Friday, August 28, 2009

You say tomatillo

You wouldn't know it from the dearth of recent posts, but I have been cooking a fair amount recently. Last night I made these delicious scallops that we discovered a few weeks ago, and I will try to blog about blackberries sometime soon. (B and I had a very successful berry-picking expedition last weekend.) I also made more almond macaroons (which incidentally are better than the hazelnut variation I tried using the same proportions; the hazelnut cookies ended up slightly bitter).

This month I also (I know this is crazy!) started another blog. I guess I'm sort of obsessed with food, whether from a restaurant or my home kitchen. I'd love to know what you think of the new site.

For now, though, back to the cooking side of things. One of the ways that I am able to cook a lot even when I'm on call twice a week in the ICU is by having key ingredients ready ahead of time. Today, I'm going to tell you about the tomatillo salsa that we had with skirt steak soft tacos for dinner last week. Minimal prep work, beautifully colored, and great with chips as leftovers.

I don't remember when I tasted my first tomatillo, but I do remember picking my first one. I was about seven or eight, wandering around in the backyard, when I found these odd little fruits growing in a corner of the garden I didn't visit much. They had papery husks that were extremely fun to peel off, and the fruit that was revealed looked just like an unripe green tomato.

Tomatillos are a little astringent when eaten raw; I like them best when roasted. (Apparently, I'm really into roasting vegetables lately. Also very into the grill-pan, which has led to some excessive smoke inhalation recently.) The roasted tomatillo salsa that results from the recipe below is a powerful staple to have ready in the fridge, ready to be served with eggs to spice up breakfast, with tortilla strips in the original chilaquiles recipe, or with skirt steak for the tacos I made for dinner last week.

Or, just served with chips as a snack, like I did today. This salsa is just too good to stop eating, and with my afternoon snack I seem to have filled up even my separate chips-and-salsa stomach. (This stomach is in addition to my separate dessert/ice cream one, as well as the French fry one.) The good news is that this recipe makes several cups of salsa, and there's no fat in it all. Also, it keeps in the fridge for a week or two. I bet it would freeze well, but there's never been enough left over to try that. Enjoy!

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa

Time: 10 min active, 30 min total
Makes: 3-4 cups salsa

1 1/2 lbs. tomatillos (approximately 15), husks removed and rinsed
1 large onion, peeled and quartered
3 garlic cloves, peeled
2-3 serrano chiles, or more to taste, stems removed
1/4 c. chopped cilantro
1 t. salt, or more to taste

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Place tomatillos, onion, garlic, and chiles in a single layer in an ovenproof pan (I used my Pyrex 9 x 13-inch glass dish). Roast vegetables for 15-20 minutes, until charred, turning once. Allow vegetables to cool for at least five minutes. Then puree vegetables and their juice in blender or Cuisinart with cilantro and salt. Salsa keeps well in the fridge for one to two weeks.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Corny, but good

My mom and I invented a soup recently. My mom was being creative on behalf of my grandfather; he loves corn, but doesn't like eating it off the cob anymore. He used to plant rows of it in his backyard and hand-pollinate it each spring. For me, the need for the soup was based on, yet again, the surplus of vegetables from the CSA box. Like my grandfather, B doesn't like corn off the cob; he doesn't adore the taste of corn to start off with, and then he dislikes picking it out of his teeth.

But in many ways, corn distills the essence of summer. This was proven to me when we went to my cousin's wedding in Maine last summer (another cousin--keep in mind that I only have five first cousins total, none from New England--got married in Maine last month, but we unfortunately weren't able to attend). Acadia, near Bar Harbor, is a beautiful national park.

In Maine, we ate lobster daily. Most frequently we ate lobster rolls, but we also went to a lobster pound which made B very happy. Here he is holding the bowl of now-empty shells.

At the wedding, we met one of the bride's friends, who had grown up in Maine as the daughter of a lobster boat fisherwoman. We heard crazy stories about the competition for sites to place lobster traps. Basically, it's easy to get a permit from the state to fish for lobster, but hard to find a place to put your traps unless it's been passed down to you for generations! Other fisherman will cut your buoys if they think you're interloping, leaving your trap permanently stuck at the bottom of the ocean.

Times were tough for the bride's friend and her family growing up, and they didn't always have enough money to buy groceries. Every summer, though, they ate like kings. Her mom, obviously, brought home fresh lobster. Their next door neighbor had fields of corn, and he gave them plenty of free ears. She and her siblings would gather wild blueberries for dessert, et voila! A quintessential summer meal was born. Night after night, though, is apparently too much; difficult for me to imagine, but the bride's friend told us that she got sick of having lobster and corn and blueberries without variation.

Maybe they would have been happier if they'd shaken things up with blueberry scones or a corn chowder once in a while. The corn soups that my mom and I came up with are a little bit different, but both end up with a hearty, satisfying meal. Hers has bacon as a base, whereas the smokiness in mine comes from roasting the vegetables ahead of time. The base of my soup uses onions and potatoes, spiced with cumin and seasoned with plenty of salt. The soup is a thick light brown, but the chopped pasilla and red bell pepper together make each spoonful as brightly colored as confetti. The cilantro sprinkled on top adds a fresh, Southwestern note.

Roasting the vegetables is a little bit time-consuming, but can easily be done ahead of time. With them, the soup ends up delicious, corny but good (sort of like B's neverending puns). I've never cooked lobster at home before, but I bet it would be a lovely, sweet complement to the soup, should you find yourself summering in Maine with nothing but corn and shellfish available to eat. Enjoy!

Roasted Corn Chowder

Time: 30 minutes active, 90 minutes total
Serves: 4, as main course (makes about 8 cups)

4 ears of corn, shucked and ends trimmed
2 red bell peppers, cored and halved
2 jalapenos or serranos, or more to taste, stem removed
2 pasilla chiles, cored and halved
4 whole garlic cloves, peeled
2 T. olive oil
2 large onions, peeled and chopped
3 medium sized red or yellow potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 t. salt, or more to taste
1 t. cumin
6 c. chicken broth
1/4 c. cilantro, chopped
sour cream (optional)

Preheat the broiler. Place the corn, bell peppers, jalapenos, pasilla chiles, and garlic cloves in one layer in a Pyrex dish or broiler pan. The peppers should have their shiny side up. Broil for 20 to 25 minutes, flipping once. Peppers should have black blisters on the shiny side. Place roasted bell peppers, jalapenos, and pasilla chiles in a bowl, and cover with plastic wrap for ten minutes or so, until they cool. Then peel off and discard the blackened skin. Chop the peeled chiles. Remove the kernels from the corn with a large knife. Set roasted vegetables aside.

In a large soup pot, heat olive oil over medium-high. Saute onions for 5 minutes, until beginning to soften, and then add potatoes. Cook for an additional 10 minutes, until beginning to brown. Add cumin, salt, and roasted garlic; stir rapidly for 1 minute. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil. Lower heat, and simmer for another 10 minutes or so, until potatoes are softened. Blend soup, preferably with a hand-blender. Add roasted vegetables to soup pot, and simmer until heated through. Taste for salt. Serve garnished with cilantro and sour cream, if using.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


Help! My life is being controlled by my CSA box.

It didn't seem that way until I was talking to one of the interns on the ICU team last Wednesday. I was on call in the hospital, and knew that it would be hard to remember to pick up the box as I drove home on Thursday because of typical post-call delirium. I said as much to the intern, and she flatly said, "I hate CSA boxes."

I thought to myself, what's to hate? Delicious seasonal produce, delivered to a convenient spot weekly (well, for us, every other week since we alternate pick-up with A&K), allowing a connection for jaded city dwellers with enthusiastic local farmers. I mean, I do dislike that the large box has gotten figs for the past two weeks, while we medium-sizers haven't gotten any figs at all this summer, but I love pretty much every other aspect of the box.

The intern continued to make her case while I ruminated. Her friend with a CSA box was never able to go out to eat, because she had to make dinner at home in order to use up produce from the box. Her friend had to rearrange her schedule to be able to pick up the box. Her friend had to design awkward meals around that week's shipment of vegetables. This Slate article the intern pointed me to sums up these difficulties.

Of course, these points are valid. But I cook more than this intern does, and I look at the contents of the box each week partly as a challenge and partly as inspiration. That is, I did look at the produce that way. I did, I swear I did, until we began to get bag...after bag...after bag...of carrots. And, like I said, we only pick up the box every other week!

The bags of carrots accumulated in the crisper, and I finally started to feel guilty about not using them. I tried pickling some; they looked really, really beautiful in the Mason jar, but they didn't taste like what I imagined (basically, I wanted to replicate the ones that come on the side of the panini at Tartine), and they were sort of a pain to make. I also used the odd one here and there for chicken stock or a vegetable curry, but I still had a lot of carrots to deal with. I came across a few recipes for cooked carrots, which are pretty much my least favorite cooked vegetable in the entire world. JL suggested making carrot juice (he calls it "decadent"), but we don't have A&K's juicer. The carrots were becoming a problem; they were more challenge and less inspiration.

Then I pulled out my secret weapon: carrot cupcakes. (See the ray of sun on the left? Even the ubiquitous San Francisco fog parted in honor of the inspiration.)

Mmm, cupcakes. I promised that I would write about them soon. They are really one of the greatest desserts known to man! My mom made B's and my wedding cake, but if she hadn't, we would have considered one of those cupcake tiers. Cupcakes are the perfect size for a snack, plus they have a great cake-to-frosting ratio. And this recipe has the added benefit that it uses four (count them, four!) carrots. I still have a few left, but the bags have (finally) been depleted.

No offense to the CSA box, and the carrots from it, but the cream cheese frosting is my favorite part. Silky smooth and tinged light brown from the molasses, it provides a great foil to the moist, dense carrot cake beneath. The cupcakes themselves are sort of healthy, with all those carrots within, and their only fat is canola oil. The frosting, on the other hand, has half a stick of butter in it. I like the frosting the way it's written in the recipe below, but if you want to experiment, I think it would turn out well with less butter too.

Maybe you have a CSA box or farmers' market to provide farm-fresh carrots, or maybe you have a few old ones lying around in your crisper, or maybe you're planning to head to the store expressly to buy carrots for this recipe. However you get your hands on some carrots, make sure to try these cupcakes. Enjoy!

Carrot Cupcakes with Molasses Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Gourmet, May 1995

Makes: 17 to 18 cupcakes
Time: 25 min active, 2 hours total

For cupcakes:
3/4 c. canola oil
3 eggs
1 1/4 c. brown sugar, packed
1/2 t. vanilla
1 3/4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 t. baking soda
1/4 t. ginger
1/2 t. nutmeg
1 1/2 t. cinnamon
2 generous c. carrots, peeled and coarsely shredded (about 4)
1/2 c. walnuts or pecans, coarsely chopped

For frosting:
8 oz. light cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 stick (1/4 c.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 T. powdered sugar
1 T. molasses
1/2 carrot, finely shredded (optional)

Preheat oven to 350. Line muffin tin with paper or aluminum cupcake cups. In a medium bowl, whisk together oil, eggs, brown sugar, and vanilla. Then whisk in dry ingredients, including flour, baking soda, and spices. Then mix in carrots and nuts. Fill each cup two-thirds full with batter. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until lightly browned and cake tester plunged into the center comes out clean. Place cupcakes on a rack to cool. Line muffin tin with new cupcake cups, fill with remaining batter, and bake as first batch.

Cool cupcakes completely on rack, at least half an hour. Beat cream cheese, butter, powdered sugar, and molasses together in a small bowl until completely mixed. Frost cupcakes generously. Place 1/2 teaspoon shredded carrot on top of each cupcake, if desired. Cupcakes stay well, covered, for several days.