Friday, March 27, 2009

Of Wine and Words

My book club has strict rules. We meet once a month on a Sunday evening from 6-9 pm. The timing of the evening hasn't changed once in the three years I've been a member. Here's the schedule:

6-7: Guests arrive; appetizers served
7-8: Seated dinner
8-9: Dessert and book discussion

There are about fifteen women on the e-mail list, and usually about ten come to each meeting. The members are all very accomplished and successful: a preponderance of lawyers, current or former business owners, a chef, many mothers, and one, as a side career, burgeoning romance novelist. The group is called "Wine and Words," and there's plenty of both at every meeting!

Most recently, for our meeting two weeks ago, we read by Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. The hostess usually has final say over the book selection, because often the food being served correlates to the book being read. In this case, JP and I co-hosted at her house, and picked the book, and served Indian food. We weren't totally strict with our interpretation because we didn't make any Bengali food. The recipes we were inspired by, in my absolute favorite Indian cookbook, Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking, are a mishmash from all over this large and diverse country. Though Julie Sahni has a separate vegetarian cookbook, the recipes in the original run the gamut from beef to fish to vegetarian. P gave me this cookbook for my birthday about five years ago, and I have subsequently paid it forward by giving copies to at least four other people. It is an inspiring and indispensable resource for a cook at any skill level.

JP didn't finish Unaccustomed Earth (spoiler alert: love and marriage are difficult propositions, especially as related to the immigrant experience), but approached the cooking project with great gusto. She chopped and stirred and sauteed as though she were a contestant on "Top Chef," which was particularly crucial since I arrived at her house with the groceries in tow an hour later than I had initially planned. We purchased the samosas and naan, but made, among other things, matar paneer or, as Julie Sahni translates it, "Green Peas and Indian Cheese in Fragrant Tomato Sauce." Mmm!

First, we had to make the paneer. In a large saucepan, I brought the milk to a boil, then added cider vinegar to bring out the curds. So satisfying, and so reliable that I led a similar project for a class of fourth-grade students as part of a college science-outreach program many years ago. The curds were then drained in cheesecloth (a neglected part of the modern kitchen, but a package only costs about $3 at the grocery and can be reused after a go in the washing machine), and pressed, and voila!

Meanwhile, we made the "fragrant tomato sauce" in a separate saucepan. It smelled delicious while we were making it, but I worry that JP's house continued to bear the odors of a panoply of Indian spices for days to come. As with most of the dishes in Julie Sahni's book, the prep time is considerable, but it's balanced out with a significant amount of unattended time while the flavors simmer and concentrate. After stirring the fresh paneer in, this can easily be a one-pot meal, but it's best when served with Basmati rice and raita, that cool and refreshing yogurt-and-cucumber mixture that is so easy to make at home and so easy to overcharge for at a restaurant. At the request of some of the book club ladies, I'm including a simple recipe for raita below. I hope you too are inspired by the delicious recipes for raita and matar paneer and may want to purchase your own copy of Classic Indian Cooking. Enjoy!

Paneer (Indian Cheese)
Adapted from Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking
Active time: 20 min; total time 1 hour

1 gallon whole milk
6 T. cider vinegar

special equipment: cheesecloth

In a large saucepan, bring the milk to a boil. When it begins to rise up, turn the heat down to low. Add the cider vinegar and stir gently with a slotted spoon for about 30 seconds while the white curd forms. Use the slotted spoon to drain the curds from the whey, and place the curds into a colander lined with cheesecloth. When all the curds are in the cheesecloth, run cold water over for about 10 seconds. Then bring the edges of the cheesecloth together, and squeeze to remove as much water as possible. Place the cheese, still in the cheesecloth, on a flat surface, and place a heavy weight (such as a large pot filled with water) on top of the cheese for at least half an hour. Cut the paneer into rectangles about 1/2 by 1/2 by 1 1/2-inches.

Matar Paneer
Adapted from Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking
Active time: 30 min; total time: 1.5 hours

one recipe paneer (see above)
1/4 - 1/2 c. vegetable oil
2 onions, finely chopped
1 t. garlic, pressed
2 T. ginger, finely chopped
2 t. ground coriander
1 t. turmeric
1/2 t. red pepper
1 t. paprika
2 c. finely chopped fresh tomatoes
1 10-oz package frozen peas
1 t. kosher salt, or more to taste
4 T. fresh cilantro, finely chopped

Heat 2 T. vegetable oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Meanwhile, dust the paneer with flour. Fry the cheese in two batches, turning and tossing until lightly seared, about 5 min, noting that you may need more oil for the second batch. Transfer cheese pieces to a bowl.

Add the remaining vegetable oil to the saucepan and add the onions, frying until they turn light brown, about 5 min. Add garlic and ginger, and fry for an additional 2 min. Add coriander, turmeric, red pepper, and paprika, all at once. Stir rapidly, then add the tomatoes and boil until the mixture begins to thicken. Add 2 c. water, cover, and simmer over medium heat for about 20 min. Use an immersion blender to puree the sauce.

Add the peas, salt, and fried cheese, along with 1/2 c. water if needed to thin the sauce, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the peas are cooked through, about 5 min. The dish improves if allowed to rest for an hour or more. Reheat before serving, and sprinkle fresh cilantro over the dish.

Adapted from Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking

2 c. yogurt
1/2 cucumber, peeled and finely chopped
1 tomato, finely chopped
1/2 t. cumin
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. red pepper
2 T. cilantro, chopped

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

P.S. As a side note, next month we're reading Nudge for book club. It doesn't lend itself to a cuisine as easily as Lahiri's book!

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Sometimes, I bring my computer into the kitchen. I put it on a chair that I also use as a step-stool, because even on my tippy-toes, five feet four inches (plus a very important half inch!) is not enough to reach the top shelf. The chair is mostly used, though, to balance my laptop. So many recipes come from the computer these days. There's obviously Epicurious. And also Orangette (speaking of, it was so exciting to meet Molly at her book-signing at the Ferry Building last night!). And over the years, my mom has typed up a treasure trove of family recipes (organized in a somewhat byzantine fashion with a major bias toward dessert).

Often, while the computer is in place, the chair is also used to hold Jackson, one of our cats. He thinks that by sitting on the keyboard and accidentally scrolling up or down in a recipe, he's helping.

He really likes being in the kitchen. He (mostly) knows that the counter is off limits, but roams freely through the rest of the space, sitting on the chair as above or occasionally batting at the hanging dried chiles from New Mexico. Jackson enjoys being near me while I'm in the kitchen, but he is also extremely interested in human food. Human food with the exception of anything citrus, that is, which makes him wrinkle his nose in disdain.

His brother Jasper is the fatter of the two but only, and I mean only, likes kibbles. Here's a skinny picture of him at his grandparents' house. Trust me, he has quite a belly in real life. At his annual check-up last December, he clocked in at thirteen (yes, thirteen!) pounds.

Jasper comes in and out while I'm cooking to check on the progress. I enjoy my two not-very-helpful kitchen companions, but my college roommate JB has a toddler-sized helper who is particularly enthralled by making pasta.

As JB has learned over the years she's known me, pasta is one of many food items that is often purchased at the store, but can also be made at home. While some families grew up with Bisquick and Campbell's, my mom's cooking, even on--believe it or not--camping trips, was very "from scratch." (Not coincidentally, "from scratch" is a phrase B used to describe me the first time I made French toast for him.) It was important to my mom to make things that other people bought at the grocery. The difference, to me, is that tortillas and crackers and marshmallows all CAN be made at home, but egg pasta is something that SHOULD be made at home (at least for special occasions).

Pasta-making is an impressive tool to store in your armamentarium. When completely fresh, egg noodles add a soft yet substantial texture to a celebratory pasta dish. Frozen, the noodles will stay for months, ready to jazz up any pasta dish in minutes! The ingredients are simple and logical, and the proportions of my Italian great-grandmother's pasta dough are tried and true. Getting the balance between flour and water right takes a little practice, but it is never to late to learn.

Most pasta dishes taste better with fresh egg noodles. Try the noodles tossed with a little bit of butter and Parm and basil pesto for an easy weeknight meal. Or, try the Pasta with Bagna Cauda I'm including below, which is a vegetarian adaptation of the cover recipe from Nancy Silverton's A Twist of the Wrist. The book has been critiqued for having hard-to-find ingredients, and some of the recipes aren't as quick as promised, but the cover recipe alone is worth the cost of the book.

I use capers instead of anchovies, and less butter, but keep the egg and the Parm and the wilted radicchio unchanged. Bagna cauda means "warm bath," per Nancy, and it is a luxurious sauce. Another recipe for the carbo kid, I guess.

Or a recipe for JB, now that she has a kitchen helper and knows the power of what can be made at home. Enjoy!

Egg Noodles (a.k.a. "Noo-noos" in toddlerspeak)
Makes approximately 1 lb pasta
Time: 30 min. active, 45 min. total

2 eggs
5/8 cup water
2 T. olive oil
dash salt
1 c. semolina flour
2-3 c. all-purpose flour

Mix eggs, water, olive oil, salt, semolina and 1 cup regular flour together in a large bowl with a wooden spoon. Continue adding flour 1/4 cup at a time until dough pulls away from sides of bowl and has a firm, not sticky, consistency. Let stand for 15 minutes before rolling out with pasta machine, ending with the second-thinnest setting. Use plenty of flour throughout! I use a hand-crank pasta machine, but JB uses the Kitchen-aid attachment. Run sheets of pasta through the fettuccine attachment to make noodles each about 10 inches long.

Pasta with Bagna Cauda
Adapted from Nancy Silverton's A Twist of the Wrist

Serves: 4 for main course, with leftovers
Time: 30 min active and total

1 lb. egg noodles
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/4 c. plus 2 T. olive oil
1 T. capers
8 garlic cloves, smashed
1/4 c. finely chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
grated zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
4 large eggs
12 radicchio leaves, torn into pieces
Parmesan, for grating

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat and add a generous amount of kosher salt. Cook the fresh pasta for 4-5 min, depending on the thickness of your noodles, or until pasta starts to float. If in doubt, taste the pasta for doneness.

While the water is coming to a boil, make the bagna cauda. Heat the butter, 1/4 c. olive oil, capers, and garlic in a large skillet over medium-high heat until the garlic is soft and fragrant, about 2 minutes, stirring constantly so the garlic doesn’t brown. Turn off the heat, then stir in the parsley and lemon zest and juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat the remaining 2 T. olive oil in a nonstick skillet over high heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until the oil is almost smoking. Break each egg and cook for about 1 1/2 min, until the edges are golden and crispy and the whites are set. Turn off the heat.

Use tongs to lift the pasta out of the water and transfer it quickly, while it’s still dripping with water, to the skillet with the bagna cauda. Place the skillet over high heat and add the radicchio. Toss to combine the ingredients and cook for a minute or two, until the radicchio wilts.

Serve pasta onto plates. Grate a generous layer of Parmesan cheese over each serving. Place one egg on each serving of pasta.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Salty Sweet

When I was in elementary school, we learned about four tastes. We even did a science project about which was where on the tongue: salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. I've forgotten the precise locations now. Much later, in college biochemistry, I learned for the first time about the elusive fifth taste, umami, relatively recently discovered by Japanese scientists. The name basically translates from the Japanese as "delicious," and interestingly the closest pure synthetic is the much-maligned MSG (also interestingly, the word umami is featured in the name of K and D's start-up; more on this in a future post when the website is out of alpha-testing).

And what, you might ask, combines all five of these tastes in perfect proportion? Ketchup! (Cue the ketchup jingle from A Prairie Home Companion. Maybe in addition to being delicious, umami is also a "natural mellowing agent?") More specifically, Heinz ketchup achieves the five-taste paradigm, according to Malcolm Gladwell's fascinating article in The New Yorker a few years ago.

But enough about ketchup. It's not like I'm going to offer a recipe for home-made ketchup today. There are some things that you should leave to the professionals! No, I want to focus on a combination of just two of the five essential flavors: salty and sweet. Much has been made recently of the combination, especially since word got out that Barack Obama likes Seattle's Fran's salted chocolate caramels. (Which, thanks to the generosity of A and K, we recently were able to sample. Let's just say that the flavor confirms that President Obama has good taste.)

Another way of combining the salty and sweet is in salted caramel ice cream. B thinks this might be the silkiest ice cream I make. The caramel offers depth and richness of flavor, and the salt adds a bright and impish twist! Every time I make it, I am astounded by the originality of taste. As a decadent dessert, I served salted caramel ice cream recently with this chocolate souffle cake (without the accompanying orange caramel sauce of the original Gourmet recipe), but it is equally delicious on its own. It may not be bitter or sour or umami, but it is a supreme expression of salty and sweet together. Enjoy!

Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Makes a generous quart
Time: 20 min active, 3 hours total

1 c. sugar
1/4 c. water
1 vanilla bean or 1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 c. heavy cream
1 c. milk (non-fat OK)
1 t. flaky salt, such as Maldon, with more for sprinkling
6 egg yolks

Place sugar and water into a medium-sized heavy saucepan; if using vanilla bean, slice lengthwise and scrape seeds into saucepan. Then add pod to saucepan as well. Cook over medium heat until mixture turns a deep golden-brown caramel, swirling pan occasionally. Remove from heat immediately (mixture may continue to darken another shade after being taking off the heat), and add milk and cream (mixture will bubble vigorously). Return to heat and stir frequently until caramel bits dissolve, approximately 2-3 minutes.

Place egg yolks in a medium bowl, and whisk hot milk-caramel mixture into yolks. Return entire mixture to saucepan and heat to 170-175 degrees on a candy thermometer. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Mix in 1 t. salt and vanilla extract, if using. Chill for 1 hour, covered. Freeze according to manufacturer's instructions, and then freeze completed ice cream for at least another hour before serving. Sprinkle each serving with a pinch of salt, to taste.

P.S. Can I just say that I love Daylight Saving Time? Short-term benefit: I had one less hour of call last night. Long-term benefit: it's still light outside! Win-win.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Carbo Kid

To be fair, I had wondered ahead of time what would happen to my blog when I switched to a busy inpatient service and had to take frequent overnight call in the hospital. I started the blog in the relative peacefulness of December, where I worked from 8am to 5:30pm with weekends off, an easy month by resident standards (or a normal job by the standards of the rest of the world). This schedule left plenty of time for cooking and reading and writing (and keeping up with new episodes of my favorite show, "The Office"). Oh, how times have changed!

As the rainy, wintry days of February and March have rolled by, I've tried to continue cooking and reading, and occasionally spending time with B, but the writing, as you can see by the date of my last post, has fallen by the proverbial wayside. A friend who started, but later abandoned, a blog warned me about the guilt I would feel were I not to update my blog regularly. It's true! I could be planning our April vacation or picking out wedding photos or experimenting in the kitchen, but instead, a sense of responsibility has led me here.

1. To my anonymous readership: I apologize for my delinquency. Read on for a lovely recipe.

2. To our wedding photographer: I'm updating my blog right now instead of picking the final layout for the album. Yes, I do know that we're approaching our two-year anniversary. Also, if you were wondering, it makes me feel like a bad bride when you send me e-mails with the subject line "Wedding album, anyone?"

3. To Tivo: Thank you. There's nothing quite like snuggling up on the couch post-call to catch up on "The Daily Show." Your ability to ignore commercials contributes to my efficiency, and I love the beeps your remote control makes.

During these busier months, my cooking time is compressed, and the need for easy-to-transport leftovers is paramount. The cafeteria at San Francisco General, while free for residents, is monotonous and sort of depressing. Bringing my own dinner and plenty of snacks from Trader Joe's while I'm on call certainly makes me happier, and probably makes me healthier as well. The other day, I brought a few slices of potato pizza.

The herbed potatoes and the caramelized onions and the pizza crust complement each other to make each bite salty and sweet and substantial. Potato pizza is heavy on the carbohydrates, and I'm certain it would violate all sorts of principles of the Atkins diet. (But really, what kind of diet won't let you eat fruit? Nature's candy and all that.) For the MB diet, on the other hand, potato pizza is perfect. I grew up with the family nickname of the "carbo kid." I LOVED pasta and bread and potatoes, though, unlike a late-twenty-something friend of a friend, I was not pathologically tied to white food alone. Interestingly, despite my obsession with other carbohydrates, I didn't have a taste for pizza as a child (which, coupled with my dislike of watermelon, created difficulties at my elementary school classmates' birthday parties).

I've already mentioned my love of the Cheese Board cookbook, but I have two pizza-making revelations to share from my experimentation with their recipes. First, putting half the cheese directly onto the dough (then putting the topping on, followed by the rest of the cheese) makes bite after bite very cohesive and cheesy. Second, brushing the hot crust of the pizza right when it comes out of the oven with an olive oil and garlic/herb mixture releases an irresistible aroma and brightens up all the flavors. The recipe below calls for garlic oil, but feel free to use chopped fresh rosemary or another aromatic or a mixture. Whether your next pizza is potato or some other sort, please, please try these two techniques.

I always make my own pizza dough, and am including a very basic recipe that you can easily modify by substituting half whole-wheat flour, but you can also buy fresh pizza dough at most grocery stores. The pizza keeps well, covered, for 2 days, but the crust will always be the crunchiest and best the day you make it. Enjoy!

Potato Pizza
Adapted from The Cheese Board Collective Works
Makes: three 12-inch pizzas
Time: 45 min. active, 2 hours total

For the dough:
1 c. warm water
1/2 packet rapid-rise yeast
1 t. salt
2 T. olive oil
2-3 c. flour

For the pizza:
2 Yukon gold potatoes, thinly sliced (about 1/8 in.)
1 t. red pepper flakes, or more to taste
1 T. dried herbs, such as thyme, basil, oregano, or herbes de provence
5 T. olive oil, divided
1/2 yellow onion, finely sliced
1-2 T. cornmeal, for sprinkling
8 oz. mozzarella, grated
3/4 c. mixed Gruyere and Parmesan, grated
1 clove garlic, smashed
2 T. Italian parsley, finely chopped (optional)

First, make the pizza dough. Mix the water and yeast in a medium sized bowl and let sit for 5 minutes until slightly foamy. Add the salt, olive oil, and 1 cup of the flour, and mix with a wooden spoon until incorporated. Continue to add flour, 1/2 c. at a time, until you have a workable dough. Turn dough onto a board and knead, with extra flour as needed, for 5 min until smooth and elastic. Place dough in an oiled bowl, covered and in a warm place for 1 hour or until doubled.

Meanwhile, prepare the potatoes. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the sliced potatoes onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, slightly overlapping. Sprinkle with red pepper flakes, herbs, and salt to taste; then drizzle 2 T. olive oil evenly over potatoes. Bake for 20-25 min, until softened and beginning to brown. After the potatoes are done, turn the oven up to 450 degrees and pre-heat pizza stone if using.

While the potatoes are baking, prepare the caramelized onions. Heat another tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the thinly sliced onions, and cook for 10 to 15 min, stirring frequently, until beginning to brown.

After the dough has risen, punch it down and divide into two halves. Place one half on a lightly-floured board and use a rolling pin to shape into a 12-in round. Place the round on a baking sheet or the hot pizza stone that has been sprinkled with cornmeal. Repeat with other half of dough. If making both pizzas at once, sprinkle each with one-quarter of the total mozzarella. Then divide the caramelized onions evenly between each pizza. Arrange the potato slices, slightly overlapping, on each pizza. Sprinkle with remaining mozzarella as well as Parmesan/Gruyere blend. Bake at 450 for 15-18 minutes, or until cheese is bubbling and crust is brown at the edges.

While the pizza is baking, make garlic oil with remaining 2 T. olive oil and smashed garlic clove. Brush hot pizza with garlic oil. Sprinkle with parsley, if using.