Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Satisfying the Inner Beast - With a Steak

      In honor of my spending the last week in Montana, land of clean public restrooms and herds of cattle, let me devote this post to the discussion of red meat. Usually something I try to limit my consumption of, venison hunted last autumn by my dad and free range, grass fed Montana beef from the Bitterroot Valley are exceptions I’m gladly willing to make. 

     I like to think of the steak I’m eating as previously a happy cow (or deer), wandering the open range, munching on grass, toning its muscles for me to enjoy that firm, meaty texture. When I think about it this way, I feel good about eating meat. The animal lived a good life and when it was over, I reaped the benefits.

     In Brooklyn, I’ve found my meat grocer: the Union Market on Court Street. Their beef, lamb and pork products, although expensive, are grass fed and free range. I can see and taste the difference. Their steaks are a deep, meaty red to purple color and much more flavorful than a regular store-bought steak. For Christmas dinner this year, I tried their lamb chops and was not disappointed. They were so tender and flavorful with a rich purple color and an underlying lamby earthiness. Served in a mustard-rosemary sauce, it might have been the best Holiday dinner I’ve ever prepared.

Happy Montana Cows
Photo courtesy of
     I shop at the Union Market because I don’t want to eat a genetically modified, corn-fed cow that spent its life knee deep in its own waste, being pumped full of hormones and even antibiotics to stop the spread of diseases caused by these conditions. I have four main objections to the way most animals are raised as food.  First, I have health concerns with food raised this way. The meat is higher in fat with little muscle density. (Corn starch and other stiffening products have to be added to make it firm. Sedentary, confined animals never develop the muscle tone to create the right texture to their meat so the texture is added after slaughter. Gross.) And fatty tissues store toxins. I don’t want to be taking contaminants in meat into my body. Second, it’s just disgusting. Third, it’s cruel to treat a live thing as simply food. And fourth, it’s illogical to keep animals in conditions that require our intervention with antibiotics, hormones and additives. It just makes more sense to me to stop subsidizing so much corn and feed cattle what they are supposed to eat (grasses, not corn. They can’t digest corn, causing cattle to develop diseases like e. coli). Give them a little space to wander and save time, energy and money spent developing chemical fixes to problems that we created in the first place.

     When I first moved to Brooklyn from Montana, I searched through the local grocery stores, seeking some quality of steak I was comfortable with cooking. I found all varieties of altered, genetically modified, hormone fed meat. With its pale pink to grayish color and squishy texture, the labels are marked with ambiguous phrases like, “No hormones added.” Does that mean to the steak? To the cow? What about color? Cornstarch? Antibiotics?

     Then I found the Union Market. I usually make my rounds first, buying everything I need for a meal at other shops around the neighborhood, and then stop in specifically for meat. It’s not that they don’t have other quality products; it’s just that Union Market is expensive. I can’t afford to buy my other groceries there, but for a good steak, the prices are worth it.  I buy one large steak, sear it and then slice it, providing about four slices per serving.  This also helps to limit cost.

Steam rising from a London Broil
     Back to Montana, cattle country, and my love of red meat: my father is the king of meat (and waffles, but that’s another story). He fills his freezer with half a cow from a rancher he knows personally each year, and hunts. Usually he manages to bring home an elk, but this year he shot a deer, a buck, instead. He butchered it on a table in his kitchen, making steaks, burger and using the less appealing cuts to make lean venison sausages. He sliced and diced while his wife wrapped and taped. Having this assortment on hand, he rarely serves anything else. This makes my usual task when we have dinner, wine selection, relatively easy.

     This trip home, he didn’t disappoint, breaking out the grill, in the snow, for the first Barbecue of the year to char an enormous London broil and several savory venison steaks to perfect temperature, with a smoky crust and tender red middle.

     Not being a grill-master myself, I asked about the charred outside and how he does it.

     “Use a lot of charcoal,” he said.

     I’m used to creating a sear in a frying pan, then finishing the steak in the oven but this technique also applies when grilling. Get the coals really hot, and then place the grate directly over the coals, as close as you can get it, causing the meat to sear, and also, the charcoal to leave that perfect, smoky crust on the steak. In cold weather, the even, high heat is difficult to achieve, so use fresh briquettes, not the ones that have been sitting in a pool of water under a tool bench in your garage.

Carrot Cake
     My dad served this meal with plenty of mashed russet potatoes and red wine, finished with homemade carrot cake and coffee. Delicious as it was, I’m not sure I reached my Montana venison quota for the year. Anyone have ideas about how to ship frozen, raw meat across the country?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Chili Rellenos = Zen

Chili Rellenos make a special meal
     Today is that last day of Evil Dictator of Taste’s Citrus Week. But I’m closing it out with a bang. The recipe I’m sharing today, Chili Rellenos with Pink Grapefruit Salsa and Cilantro Cream, creates a really unique combination of flavors. The spicy pablano chilies stuffed with mild, yet slightly salty queso fresco balance the tart and sweet pink grapefruit, while avocado and cilantro add a little richness and harmony to all components. The black beans serve as the antagonist to the light pink grapefruit, complementing its acidity with their earthiness.

     And this is really what I tried to do during this week: showcase new combinations of flavor using citrus. I wanted to really push myself to experiment and create unusual recipes to complement the featued ingredient, citrus. Unexpectedly, there are a wide variety of very different citrus flavors. Many recipes combine several fruits to create the perfect taste. A little squeeze of lime, in combination oranges or other milder varieties of citrus, really adds that bite we think of as quintessentially citrusy. Not all ideas I came up with for Citrus Week reached fruition, leaving the door open to more experiments in citrus in the future.

Chili Rellenos with Pink Grapefruit Salsa and Cilantro Cream:
Difficulty: Ant Icon 32x32pxAnt Icon 32x32pxAnt Icon 32x32pxAnt Icon 32x32px
Time: 2 hours
Makes: 3-4 servings


8 pablano peppers, fresh
1 package queso fresco
5 eggs whites
2 cups vegetable oil
½ red onion
1 8oz can black beans
2 avocado
2 pink grapefruits, fresh
1-2 cups cilantro, fresh
1 lime
1 teaspoon honey
Spices: Salt, black pepper, paprika, chipotle, cayenne, Tapatio hot sauce, spicy chipotle hot sauce


     Begin with the peppers. Rinse and place them directly under the hot broiler in the oven. They should cook for around 7-10 minutes, but possibly longer depending on your oven. Once again, there is no exact science to this. You can tell they are done when you hear a popping sound coming from the oven. Their skins actually swell, bubble up and burst. You should hear a lot of consecutive popping. The skins also turn black in patches. When peppers are broiled, remove from the oven and place in a sealed plastic bag. If you only have grocery bags, use two of them, as they are not usually airtight. Set aside for twenty minutes or so.

     While the peppers steam inside their bag, prep the other ingredients. Slice queso fresco in long segments about ½ - ¾ inch thick and set aside. Beat egg whites in a medium bowl until stiff. Peaks should form easily. Set aside.

 Grapefruit Salsa:

     Keeping grapefruit in mind, I tried to come up with a recipe that is satisfying in both flavor and texture. I settled, as a base, on pico de gayo (meaning “rooster’s beak,” it’s chunky fresh tomato salsa). The grapefruit really serves the same purpose as tomatoes do in a salsa. They are sweet, tart and very acidic. I tried to make a traditional pico de gayo but treat the grapefruit as tomatoes.

     Prepare the black beans as directed on the can. I add a little black pepper, paprika and chipotle to mine while they heat. When hot, strain and place in a medium sized bowl.

     Peel 1 grapefruit, rind and individual sections. The skin separating grapefruit sections can be too tough and has a bitter taste. Remove it, leaving only the grapefruit “meat.” Gently slice the grapefruit meat into small, ¼ - ½ inch squares (they don’t need to look clean or perfect). Add to your black beans.

     Add red onion and 1 avocado chopped into ¼ - ½ inch sections to bowl with black beans and grapefruit. Add 1 tablespoon lime juice (about ¼ of your lime), a pinch paprika, a tablespoon of Tapatio (about 5-6 dashes) and/or chipotle hot sauce, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir gently with a fork or large spoon and set aside.
Cilantro Cream:

     Add the last avocado and cilantro to food processor. (If you don’t have a food processor, don’t make a cream, but instead leave everything a little chunky, blend with a fork and make a chunky guacamole instead.) Add juice of ½ lime and juice of ½ grapefruit, honey, and salt and pepper to taste and blend. I kept this sauce very light and citrusy, not adding any spices. I was thinking of this cream as the tonic to the spicy peppers. For a little extra creaminess, add a little yogurt or sour cream to this sauce. Or if you prefer a more avocado-centric flavor, leave mixture without. Either way it makes a creamy, rich sauce. Set aside.

Grapefruit Salsa and Cilantro Cream

     Slice the last 1/4 of lime and the last ½ grapefruit into pretty wedges, place in a small dish and set aside as garnish.

     Now return to the peppers. They should have steamed, from their own heat inside the plastic bag, to the point of slight softness and pliability. Remove their skins. The skin bubbled up during the broiling, leaving it disconnected from the pepper itself. Now it should be soft and easy to peel back. Some peppers are more difficult than others, and if needed, you can always use a paring knife.

     Cut a slice in the side of each pepper from end to end the long way. At the pepper’s top, near the stem, make another, small, horizontal cut, creating a T-shape with the first cut. Carefully remove all seeds, leaving each pepper hollow. Insert one slice of queso fresco into each pepper. The cheese slices should be about the length of the pepper. The fit should be about perfect, with the pepper not stuffed completely full of cheese but loosely filled. If you have a particularly large pepper, you may need to add more cheese or less with a particularly small pepper, but mostly the ratio of cheese to pepper should already be aligned.

Chili Rellenos sizzling
      Heat vegetable oil to medium high in medium frying pan. The two cups oil, once again, is not an exact measurement. What is needed is about an inch of very hot oil in the pan to cook the rellenos. Depending on the size of your pan, you may have to start with less and add more oil as you fry the rellenos.

     If you prefer a harder, more flavorful crust, you can add flour. To enact this modification, after coating the chilies in egg white, simple roll them in blue corn flour, and then fry them. While this modification is also delicious, I think it would overwhelm the delicate flavor of the grapefruit. Try this sometime with a spicy tomato salsa instead.

     Create an assembly line stretching across your counter to your stovetop. Begin with the stuffed chilies on a plate. Next the beaten egg whites, then the stovetop with the pan of hot oil, and last a plate for cooling, covered with paper towels to absorb extra grease. Take a pepper, coat it in egg white and place it in frying pan. The hot vegetable oil should come about halfway up the pepper. Be careful. It will sizzle immediately. If it doesn’t, your oil is not hot enough.

     Cook about 2-3 minutes, then flip and cook other side. When finished, the egg should be browned and a little puff or extra sizzle should come shooting out of the sliced side of the pepper. This little exhale is the caused by melted cheese escaping. Remove chili relleno and place on paper toweled plate. Repeat with each pepper (usually I can fit 2 or 3 in the frying pan at a time). You may need to replenish your oil during cooking.

     To serve, place two peppers on plate and top with a dollop of each salsa and cilantro cream, and a slice of lime or grapefruit. Serve with salad or rice. Due to the labor intensive nature of preparing this recipe and because the rellenos are fried in oil, I went for a simple green salad, mixing romaine hearts with spinach and topping with a homemade dressing ( olive oil, grapefruit juice, lime juice, salt, pepper, paprika and chipotle, whisked together).

    I recommend pairing this with a nice Albarino, but a Negro Modelo would also be delicious.

     I really enjoy my time in the kitchen, so a difficult recipe every once in a while, is fun for me. But it takes a time, commitment and requires focus. (Not to mention the splurge of frying something in oil, not just sautéing or steaming.) Chili rellenos are difficult to make. It’s not as simple as pasta or steak, but that’s part of what makes it so special.

     When I made these, I began tired and irritated from a long day. I laid all my ingredients out on the kitchen counter, poured a nice glass of wine, turned up the volume on my stereo and set to work. Suddenly I was smiling to myself, slicing the peppers. I had fun. Two hours later, I not only enjoyed an elaborate and tasty meal, but my mood had changed. I was relaxed and peaceful.

     Cooking is meditation. It’s not just about preparing food. It’s not a chore. It’s a choice to alter your focus. It’s an opportunity to use all your senses to create something. And you get back out of it what you put into it. Creating a truly harmonious meal far beyond compensates for the effort involved with the satisfaction gained, including but not limited to the end result. With this in mind, I urge you to go forth and create. Exert the extra effort and enjoy!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Spice up Valentine's Day with Blood Orange Panna Cotta

The last few days were downright dewy, fresh and warm.  Balmy.  The mountain of snow accumulated this winter in my front yard withered and retreated slightly, leaving the tallest honeysuckle boughs and even a few stones bordering the garden visible.  Where the snow once dwarfed me, I can now glower down at it, imagining its total defeat and the flowers that will bloom in its place.  The recent heat wave reminds me that winter is on its way out.  Soon honeysuckle and the smell of damp, wet earth will perfume the neighborhood.  I think the basil in my kitchen may even have grown, a little bit.  Let winter have its last death rattle!  The end is near.
Citrus Week rolls along with a few more recipes, but first I give kudos to my supplier: Santo’s Farm Natural & Organic on Court Street in Brooklyn.  They are by far my favorite grocery.  The shop is so small, nestled next to larger Good Food Store and Gourmet Fresh, that I often underestimate them.  I think there is no way they could have that one obscure ingredient I need for a particular dish.  But they always do have it.  Santo’s competes by simply having the best.  They don’t need the extra space to store mediocre products.  Instead, their shelves are filled with every kind of grain imaginable, even quinoa.  They have udon and tofu and tofu sausages.  But their produce in particular is of a very high quality and the variety is astounding at such a small shop.  They allow me to fill my kitchen with the crispiest snap peas, the freshest basil, the ripest avocados.  This past week in particular they came through in a pinch, providing blood oranges, navel oranges, varieties of grapefruit, lemon and limes.  I cleaned them out!  The blood orange panna cotta I made required 12 blood oranges.  I mistakenly ventured to several other groceries looking for blood oranges, among other things, before finally finding them at Santo’s.  I should have looked there first.
The blood orange panna cotta.  My first panna cotta attempt.  My first attempt at a real custard style desert.  In honor of both Citrus Week and the upcoming Valentine’s Day, here is a recipe for pink, creamy, refreshing desert!  Because I had never made anything like this before, I used a recipe from  I knew I wanted a panna cotta with a real punch of citrus flavor and I also wanted to use Greek style yogurt.  After doing some browsing on the web for a perfect recipe, I settled on the Epicurious version.  I made a few small changes and for the next attempt I have a few more ideas, but I stayed pretty true to their recipe.

Secon hand tea cups make perfect serving dishes!

I didn’t have any goblets, as the recipe called for, or and custard cups, so I had to improvise.  I went to my local secondhand store, a Goodwill or Salvation Army store is perfect.  (A real antique store is likely to have lovely things, but if your budget is a concern, I don’t recommend buying from one.)  I scoured the kitchen wares at the Salvation Army Store on Atlantic Avenue for anything with the right size and shape for my cute pink panna cotta.  In the end, I bought 6 adorable little tea cups for only $.99 apiece.  They worked perfectly!
As you can see below, I’m testing a new rating system for difficulty of each recipe.  It’s hard to tell exactly how much effort is required from reading a recipe online.  Sometime there are new culinary skills everyone might not have, but sometimes a recipe that looks very complicated turns out to be relatively easy.  I chose ants as they are hard workers.  The icons come from  Let me know what you think.
Blood Orange Panna Cotta:
Difficulty:  Ant Icon 32x32pxAnt Icon 32x32pxAnt Icon 32x32pxBut only because of the commitment of time involved.  This recipe is really easy otherwise.  Anyone can do it.
Time: 1 hour 25 minutes, plus 4 hour chilling before serving
Makes: 6 servings
2 1/3 cups fresh blood orange juice (from about 12 blood oranges), divided
1 3/4 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
 3/4 cup sugar, divided
 7 teaspoons finely grated blood orange peel, divided
2/3 cup fat-free plain Greek-style yogurt
2/3 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
(Cardamom seeds, crushed (from about 16 pods) may be substituted for cinnamon and cloves)

Pour 1 cup juice into medium saucepan; sprinkle gelatin over. Let stand 15 minutes.

Stir gelatin mixture over low heat until gelatin dissolves, 1 to 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup sugar and 5 teaspoons orange peel; stir until sugar dissolves, 1 to 2 minutes longer. Strain into medium bowl, pressing on solids. Discard solids in strainer. Cool juice mixture 10 minutes. Whisk yogurt, cream, and lemon juice into orange juice mixture until smooth. Divide among six small custard or tea cups. Chill until set, at least 4 hours ahead.

Blood orange and spices syrup reducing

Stir 1 1/3 cups orange juice, 1/4 cup sugar, 2 teaspoons orange peel, cinnamon and cloves in medium saucepan over low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and boil until reduced into loose syrup, 8-10 minutes. Strain syrup into small bowl; chill.

Spoon some of syrup over each panna cotta and serve.

Next time I make this, and there will definitely be a next time, I will add less gelatin.  The flavors were delicious, but the texture was too dense, too solid.  I like panna cotta with a moist, softer texture.  I’ll try a little bit more yogurt, a lot less gelatin.  I’m also thinking about boiling a few slices of blood orange in the syrup as a garnish.  I imagine that the spices and the sugars will caramelize nicely over the tart fruit.
This recipe is so simple and straightforward, but it really creates a romantic result.  It’s that perfect, creamy shade of pink.  The taste is smooth and light but with an underlying richness.  It makes the perfect Valentine.  My idea:  track down some blood oranges, snuggle up somewhere cozy, out of the last throes of winter, and surprise someone with this blood orange panna cotta!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Citrus Week Continues with Ahi Nicoise!

          Citrus week has been unfortunately delayed by the flu.  I took a nutrition course in college in which the professor claimed 90% of instances we self diagnose as flu, are really cases of mild food poisoning.  With this in mind and plenty of time on my hands, I researched salmonella and other food borne illnesses.  The symptoms are remarkably similar to that of flu.  I like to think that what I had, have and am trying to recover from, was really flu.  Somehow it’s just less disgusting.  But who really knows?

Hot Ahi Nicoise
          In any case, I’m sure that this dinner, prepared Thursday night, had nothing to do with my illness.  With the combination of garlic and citrus (both great immune boosters), it’s kind of amazing I managed to get sick at all.  This dish is easy to prepare and perfect during winter, the immune system threatening, time of year.  It has a spicy kick to it from the raw garlic and the acidity of the citrus in the pesto, mellowed with creamy mashed potatoes and meaty ahi.  Mmmm!  And don't worry, when I say "Hot Ahi Nicoise," I'm referring to the temperature, not the spice.  (Nicoise is traditionally served cold.)
             I roasted the tomatoes the night before.  Roasted tomatoes are so easy and delicious!  Previously, I had only roasted other vegetables, like beets and maybe garlic before, but the tomatoes were a great success.  I enjoyed them all last week on sandwiches, in omelets, and in the pesto recipe below.  I’m sure you could think of many other ideas!

Oven Roasted Tomatoes
Time:  1 Hour, 10 Minutes
1 large package cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced in half
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
          Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.  Combine tomatoes, 2 tablespoons olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper in a large bowl.  Lay the tomatoes out on a baking sheet, skin down.  Drizzle remaining tablespoon oil over the tomatoes.  Top with minced garlic and bake for around an hour.  Tomatoes should shrink in size and become a darker red color, but not brown.  Remove and transfer to storage container when cool.
Hot Orange-Pesto Nicoise
Time: 40 Minutes
Makes: 2-3 servings
3 cloves garlic, minced raw
6 tablespoons or more fresh basil (leaves of about 3 stalks), finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, finely chopped
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
1 large (or 2 smaller) raw ahi tuna steak(s)
10 small red potatoes
½ cup skim milk
1 bunch asparagus
          Let’s begin with pesto.  The trick to making a really delicious pesto is using a knife, not a food processor.  A food processor chops everything to one size, leaving your pesto with only one texture.  Really good pesto has a hand chopped variance that allows for textural interest and really expands the flavor.  But don’t get carried away.  No one should bite into a giant piece of raw garlic.
Pretty Marinating Ahi
          Stir garlic, basil, 1 tablespoon olive oil, basil, oregano, juice and zest of ½ lemon, juice and zest of ½ orange, pinch salt and a pinch pepper in a medium sized bowl.  With a slotted spoon, move most thick, solid parts of the pesto to a smaller bowl.  This is not a thorough job, a little of the pesto should remain in the bowl along with the leftover liquid.  This is your marinade.  Place the ahi in the liquid, move it around and spoon some over the top of your steak.  Set aside.
           Add ½ cup roasted tomatoes to the smaller bowl of thick pesto.  Stir and set aside.
          Bring potatoes to a in a medium pot, covered.  Simmer until soft, about 10-15 minutes.  I check by stabbing them with a fork.  If the largest potato crumbles, they're done.  Drain and put them back in the pot.
          Add milk, 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt and pepper to taste and mash.    I begin with a hand potato masher to break apart potatoes, and then finish with an electric mixer to get a light and fluffy texture.
          While the potatoes simmer, prepare the asparagus. 
          Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
           Instead of slicing the tough ends from the asparagus stalks, I prefer to snap them off.  The asparagus will break right at the point on the stalk where it becomes tender.  When you slice them you could waste some good asparagus, or more likely end up with a little of that tough end still attached.  To break ends, hold asparagus ¾ of the way down the stalk in one hand, take the pale end in the other hand.  Bend stalk until the tough, white end breaks.  Do not force it.  Each stalk has a different breaking point.  The idea is to try not to waste any of the tender asparagus, while removing the tough part.
           Lay asparagus in single layer over baking sheet.  Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil and juice of ½ lemon.  (Asparagus and lemon juice is one of my favorite flavor combinations.  The lemon is an amazing complement to the rich, earthy taste of asparagus.  And the bitterness in the asparagus makes the lemon taste sweeter.)  Sprinkle with a pinch salt and one pepper.  Bake 5-10 minutes until asparagus is moist and tender.  I also like to add lemon wheels.  They add aroma and make a pretty garnish.
Seared Ahi Steak
          Lastly, the ahi.  My beautiful, sushi grade steak from Fresh Fish of Carroll Gardens has been marinating.  Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large frying pan.  You want to sear the meat, so make sure that the frying pan and oil are hot before adding the ahi.  Add the ahi and drizzle remaining marinade over the tuna steak.  It should sizzle.  Sear both sides (about 3 minutes per side, like a beef steak) and remove from heat.  Slice when ready.  The outside should be cooked, while the inside remains a deep red-pink.  Sadly, I overcooked mine.  I aimed for medium-rare, but ended up with more like medium-well.  It was still delicious!
          Assembly:  Dollop of mashed potatoes on a plate.  Add asparagus.  Sliced Ahi topped with pesto and we’re done!
         A little note on measuring:  These recipes aren’t set in stone, in fact just the opposite.  The amount of salt or olive oil used may vary depending on the particular potato, the juice from a particular orange, or maybe mood.  I like to cook with a lot of wiggle-room.  Innovation is what makes it worthwhile and the ability to bend and change any recipe to fit what you want it to be is the fun part.  I joke that when I’m cooking, I’m like a juggler.  I through a whole lot of balls up in the air and then try to catch them as they land.  Sometimes I’m successful, other times I’m a complete failure and sometimes I get a few things right and learn some I would like to change. 
           I’m always sitting in front of a plate of freshly prepared food, criticizing, trying to come up with new ideas, elements to change.  That way, each thing that I make gets better (hopefully) each time.  At very least, I’m engaged and interested, using my mind and my palate. 
         There is a funny consequence of finding innovation the best part of cooking.  After I’ve created a great meal, a recipe that is balanced, flavorful and satisfying, I tend to lose interest.  I move on to new ideas.  I wonder if it is frustrating to be a diner at my house.  They are always guinea pigs.
          Thank you everyone for the wonderful feedback!  Thank you for reading!  Please feel free to share any ideas you may have.  I have a recipe for blood orange panna cotta along with a few other tricks up my sleeve coming up in our celebration of citrus.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Welcome to Evil Dictator's Citrus Week!

Orange Ginger Anginettes glazed in honor of the icing we are enduring outside today
              In honor of the terrible weather today and of winter in general, I’m initiating a week long tribute to the refreshing flavors of citrus.  This is now officially Evil Dictator of Taste’s Citrus Week! 
I strongly believe in buying seasonal, local produce.  There is a distinct difference between an apple that has been shipped from upstate to my local grocery directly and one that spent months in chilled warehouses, shipped across the globe to a refrigerated truck, driven around the country to then be stored in another warehouse, and finally end up on my table.  They just aren’t the same.  Produce becomes mealy and gross.  Apples bought in February come from storage, but oranges and lemons?  They come from Florida and California.  In February, they are fresh.  I’ll wait for the perfect apple.  Now is the time for citrus.
Produce is not as consistent as other ingredients we buy at the grocery store.  Strawberries taste sweetest in the spring, apples are only firm in the fall, and oranges, tangerines and grapefruits are plumpest and juiciest in the winter.  In other words, while most things (or people) are hibernating, citrus is thriving.  This is its heyday, the only time of year when it has that perfect supple texture and juicy tanginess that citrus should have.  I’ve tried oranges in the fall, apple season, only to taste a hard, dried out, bitter fruit, hardly even reminiscent of a winter orange.  This week let’s celebrate by making use of the one thing ripening during these dark days.  Maybe oranges can lead by example and we too can flourish.
So this week I will feature many different recipes using a wide variety of citruses, and not just deserts and salads, but entrees and appetizers as well.  I will be experimenting.  Please share your tips, recipes or ideas with me and Evil Dictator of Taste community as well.
I began last night with a desert, anginettes.  These are an old world cookie from Italy, usually made around Christmas time by nonnas (Italian grannies).  They are moist and soft, but not overpoweringly sweet, almost like the American version of a scone.  Usually they are made with lemons or lemon extract, but I used oranges.  This was my first attempt and they were fun, easy and when finished, look like little moon rocks and have a light, zesty flavor.  Very cool! 
The scone-like anginettes are perfect with hot tea
      I used a basic recipe as a base, but added my own touches.  These anginettes are not only moist, lightly flavored, zesty and delicious but also low in fat, contain no saturated fat or salt, and much less sugar than most cookie recipes.  The combination of vegetable oil and nonfat yogurt in place of butter, shortening or margarine is one of my favorite little baking tricks.  Far from lessening the flavor of baked goods, this alteration generally serves to help maintain more moisture and create a lighter texture.  However, it doesn’t work for recipes where you want a crisp, buttery cookie.  For that, there is just no way around it, you must use butter.

Orange Ginger Anginettes
¼ cup nonfat yogurt
¼ cup vegetable oil
½ cup white sugar
3 eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ orange, juiced
1 orange rind, grated
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons milk
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease cookie sheets.
In a large bowl, beat yogurt, oil and sugar until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, then stir in the vanilla, orange juice, grated ginger and ½ the orange rind.  Sift together the flour, baking powder and baking soda; stir into the orange mixture. The consistency will be thick and sticky.  Using a teaspoon, shape the dough into little drops and place on greased cookie sheets, about an inch apart.
Bake for 10 minutes in the preheated oven, or until golden. Cool on wire racks.
In a small bowl, stir together the confectioners' sugar, lemon juice and milk until smooth.  On a small plate, mix the other half of the orange rind with about a tablespoon of white sugar.  Dip the tops of cooled cookies into the icing, and then place a little rind on top of each cookie.  Return to racks and let stand until set.
Another garnish option I’m dying to try is using candied ginger.  To do this, either buy candied ginger or make it.  Here is a link to a recipe from Food Network’s Alton Brown:
Whether buying or making the ginger, slice into small chunks and place one on top of each cookie instead of grated orange rind.
 It’s hard to think of anginettes as Christmas cookies when they taste so light and springy to me.  I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as I do! 
Special rainy Tuesday dinner, even though only a small component, the lemon wedge really added a little zing against the sage
           Last night, as I was on cookie duty, my boyfriend, Tim, made a lovely dinner.  Although it didn’t feature citrus, a squeeze of fresh lemon after preparation really caused the other flavors to pop.  It is shrimp (from the amazing Fresh Fish of Carroll Garden) wrapped, with fresh sage, in prosciutto (from G Esposito & Sons) and broiled.  Simple and clean, the earthy sage and the salty prosciutto strike a perfect balance.
Here they are being turned to crisp both sides of the proscuitto

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Even Basil Gets the Blues

Here is my struggling little basil plant.  It is nearly four months old and yet still so small.  It’s truncated, dwarfed.  It turns all leaves, all its tiny shoots, toward the window, toward dim grey light; it’s starving for light.  Maybe it needs warmth too.  I left it on the windowsill one cold day, trying to give it sunlight, but it shriveled with cold.  I still open the blind for it every morning, but I give it a little distance from the cold window pane.  It’s surviving, but not flourishing, managing to stay alive, but not growing.  I’ve tried just about all I can think of.  Barring chemical fertilizers, I may just have to wait until spring to enjoy access to fresh basil.  Any ideas?  Suggestions?  Any kitchen gardeners out there?
On the weekends, we have a routine, the basil and I.  When I get up, it's already light and I open all the blinds.  Sometimes, especially as we get closer to spring, the sun is actually shining, albeit weakly.  On these bright mornings, I move the basil to the windowsill, and stay near the window myself.  Both of us stretch, taking it all in, bathing in the sun’s rays.  I squint into the bright morning light and tell myself, “There is a chemical reaction happening in my body right now.  It is necessary.  My skin is absorbing the sunlight.  I’m creating vitamin D.”
A friend of mine told me that her doctor worried about her.  He kept asking her to come back for visits and running tests.  But nothing in the test results ever indicated that there was any reason for concern.  Eventually, she found out he suspected she might be depressed and in need of treatment.  She laughed and said, “Doc, it’s January.  It’s natural.  All my plants are struggling from lack of light too.”
A shocking thing to say to someone in medicine, she expressed an idea we fail to accommodate in modern society.  In the northern part of the world, winter is a time when we feel a little less energetic, we eat a little more, sleep a little more, exercise a little less.  Winter is a time when everything shuts down, slows down, hibernates.  Even house plants don’t have the energy to grow new shoots or stand their leaves up straight.  It’s hard for us to slow down, to admit we can’t do it all. There must be a cure, something can be prescribed, we think.  Acceptance feels like defeat.  But it’s not; and most of us don’t need antidepressants or light treatment.  Feeling a little tired, maybe a little gloomy is natural.  We just need to go with it.  Spring will come.
Here in New York the daily routine nearly grinds to a halt.  The sidewalks become even more narrow and jammed with people.  The snow banks melt and then freeze, melt and then freeze again, leaving the deceptive slush puddle on each corner.  It looks solid, but it really isn’t.  We are all trying to avoid it, running into one another, all ending up with cold, wet feet. 
After weeks of getting up and walking to the subway in the dark, arriving at work with wet feet, damp hair and smudged makeup, and returning home through the same treacherous streets without ever seeing the sun, we’re exhausted.  New Yorkers spend the winter complaining about the inconvenience, blaming the city, blaming the sanitation department, blaming the mayor or the MTA for the winter.  And I get it.  It is horribly inconvenient.  It makes the day to day, just basic everyday routine, require much more energy than it should. 
Watching the weather report yesterday, the Wednesday forecast said merely, "awful."  And I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.  If this isn't "awful," I don't want to know what is. 
So, in the face of another impending storm, here's my unsolicited advice: take easy on yourself.  Eat good food.  Indulge in great wine.  Create a personal sanctuary.  Find a bar with a nice roaring fire, like Black Mountain Wine House, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, or Molly's at 287 Third Avenue in Manhattan.  Enjoy the rest of winter so you can remember what it feels like today on those sticky days in August.  The days when the air is heavy with heat and humidity, when your bare feet have a permanent black sandal pattern imprinted on them from city dirt and sweat.  When you contemplate shaving your head just to escape the little extra heat your hair creates.  On those days, when you get up in the morning and are already drenched in sweat, remember these cold grey days, enriched hot food and rich red wine.  Or so I tell myself...