect Supper for a Single Girl.

chanterelle scrambled eggs

When Teacherman came home a week later, I was willing to share. (Or rather, I was willing to take another opportunity to eat chanterelles). This time, though, my preparation was more elaborate.

I’d read several recipes for alternative takes on risotto, using different grains, like barley, steel-cut oats, quinoa, or buckwheat groats. I’d been wanting to try the technique using oats, and the flavor of chanterelles seemed as if it would match up well with the oats. I wanted a bit more than just oats and mushrooms, though, and I remembered another recipe I’d seen recently (I don’t remember where) for a sauté of chanterelles and corn, with tarragon. It was a short step to combine the two ideas in my mind, creating oat risotto with chanterelles, corn and tarragon.

I followed the same trajectory as in my original chanterelle outing—swishing the mushrooms clean, then sautéing them in butter with a big pinch of salt. When they were soft, though, I took them out of the pan, and added half a cup of steel-cut oats, stirring to coat them in the butter and the mushroom juices. Once the butter was absorbed, I added vegetable stock in half cup measures, letting the oats absorb the liquid fully before adding anymore. In the end, I added about 2 cups, leaving the oats on the stove for about half an hour. The oats could have taken up a bit more liquid, but I wanted them to be toothsome, rather than mushy.

About five minutes before I wanted to stop cooking the oats, I added the chanterelles and half a cup of corn kernels, cut off the cob, letting them simmer and warm through. I added a few sprigs of chopped tarragon, then turned off the heat.

It was, I think, absolutely perfect. Both oats and chanterelles have a sweet nuttiness, and, as I thought, the two flavors blended very well. The corn added another layer of sweetness, but brighter, the butter added depth, and the grassiness of the tarragon grounded the dish firmly in the savory sphere.

We served the risotto with herb-marinated grilled chicken, but I could have happily left the chicken off the plate, so satisfying was the combination of flavors and textures. It was nubbly, soothing, delicious, and made me wish I’d made double the portion I did.
chanterelles

Published in: on August 28, 2008 at 7:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Breakfast of Blossoms

The best thing about buying food at farmers’ markets is that one is much more likely to pick up something that you’ve never tried before. This isn’t an original statement, I know, but it continues to be true, even for people like me, who are a bit too interested in all the different ways of filling their stomachs.

Who needs to stop at regular cucumbers, when one can try lemon cucumbers, Italian cucumbers, Japanese cucumbers, and Korean cucumbers? Why eat nothing but baby greens when the next bag over contains arugula, perilla, shiso or amaranth? Turnips are great, but what about burdock? Strawberries are delicious, but what look: ground cherries! Saskatoons! Black currants! Not everything ends up being to my taste (the Saskatoons were not a hit) but some become new favorites (I don’t think I’ve ever met a root I didn’t like). Sometimes the untried foods aren’t even exotic or unknown, just things I’ve never gotten around to trying.

Enter zucchini blossoms.

Everybody knows about zucchini blossoms—they’ve almost become a cliché of pretentious poseur cuisine. Stuffed with cheese and braised, fried as tempura, poached, the recipes are everywhere. The blossoms are very pretty, but often expensive (after all, each blossom is a squash that will never grow). As intriguing and delicious as the recipes sounded, I had never tried them for one reason: I am cheap.

One recent market day, though, I was under the weather and needed a pick-me-up. In spite of the rather exorbitant price, I splurged on a big bunch of the zucchini blossoms and took them home for lunch. I stuffed them with a spiced goat cheese, simmered them for a few moments in a good broth, and gobbled them up. The combination of the hot, homemade chicken broth and the creamy cheese was perfect for a summer cold, but the strength of their flavors overwhelmed that of the zucchini blossoms themselves. Still—what I could taste was appealing and intriguing, and I resolved to try the blossoms again, but in a more delicate preparation.

The following Saturday, then, I bought another bunch of zucchini blossoms at the market. I didn’t want to eat them until the next morning, so I carefully wrapped the big, healthy bunch in a paper towel, then put it into an open plastic bag and into the lettuce drawer in my refrigerator. (Technically, this crisper drawer has a picture of an apple on it, whereas the other drawer has a picture of a turnip, but I use the apple drawer almost exclusively for lettuce and other greens, and the turnip drawer for everything else).

On Sunday morning, I checked to see if the blossoms needed any washing (in fact, they were pristinely clean), then removed the pistils and chopped the petals from their stems.

Zucchini Blossoms

I roughly tore the blossoms into strips, lightly sautéed them for a few minutes in a flavorless oil, then added three eggs, beaten with nothing more than salt, pepper and a tiny drop of water.
Blossoms in the pan
I let the eggs set on the bottom, then lifted up the edges to let the raw portion flow underneath, creating layers upon layers. In less than five minutes I had a moist, fluffy and perfectly set golden omelet, shot through with the fresh green and deeper orange tones of the blossoms.

Zucchini Blossom Omelet
Indeed, the omelet was a much better way of showing off the flavor of the zucchini blossoms. Unsurprisingly, the blossoms have a flavor strongly reminiscent of zucchini itself, but more elusive, and without the often squishy texture that puts so many people off. The texture of the blossoms, of course, is almost nil, especially after cooking, allowing the flavor to permeate the eggs. The calyx of the flowers has an even stronger flavor of the squash, but with a more toothiness than the blossoms. It’s crisp without being crispy, if that makes any sense; almost like biting into a perfectly fresh slice of ripe zucchini, but brighter, juicier, colder, (the actual temperature notwithstanding) and almost refreshing.

It was a rather austere omelet, given that it contained no butter, milk, or cheese, but the zucchini blossoms gave it a deep and satisfying flavor. The cost may be difficult to absorb, but the benefits are worth it.

Published in: on August 15, 2008 at 7:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

It BURNS

As part of our anniversary celebration, Teacherman and I took a trip up to Madison, to eat at l’Etoile, an AMAZING restaurant dedicated to seasonal, local food, and to go to Madison’s epically-sized farmer’s market.

We bought, among other things, four quarts of strawberries (for Teacherman’s first attempt at making a berry wine) and, something that I’ve never eaten before: garlic scapes.

Garlic scapes are the long green stem that grows up out of a planted bulb of garlic. Rarely seen in grocery stores, most garlic scapes are cut off the bulb and tossed away. People who grow garlic themselves, however, have long known that the scapes can be used in food wherever you need an especially pungent kick of garlic.

I’ve read about garlic scapes, certainly, but I’d never seen a recipe that I particularly wanted to make myself. Last Wednesday, though, a recipe for white bean and garlic scape dip appeared in the New York Times. (I would link to it, but it’ll disappear after a few days, leaving my link broken). It’s virtually identical to most white bean dips–beans, olive oil, salt, garlic–but instead of using garlic cloves, it used raw garlic scapes.

I don’t know why the recipe stuck in my mind–I rarely make white bean dips, tending instead to prefer southwestern black bean dip or hummus–but when I saw the garlic scapes at the farmer’s market I was taken in by the piles and mounds of twisty, spiraling, bean-like shoots. Every farmer selling them only wanted to sell the scapes by the pound, but I couldn’t imagine finding a use for an entire pound. I talked one woman down to just selling me a handful–probably 4 or 5 shoots–and took them back to Chicago. I threw the scapes into the food processor with one drained can of white beans, a pinch of salt and a couple of glugs of olive oil. I blended the whole thing until smooth, then scooped the thick mixture into two bowls and served it for lunch with sugar snap peas for dipping.

White Bean Dip with Garlic Scapes

It was astonishingly delicious, the scapes adding a big hit of raw garlic flavor, but also a grassy freshness not present in even the most recently peeled garlic cloves.  It was also so rich with that rawness (really–it was the scapes that added the richness, not the olive oil at all) that it coated every surface in my mouth, and my nose kept smelling it from inside my head. 

We ate the dip quickly and greedily, reveling in the pungency and burn. We finished up with the rest of the sugar snap peas, the sweetness providing a welcome contrast to what had come before.

A few minutes after we finished doing the dishes, though, we noticed that the burning flavor of garlic scapes wasn’t going away. We brushed our teeth. No difference. We brushed our teeth again. No change. We went out and bought NEW toothbrushes and brushed our teeth again. Gah!

I love garlic, but I don’t really care to taste it for six hours straight, with no ability to rid myself of it. The taste filled my mouth all the way up into my sinuses and it Would Not Go Away.

I loved the garlic scape dip. I loved the taste, I loved the burn, I loved how overwhelming it was. I have no doubt that I’ll be making something with garlic scapes in it again. Even now I’m remembering the flavor of the scapes on my tongue: the heat of the dip, due only to the essential garlic oils. I’m almost longing to make the dip again immediately.

It might, however, have to wait until next spring, when I’ve forgotten how absolutely overpowering it is to walk around with my head utterly infused with garlic for hours and hours. If it wasn’t so delicious, it would be horrifying.

Published in: on June 26, 2008 at 8:37 am  Leave a Comment  

A Year and a Day

What did we eat for lunch on June 23rd last year?

This:

Reception Spread 1
Reception Spread 2
Homemade bread, compound butter, big salads of farmer’s market greens with raspberry-mustard vinaigrette, big bowls of berries, three kinds of cheese (including Gruyere, an aged goat and a tangy Brie-like cheese), a smoked salmon-pink peppercorn tart in an almond crust, and a three-layer fritatta, with a roasted red pepper layer, a spinach layer and a cheese layer.

And for dessert?
Wedding cake

Wedding Cake.

Wedding cake and lemon cheesecake

Specifically, an almond cake filled with mixed fresh berries and frosted with vanilla bean whipped cream and decorated with red currants and a lemon cheesecake topped with lemon curd and black currants.

And what did we have for lunch on June 23rd this year?
Anniversary lunch

Sea scallops wrapped in radicchio and pancetta, then grilled and served with a red lettuce salad from the farmer’s market.

The scallop recipe was beyond simple–sprinkle the scallops with salt and pepper, wrap each one in a radicchio leaf, and then wrap the leaves with a slice of pancetta. My slices were inexpertly wrapped at the butchers, and thus had unraveled. I ended up just wrapping it around and around and around each little radicchio bundle and securing the ends with toothpicks.

Who am I kidding–I used about 3 toothpicks per bundle. I am not good at food-skewering.

The grill caramelized the radicchio and infused the flavor of both the pancetta and radicchio into each scallop. In spite of the fiddly eating required by all the toothpicks, it was delicious, especially from our unaccustomed seats under our lawn umbrella (which we haven’t set up, sadly, since our wedding reception). Teacherman poured an Alsatian wine to drink alongside the meal–it reminded him perfectly of the wines from our honeymoon.

Lunch was wonderful, yes, but what did we eat for dinner? Last year, we didn’t eat anything for dinner. Our reception was still going on, and due to the enticements of the lunch board, we’d eaten too much of everything.

This year, though, lunch was elegant and austere. And so, for dinner:

Anniversary dinner

Chocolate-peanut butter cookies and chocolate-peanut butter ice cream. What’s the point of being a grown-up if you can’t do this sort of thing every now and then?

(I have to admit, though, that I don’t feel remotely like a grown-up. Even though I’m nearly 30, and even though I’m married, I still have to remind myself that I’m not a kid. Thus, of course, the ideal dinner of cookies and ice cream).

If you’ll forgive my sentimentality (and if there’s one day a year when one is allowed to be sappy, one’s wedding anniversary ought to be it): Here’s hoping that we always feel this ridiculously young, and that each anniversary is as lovely–and delicious–as this one.

Published in: on June 23, 2008 at 7:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Long and Scattered

Behold, I am alive.  Ambulatory, even.  (Kind of.  I’m walking perfectly easily, just not for very long periods of time). 

What’s more, I have been cooking.  AND going to the newly-opened farmer’s market. 

Given that it’s still so early in the spring, I’ve been able to do very little at the farmer’s market aside from make a considerable dent in the supply of pea shoots and rhubarb every week, but still.  The pea shoots have graced innumerable salads and sautes and stir-fries, and the rhubarb has been part of soup (poached in red wine and cassis), sorbet (cooked with the juice and zest of blood oranges) and smoothies:

Rhubarb Smoothie

(Greek yogurt, fresh ginger: need I say more?)

Unfortunately, aside from dishes containing the just-picked farmer’s market produce, my main meals have been somewhat lackluster.  Nothing has been actually bad, but nothing has excited me or made me want to write about it.  I haven’t saved a recipe I’ve prepared in almost a month. 

I am not entirely discouraged, however.  Even when living on hum-drum lunches and mediocre dinners, breakfast is always there to save me. 

Like probably 50% of the rest of the population of the U.S., when I was growing up, my parents would occasionally fix ‘breakfast for dinner’ as a special treat.  Whole wheat pancakes with scrambled eggs and bacon was the standard meal when the whole family sat down, and enormous potato pancakes–really thinly shredded hash browns bound with beaten egg and served with (forgive me) ketchup–when the food was meant for just my sister and me. 

Unlike most of the population of the U.S., however, my family also ate breakfast for breakfast.  I know that many people are unable to stomach heavy food–or food of any kind–early in the morning, but my family has never been been part of that group.  Toast (with peanut butter and honey) and fried eggs was my default meal through childhood, while my sister took her toast neat and her eggs scrambled.  My parents both consumed large quantities of yogurt and granola, and chili-covered cheese-filled omelets were rampant.  All of this on ordinary weekday mornings, no less. 

I don’t eat quite the same way anymore.  I have to eat my breakfast at 6:30 am to be able to get to work on time, and I cannot allow myself unlimited time to prepare a meal.  I must, however, eat just as heartily as I always have.  My usual lunch break isn’t until 1 pm, with no break for a snack, meaning that my breakfast has to last me more than six hours (and a 1.5 mile walk, when I’m up to par).

On weekdays I stick to my strict schedule: I eat a hardboiled egg, some homemade sausage (variety subject to change at a moment’s notice) and a large serving of whatever fruit is in season. 

Weekends, however, are a different story.  I have much more time to prepare my meal, and, given that I’m an early riser even without an alarm, the kitchen to myself to prepare it in. 

Farmer's market eggs

My weekend meals usually center around eggs.  Sometimes savory–two weeks ago I poached three eggs in the leftover sauce from a curry-roasted chicken.  It was tangy, spicy and absolutely divine.

Curried Eggs

More often, though, I use my eggs for sweet dishes.  Souffleed omelets and jam-filled crepes are my fall-back meals for weekends.  Both are usually topped with fruit, and both benefit from the eggs I get from the farmer’s market.  The yolks are bright yellow and melt into a custard with almost no need for additional flavoring; the whites are stronger than I am and whip up to stratospheric heights. 

Last week I made a very simple souffleed omelet–I whisked three egg yolks with two tablespoons of simple syrup and a teaspoon of vanilla, then folded in three egg whites, whipped to stiff peaks.  I poured the mixture into a hot cast-iron skillet, the bottom filmed with flavorless oil.  After a second on the heat to set the bottom, I slid the pan into the 400 degree oven, for 15 minutes, until it was cooked through–golden on the outsides, but still soft on the inside, like a meringue. 

I topped the whole thing with fresh strawberries tossed with slivered mint.  It looks enormous and sounds decadent, but it was so light on the tongue that the entire omelet disappeared without a second thought.

Strawberry souffleed omelet

Yesterday morning I made crepes.  Three more of those lovely eggs whisked up into the batter, along with a little Amaretto.  I filled each one with apricot jam, dusted the plate with cinnamon and topped it with raspberries.  It was, believe it or not, a clean-out-the-refrigerator meal. 

Breakfast is my favorite meal, and I’ve been having some great ones, but here’s hoping that the other two meals are soon up to snuff.

Published in: on June 2, 2008 at 7:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Avocado Heresy

As I have mentioned innumerable times, my father is from New Mexico. I grew up eating southwestern foods — like salsa — before they were well known in the rest of the country. (It was only a few years ago that I realized that they hadn’t been well known in the rest of the country. I just assumed everyone was eating that stuff).

I don’t have any deep, defining memories of guacamole from my early childhood. In fact, we may not have eaten it particularly often, or even at all. My mother went through a couple of cycles of trying to eat low-fat foods, and avocados weren’t on any of the lists of allowable items, no matter who you asked.

By the time I was in college (and my mother had switched to a moderation-in-all-foods mind-set), guacamole did make regular appearances at our dinner table — usually as a side dish, rather than a dip. We almost always ate it with salmon, I remember: each of us getting a heaping dollop on the plate next to our burnished fillet, the two meant to be eaten together in each bite.

For graduate school, I moved to Austin, TX, a place where one could scarcely avoid guacamole if one wanted to. I was possibly even more cash-strapped than most graduate students are (ask me sometime about the financial aid check that never arrived), but it never occurred to me to scratch the relatively expensive avocados off of my weekly grocery list. (That was probably a good thing. Given how little food I had to survive on, calorie-dense avocados [and my other contemporary indulgence, freshly-ground almond butter] may have kept me alive and healthy).

For all those years, though, I never deviated from the usual guacamole ingredients. Avocado. Tomatoes/tomatillos (my mother’s choice). Onion, jalapeno, lime juice, cilantro. Chop. Mix. Eat. The End.

It wasn’t until I was out of school and a full-fledged recipe junkie that I began to notice avocado recipes from other cultures. Sure, I was aware that things like California rolls existed, but it would never have occurred to me to make ersatz guacamole with wasabi, soy sauce and sesame oil. Or a Hungarian version with roasted red peppers, caraway and sour cream.

I never really cared for any of the variations. In many cases, the resultant mixture had too many flavors to taste of anything in particular, and, almost universally, the recipes called for the addition of another kind of fat–sesame oil, sour cream–which I found highly suspect. Avocados are practically made of fat (not that I mind); adding more of it seemed bizarre. The mouth-feel of the finished mixture went from silky smooth to mouth-coatingly fatty.

(This is one of the reasons that I’ve never seen a recipe for an avocado soup that appealed to me. 2 cups of heavy cream to 1 avocado and a paltry pinch of salt? Served hot? Pardon me while I try to get that mental residue off of my tongue).

Not to mention that things like sesame oil and sour cream have very strong flavors of their own, which tended to mask the actual flavor of avocado. If an avocado is in a recipe simply for the buttery texture and to heck with the flavor, just make a cream-cheese dip or flavored butter or something. Leave the avocado alone.

So I continued along my rigid — but merry — way, making traditional guacamole and eating enormous quantities at each sitting. Every now and then a recipe would worm its way into my mind and I’d try something new, usually disappointing myself enough to send me scurrying back to the salsa.

Last week I got the usual bug in my ear. I had a wonderful new middle eastern-inspired cookbook checked out from the library, and behold: its recipe for guacamole contained chopped preserved lemon rind (which I adore).

Aside from that one fanciful deviation, the recipe was what I was used to. Chopped tomatoes, cilantro, garlic, green chiles, onions: all these ingredients are traditional for middle eastern cuisine as well as southwestern American. I had high hopes for the result.

I peeled, pitted and chop/mashed two avocados, until chunky. I added several generous pinches of salt, a small clamshell’s worth of cherry tomatoes, halved, a big handful of minced cilantro leaves, a few spoonfuls of minced onion and garlic, and half of a minced Hatch green chile. (I do keep my loyalty).

I extracted one of my preserved lemons from its jar of salt, rinsed it off, scooped out and discarded the pulp, then finely chopped the rind. I added half of the resultant dice to the avocado mixture (saving the other half for another dish) along with a few spoonfuls of fresh lemon juice, to take the place of the usual lime juice (I couldn’t leave citrus juice out entirely). A few seconds of light mixing later: guacamole.

AND?

It was delicious. My mind was not blown and I did not fall to my knees and weep, but I was very pleasantly surprised by how well the preserved lemon rind fit into the guacamole. Its astringent saltiness was the perfect foil for the unctuousness of the avocado — fulfilling much the same role as jalapeno, in traditional guacamole. (Yes, this version had green chiles as well, but the parallel was undeniable).

This is a variation on my usual guacamole that I will definitely make again: I can see pairing it with a middle-eastern spiced fish, much in the same way that my mother pairs the traditional version with salmon. Maybe next time I’ll go wild and even try adding some sumac or za’atar.

*(Note: for the record, avocados and wasabi can coexist very peacefully in, say, an Asian-inspired mixed vegetable salad. Just leave out the sesame oil).*

Published in: on April 16, 2008 at 7:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

No Vengeance, Please, Vegans

I love vegan cookbooks. 

This may come as a surprise to those of you who have seen my recipes for fish with bacon, chocolate truffles with bacon, and even bacon-from-the-ground-up, but I love vegetables just as much as meat, sometimes more. 

Vegan cookbooks are a wonderful place to look for vegetable recipes, because, obviously, vegetables are, for them, the whole point of eating.  I love cooked greens with ham hocks as much as the next (non-vegan) person, but sometimes I want the bright, clear flavor of a vegetable all by itself, or a crisp salad unsullied by salty crunchy bits.

I have, however, an unfortunate tendency.

Sometimes, when I make the recipes, I add animal products. 

The problem is protein–I can’t survive a meal without it.  If I don’t get a significant amount of protein at every meal, I will, in fact, faint.  It’s happened before, and it’s not fun.  And while I’m not a knee-jerk carnivore, and while I adore tofu and beans and lentils, I don’t want more than half of my meals to be leguminous.  Thus: meat or cheese. 

(I don’t know why I feel guilty about it–I change other recipes in ways that their authors never intended all the time–but I do).

The other week, I checked Veganomicon, a humongous and engrossing new vegan cookbook, out of the library.  I loved every recipe that I tried, but when the book went back to the library, there were plenty of wonderful ones that I hadn’t gotten to.  Instead of the recipes, I now had jotted notes, combinations of flavors: “Brussels sprouts, roasted, garam masala.”  “Chickpeas–do things!”  “Tofu, barbecue sauce, broccoli?”

The note that colonized the meal-planning section of my brain, though, was “kale enchiladas.”  I love kale, I love enchiladas, and, after the day-long blizzard last Friday, I needed simple comfort food.  (Explanatory note: my father is from New Mexico.  Thus, for me, even though I grew up in Iowa, Southwestern flavors are redolent of childhood, safety and comfort).

What I had: 1 bunch of kale, 4 tortillas, 1 can of tomatoes.  I made the tomatoes into a quick sauce by sauteing a minced shallot in oil, then adding garlic, the tomatoes, and a raft of southwestern spices.  (I know that real enchiladas are made with a chile sauce, not a tomato one, but I was making this up as I went along).  After everything cooked together for about 15 minutes, I turned off the heat, let the mixture cool a bit, then whirled it up in the food processor.

I tore the kale into bite-sized pieces, steamed it, and then added a big spoonful of the sauce.  I wrapped the lightly suaced kale in the tortillas, put them into a greased 8*8 pan, and poured the rest of the sauce over the top.  They looked great, but there was something missing–something that would take them from Extremely Good to Ultimate Comfort. 

Sorry guys: my platonic ideal of an enchilada includes cheese. 

The very last of the locally produced cheese–a chipotle cheddar–came out of the freezer, where I’ve been hording it.  It was, with difficulty, grated, and the rust-tinged crumbles scattered over the tortillas in sauce.  I baked the dish for 45 minutes at 350, until the cheese was browned and bubbling, then let it cool for about 10, until it was still hot, but not molten.

It. Was. Perfect.

The greens, sauce and tortilla had retained their integrity, but had so melded their flavors that they might have been one item: each flavor was distinct, but present in every bite, with no sharp edges between them.   The combination of a cooked green and a tomato sauce was almost reminiscent of spinach-stuffed pasta, even though the seasonings were completely different.  And, also similar to a stuffed pasta dish, the blanket of cheese held everything together and added a layer of chewy caramelization. 

The dish would have been delicious even without the cheese–I admit this.  I would have loved it, and not missed the dairy at all.  But I’m not sorry I added it; it made an extraordinary meal on a cold, cold night.

Published in: on March 28, 2008 at 7:16 am  Leave a Comment  

Priznel 2.0

The first dish that my husband (then my brand-new boyfriend) cooked for me was a long-standing family recipe called Priznel. Priznel is a kind of a quiche, made with cottage cheese, grated hard cheese (usually jack, or something else white), eggs and lots and lots of cooked spinach.

What Teacherman didn’t know was that I despised cooked spinach. I’d tried to eat it innumerable times–I’ve mentioned my struggles here before–but no matter what I did, I still hated it. (Why, you ask, did I keep on trying to eat something I loathed? It annoyed me that I couldn’t conquer the dislike, so I tried with all my might to get past the raw-metal flavors and the the slimy texture. And yes, I made sure to have spinach cooked by capable cooks, even surpassingly brilliant ones, but nothing worked. I still hated it–cooked, at least).

In any case, Teacherman made me Priznel. After many hours of cooking (we ate ate 9 pm that night, I believe), he proudly presented me with a dish of the only food that I absolutely hated. And I had to eat it.

I did manage to, and I didn’t mention that I was revolted by every spoonful I consumed (it didn’t help that the Priznel never did get fully cooked through). I smiled my way through the meal, but firmly sent all the leftovers home with him. Unfortunately, this politeness meant that I had to eat Priznel at every family function I attended for the next year or two, as Teacherman and I became more and more involved as a couple.

It wasn’t until we were engaged that my mother off-handedly mentioned my wretched feelings about cooked spinach. A look of horror appeared on Teacherman’s face. “Why didn’t you TELL me!” he said, “I would have completely understood!” This is probably true. But my inner politeness switch had refused to budge, and, as I mentioned, I had been trying to learn to like the stuff.

In fact, I’m still trying to learn to like it. I’ve almost succeeded–at this point I can handle wilted spinach, especially if there are lots of spices involved, but not the fully-cooked type. (I should point out, here, that I enjoy fully cooked greens of every other variety, just not spinach. This, of course, is because no other cooked greens taste like rust).

This year, we spent Easter with Teacherman’s sister and her family–my in-laws had driven in from Detroit, and we all contributed to what turned out to be a brunch of epic proportions. My entries? A raspberry-ginger cheesecake for dessert, and, for the main meal, a recipe so similar to Priznel–but, in my opinion, so much better–that I actually may have converted the family.

Last month, while doing some research on ancient Roman cuisine, I read a lot of cookbooks about food from the modern Mediterranean, in order to become aware of the evolution of various dishes over the centuries. As might be expected, I ended up copying down a lot of recipes, as well as the information I was looking for. In an encyclopedic book on modern Greek cuisine, I found several recipes for egg-cheese-and-greens pies and casseroles. One in particular caught my eye–it seemed almost identical to Priznel, but with a very important exception. Instead of spinach, it used curly endive and romaine lettuce.

Otherwise, the ingredients were incredibly similar. A grateable cheese (kasseri), a soft, creamy cheese (feta), and eggs. The Greek casserole also included herbs–leeks, scallions and parsley, and one extra flavoring: chopped Kalamata olives. I knew immediately that I wanted to make the casserole, and I also knew that I wanted to make it for Teacherman’s family. Luckily, the Easter potluck presented itself, and I set to work.

Saturday night I washed two small heads of curly endive and two romaine hearts, then wilted them in a large pan until they were thoroughly cooked. I drained the greens in a colander, then squeezed them completely dry, and put them into a large bowl. Next, I chopped and washed two leeks and a whole bunch of scallions, then sauteed them in a little oil until lightly browned. I added the aliums to the greens, along with the chopped leaves from an entire bunch of parsley and half a cup of olives, also chopped.

Once the mixture was cool, I crumbled up 10 oz of feta and 7 oz of kasseri cheese (the recipe called for slightly different amounts, but those were the sizes of the cheeses I bought) and mixed the crumbles into the greens, along with a tiny pinch of salt, and several grinds of black pepper.

At that point, I covered the bowl and put it into the fridge. I left it there overnight, but this was for the sake of convenience, rather than any necessary ripening step. I wanted to make the casserole right before we left for brunch, the meal was due to take place at 10 am, an hour’s drive away, and the casserole needed an hour in the oven. I didn’t want to get up at 5 am to cook the greens, so I did everything ahead.

The next morning, I let the contents of the bowl come to room temperature while I preheated the oven to 350, then I mixed in four beaten eggs. I poured the mixture into an olive-oil slicked 9*13 inch pan, then let it bake while I readied myself for the family gathering.

After one hour, the casserole was finished cooking, and I packed it–covered in foil and wrapped in many layers of dish towel–in a conveniently sized cardboard box. Away we went!

I was a little nervous about presenting Teacherman’s family with a bastardized version of their Priznel–understandably, comforting traditions often matter far more than taste–but I needn’t have. The group dove into the pan, taking generous portions, and, in many cases, going back for seconds.

“This is definitely the new Priznel,” Teacherman whispered to me.

“Man, I love anything with cooked spinach in it!” said one relative.

Teacherman and I looked at each other. We didn’t say a word.

Published in: on March 23, 2008 at 7:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Better Late Than Never

Once upon a time it was Christmas Day. And once upon a time I made soup. Specifically, the most arrestingly red soup I have ever laid eyes on. It was, as the recipe’s author (Nigella Lawson) pointed out in the recipe itself, “so damn Christmassy that it’s ridiculous.”

I chose my recipes for Christmas dinner about four months beforehand.  I am the sort of person that plans ahead with intricate lists and detailed, choreographed visions of sugarplums, but usually not THAT far in advance.  The extenuating circumstance?  Beef tenderloin.  We can afford to buy it about once a year, and when I find a good recipe, I reserve the next holiday meal, whatever it might be, for That Recipe.  Thus, I found a recipe for a filet mignon spiced with garlic and winter spices in September, copied it down, and horded my cash for the interim. 

With the main dish chosen, it was easy enough to pick out the side dishes–mashed rutabaga with cardamom and a green salad with winter spices in the dressing.  Voila.  Christmas dinner. 

There are, however, two more meals that happen on any given day, and Christmas day is no exception.  It would be easy enough to just fling sandwiches and pastry at people, while getting on with the massive undertaking that most people consider Christmas dinner preparation to be, but given that there were only two people for dinner (this was both Teacherman’s and my own first Christmas spent without either of our families.  Extenuating circumstances?  You don’t want to hear them), there was no reason not to have real food for these meals.

Breakfast was pumpkin-hazlenut smoothies, based on a pumpkin-hazelnut pie recipe I found online.  Voila.  Done.  (And delicious).

Lunch?  Um.  Er.  Thing? 

I never felt particularly Christmas-y this year, and this led to a distinct lack of inspiration when it came to holiday meals.  Every time I came up with something “traditional” (for a typical American, that is, since my family never had a set holiday dinner), it just didn’t sound appealling.  I began ransacking all of my cookbooks, trying to find anything that I might want to eat.

Finally, in Nigella Feasts, Nigella Lawson’s cookbook about holiday food–in the Christmas section, no less–I found a recipe that sounded weird enough to peak my interest: cranberry-beet soup. 

No, really!  (This is becoming a continuing refrain in my posts–Honestly, I made it!  And it was really good!)

I cooked 3 grated beets and 1 chopped onion in some oil until softened.  I then added a bit more than a cup of cranberries, a large clementine’s-worth of juice and zest and a shake of cloves.  I smushed everything together for a second, then added a container of vegetable stock and performed the usual soup routine: I brought it all to a boil and then turned it down for a simmer until everything had cooked through.  Using a stick blender, I pureed it into a pottage of an incredibly shocking color, and served it up. 

And yes, it was really good.  The beets were sweet and earthy, and the cranberries added the sour tang necessary in a beet soup, so often added through liberal use of vinegar.  The texture was silken and the flavors were as bright as the color.  It was undeniably Christmas-inna-bowl. 

(And, unsurprisingly for a beet soup, the leftovers were delicious cold, the next day).

Published in: on January 28, 2008 at 7:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

This is Obviously One of THOSE Days

Some days, I make roasts and soups and complex, layered sauces, all from scratch.  Other days, I make soup out of two avocados blended together with half a jar of tomatillo salsa and topped with a can of crab. 

What kind of day do you think today was?

Honestly, the soup was really good. Ripe avocados, good quality salsa, sweet-tasting crabmeat. It was even pretty, if you don’t mind green. I cannot, however, pretend that it was Cuisine. Or A Recipe. It was just good. And it was fast and filling, and I don’t regret eating it at all.

I should probably be happy that I didn’t fall asleep with my face in it, though.

(And yes, what you heard on the news was correct: it is actually -2 degrees, my car doors are frozen shut, and it was so freezing at work that I still can’t feel my feet.  For reasons unknown to mankind, however, I am eating a cold soup. Not ice cream, though. Both of those things together would be taking things MUCH too far.  Instead I made coconut-kahlua hot chocolate.  From scratch).

Published in: on January 19, 2008 at 7:52 pm  Leave a Comment