Sunday, June 21, 2009

You say tomato

B and I planted tomatoes a few weeks ago. We put them in big pots on our balcony, near a few smaller pots filled with herbs: two kinds of basil, rosemary, cilantro, and Italian parsley. I had low expectations when we planted the garden, as it's our first experiment in vegetable-growing in San Francisco. The summer in San Francisco is very different than the summer in Palo Alto, where we had our last vegetable garden a few years ago. (Oh, the prolific tomatoes! Oh, the even more prolific Romano beans! Oh, the Japanese eggplants!)

But enough about the glory of years past. This year we have two kinds of tomatoes: Sweet 100s, which are really delicious cherry tomatoes, and a varietal named San Francisco Fog. You can tell why I picked the latter at the nursery; the description of the SF Fog tomato states that it is "well-suited to coastal climates." Here's a picture of our petite garden.

The Sweet 100s plant is in the big pot in the foreground, doing quite well. It's grown a lot since we planted it, though clearly it still has some work to do before getting to the top of the ambitiously high cage around it. I fertilized this week, which should help. The San Francisco Fog has, frankly, been a bit of a disappointment. I'm not giving up hope yet, but the main stalk is awfully short. The weather has been sunny lately, as you can see, which is nice for me (and nice for J and other B, who just found out that they'll be moving to SF soon!), but maybe not optimal for a plant which apparently thrives in the fog.

I was sitting on the couch the other day when I noticed that the tomatoes on the balcony were making unusual shadows on the ceiling.

We actually have lots of interesting things on our ceiling. The aforementioned shadows, a few cracks (which thankfully don't appear to be growing), and, in our bedroom, an entire galaxy of glow-in-the-dark stickers. They were there when we moved in (I swear!), and we have no idea how old they are. Have I mentioned that I'm thirty? And that B is thirty-two? My brother had those same stickers on his ceiling when he was ten! Perhaps the funniest aspect to ponder is that our physician-turned-venture-capitalist landlord used to live in our house several years ago. Was he the one who couldn't live without the stars and comets every night before falling asleep?

Whatever planets you may have on your ceiling, the cosmos align in the recipe I offer you today. Our tomato plants haven't started producing yet, but I've had tomato recipes on my mind recently. I have also been thinking about fish, which Mark Bittman has been writing about in the NYT. It was only natural, then, that my mind turn to a super-easy recipe from Gourmet that showcases tomatoes and fish together. (A similar recipe, for those in turf instead of surf mindset, made the cover of Gourmet last summer.)

A lot of people I know are scared to cook fish, some because they think they'll over- or undercook it, and some because they don't want the house to smell like fish. To address the latter problem, I recommend turning on a fan and/or your stovetop hood, and for the former: make this recipe. It is nearly impossible to overcook. Wrap the fish up in aluminum foil with a delicious medley of garlic, tomatoes, capers, lemon, and thyme, and bake for just 10 to 15 minutes in the oven. Because you are essentially poaching the fish with lemon, tomato juice, olive oil, and its own fish juices, the resulting filet stays moist and melts in your mouth.

And the recipe works with almost any fish! The original calls for sea bass (verboten per Bittman), but I've also tried a number of different white-fleshed fish, including halibut (delicious), tilapia (delicious), butterfish (delicious!), and, tonight, cod (delicious, but less enjoyable because there were a lot of unexpected little bones; also apparently verboten per Bittman, but I bought it because it had the green Monterey Bay Aquarium sticker of approval at the market, so go figure).

This is a picture of the raw fish, before it was enclosed with the top piece of aluminum foil. I tried to take a picture of the cooked fish, but the steam being released from the foil packet made everything sort of hazy and foggy.

Maybe later in the summer we'll have enough tomatoes to make this recipe with our own crop, but for now we have to rely on some red grape tomatoes from the store and "Golden Nuggets" from our CSA box. The bright colors and unctuous texture make this dish appropriate for company, but the quick preparation time means that it can also be a weeknight treat. In the past, I have prepared everything up to the baking, and placed the foil-sealed fish in the fridge overnight. This recipe lends itself to variation, and I hope you'll experiment with it as I have. Enjoy!

Fish "en Papillote"

Serves: 4
Time: 20 min active, 35 min total

2 T. olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 c. sliced cherry tomatoes
1 T. capers, drained
4 boneless filets of fish, such as halibut, butterfish, or tilapia
salt and pepper, to taste
1 lemon, thinly sliced crosswise with seeds removed
6-8 sprigs of thyme

Preheat the oven to 400. In a medium-sized frying pan, heat the olive oil over moderate-high until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic, and saute for 2 min, stirring frequently, or until light brown and fragrant. Add the cherry tomatoes and capers; have a splatter screen handy, as they will sizzle when they hit the hot oil. Saute for another 2 min, or until tomatoes have wilted slightly, and then turn off heat.

Line a large rimmed cookie sheet with a sheet of aluminum foil. Pat dry each filet of fish, and place on the aluminum foil. Season with salt and pepper. Place slices of lemon over filets, then top with cherry tomato mixture and thyme. Place another sheet of aluminum foil over the prepared fish, and crimp the edges to form a sealed packet. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, or until a thin knife plunged into the thickest part of the fish shows no translucency, keeping in mind that it's very difficult to overcook the fish with this preparation. It's prettiest served with the thyme and lemon, but no need to eat either.

Monday, June 15, 2009

All 'cot up

Apricots (or 'cots, as they're often called in my family) are one of my favorite fruits. The good ones, that is...the grocery store right now has large, fleshy specimens that have no odor and therefore no taste. (When dealing with strawberries with similarly watered-down characteristics, my med school friend BB diagnoses "big berry syndrome.") In fact, the only thing these behemoths have in common with a true apricot is the color, and even that can be suspect: a ripe, fresh, delicious-tasting specimen often has a spray of bright reddish sunburn on one side that the supermarket ones lack.

The growing season of apricots is notoriously short, basically consisting of the month of June. Luckily, I had this past weekend off. My parents were in town from San Diego, which was appropriate since my mom has been the leader of nearly annual apricot-picking family forays. Before I was born, my parents used to make trips with my grandparents each year to Hollister, east of Gilroy, to pick apricots for eating and preserving. My grandfather is now 98 and suffers from Alzheimer's, but until just two years ago he was canning his own 'cots and making his own jam, as he had every year for decades past.

Hollister is pretty far away though, so when I was little, we used to travel just an hour and a half north from San Diego to Hemet. Unfortunately, the orchard we frequented was razed in the early 90s in anticipation of yet another strip mall, so when I was a teenager, we again made the journey up north to Hollister each June. Eventually, the apricot trees my parents had planted in their backyard finally matured and produced almost enough to sustain my mom's nearly insatiable apricot appetite, and the previously annual pilgrimages to Hollister became less frequent. In the meantime, to satisfy my nearly insatiable apricot appetite, my parents would express-mail me and B a dozen apricots at a time, packaged in egg cartons and bubble-wrapped to protect their fragile flesh.

It's a lean year for the apricot trees in San Diego, though, so it was convenient that my parents were here during prime apricot season. We drove an hour east to Brentwood, and picked our own. We also picked peaches and nectarines. And bought ripe red raspberries and strawberries. Also we have fresh kumquats from the tree of B's mom's friends. And a bunch of cherries from our CSA box and the grocery store. I don't know why I didn't take any pictures of the heavily laden trees we picked from, but here's some of the apricot bounty in our kitchen.

And this is just the apricots, after we already gave some away to A&K! We basically have fruit coming out of our ears.

For the time being, after lots of fruit-processing, I'm finally all caught/'cot up. I've made kumquat marmalade and apricot jam. I've made an apricot fruit roll-up and another strawberry one. I've made peach frozen yogurt, and plan to make apricot ice cream. And, just for fun, I made an apricot galette.

I've only eaten at Chez Panisse twice (we've only had two anniversaries to celebrate, after all), but the galette reminds me very much of desserts there. I badly want Lindsey Shere's Chez Panisse Desserts, and after I experiment from that book, I'll let you know if, as I suspect I will, I find a similar recipe.

Galettes are often described in cookbooks as rustic tarts, and they really are a snap to put together. They even look more authentic when the edges are a little messy, and they don't require the fussiness of blind-baking. Simply roll out the pastry dough, sprinkle the bottom with sugar and semolina flour, place the sliced fruit on top, sprinkle with more sugar, and bake. When it comes out of the oven, don't forget to sprinkle with some extra powdered sugar! (Also, cut a slice for yourself to eat before you take any pictures for your blog.)

The galette is delicious with apricots or plums (the latter is what the original recipe calls for), and quickly becomes a dinner party-worthy dessert with the addition of the Armagnac sour cream. Next time, I'm going to jazz it up with some almond meal instead of the semolina flour, and maybe add a little bit of almond extract to the pastry crust; almonds pair so beautifully with stone fruit.

If you have a chance to pick your own produce this summer, whether apricots or other fruits and vegetables, make a point of doing it. And then, make this galette. What a delicious way to showcase summer stone fruit! Enjoy.

Apricot Galette

Serves 8
Time: 45 min active, 3 hours total

For the pastry crust:
1 1/2 c. unbleached flour
1/2 t. salt
1 T. sugar
6 T. unsalted butter (3/4 stick), cut into 1-cm cubes
up to 1/3 c. ice water

For the filling:
2 T. semolina flour
4 T. granulated sugar
10 apricots, pitted and cut into quarters; or 5-6 plums, pitted and cut into eighths
powdered sugar, for sprinkling

For the topping:
1 c. sour cream (low-fat OK)
3 T. sugar
1 T. Armagnac or Cognac

First, make the pastry dough by mixing together the flour, salt, and sugar. Cut the butter into the flour using a pastry blender or your fingers until the the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Mix in just enough ice water for the dough to come together. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board. Using the heel of your hand, push the dough away from you to incorporate the butter; repeat two or three times. Gather dough into plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375. Roll the pastry dough on a lightly floured board into a 14-inch circle. Place the pastry dough onto a cookie sheet, with or without parchment paper. Sprinkle the semolina flour and 2 T. of sugar over the bottom of the pastry dough, leaving a 1-inch border of dough. Then arrange the apricots over the flour/sugar mixture. Sprinkle fruit with remaining 2 T. of sugar. Fold the excess dough over the outside ring of fruit, pleating the dough as necessary to make the crust.

Bake, loosely covered with a sheet of foil, for 45 to 50 minutes, until juices are bubbling and fruit is fork-tender. Remove foil and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes to brown the crust. Remove from oven and sprinkle generously with powdered sugar. Cool completely on cookie sheet before transferring to a serving platter. Galette may be served room temperature or warm, and is delicious with or without the Armagnac sour cream.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Ripe, Strawberries Ripe!

I. Made. A. Strawberry. Fruit. Roll-up. Today.

Crazy, right? Who would ever have guessed that a childhood snack that seemed so completely and utterly manufactured can be made at home and actually only has two ingredients? Just strawberries and sugar! (A third ingredient, not to be underestimated, is time.)

But the time is totally, totally worth it. Strawberry was my favorite flavor of fruit roll-up, a snack I was hardly ever allowed to have. The household I grew up in emphasized the homemade and the natural...fruit roll-ups didn't seem to share either of those characteristics, as I did not yet know the true paucity of ingredients in the concoction. My tastebuds yearned for the sweet tartness of the fruit roll-ups I so rarely ate. I loved their stretchy, sticky, chewy character. Occasionally I would have one at a friend's house after school, or I would trade at lunch for one when the teachers weren't looking; the occasions, though memorable, were few and far between.

With that covetous background in mind, imagine my delight when I saw a recipe last year for what Gourmet called strawberry leather, but what any reader who grew up in the 80s knew was really a fruit roll-up! The recipe, unfortunately, got lost in the shuffle of intern year, until I was redirected to it by Ruth Reichl's weekly e-mail highlighting recipes from Gourmet through the years. (I also uncovered this phenomenal recipe for strawberry ice cream, though I used my custard recipe.)

Here's what you do: puree the strawberries and sugar; strain the puree (definitely the most annoying step); boil it down; and dry the spread-out mixture in a low-temperature oven. Just four easy steps, and you're back in elementary school, whether or not you're singing medleys from Oliver! 

I don't know about you, but we sang lots of medleys in school. I think kids in general sing a lot, but most kids learn the real lyrics to songs. JMc's and my experience was different: the lyrics of "Edelweiss" are perpetually confused in our heads with the elementary school's tenth anniversary song. As I grew older, it was extremely disillusioning to find out that the songs we sang with such pride hadn't actually been written for the 120 or so current students of the school, and instead the tunes had been stolen from musicals of the 50s and 60s with modern-day, school-specific lyrics. Why didn't we figure it out? Why didn't our teachers tell us? Why didn't our parents tell us? It was some sort of Santa Claus-song medley-Easter Bunny conspiracy, I suppose.

Now that strawberries have hit the shelves of the grocery store in force, I am delighted to have this recipe to add to my arsenal of strawberry greatest hits. The recipe is delicious and all-natural. Eat the resulting fruit roll-up while you ponder what to write in your book report and whether you should have your birthday party at the zoo or the miniature golf course and what the true words of "Edelweiss" are and other such concerns of a third-grader's life. Enjoy the memories!

Strawberry Fruit Roll-up
Adapted from Gourmet, May 1998

Serves: 6-8 as a snack
Time: 30 min active, 6 hours total

1 1/2 lb strawberries, hulled and halved
3/4 c. sugar

Puree strawberries and sugar in a blender; you will have about three cups of puree. Press puree through a fine-meshed sieve in batches. In a medium-sized heavy pot, simmer puree over low heat until volume is reduced to approximately one cup, stirring frequently. This will take between 45 minutes and an hour.

Meanwhile, place a 12 x 17-inch Silpat on a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 200. When the puree has reduced, spread evenly over the Silpat with a spatula. Bake for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, until darkened in color and still tacky when tested with your finger.

Cool completely (at least 1 to 2 hours), then place parchment paper over the dried puree and roll up. Cut the resulting cylinder into 6 or 8 pieces with a sharp knife. (B points out that this last step technically makes it closer to Fruit-by-the-Foot than a fruit roll-up.)

Monday, June 1, 2009

Flankly, I like steak

Vegetarians, read no least not today's post.

In general, I try to subscribe to Michael Pollan's seven-word manifesto ("Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."), but mostly means mostly, not exclusively. And A&K were coming over for dinner last week! K, and to a lesser extent B, do NOT subscribe to Pollanesque philosophy, at least at dinnertime. It's all about protein, preferably of the flesh variety, at the end of the day, despite A's and my entreaties and references to this study in Archives from March, which showed an increase in the rates of cancer, heart disease, and overall death in people who ate more meat. (This article relies on an absolutely tremendous amount of research and details, with over 500,000 participants. For perspective, my current research project, admittedly about a totally different and rarer topic, involves several hundred patients!)

In terms of menu planning, I try to limit red meat to once or twice a week, and the dinner with A&K seemed like a good opportunity to eat it. Also, it was a weeknight, so I wanted to make a quick meal. Marinated flank steak quickly edged its way to the top of the menu planning choices. Flank steak is a lean cut of beef, corresponding to the rectus abdominis in the human musculature. Because it's lean, flank steak is cheap, which can be important in these tight economic times; flavorful, which is important at all times; and a little tough, which can be mitigated with marinating to tenderize the meat, as well as slicing the cooked meat diagonally against the grain.

Flank steak with buttered white rice and some green vegetable was one of my favorite meals as a child. As is often the case in this blog and my life (I guess because the blog is a microcosm of my life in many ways), some of my favorite recipes as an adult are inherited from my mother and my childhood. Which brings me to answer a question that a number of people have asked me over the years, and again more recently now that I've started the blog. How did I learn how to cook?

I was indoctrinated into the kitchen as a child. I have several shelves of cookbooks now, and I started collecting them when I was young. Here is a picture of the breakfront we have next to the dining table, with several shelves worth of cookbooks (though not yet a hundred and one). Some of my favorites are pictured prominently, and you can see our Tastebook on the bottom right that S and my brother E gave to us for Christmas.

As I child, I made simple recipes from my Anne of Green Gables Cookbook that I've already mentioned, and I had another literary cookbook based on Alice in Wonderland (with delicious tarts from the Knave of Hearts!). And speaking of a different Alice, I also had Fanny at Chez Panisse. From an early age, I kept myself busy helping in the kitchen. Sometimes I helped measure or stir, but I think my major job was tasting and smiling appreciatively.

In contrast, this is how B amused himself as a child.

Old habits die hard. As a grown-up, B still likes to ride his bike, usually in a more conventional fashion (he's on two cycling teams), and, as you can tell, I still like to cook. I spent a lot of time with my mom in the kitchen growing up, but it's impossible to learn cooking by osmosis. I experimented with baking in junior high and high school, but it wasn't until my senior year that I learned how to cook a real dinner-worthy meal. I was forced to! Not knowing where I was going to go to college, but rightly suspecting that I would end up three thousand miles away from home, my mom was worried that I would starve to death if I didn't know how to cook. Unfortunately, I ended up living in dorm rooms for four years, never having a proper kitchen, but she and I didn't know that would be the case at the time.

And so, every Monday night my senior year, regardless of how much homework I had or how late cross-country practice went, I was responsible for going to the store, purchasing ingredients for dinner, and making a real meal for the family. Sometimes I tried new recipes, but mostly I learned how to make the old favorites that had dominated my childhood. I made lots of kinds of pasta, and I grilled fish, and baked enchiladas, and, of course, marinated flank steak.

Marinating is a weeknight cook's friend, though it does take forethought. And when the marinade includes slightly Asian flavors (soy sauce and ginger), it becomes a weeknight cook's very best friend. Just mix all the ingredients together in a plastic Ziploc and place in the fridge for at least two and up to twenty-four hours, turning the bag and its contents occasionally if you get the chance. Because we live in a cold city and because it's hard to get to our outdoor barbeque the way our apartment is laid out, we usually make this flank steak indoors on our Le Creuset grill pan, and you can also broil it in the oven, but it's best on a real grill.

After a long day at work (or a long bike ride, in B's case), it's nice to have an old standby that only takes fifteen minutes to cook. It's also nice when it's meat, so that K will think it counts as a real meal. Enjoy!

Flank Steak
Edited to add: My dad informed me in July 2009 that he and my mom modified the "Sirloin Teriyaki" skewers from Craig Claiborne's NYT cookbook (1961) to make the now heirloom-status family recipe that follows.

Serves 4, generously
Time: 20 min active, at least 2 1/2 hours total (including marinating time)

1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1 t. dried ginger
1 T. sugar
1 c. soy sauce
1/4 c. dry sherry, such as amontillado (Doesn't this make you think of Edgar Allen Poe?)
1 flank steak, usually 1 1/2 lbs

Mix onion, garlic, ginger, sugar, soy sauce, and sherry in a gallon-size Ziploc bag. Unroll meat and immerse in bag. Marinate for two to twenty-four hours in the fridge. Drain and grill on low for 10 minutes; flip and grill approximately five more minutes for medium rare to medium. Slice on the bias.