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It’s been over a month since I’ve found my way back to this place. During that time I’ve been preoccupied with a promotion to maitre d’ (!) and completion of my “trail.” Restaurant speak for training, the trail was harder and longer than I expected.

When my manager approached me about the MD role (double entendre duly noted), he warned me that it is one of the most difficult jobs in a restaurant. On par with expediting, he said, it’s crucial for ensuring a great experience for guests and for the team. I laughed off his warning, mostly because of the uncomfortable audacity of accepting a role that was acknowledged by him as one of the most important in the place.

But I was also lulled into a false sense of confidence by the ease and grace with which the other MDs did their jobs – they remind me of dancers who seem to effortlessly float midair while leaping – and by my own hubris that the job would come naturally.

A few trails in, I realized that it didn’t come naturally. I had memorized “the book” – the rules for organizing the dining room and reservations as well as the exceptions to those rules – but I wasn’t sufficiently comfortable with my level of knowledge. And it showed.

One afternoon when a large crowd descended upon the restaurant at noon, hungry for lunch and intent on sitting down immediately, I froze. Afraid to make a mistake, I was afraid to do anything. In a moment of panic, I viewed our guests as the enemy and wanted to duck behind the podium to shield myself from their bullets of inquiries, requests, and expectations. But I put on my best forced smile and welcomed them through the doors with the sole intent of getting them into the dining room and away from me as quickly as possible. There I stood, in the bastion of hospitality, praying that everyone would just go away so that I could breathe. After the first rush, I escaped to the coatroom for a few moments of quiet. I muddled through the rest of the afternoon and somehow finished out the service, ego bruised but otherwise unscathed.

I was embarrassed then, and I’m embarrassed now as I write this. Luckily, there’s a happy ending.

asparagus picklesd

To build back my confidence, I hunkered down and studied my job as if I were in school. Just as my father solidified my knowledge of math by pushing me to derive formulas from first principles rather than merely memorizing them, I dissected the book and figured out how and why it was set up the way it was, approaching it as if I were building it from scratch.

A visual person by nature, I drew out a timeline of each lunch and dinner service, each table and when it turned for the next, how many people could sit down in the restaurant at each fifteen-minute interval in a way that wouldn’t overload the servers and kitchen. I made a Gantt chart of each activity an MD needs to accomplish by what time and the activities of other team members that are dependent on those milestones. In other words, I geeked out.

Like a consultant, I spoke with servers to find out the best way to handle different situations, for example, when I might need to double-seat them – should I try to provide at least a five-minute buffer interval? Give them a heads up? Ask the host to provide a menu? – yes, yes, and maybe. I wrote long lists of useful phrases – how to explain to guests if we were running behind, if we couldn’t seat them at a seemingly available table, if there was a waitlist for the bar.

As you might have guessed, my approach worked and I started having fun in the restaurant again. I’m now officially an MD (our general manager calls me MD2 ), still building up my muscle memory, but approaching the job with confidence and a genuine smile.

While all of this has been going on, the greenmarkets have exploded and my earlier MD schedule (I finish at 3 pm when I work lunch) has allowed me to wander through an expanding and bustling Union Square each market day. The market now snakes around the north end of the square in two parallel rows that span about three blocks.

While I rejoiced in new produce – asparagusfiddleheads! rhubarb! strawberries! – and filled my fridge with color, MD trailing left me with no mental energy to cook. The result? These quick pickled asparagus – a good snack after a stressful shift. Or at least a way to get in a few vegetables before sticking a spoon into a pint of ice cream.

I’m back in the kitchen these days, so next up: rhubarb muffins! See you back here soon.

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Asparagus pickles

Adapted from Food & Wine. The pickles take just moments to prepare and are ready after a night in the fridge. They’re sharp and spicy and their flavor intensifies the longer they sit in their vinegar bath.

- 3/4 – 1 lb asparagus

- 10 sprigs dill

- 1 C white vinegar

- 1 C water

- 1 T kosher salt

- 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

- 1 t black peppercorns

- 1/2 t red pepper flakes

Fill. Snap the woody ends off the asparagus and trim them so that they will fit into a wide-mouth 1-quart jar. Fill the jar with the asparagus and dill.

Heat. Heat the vinegar, water, salt, garlic, and peppers until the salt dissolves. Allow to cool.

Pour. Once the vinegar mix is lukewarm, pour it in the jar. Top off with a 1-to-1 mix of vinegar and water to cover.

Chill. Refrigerate overnight and eat within three days.

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I was just scrolling through the blog today and realized that we haven’t had salad in a while. If you don’t count the that kale and barley deal from earlier this month (Is it salad? Or is it a side? I categorized it as salad on the recipes tab, but I’m rethinking that one), the last salad we ate together was on July 13. If you’re curious, that was eighteen weeks and three days ago. I was curious.

That Friday the 13th salad was unusual in that I had veered from my standard dressing of a drizzle of oil, a squeeze of lemon, salt, pepper, and I’m done. Instead, I made an orange blossom dressing that I actually call liquid gold, it’s that good. Well, my friends, I’ve found another dressing that just might just give that dressing a run for its money.

This Monday the 19th one centers around pomegranate molasses. You’ve seen pomegranate molasses (also called pomegranate syrup) all over this blog. It’s in lamb and meat sauce and a roast. It glazes carrots, decorates roasted vegetables, and caramelizes tarte tatins. It has also found itself atop a bowl or two of vanilla ice cream.

Pomegranate molasses is just very concentrated pomegranate juice. You can buy it in Middle Eastern (and sometimes Indian) grocery stores or make it yourself by reducing pure juice in a sauce pan until it thickens into a sticky syrup. It’s sweet and puckeringly sour. If you like sour candies, you might want to run out to buy a bottle of this stuff. Or two.

But it never occurred to me to turn it into a salad dressing until my friend Jess suggested it. And now I can’t get enough of it. The first time I made, I licked the last few drops off of my plate when I ran out of bread for sopping up. Luckily I was alone at the time. Though, I might very well have done it in a restaurant full of strangers.

Arugula salad with pear, goat cheese, pomegranate, and walnuts

Serves 4

- 3 C loosely packed arugula

- 10 sprigs of parsley, minced

- 1 scallion, sliced on a bias

- 1 pear (I used Bosc), cubed

- 2 T goat cheese, crumbled

- 1/2 C pomegranate seeds

- 1/3 C spicy candied walnuts (see below)

- pomegranate molasses dressing (see below)

Pile. Mix together the arugula and parsley and arrange on a large plate. Sprinkle with scallion, pear, and goat cheese.

Tap. To remove the seeds from the pomegranate, slice the fruit in half, hold a piece cut side down over a large bowl, and hit the outside skin with a wooden spoon. Most of the seeds will fall out and you can gently pry out any remaining ones. Juice will splatter, so don’t wear white.

Finish. Scatter the pomegranate seeds and walnuts over the salad. Drizzle with dressing. The dressing is intense, so drizzle sparingly.

***

Spicy candied walnuts

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen. You’ll have leftovers, which you’ll probably end up eating by the handful. 

Makes 2 1/2 cups

- 1 egg white, room temperature

- 1 T pomegranate molasses

-  1/3 cup brown sugar

- 1/3 cup white sugar

- 1.5 teaspoon kosher salt

- Generous pinch of cayenne pepper

- 1/2 t cumin

- 1/2 lb (2 1/2 C) walnut pieces

Preheat oven to 300ºF.

Whisk. With a fork, whisk the egg white and pomegranate molasses in a large  bowl.

Mix. Add the sugars, salt, cayenne, and cumin, and mix everything together. Stir in the walnuts and toss until evenly coated.

Bake. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper, and spread the  sugared nuts in a single layer on top. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Cool. Remove from the oven, and separate nuts as they cool. When completely cool, pour the nuts into a bowl, breaking up any that stick together.

***

Pomegranate molasses dressing

Inspired by Sweet Amandine. You’ll have leftover dressing, but it keeps in the fridge for at least 2 weeks.

Makes 1/2 cup 

- 6 T olive oil

- 1 T pomegranate molasses

- 1 T lemon juice

- 2 t brown sugar

- salt and pepper

Shake. Put everything in a jar and shake to mix. The sugar may stick to the bottom, so use a fork to dislodge it and keep shaking.

Taste. Dip an arugula leaf into the dressing and adjust the seasoning.

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six million

6 million

Tonight and tomorrow mark Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance day. This memorial day holds special significance to me as the grand-daughter of survivors.

me with my grandparents

Tonight I participated in a  special seder, originally developed by Rabbi Avi Weiss, to ritualize remembrance of the Holocaust. We read from a short book, sitting on the floor as mourners in a darkened room around six candles to represent the 6,000,000 Jews who perished. The evening had four sections: physical destruction, spiritual destruction, destruction of children, and resistance. An important part of the seder is to pass the first-hand experiences of survivors to future generations so that the memories never extinguish and can continue to be passed l’dor va dor (from generation to generation).

Since no survivors were able to join us, I asked my mother to share with me some stories from her mother so that I could re-tell her experience as part of the “resistance” portion since my Bubbie’s attitude, wit, and courage is what helped her survive. Here is what my mother wrote as if she were speaking as her own mother:

I was born in a small town named Sandz (Novisoncz (sp?) in Polish), Poland. Since my mother was busy working in the family business, I was sent to live with my older sister in a larger city Katowicz. I went to school there and because at some point this was a town in Germany (borders changed a lot in those days) the schools taught German as well as Polish and I learned a “high German.” Who knew that it would later help save my life.

Money and diamonds helped some people live through the war if it wasn’t taken away from them by the Germans; knowledge/education was something that they couldn’t take away from you.

I was sent to a labor/work camp when the war broke out. I was in my late teens and thin and pretty; I always looked taller than I was so they thought I was older and would be a good worker. I worked in the kitchen, mainly peeling potatoes for the “potato soup” to be fed to the worker Jews in the camp — peels and water for the Jews, real hearty potato soup for the Germans. There was an adjacent men’s work camp and I could see young teenage boys, 11-12 years old, skin and bones, through the barbed wire fence. They were working hard too and quite hungry. One evening I was leaving the kitchen and stole a pail of potatoes, intended mainly for the teenage boys to keep them alive. On the way back to the barracks with the pail of potatoes, I was seen and stopped by a German guard. He asked me what I had in my hand and I answered in German that it was some potatoes and I was hungry. He said that I was carrying way too many potatoes just for myself and asked what was I going to do with them. I answered him in the best High German that I knew and said, ” They are just for me. Did you think I would be so stupid to just take a few every day and risk getting caught each time? ” He answered, “Verschwind!” in German meaning disappear, and said that I should get out of his sight quickly and never do that again.

My wise-a** German answer helped save my life.

One story that my mother had never heard, but that Bubbie shared with my younger sister was that in addition to working in the kitchen, she also worked in the laundry. This afforded her the opportunity to actually cook the potatoes in hot water under cover.

When my sister was in Israel a few years ago, she took some photographs in Yad VaShem‘s Valley of Destroyed Communities of the cities where my grandparents grew up: Poppie was born in Chrzanów and grew up in Krakow; my Bubbie learned the German that saved her life in Katowice.

Krakow - photo by RySq

Krakow – photo by RySq

picture by RySq

Katowice – picture by RySq

I am proud to say that though my grandparents are no longer alive, they worked hard all of their lives, passing on the legacy of higher education to their children and grandchildren, and even managed to save a few dollars to help provide for future generations. They had “made it” in America. And they did make some investments in jewelry and left this necklace to me which I cherish and wear regularly.

bubbie's necklace

In preparation for the seder, I thought about the potato peels that my grandparents often sustained themselves on. To help reenact part of the resistance experience, I made potato peel crisps.  Don’t be mistaken – this is NOT a dish to remember my grandmother by — I think of her when I eat grapefruit or Chinese food (we used to take her out to Kosher Chinese in Miami and she would always order a hamburger, insisting that she didn’t like Chinese food, and then proceed to pick from all of our plates, exclaiming how much better our dishes were…).

Potato Peel Crisps

I chose russet potatoes for this “recipe.”

Preheat oven to 500°F.

Wash potatoes well to remove any dirt. Peel potatoes and soak in water. Spread in single layer on baking sheet and spray with oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Roast for 20-25 minutes until crisp.

potato peel crisps

Zachor. Remember.

[Thank you to Elisha for sharing this special ritual with me and other members of our community, and encouraging my family to document our stories.]

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spinach-apple-feta

 

One of my favorite salad toppers is freshly toasted nuts. And if it’s an extra special occasion (or just a regular evening that you want to turn into something special), the nuts get coated in sugar and even spice. You can buy them like this already (e.g., at Trader Joe’s) and some places have even started marketing them, for example “Meshuga Nuts” (I could not find the link), but I like to buy the raw shelled nuts and make my own to add whatever spices and level of sweetness I fancy on a given day.

This recipe is pretty easy, but does make a little bit of a mess. The nuts are great to snack on and are wonderful as an appetizer, with cheese, or served in pretty little bowls alongside dessert.  They also make nice gifts

I find pecans work best because they have nice little grooves that capture all the flavors. Walnuts should work equally as well from this grooved perspective; almonds might not have great grooves, but they are another favorite of mine in salads.

Pecans

nice grooves on the pecans, ready for a coating

 

Sugared and Spiced Nuts, some guidelines

Don’t be afraid, there’s a lot of verbiage here and it looks scary, but I’m just walking you through the process and warning you about all of the mistakes that I have made along the way so you won’t make them!

Any nuts will work, but my preference from a texture perspective is pecans. I also like making plain sugared almonds. Any spice mixture will work — experiment on what you prefer. I have listed here my favorite and detailed how I make these nuts in such a way that they do not end up one huge sheet of nut brittle, rather separate nuts with a slightly crumbly spicy-sweet, slightly gritty texture. These are not sticky.

Makes ~2.5 C

1 lb pecans

1/3 C white sugar

1/3 C brown sugar – this helps with the texture, but you can use all white sugar

Basic mild spice mixture:

1/2 t hot chili powder

1 t curry powder

1/2 t cumin

2 T water to help spread spices

I like mine a bit more spicy and sweet and salty, so I added the following (after tasting the initial coating): additional 2 T sugar; 1/2-1 t cayenne pepper; additional 1/2 t curry powde; 2 large pinches kosher salt; additional 1-2 T water to help distribute spices

Prepare foil-lined baking sheet to catch nuts when the are ready to cool.

Dry toast pecans (1 lb) on large skillet set at medium heat. Constantly move skillet around to avoid burning the nuts — this takes about 5-7 minutes.

Add sugars and spices and continue to move the skillet around to help sugar melt and liquify. Adjust your flame/heat between low and medium to your own comfort.  Again – do not let the sugar or nuts burn. This can and will set off your smoke alarm (I’ve done it before!) and you might have to throw out the whole batch! You have to watch pretty carefully. One moment you have a pile of sugar and a few spices, the next, a column of smoke. But, with practice, it gets easier. If you add water early, burning is less likely, but I don’t find the texture works out as nicely. So, keep moving the pan/skillet around and eventually the sugar will melt into a nice light brown (very hot – DON’T TOUCH!) liquid.

Coat the nuts evenly with this mixture of sugars and spices in the pan with a non-stick spatula. Don’t worry if the sugar starts to re-crystallize or if the spices haven’t distributed perfectly evenly … that’s what the water is for. Add the 2 T water to essentially deglaze and get all the bits that are stuck to the pan to unstick. This also helps with give the coating the desired texture — a little gritty rather than smooth. BUT, note, when you add the water, it will splatter a bit (see the bits of my stove top that I just couldn’t crop out of the picture…), so stand back.

pecans in pan, not quite sugared and spiced enough for me

pecans in pan, not quite sugared and spiced enough for me

Allow nuts to cool a bit and taste to see if any additional spices, sugar, etc. is necessary.  After tasting, I decided to increase the sugar, spices, and add some salt (as outlined above).  Note, the salt enhances the sweetness in the mix (as in fleur de sel caramels). Again, allow the sugar to caramelize and melt as the spices get fragrant. I added 1-2 T water to help distribute the dry ingredients evenly across the nuts.

Spread nuts out evenly on the foil-lined cookie sheet and allow nuts to cool for 5-10 minutes. They should not be sticky.

Nuts can be stored in an airtight container for about a week, but they typically don’t last that long in my home. 

 

sugared and spiced pecans, ready to munch

sugared and spiced pecans, ready to munch

OTHER SPICES MIXTURES TO TRY:

- cinnamon, sugar (this is a simple one that can work for Passover)

- cumin, sugar, cayenne or other peppers

 

SALAD SUGGESTIONS:

These nuts are wonderful on a classic salad of spinach or baby greens, beets (even from a can if you’re in a rush!), pears, pickled onions or regular shallots, and chèvre. Salt, pepper, olive oil, and balsamic to dress.

I’ve also thrown them on a similar salad of whatever  I had in the fridge – spinach, apples, and feta. Since the feta is pretty salty, no need to put salt in the dressing. Not as good as the first combo, but the nuts made it taste pretty special.

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Walking home tonight through the most recent snow and ice storm (I predict at least 1-2 mini storms before the flowers push through), I got lost listening to my iPod and dreaming about leftovers from last night’s squash and bean salad. So, my 15 minute walk took 40. I entered my home cold, dripping, glasses foggy. After dropping my bag and coat and hat and scarf and gloves, I raced to the fridge, grabbed the lemon-painted mixing  bowl that I made yesterday’s salad in, and popped it in the microwave for a minute. No fire. No atmosphere. Just food.

Sitting on the counter were the now-dried squash seeds that I had cleaned the night before. I recalled really enjoying making and eating roasted pumpkin seeds when I was in kindergarten. (I went to one of those Montessori Schools so we did a lot of hands-on experimentation and practical things. Why they needed to take a school picture of me polishing silver is a whole other discussion….) So, I prepared them quickly and threw them in the oven as a second experiment in as many days.

Less than an hour later, after virtually licking my dinner bowl clean, I pulled the seeds out of the oven, put them in a little Japanese dipping  bowl and could barely take a few pictures before eating all of them in a few minutes flat, licking the salt off my fingers between the warm crunchy bites.

roasted squash seeds

Roasted Squash Seeds

Serving size depends on number and size of squash. 1 medium acorn squash yields 1/4-1/3 C seeds.

Cut squash in half and remove seeds and pith. Rinse seeds under water to free seeds from strings. Let dry overnight (you can probably skip this step).

Toss with oil (or just coat with spray oil such as Pam) and salt and lay in single layer on cookie sheet covered with aluminum foil.

Roast in oven at 300ºF for 30-40 minutes until golden brown and dry.

There are tons of other options for spicing the seeds, but since I haven’t done this before, I stuck with the basics and they were fantastic. Other thoughts:

- sweet and salty: toss with sugar and salt

- sweet and spicy: sugar, cayenne and salt

- curry powder and salt

- rosemary and salt

- lemon pepper, salt and citrus zest

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