Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Unfussy French on a Wednesday night

Have you ever followed a recipe that didn’t make any sense?

I like to think that even if I am not quite a great cook, I do increasingly have a good sense of what it takes to make something bind together, to be fluffy, to rise. In short, to taste good. So I was perplexed when I saw this ridiculously simple recipe from Patricia Wells’s, “Bistro Cooking”:

Tourte Aux Blettes (Savory Swiss Chard Tart) (paraphrased)

1 cup flour
¼ t. salt
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 lb. swiss chard leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 large eggs
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Combine flour and salt; add 1/4 cup water and then the oil, mixing until thoroughly blended. After kneading briefly, the dough will be very moist like cookie dough. Press dough into loose-bottomed metal tart tin.
3. Wash and dry the leafy portion of the chard and coarsely chop the leaves. Wilt the leaves in a skillet, seasoned to taste with salt and pepper. Heat until most of the water has evaporated.
4. Combine the eggs and grated cheese; add the chard and pour mixture into the pan.
5. Bake for about 40 minutes, until crust and filling are golden.

Perplexed, yet intrigued. I thought all pastry crusts had to made with butter and rapidly, to keep the butter cold and the pastry flaky. As I pressed the crumbly olive oil-colored dough into my springform pan (no tart pan), I thought, thank God I'm only making this for myself. Then the three eggs seemed so meager, just barely swimming around the cooked chard. How could it be so easy to make a tart?

It turns out I know nothing about the physics of cooking, because the recipe worked just fine. In fact, it was quite good and as easy as it appears, and the kind of recipe you can follow after coming home after work with only a vague desire to cook that bunch of swiss chard in your fridge, though you do have to be prepared to eat your sliver of a tourte at 9:15 pm. (And that is easy enough if you have only recently returned from Spain, where they do not think of eating before 9 pm.) I didn’t have a glass of crisp white wine as recommended by Patricia Wells, but I did have a glass of refreshing Pernod. God, I love the taste of licorice.

Despite being in my pajamas, I felt almost like one of those French girls that get described as “effortlessly chic.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Kimchi, Part II

I tried again, this time with napa cabbage instead of daikon radish. I went the easy route, cutting up the cabbage after brining it for almost 6 hours, instead of the more traditional, more beautiful way of keeping the cabbage whole, with all its nooks and crannies filled and rubbed with spicy paste. But it's still not quite what I was looking for. Last time, it was too much ginger. This time, too much salt.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

It's sizzling!

Raj tried to warn me. “A lot of the sauces all taste the same. Some of the dishes taste better the next day!”

After almost a year of trying to get to Tangra Masala for Indian-Chinese food (the Indian take on Chinese food, the way chop suey is the American take on Chinese food), Raj and I finally made it to Sunnyside, Queens last Wednesday. The friends we had invited to come along had bailed at the last minute, pleading that Queens was too much, even Raj’s friends who live in Queens. I think Raj was worried that I would be disappointed, after all of the hullabaloo. He said, with great earnestness, that Tangra Masala reminded him of better food eaten elsewhere.

But how could I be disappointed, when I was presented with this?

True, as much as the chili paneer sizzled, it didn’t make me swoon. The vegetable tangra masala turned out to be vegetable fritters in gravy, the “lollypop chicken” to be fried chicken drumsticks in an adorable shape, but with a batter that was a bit too bready. Everything had that yummy, salty, satisfying flavor of take-out Chinese, but with nothing that would make me take the G train to the 7 train for on a weekly basis. Maybe every couple of months or so.

Still, I was so happy to be eating something I had never eaten before, within city limits even. And such video!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Start of Monthly Soup

There is a part of me that not-so-secretly loves Martha Stewart. I get a thrill when I’m having friends over for brunch, and I see the sunlight streaming into my kitchen onto the white tablecloth with the flowers in the middle, the matching cups and saucers, and my beloved juice glasses.

But in the end, this little glee is nothing compared to my deep, adamant, heartfelt conviction that none of it really matters. I may not believe in God, but I believe in breaking bread. I don’t think people should be afraid to have people over because they don’t have space or time or matching plates. Or even because they think they can’t cook. There can be as much fun and happiness over a pot of chili as over a three-course meal starting with foie gras. Given how some of my friends feel about foie gras, probably more.

So as part of my new evangelism, I made a New Year’s resolution to start hosting a monthly soup night. Just soup. I would happily accept drinks or dessert contributions, and not worry about whether they “matched” what I had made. With the money I would have spent on an occasional three-course dinner, I could have more people over more often, and even buy a couple of extra bowls. And since it was a New Year’s resolution, I kicked it off with Korean dumpling soup for Lunar New Year.

Some people ate in shallow soup bowls, some ate in giant salad bowls, and some with teaspoons, but nobody cared. I was so happy. The dumplings could have used more salt and soy sauce, but hey, that’s why you put salt on the table, right?

I'm so excited about March and April and May...

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Lina and Ookie say goodbye to pork

That’s not quite accurate, as they’re still saying hello, over and over, to pancetta and bacon and sausages braised with plums. They’ve just recently decided that considering the environmental impact of meat, they will stop eating big, giant chunks of meat. But being who they are, they are saying goodbye with a bang. They said goodbye to beef in December with 20 lbs. of spareribs. And they said goodbye to pork this weekend with an almost 9-lb piece of pork butt.

When I told Lina I was coming to visit her this weekend in Providence, she immediately responded, “What do you want to do? Do you want to smoke a pork butt?” I love Lina. I told her I wanted to leave around 3 pm on Sunday and she said, “No problem, we’ll just get a small, 6-lb. butt and smoke it starting Sunday morning, have a late lunch, and put you on the bus.” But then we got to the store, and Ookie couldn’t resist buying a 8.75-lb. pork butt: “It’s on sale!” He brushed the logistical problems off, saying, “We’ll just smoke it overnight!”

He seemed so excited, I didn’t make my usual protestations as a houseguest who doesn’t want to make too much trouble. This is a guy who lives in a house with no walls, as they’re still renovating it, but owns a 100-lb. gorgeous smoker/grill. Lina and I went off to Boston Saturday night to see our friend Leslie, and as I hesitated over my second drink, wondering if I would be sober enough to rub the butt when we got home, Lina assured me, “You’re worried about the pork? The butt is rubbed!” And true enough, when we got home, the butt was thoroughly rubbed with paprika, cayenne, cumin, and garlic powder; there was a sauce pan of homemade barbecue sauce on the stove; and a bowl of vinegar-based “North Carolina”-style sauce for basting on the counter. I hope one day, like Lina, to marry a man I can trust to rub the butt while I’m out having drinks with my girlfriends.

The next morning, Lina told me that Ookie had gotten up at 5 a.m. to add more coal to the grill. I was so moved. By the time we woke up around 10:30, the fire had gone out, but we just reheated the pork while we roasted some brussel sprouts, made corn muffins (to make it seem more like breakfast), and tossed a green salad.

The pork butt was beautiful. It had a serious crust, excitingly spicy, with tender, fatty pink meat inside. I don’t think I’ve ever had a butt quite like that, not from Daisy Mae’s, not in Nashville. It was the most beautiful butt I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe how well-behaved their dog was, just lying there next to the table. If I were a dog, smelling those smells, I would have been going crazy.

The brussel sprouts were creamy and warm on the inside, the salad was simple and sharp, the corn muffins a little too sweet, but fun to eat. I felt so proud to call Lina and Ookie my friends, and thankful I was not saying goodbye to pork.

P.S. This is Ookie's account of what went into the rub and the barbecue sauce:

"i didn't exactly follow a recipe.

the rub was roughly 1-2 tablespoons each of

cayenne pepper
onion powder
black pepper

and 1-2 teaspoons each of

ground fennel seed
mustard powder (we didn't have any this time)
garlic powder

the barbecue sauce was

2 cups of ketchup
1/2 cup of molasses
1/4 cup of mustard

3 tablespoons of worcester sauce
1-2 tablespoons of onion powder (or a diced onion)

the rest was some combination of the spices used in the rub. previously, we traded some cayenne pepper for a couple tablespoons of tabasco."

Whatever you're doing, it works!