Wednesday, August 25, 2010

More Books! My Cookbook Top 10

Speaking of cookbooks, what are my favorites?  My friend, Heather, asked so here goes…

#1 The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution by Alice Waters.  If I was on a deserted island and could have only one cookbook…it would be 101 Ways to Enjoy a Coconut.  BUT - if my island came with a Viking stove, Sub Zero fridge, and a farm, this would be the book I’d want with me! 

If you’ve been reading my blog you already know I love Alice Waters and her restaurant, Chez Panisse.  Her outlook on food – fresh, seasonal ingredients, sourced from local farmers and purveyors, prepared simply and deliciously - is right up my alley.  To quote from the book:

I’m convinced that the underlying principles of good cooking are the same everywhere.  These principles have less to do with recipes and techniques than they do with gathering good ingredients, which for me is the essence of cooking. 

This book is like a locavore’s version of The Joy Of Cooking.  Alice does an incredible job of teaching the basics of cooking such as sautéing and roasting and sauces and stocks, while explaining the importance of selecting the best ingredients to make the most of a recipe.  I’m constantly pulling it off the shelf for recipes, yes, but also to walk me through her tried-and-true methods for cooking just about anything.  Take, for instance, plain rice; mine never used to turn out until I read her two-page description of how to make it.  Now my rice comes out great and I’m happy, grateful for her guidance.    

Alice is the leader of what she calls the “Delicious Revolution” and a seasoned 40-year restaurateur who knows her way around a kitchen.  The Art of Simple Food is the book I give to any friend, novice or expert, who has a serious love and appreciation for simple and tasty food. 

The rest of the books I’m not ranking in any particular order – I use and love them all!

All the Barefoot Contessa / Ina Garten books (there are six with another coming in October).  Why?  Her. Recipes. Work.  I’ve made many of them and not only do they never fail; they never fail to be delicious.  Ina’s food is comforting, easy, and elegant.  To top it off, she’s got great entertaining and culinary style - sophisticated but casual; polished yet laid-back.  I’d like to think that’s how I am; I know that’s how Ina is.

Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.  A classic, and the best book I know of for authentic, Italian food.  Again, the recipes are simple (I see a theme developing here), clear, and comprehensive. As Marcella explains, there is actually no such thing as Italian cooking; each region of the country has their own cooking style that differs distinctly from the others. She somehow manages to capture the sights, smells, and tastes of all of Italy in a way that transports you from sea to countryside to city with ease.  The first recipe I ever wrote down and made my own was Marcella’s Bolognese Meat Sauce. 

Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets by Deborah Madison.  She's authored over ten books, mainly vegetarian, but this one includes some carnivorous stuff.  Deborah grew up in California on a walnut orchard with a big vegetable garden out back.   She’s been a graceful, expert ambassador for farmers' markets throughout her life.  Her recipes are a lovely tribute to all the goodies that come from the ground and pastures of small farms across the United States.       

David Tanis' book A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, is wonderful - great stories, beautifully written, and incredible recipes.  This book reads like a novel and if you’re like me, you’ll stay up late, turning its pages, and drifting off to sleep with dreams of goat cheese with honey and warm asparagus vinaigrette dancing through your head.  No surprise, he’s a Chez Panisse alum…

Okay, back to reality.  Everyday Food: Great Food Fastpublished by Martha's Everyday Food magazine, is exactly what the title says – great, fast food.  The book is filled with tasty, mostly healthy, seasonal recipes that don’t take much prep or call for a lot of ingredients.  Every day – in fact, most days – are not Chez Panisse kind of days.  Work, kids, life gets in the way of elaborate meals.  This is the book to reach for during the week when you want something fresh, from scratch, and FAST.

Tom Valenti’s Soups, Stews, and One-Pot Meals is a classic in my family.  I thought the concept sounded appealing (One pot?  Sign me up!) and turns out, so did my dad.  I took the book home to my parent’s one weekend and never saw it again.  Dad swiped it.  After eating several dishes he prepared from the book, (my favorite being Simmered Shrimp Saute with Shitake Mushrooms and Scallions), I bought another copy for myself, which now never leaves my apartment for fear of another theft (yes, it's that good!).

Speaking of one-pot meals, there isn’t one much more satisfying than risotto.  Risotto by Judith Barrett and Norma Wasserman isn’t one of the famous chef/highbrow titles on my bookshelf, but you know what?  They taught me how to make risotto many years ago and I’m forever indebted.  I love this book – it’s an old friend. 

The Balthazar Cookbook.  Keith McNally has a reputation in the press for being a bit of a curmudgeon.  I’d like to believe it’s not true, but even if it is, I really don’t care!  I love his restaurants - they’re buzzy, hip, fun places and I’ve never had a bad meal at any of them.  His executive chefs, Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, excel at French brasserie cooking and I’ve made their Chicken Liver Mousse, Moules a la Mariniere, and Braised Short Ribs (okay, Dad made that one) to prove it.  The book is filled with wonderful, satisfying food, especially for the upcoming fall and winter months. 

No surprise, I’m ending with my current culinary crush, Frank Stitt.  I’m still waiting for someone to invite me to Birmingham!!  Anyway, both his books – Frank Stitt’s Southern Table and Bottega Favorita – are my idea of perfection.  Incredibly photographed by Christopher Hirsheimer (who I had the pleasure of interning under at Saveur back in the day – she really is lovely) his food is the epitome of elegant, seasonal, local food.  There are a mix of easy and more complicated recipes that I may or may not make but never mind; it’s sheer joy to page through his books.  Did I mention he used to work at Chez Panisse?  I sense a theme….

Salmon with Orzo Salad

1 ½ cups orzo
About 1 tablespoon olive oil
Four 6-ounce skinless salmon fillets, any pin bones removed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup corn kernels (from about 3 ears of corn)
1 cup quartered cherry tomatoes
1 shallot or ¼ red onion, minced
¼ cup pitted Kalamata or Nicoise olives, coarsely chopped
¼ cup basil leaves, torn into little pieces or cut into chiffonade, plus 4 small sprigs for garnish
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons L’Estornell Spanish garnacha vinegar or other good-quality red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Grated lemon zest for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil.  Add the orzo and cook until al dente, 5 – 7 minutes.  Drain and transfer to a large bowl.  Toss with a splash of oil.

Heat a large ovenproof skillet over high heat, then add just enough olive oil to barely coat the bottom of the pan.  Season the salmon with sea salt and pepper, place in the hot skillet, and cook until the fish is lightly golden on the first side and the edges are beginning to turn opaque, about 4 minutes.  Turn the salmon and transfer the pan to the oven to finish cooking, about 4 minutes for medium-rare, or about 6 minutes for medium.  Transfer the fillets to a rack and keep warm.

Stir the corn, tomatoes, shallot or onion, olives, torn basil, and salt and pepper to taste into the orzo.  Add the vinegar, drizzle in the extra virgin olive oil, and toss to coat.  Taste for seasonings and adjust to your liking.

Place a large spoonful of the orzo on each serving plate and top with a salmon fillet.  Garnish each plate with a little lemon zest, if desired, and a sprig of basil.
Serves 4

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Eating weeds: Lamb’s quarters aka wild spinach

It’s Wednesday and that means it’s time for Summer Fest, a celebration of the summer’s most delectable foods.  This week our theme is herbs, greens, and beans and I’m blogging about a delicious and nutritious green I recently discovered.  Be sure to stop by A Way to Garden, White on Rice Couple, Gluten-Free Girl, and Food2 to read about their take on how to enjoy the best of what summer has to offer.

I don’t consider myself an overly adventurous eater.  Living in NYC as I do, there are hundreds – no, make that THOUSANDS – of opportunities to try new and unusual ingredients and dishes.  Sometimes I do, but more often than not I stick to more familiar fare.   Recently, however, I was tempted by a new ingredient while waiting in line for the much-coveted Mountain Sweet Berry Farm strawberries.  As I’ve mentioned, the line was rather long, giving me plenty of time to peruse the other offerings from the farm.  Lamb’s quarters caught my eye because the sign described it as wild spinach and I love spinach.  Rick Bishop’s farm is a favorite of the best chefs in town and it’s a safe bet anything he sells is worth trying.  I bought a bunch and headed home. 

Turns out I spent three bucks on a bunch of weeds.   Lamb’s quarters can be found on the side of roads and riverbanks and is considered an invasive weed in some parts of the United States.  Unbeknownst to most gardeners who yank it out of ground and toss it on the mulch pile, it is edible and a nutritional superstar at that.  Loaded with vitamins A and C, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and beta-carotene, lamb’s quarters is one of nature’s powerhouse foods.  Wild foods are generally more potent than their cultivated cousins, containing vitamins and minerals in much higher quantities.   

On occasion people feel sick after eating wild herbs and weeds; often this occurs because their bodies are accustomed to weaker, less nutritious foods.  There are other reasons, too, and if you decide to venture into the wilderness (or suburbs) to find free lambs quarters, be mindful of where you harvest it from; pesticides and soil pollution are absorbed by the plant and stored in its leaves. Only gather wild edible plants from areas you are confident are chemical-free.

Lambs quarters may be used in any recipe that calls for spinach.  Toss it in salads and swirl it into soups; use the greens in lasagna and omelettes fillings.  Give it a steam or sauté it as I did, with a little olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper.  Unlike wild arugula, which has a more intense, complex flavor than its supermarket counterpart, lamb’s quarters are mild like regular spinach, with the addition of an earthy, slightly mineral taste.  I found it a nice change of pace from the standard greens I eat and loved that something so good is so good for me. 

Foraging for food has become an increasingly popular activity and I’ve noticed classes popping up around the city for those interested in learning the tricks of the trade.  These classes are for people who take their quest to eat local to a whole other level.  I admire their desire and commitment, but I must confess, I won’t be joining them anytime soon.  I’m happy to limit my foraging to the baskets at Rick’s stand. 

Quadrettoni di Frittata con Spinaci e Formaggio
(Square Omelettes Stuffed with Spinach and Cheese)
Adapted from Sicilian Home Cooking by Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene

This recipe calls for spinach; I substituted equal amounts of lamb’s quarters. 

Lambs quarters have a powdery white coating on its leaves; to remove it you must immerse the greens in water and swish them about. 

10 ounces baby spinach or lamb’s quarters leaves
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
6 large eggs
1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon freshly grated pecorino cheese
2 tablespoons freshly chopped Italian parsley
1 cup Italian fontina cheese, grated
Cherry tomatoes and fresh basil leaves for garnish

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil; add spinach or lamb’s quarters, reduce to a medium boil and cook until done, about 5 minutes.  Drain greens well, squeeze dry in a clean dishtowel, and finely chop.  Heat butter and oil in a frying pan and add greens.  Season well with salt and pepper and cook over low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring often. 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a bowl, beat together the eggs, pecorino, Parmesan, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. 

Generously butter an 8 x 8-inch square nonstick baking pan.  Add fontina cheese to the greens and quickly toss.  Mix well with the egg mixture.  Pour into the baking pan and bake until golden brown on top, about 30 minutes.

Let the frittata cool for 5 minutes, then invert it onto a cool platter.  Let it cool for an additional 5 minutes.  Cut into 6 squares and garnish each piece with a few cherry tomatoes and basil leaves.

Serves 6

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Husk Cherries

Husk cherries, ground cherries, golden berries, Cape Gooseberries; these delicate, papery packages go by many different names.  Inside each lantern-like husk resides a small fruit with a pleasantly unique flavor - something between a strawberry and a tomato.  I tried my first husk cherry while visiting the Queens County Farm Museum booth at the latest New Amsterdam Market.  I’d never seen them before and was staring at the bin, trying to figure out what I was looking at when I was offered one to try. 

With a little squeeze of the husk, a cherry tomato-looking fruit popped out.  It’s not an exaggeration to say the flavor burst into my mouth when I bit down; the husk cherry is firmer than a cherry tomato and really pops when bitten into.  Its taste is hard to place and unlike anything I’d had before - sweet and mild with a little bit of tomato-like acid.

I bought a pint to take home and enjoyed snacking on them straight out of the husks.  After a little investigation I found besides eating them this way, they can be cut up and tossed in a salad or made into a dessert, such as pie.  In fact, I came across this clever recipe for Ground Cherry Cupcake Pies on Yum Yum Vegan’s blog that I’m dying to try; it looks divine.  Because of their high pectin content, husk cherries are also good for preserving into jams and jellies.    

Since my first sighting, I’ve noticed husk cherries several times again at other markets.  I’m sure I’ve walked by them before, focused on something else, and missed a chance to inquire.  It’s a lesson to me to keep my eyes – and mind – open to new things because what I’m passing up might just be a sweet discovery, a tiny treasure, to add to my culinary repertoire. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Summer Fest 2010 - Corn and Squash Sauté inspired by Chez Panisse Café

This is my first time participating in Summer Fest, a cross-blogging celebration of summer’s glorious food and gardens, hosted by Margaret Roach of A Way to Garden and her collaborators, Todd and Diane at White on Rice Couple, Shauna Ahern the Gluten-Free Girl, and Food2

Each week there is a different theme and everyone is encouraged to submit a tip or recipe relating to it; this week we’re talking about corn.  Click here and visit some, if not all, the other blogs that have contributed.  I have a feeling you’ll leave inspired! 

The corn recipe that immediately came to my mind to share was one I made up after eating at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Cafe almost a decade ago.  It’s not her recipe, merely my best remembrance of a dish I had there, recreated in the spirit of this spectacular restaurant.

I first visited San Francisco in May of 2001.  My close friends, Drew and Mel, had moved there from NYC and I planned a ten-day trip to see them and explore the city.  I quickly found out San Fran is my kind of town and if I didn’t have a life in NYC, I’d be tempted to put down roots there.  The natural beauty of the land, abundant outdoor activities, low-key residents, and incredible farms and local food all add up to a very appealing way of life.

By the last day of my trip I had literally been everywhere and seen everything I had hoped to with one exception:  Chez Panisse.  Alice Waters’ championing of sustainable, local farms and insistence on cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients was - and still is - an inspiration to me.  I was dying to eat at her restaurant and see if the hype was really warranted.  I hoped so.

Drew and Mel were at work and I hemmed and hawed over the idea of eating lunch at the Café by myself.  I decided it would be worse if I went all the way back to New York without having experienced it, hopped on the next BART to Berkeley and headed to 1517 Shattuck Avenue, home of Chez Panisse. 

To this day I still consider that lunch the most delicious meal I’ve ever had in any restaurant.  My selection of pizza with wild nettles and ricotta salata, baked local salmon with corn, squash, and basil, and Washington rhubarb crisp with mascarpone ice cream might not sound earth shattering, but when executed with the finest, freshest ingredients and with care and precision (not fussiness), it truly was.  Therein lies the magic of Chez Panisse. 

Corn and Squash Sauté
Inspired by Chez Panisse Café

This dish benefits enormously from being made with just picked corn and squash.  Many of you Summer Fest folks are lucky enough to have your own gardens to harvest veggies from.  If you’re like me and only have space to grow basil on your windowsill, head to the nearest farm stand and shop there.  I found Jersey corn and New York State squash at the Union Square Greenmarket.

This is an easy recipe to alter; sometimes I’ll add diced tomatoes or quartered cherry tomatoes.  Other times I’ll mince a shallot and sauté it with a pinch of red pepper flakes before adding the squash and corn.  It just depends on my mood and what’s on hand.

4 or 5 ears of corn, shucked and cut off the cob
1 medium green or yellow squash, diced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup white wine or water
1/4 cup basil, torn
Salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a large saute pan over medium-high heat.  Add squash and sauté 4 minutes.  Add corn, sauté 1 minute, then add wine/water.  Simmer until the liquid has disappeared, about 3 minutes.  The vegetables should retain their crunch – don’t let them get too soft!  Stir in 1 tablespoon butter and season with salt and pepper.   

Off heat, stir in basil.  Serve hot.

Serves 4 people