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dessert first

Hello, December. Hello, snow.

December snow

Hello, birthday.

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Yup, December is birthday month over here. The official date is the 8th, and my friends and family made this past weekend wonderfully special. There was dinner and a spa and dinner again. And a few more things to come. As I said, it’s birthday month on my blog.

That chocolate cake up there? It’s a birthday cake. But it’s not my birthday cake; it’s Alyson’s. And I made it one year and ten days ago on the dot.

In case  you don’t remember, a few years back, Alyson and I went to Vienna where I dragged her from cafe to cafe in search of the best sachertorte.  From one side of the city to the other, we chased this dense, slightly-dry, not-too-sweet, layered chocolate cake whose richness can only be tempered by a large scoop of whipped cream. 

From the day my plane touched down back in Boston, that sachertorte haunted me. Within days of my return home, I started my search for a recipe. First there was Austrian chef Wolfgang Puck’s version and one from Kaffehaus, a cookbook of cakes from central Europe. Then a high school classmate sent me a German recipe that her husband swears is authentic, and that the daughter of a colleague translated for me. Just before summer, I clipped a recipe from Food & Wine and found this dreamy video of sachertorte being made (watch it if you think chocolate is sexy) and its accompanying recipe.

I tucked away all of the recipes and waited.

As Alyson’s birthday approached, I studied each set of instructions and devised a plan of action. I created a spreadsheet comparing each of the recipes I had collected: quantities of ingredients, number of cake layers, amount of apricot filling. (I know, I know. A spreadsheet? I know.)

Armed with way too much information, I decided to go with the recipe that had the highest bittersweet chocolate-to-sugar ratio, only two layers, and a hefty dose of apricot.

I cooked from sunrise to sunset on the day of Alyson’s birthday. In addition to sachertorte, I banged out challah, a roast, kale salad, and pomegranate carrots.

But here’s the deal. Since the torte was dairy, and dinner was meat, we ate dessert first. And then after dinner, we ate a second dessert.

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PS – I hear that the best sachertorte in NY is at Cafe Sabarsky. Guess where I’ll be later this week. Who wants to join me?

Sachertorte

As I mentioned above, I adapted this cake from five different recipes and most closely followed the one  from the most unlikely of sources. A sachertorte is definitely a special occasion cake: it takes about 4 hours to make (much of it cooking and cooling time) and you have to use and wash your stand mixing bowl three times.

Make sure to serve with barely-sweetened whipped cream. 

Serves 8-10

For the torte:

- 10 oz bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa; I used Callebaut)

- 8 eggs

- 1 C sugar

- 2/3 C unsalted butter, softened

- 2 t vanilla extract

- 1 1/3 C all-purpose flour

- 1 1/2 C apricot preserves (I used Hero brand)

For the chocolate ganache:

- 2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter

- 8 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped (I used Callebaut)

- 2 T light corn syrup

- 1 t vanilla extract

For the whipped cream

- 1 C heavy cream

- 1 t vanilla extract

- 1 1/2 T confectioner’s sugar

Prep. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan.

Melt. Finely chop the chocolate and melt it in a double boiler (I set a metal  bowl over an inch of water in a pot) over medium-high heat. Set aside.

Separate. Separate the eggs (this is easier to do straight from the fridge).

Beat. Beat the sugar and butter in a stand mixer until creamy. Add the egg yolks one at a time, blending after each addition. Add the vanilla. Fold in the flour and melted chocolate (don’t bother cleaning the bowl you melted the chocolate in; you’ll need to melt some more chocolate later). Transfer the chocolate batter into another bowl, clean and dry the mixer bowl well and then beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold them into the batter in several batches.

Bake. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. (Clean the mixer bowl because you’re going to need it one more time.)

Cool. Let the cake cool in the pan for at least 30 minutes.

Puree. Pour the apricot preserves into a small bowl, microwave them for 10 seconds, and use an immersion blender to smooth into a glaze.

Cut. When the cake is cool, cut it in half crosswise, making two layers.

Spread. Brush the bottom layer with apricot, stack on the second layer, and then brush the whole cake with the rest of the preserves. It should look like this.

Melt (again). Melt the butter in a double boiler over medium-high heat. Finely chop the chocolate and add it with the corn syrup and cook, stirring constantly, until the chocolate is melted. Remove from the heat, stir in the vanilla, and let cool. Makes about 1 1/2 cups of ganache.

Pour. Pour the ganache over the cake, smoothing out tops and sides with a spatula. Before the ganache hardens, the cake should look like this.

Cool. Let the cool in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, until set.

Whip. Use a stand mixer to whip together the cream, vanilla, and confectioner’s sugar.

Serve. Serve each slice with a nice scoop of whipped cream.

stuffing

How was your Thanksgiving? Your Hanukkah?

This Thanksgiving, with nine of us around the table, we kept things low-key and didn’t go crazy with the food. I mean, we didn’t even have potatoes, sweet or otherwise.

Now, even with a more streamlined menu, there was still that last-minute scramble as we pulled the turkey out of the oven and realized that we hadn’t cooked the broccoli and brussels sprouts. Actually, we hadn’t even decided how to cook those vegetables. While we let the turkey rest, my mom and I rapidly sliced off florets and halved sprouts, spread them on a few baking sheets, doused with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and popped them into the hot oven. You can’t go wrong with roasting.

We started dinner with soup served in mugs. The mugs don’t match the plates. They don’t even match each other. And not in that hip casual-chic kind of way. I love that we start dinner in mugs. It’s cozy – you can’t help but wrap your hands around the warm ceramic, raise it to your face, and blow on the steaming  soup until it’s cool enough to sip, spoons reserved for scraping out the last few drops.

After the salad was passed around, my cousin Ben slipped out to carve the turkey (he’s a turkey-carving whiz) and I grabbed the vegetables and stuffing out of the oven.

We took a dishwashing break before dessert.

The next day, we had turkey for lunch and dinner.

Cornbread stuffing, apple, celery, herbs

Before we get to the stuffing (you know, just in time to start planning next Thanksgiving), here are a few links and thoughts for the week.

Ever put maple syrup in your coffee? Try it. Thanks for the tip, Adeena.

Paula Wolfert – queen of Mediterranean, Moroccan, and clay pot cooking – talks about Alzheimer’s and staving off its progression with cooking. On starting off every morning  with a hulk-green smoothie, filled with anti-oxidants and ingredients purported to improve cognition, she says, “It is tough going because it’s not delicious, it’s nutritious.  My grandmother told me, during the second world war, we were sitting in the vegetable garden: If you want to win a war, you’ve got to be willing to fight.”

A new-to-me blog, Apt. 2B Baking Co. More photos than words, Yossy Arefi, makes cakes and cookies that make me want to go out and buy pounds and pounds of butter. How about a meyer lemon and grapefruit bundt? Yes, please.

And now, the stuffing.

Cornbread apple stuffing

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s Apple and Herb Stuffing for All Seasons. I substituted corn bread (this recipe, which is based on Elisha’s recipe) for the hearty white bread that Deb recommended. I doubled this recipe for Thanksgiving, and our family of nine had enough leftovers for days.  When I reheat the stuffing, I sometimes pour a little liquid over top – water works just fine – to keep it from drying out in the oven (or microwave). 

Make or buy cornbread a day or two in advance if possible so you can pull it apart and dry it out; otherwise, toast it in the oven for 10-15 minutes. If you do want to make your own cornbread, I’ve modified my go-to recipe to reflect the quantities for this stuffing. 

Serves 8-10

- 1 recipe cornbread (below) or 6 cups of cornbread cut or torn into cubes and crumbs (approximately an 8X8 pan)
- 1 large yellow onion
- 2 large stalks celery
– 1 large or 2 small firm, tart tart apples, such as Granny Smith
– 5 T olive oil, divided
- 1 t chopped fresh thyme leaves
- ½ t kosher salt, plus more to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ C roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 3 sage leaves, minced
- 1-2 C turkey, chicken or vegetable stock or broth
- 1 large egg

Dry. Cut or tear the cornbread into small cubes or crumble into large crumbs. Let the bread dry out for a day or two before proceeding, or spread it out in a single layer on a large baking sheet and bake at 350°F for 10-15 minutes until pale golden. Keep your oven on.

Sauté. Finely chop the onion, celery, and apple. Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, thyme, salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add celery and cook for 2 more minutes. Then add apple and sauté until a bit tender, another 5 minutes.

Mix. Place dried-out cornbread in a large mixing bowl and scrape contents of the skillet on top. Whisk together egg and 1 cup broth and pour over. Stir in parsley and sage. Dig your hands in and mix everything together. The bread should hold its shape but be wet enough to squish when you squeeze it. If the bread seems a bit dry, pour another half cup of broth over it. If it’s still dry, pour in the last half cup. Let the bread soak for half an hour in the refrigerator.

Bake. Use the last tablespoon of oil to grease a 9-inch square baking dish (or another equivalent pan) . Spoon the bread mix into the dish. If  you toasted the bread earlier, your oven should already be at 350°F; otherwise, turn it on. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until brown on top and no liquid appears if you insert a knife vertically into the center of the stuffing pan and turn it slightly. Serve immediately, or reheat as needed. If you do reheat, you might need to add some extra liquid before popping into the oven for 10-15 minutes. 

(Non-dairy) skillet cornbread

Slightly modified from this recipe, which is based on this recipe

Serves 6-8

- 1 ½ C flour
- 1 ½ C fine cornmeal
- 2 T sugar
- 1 ½ t salt
- 1 ½ t baking powder
¾ C corn kernels (I use frozen and thaw them before use)
- 1 ¼ C water
– 4 T oil (canola or olive), divided
– 2 eggs

Preheat oven to 450ºF. Place a large oven-proof cast-iron skillet on the middle rack.

Mix. In a large bowl, mix together flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.

Purée. Place the corn, water and 2 tablespoons of oil into a blender (or food processor) and puree for about 2 minutes until it’s smooth and no corn pieces remain. Add the eggs and continue to blend everything together. You’ll end up with a light yellow liquid that’s a bit thicker than whole milk.

Wait. Wait until the oven is hot before adding the wet ingredients to the dry.

Stir. Add the wet ingredients to the dry. Stir until all the ingredients are incorporated (don’t over-mix), scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl to make sure you don’t miss any flour.

Swirl. Take the skillet out of the oven (it will be very hot) and pour in the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, swirling so that it coats the bottom and sides of the skillet. Pour the batter into the skillet – is should sizzle as it hits the hot pan.

Bake. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Serve warm right out of the pan. If you’re making stuffing, let the cornbread completely cool, then cut or crumble into pieces and allow to dry out overnight or in the oven, as detailed above.

what I’ve got

In the middle of long chains of emails titled “Thanksgiving menu,” my aunt Leslie started a new subject: “Holidays”

She wrote, “I was thinking…just a suggestion…that in lieu of gifts for any of these occasions*, we consider making contributions to worthy causes.”

My uncle Michael responded: “My first response is not serious — only if contributions don’t have to be wrapped and they can be designated as last year’s gifts**. Seriously, you have made an excellent suggestion which I would support!”

My aunt Linda added, “The money we are fortunate enough to be able to spend on a wonderful family dinner is plenty. Too many people can’t even afford a turkey.”

And then my mother, “In violent agreement. Many good causes for our donations.”

So, while I’m finishing up tomorrow’s stuffing, I wanted to share a few of the causes that my family cares about and supports.

Michael, Linda, and their son Ben volunteer with the Community Food Bank of NJ.

Every year, we buy Thanksgiving pies through Sharsheret‘s Pies for Prevention Event, organized by my friend Adeena and her sister. I wrote about the organization’s work to raise awareness about ovarian cancer and support research.

The ML4 Foundation raises money to research treatments for Mucolipidosis Type IV, a genetic disease that afflicts Eden, my friend’s daughter. This video explains more.

The Wounded Warrior Project honors and empowers wounded service members. My grandfather was in the air force.

My sister helped design and build the Lower East Side Girls Club whose goal is to raise the next generation of ethical, environmental, and entrepreneurial leaders. Also, they have the second largest planetarium in New York City, after the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History.

cornbread apple stuffing

In a day or two, there will be better stuffing photos and the recipe. Today, I’m happy with what I’ve got. And that’s pretty good.

* Today is my cousin Zach’s 21st birthday. Happy birthday, kiddo!

** I don’t think I’ve ever received a present from my family on my actual birthday. The day after? Maybe. Months later? Probably. The day before the next birthday? Yup. And we don’t believe in gift wrapping.

By the time Hanukkah rolled around last year, I was all fried out. But when asked to teach a Hanukkah cooking class this year, I just couldn’t say no to latkes.

My friend Frances offered up her large kitchen, so last night I rolled a suitcase filled with ingredients  and utensils and lots of oil into her apartment. While Frances’ daughters finished homework and practiced violin, I got organized. Within minutes, my stand mixer took its place on one end of the black granite counter separating the kitchen from dining room  On the other end, three peelers alongside a bowl filled with apples every hue from green to red. In the middle, a box grater in front of another bowl of only green apples and onions.

One of Frances’ PJ-clad daughters took up residence on a stool and asked me what we were making. Her eyes grew wide when she heard about the cake and applesauce. I thought I’d impress her by saying that the applesauce was going to be pink, but she was decidedly not into that. I want applesauce that’s yellow. Like in the refrigerator. Ok, I said, I’ll make a special plain batch just for you.

As the dozen “students” trickled in, I set them to work peeling apples. Ok, everyone, wash your hands. We’re cooking a lot tonight, and we’re gonna get dirty.

We started with an olive oil cake. We whipped eggs and sugar, measured out olive oil and milk and then a flurry of dry ingredients. I say a flurry, because a handful of us got a dusting of flour. We talked about why we zest citrus (it contains essential oils to flavor the cake), what to do with  orange blossom water (put it in everything!), and what other flavor combinations might be good (lemon zest and limoncello? apple slices with brandy?).

Cake mixed and in the oven, we cut those peeled apples into chunks and picked through a big bag of cranberries, removing any bad ones and dropping only a bouncy few on the floor. We filled a large pot with the pink applesauce ingredients and set it on a burner over medium heat. The last two apples made their way into a smaller pot without cranberries for the yellow applesauce.

Latkes were up. We grated. First skin-on apples, then onions. (Is it a bad sign when  half the class cries? Just checking.) We wrapped the apples and onions in towels, twisting until they released half their weight in liquid. We found the two biggest bowls in the house and filled them with the apples and onions, then topped with grated sweet potato that I had already shredded at home in my food professor. A few eggs, some panko crumbs, thinly-sliced sage, salt and pepper, and two lucky participants dug in elbow deep to mix.

The cake timer went off. A peek at the cake – jiggly in the middle – nope, not ready yet. A quick stir of the sauce on the stove top, the apples had begun to break down, but the berries were still holding their shape.

It was time for the fry. I placed a heavy-bottomed pan on the stove and watched as someone else poured in oil. A thin slick barely coating the pan. Keep going. More? Yes, keep going. More? Yup. Really? Yes. I stuck my finger in the (cold) pan, and the oil reached my first knuckle. Ok, stop. Perfect. We cranked up the heat, and waited.

I tossed  in a few shreds of vegetables that sank to the bottom. Not hot enough. A few minutes later, a few more shreds. A few bubbles. Still not hot enough. A few minutes more, a few more shreds. A burst of  bubbles lifted the shreds to the top where they started to brown. Bingo.

We started a production line. One team shaped the batter into patties, squeezing out any remaining liquid. Another team carefully slid the patties off the edge of a spatula into the splattering oil. I manned the fry station to get things started. Just like pancakes and crepes, the first few latkes were sacrificed as canaries in the  mine of scalding oil until we were able to truly regulate the temperature.

The applesauce was ready – off the stove to cool. The cake was still jiggly – back into the oven.

The latke station was on auto pilot and I finally had a chance to sit, but the natives were getting restless (and my own stomach was grumbling). I pulled out the cake stunt double I had prepared earlier in the day and got slicing. A dollop of cranberry applesauce on the side did the trick.

By then, we had a steady stream of latkes making their way to the table, dodging sneaky fingers.

The cake finally jiggled its last jiggle and was ready to come out. It too disappeared quickly.

Happy Holidays, all!

Sweet potato and apple latkes (Amy Traverso)

***

Still planning your Thanksgiving/Hanukkah menu? I’ve got you covered. How about some sufganiyot? Olive oil gelato? My family will start our meal with spicy butternut squash soup that we sip out of mugs. And this year, I’m making a stuffing using this cornbread and some sort of apple-celery-sage concoction that is still up in the air (maybe something like this?).

And, finally a little reading for those long plane-train-car(-boat?) rides, airport delays, traffic, and times you need to hide from your family.

Did you read the New Yorker’s food issue earlier this month? If not, it’s worth it. Particularly Adam Gopnik on bread and women and Gabrielle Hamilton on family meal.

This video of April Bloomfield making veal shank with the late Marcella Hazan. At 2:47, April says “I like Italian food, Marcella, because it’s so simple,” to which Marcella responds, “Well, we never use too many ingredients.” This reminds me of her famous tomato sauce.

This gave me goose bumps.

And I’d love to find a way to get involved with this.

***

Sweet potato and apple latkes

Adapted from Amy Traverso’s recipe in Leite’s Culinaria. Soft and creamy inside, crispy on the outside, these are my new go-to latkes. 

Make sure to remove as much liquid as possible from the grated ingredients. Roll the grated apple and onion in a kitchen towel (I like flour sack towels) and twist, twist, twist until they are dry. If you were using regular potatoes, you’d wring them out as well, but sweet potatoes have lower moisture content and it’s not necessary.

Regulating the temperature of the frying oil is the moist difficult part. Expect to sacrifice your first few attempts and only make one at a time until you get to the temperature right. 

If you want to make the latkes in advance, cool them to room temperature, then stack them in single layers between sheets of parchment or wax paper, and freeze them in a resealable plastic bags. Crisp in a 325°F oven for 15 to 20 minutes before serving. Top with cranberry applesauce

Makes 25-30 latkes

- 2 pounds garnet or jewel yams or sweet potatoes, peeled
– 3 large (about 1 1/2 pounds total) firm-tart apples such as Granny Smith
– 2 medium onions
– 8-10 leaves sage
– 6 large eggs, lightly beaten
– 1 cup panko – check
– 1 T coarse kosher salt
– 1 t freshly ground black pepper
– Vegetable or peanut oil, for frying

Prep. Preheat the oven to 200°F. Peel the sweet potatoes. Cut the apples into quarters (don’t peel them). Thinly slice the sage. Line a plate with paper towels

Grate. Using the coarse side of a box grater or a food processor fitted with a medium grating disk, grate the potatoes and scoop into a large bowl. Grate the apple and onion and then roll in a kitchen towel and twist, twist, twist until dry. Add the apple and onion to the bowl and toss everything together. Add the beaten eggs, panko, salt, and pepper and toss to mix well.

Fry. Using your hands, make small patties about ¼-inch thick, squeezing out any remaining moisture. Pour ½-¾ inch oil into a skillet over medium-high heat. The oil is ready when the temperature reaches 370°F. If you don’t have a thermometer, drop a small pinch of the latke mix into the oil – if the oil sizzles and bubbles up, it’s ready to start the trial-and-error process of getting the oil just right. Your first few latkes will be failures as you make small adjustments to the oil temperature.  Once you find the your groove, cook 3 or 4 pancakes at a time (do not crowd the pan) until the edges are crisp and well browned and the undersides are golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Gently turn and cook until the other side is golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes longer.

Warm. Transfer the pancakes to paper towels to drain briefly, then arrange in a single layer on 2 baking sheets. Keep the latkes warm in the oven while you cook the remaining pancakes.

It was their last meal together but they didn’t know it.

They were celebrating. There was champagne chilling.

He knocked on the door as she set plates on the table. Usually they cooked together. And sometimes, he for her. This time, she for him.

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They embraced with a familiar hey great to see you how’s it been what’s going on you look nice. Her hands were still warm from tossing the just-grilled chicken with herbs, her palms smooth with olive oil, her fingers scented with orange. He smelled like him.

They sat. They ate. They talked. They drank. They laughed.

There were moments of comfortable silence.

There were moments of palpable silence.

He sliced a mango over the crumb-littered table and handed her pieces.

They hugged au revoir talk later see you soon. She closed the door.

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Saffron chicken and herb salad

Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem. The bitter orange pith balances out the sweetness of the syrup’s honey and juice. I use a jalapeno instead of a hot red pepper, arugula instead of fennel, and mint instead of cilantro. 

Shooting saffron chicken and herb salad (Ottenlenghi/Tamimi - Jerusalem) for the Boston Globe

I prepared this salad over the summer for a photo shoot with the Boston Globe for their article on the popularity of the cookbook Jerusalem. If you want to see Yotam and Sami in action, here’s a video of them preparing this salad. They recommend you mix everything together with your hands.

Serves 3-4

- 1 orange

- 2 1/2 T honey

- 1 1/2 t saffron threads

- 1 T white wine vinegar

- 1 1/4 C water (or more)

- 2 lbs boneless skinless chicken breast

- 4 T olive oil, divided

- 1 clove garlic, crushed

- 2/3 C torn basil leaves

- 1/3 C torn mint leaves

- 3 scallions, thinly sliced

- 1 jalapeno, very thinly sliced

- several handfuls of arugula

- 2 T freshly-squeezed lemon juice

- salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400ºF.

Simmer. Trim the top and tail off of the orange and cut into 12 wedges, keeping the skin on. Remove seeds. Place the wedges in a small saucepan with the honey, saffron, vinegar, and just enough water to cover the orange wedges.  Bring to a boil and then simmer gently, uncovered, for about an hour. At the end, you’ll be left with a soft orange and about 2 tablespoons of thick syrup. If the liquid level gets very low during cooking, add some water.

Blitz. Use a food processor or immersion blender to blitz the syrup into a smooth, runny paste. Add a little water if needed to get it to a thick but pour-able consistency.

Grill. Mix the chicken breast with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper, and place on a very hot ridged grill pan (you can use a real outdoor grill if you have one). Sear for about 2 minutes on each side to get clear char marks all over. If you try to move the chicken too soon, it’ll stick – the meat releases when it’s ready. Transfer to a roasting pan and place in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until just cooked.

Mix. In a large serving bowl, mix together the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and crushed garlic. When the chicken is cool enough to handle but still warm, tear it with your hands into rough, large pieces and toss it in the bowl with the garlic and half of the orange puree. Mix in the rest of the ingredients with your hands. Taste, add salt and pepper, and, if needed, more olive oil, lemon juice, or orange.

We’ve all done it, right? In a frenzy to feed a growling stomach, we make a quick breakfast-lunch-dinner with whatever is in the kitchen and we surprise ourselves. There’s no planning, no shopping, no browsing, no flipping through cookbooks. We throw something together and hope it works. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t.

And sometimes we take a bite and say out loud, “Damn, I cook good.”

Tonight was one of those nights when humility took a backseat.

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I’ll be staying at a friend’s place for a while and went shopping a few days ago for what I consider the absolute basic groceries. Coffee. Milk. Grapefruit juice. Bread. Eggs. Cheese. Kale. Lemons. Apples. Pears. And a shallot.

A shallot? Yes. Why? I am not entirely sure.

When dinnertime rolled around this evening, I spent almost an hour contemplating going out-ordering in-going to bed without dinner, decided I couldn’t not eat, and then couldn’t decide what I wanted to eat. Not knowing what I was looking for, I started unpacking some of my kitchen stuff, and found my favorite pan – the heavy blue pan that I lugged over 200 miles and across three states.

And then it came to me. Grilled cheese.

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In about 20 minutes (it would have been 15 had I not paused for photos), I took that first bite of crunchy bread, pulling the sandwich away from my mouth, cheese stretching, kale falling.

Chipmunk cheeks full and still chewing, I mumbled, “Damn this is good.” Followed by, “Damn, I cook good.” And then I took another bite.

Sorry, modesty. You’re sleeping outside tonight.

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Grilled Cheese with Kale

Coat a pan with olive oil and heat over a medium flame. Slice a shallot and sauté, stirring, until it starts to brown. Overfill the pan with several handfuls of torn kale, and keep stirring until the kale cooks down to about an eighth of what you put in. Don’t forget the salt and pepper. Grab 2 slices of bread and generously cover one with shredded Comte cheese,  the other with the kale mixture. Pile one slice on top of the other. Whisk an egg on a plate or shallow bowl and dip the sandwich into the egg, just like you’d do for french toast. Add some more olive oil  to the pan and heat it up again. Pan-fry both sides of the egg-dipped sandwich until brown. Be careful when flipping – you might drop half the filling and have to scoop it back up. Not that it happened to me.

get in on it

As the calendar page turns from September to October, here’s a recipe I made in August. It’s farmers market fare and there’s still time to get in on it before most of our carrots are plucked from cold storage.

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Roasted carrots with carrot top hazelnut pesto

Adapted from Bon Appétit. Carrot tops are the earthier, more bitter cousins of their roots. Which I realize doesn’t sound particularly appetizing. But bear with me here. To mellow the bitterness of the pesto, I added one of the carrots and lemon juice. Rather than using pine nuts as in the original recipe, I chose hazelnuts since I like how well carrots and the Egyptian spice and nut (usually hazelnut) mix called dukkah go together. The leftover pesto is great on vegetables that sweeten with roasting – cauliflower, beets, parsnips, even Brussels sprouts.

Serves 4 as a side dish

- 2 pounds carrots (about a dozen medium) with tops attached

- 2 T + ¼ C olive oil, divided

- kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

- ½ garlic clove

- ¼ C hazelnuts, toasted and peeled

- ¼ C parsley leaves, coarsely chopped

- 2-3 T lemon juice

Prep. Heat oven to 400°F. Peel and trim the carrots, leaving short stems attached. Set aside one carrot and all the leafy tops. Was the tops really well to remove any dirt.

Roast. Cover a baking sheet with parchment. Toss carrots (except for the one you put aside) with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, a few pinches of salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Roast, tossing occasionally until carrots are golden brown and tender, 35-45 minutes for full sized carrots (less time for smaller carrots).

Crush. Pulse garlic and nuts in a food processor until a coarse paste forms. Add 1 cup of the carrot tops, the carrot you set aside, and parsley; process until a coarse purée forms. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil and lemon juice and pulse until combined; season with salt and pepper.

Serve. Serve carrots drizzled with pesto.

Store. The pesto will last up to 2 weeks in a jar in the refrigerator. It should also freeze well.

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And, just like that, it’s September. 

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That was the opening line I planned to use as I scrambled to get this post out before sunset last Wednesday as Rosh Hashanah rushed in. Instead, I used those last few hours to curl up with a good book (well, two good books) and enter the Jewish New Year calmly and with anticipation rather than racing the clock with rushed dread of not finishing and disappointing. Disappointing whom? I guess myself.

Now, ten days later, I finish this post minutes before Yom Kippur begins because after some time for reflection, this is how I want to start my new year. Right. Now.

***

In the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, I thought about the secular new year, eight months ago, when newlyweds Veronica and Brian and nearly a hundred friends and family members and I took plane, train, and automobile to reach Sacred Valley, Peru.

Mere days before the wedding ceremony, I met most of the guests in Lima at the rooftop cocktail reception that started our ten-day wedding extravaganza. While in the capital, we toured the city, tested the choppy Pacific waters, bought more alpaca gifts than any sane person should, and ate and drank.

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Each evening brought a party and each party brought music and dancing. There was a rocking ukulele at the rehearsal dinner. And the dance floor at the wedding opened with Veronica and Brian’s first dance (with a well-rehearsed lift) and ended with la hora loca, the “crazy hour” that went on well into the morning, leaving everyone covered in confetti, dressed in flowered necklaces and Incan headdresses, and dancing with human-sized furry cuy – guinea pigs – that, when not entertaining, serve as traditional Andean dinner rather than childhood pet. 

After the four days of wedding festivities, the adventure began with that plane-train-automobile trip to Sacred Valley, not too far from the Incan capital of Cusco.

After settling in to our new digs, we started up the New Year’s Eve party, complete with beer and wine and coca tea, with streamers and sparklers and silly hats (and a certain bride wearing traditional yellow underwear). We barely made it to midnight before we started dropping off like flies, mumbling something about setting a 5 am alarm and where’d I put that raincoat and will they have breakfast for us.

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The next morning, I dragged my groggy self out of bed, tied on my just-barely-broken-in hiking books, and surrendered to a backpack filled with every possible item I just might need. Bug spray and sunscreen. Poncho. Protein bars. Water. More water. T-shirt. Long-sleeved shirt. Hat. Change of socks. Flashlight.

A short bus ride, and we walked past a flurry of retail activity to get to the train that would get us to the Inca trail. Along that short walk, hawkers cried out their wares. Good hat to protect from sun! Coca gum for altitude! Umbrella! Hiking stick!

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The train dropped us off at KM104 and we started out the first day of the New Year under a brilliant sun.

From this side of the mountain, eight months later, the details are a blessed blur. There were ups and downs, zigs and zags, slippery rocks, narrow cliffs, rain and wind, and never enough water. The poncho went on and off and on again as the weather changed moods like Mercury himself.

By the end of the first mile, I was falling back. By the end of the second mile, I was holding up the caboose. There were a few of us back there, pacing ourselves, enjoying the view, breathing the air. Or, perhaps merely catching our breath. Or, many breaths. We crawled up the nearly vertical “gringo killer” stairs, and caught a few more breaths. We climbed the just-100-more, I-mean-200-more , I-mean-350-more, see-you’re-almost-there steps. Guides can be cruel like that.

And then, we really were almost there. We reached Intipunkuthe Sun Gate. As the clouds parted and the fog lifted and we shed our rain gear, we shared a clear view of Machu Picchu that those who had rushed ahead of us missed.

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We all made it up. We all made it down. We all returned to explore Machu Picchu the next day.

Which, strangely enough, brings us back to that fish photographed up top.

On Rosh Hashanah, we decorate our table with fish or lambs’ heads, or just a whole roasted fish. We make a blessing that we be like the head, and not the tail. A leader, and not a follower. And not someone who falls behind.

Earlier this summer, in June, I bought paiche, a sustainable Peruvian fish because it was on sale and its thick, firm fillets looked like they would cook perfectly evenly. No head. No tail. Just the good stuff in the middle. I asked Facebook whether anyone had ideas about how to cook the fish, and continued to haphazardly throw items in my basket. Brian, now settled into Lima, and waiting for Veronica to join him, embraced his new heritage and suggested that I “cook it in some banana leaves! Amazon style.”

I looked in my pantry, and just could not find any banana leaves. Crazy, that. No banana leaves. But I tucked the idea away for another day.

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I did however remember a spicy fish dish that I had I had dogeared in Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem months prior. I skimmed through the recipe and it looked pretty simple. Pan fry some fish, add a few pantry staples, and voilà, a quick dinner. Or so I thought.

Had I read the instructions top to bottom, I might have realized that this was no quick dish. Three hours of well-past-prime-time-TV marinating and pan frying and stirring and simmering and saucing on a night when I had wanted to eat minutes after key in door, I was annoyed. I finally sat down with fork and knife at 11 pm.

I stayed annoyed until the next afternoon, when, over a lunch of leftover paiche and couscous, I read my friend Leah‘s blog post entitled “Are we being held hostage by the 30-minute meal?“. Leah is writing her second cookbook (you might recognize a few recipes from here in her first!) and was testing time-intensive chocolate babka after time-intensive chocolate babka after time-intensive chocolate babka until she got the recipe just right. During these hours upon hours of kneading, rising, waiting, twisting, baking, cooling , Leah found herself considering quick, get-it-on-the-table cooking versus the attention and time for reflection afforded by more complex recipes.

“When we allow everyday cooking to be the only cooking we do,” Leah says, “I think we ultimately lose out. By elevating and idealizing the 30-minute meal, we inherently discredit any recipe that takes longer to make. We abandon the deeper pleasure of tackling a difficult recipe head-on and emerging on the other side, battle-scarred but victorious. “

I realized the next day that I had indeed gone to bed victorious. emerging with merely a small battle-scar burn on my finger. Because, man, that fish was good. And the prior evening was calm, the work sometimes complex, sometimes messy, sometimes slow. Once I realized that this was going to be an evening project, I got there on my own pace. I breathed. And then breathed again.

Reflecting on the my Peruvian New Year, and my Brooklyn Rosh Hashanah, and my Brooklyn Yom Kippur, I wish for me and for you the ability to lead well and follow well, to slow down and watch the fog clear, to enjoy the quiet moments, to accept the scars, and to just get through it however you do.

This year in particular is one of new beginnings for me, and I hope to embrace each experience and learn from it. Before I get all hokey on you, l’m going to escape to light some candles. Let’s hope I don’t burn myself on the match.

L’shana tova and G’mar chatima tova. Let each and every one of us have a good year, a safe, easy, and meaningful fast, and a year of beautiful moments.

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Pan-fried paiche with harissa and rose

The original recipe in Jerusalem calls for sea bass, but I figured that any firm white fish would be a good substitute. I found paiche, a South American fish, on sale and it worked perfectly. I suspect halibut or snapper would be great too. I left out the currants. This fish is spicy. Really spicy. I made the recipe with a full 3 tablespoons of harissa and next time I’ll only use 2 tablespoons. I had to serve it with couscous to counteract the spiciness. I happened to have some dried rosebuds tucked away in the back of my pantry, originally purchased as tea infusions. I’d say they’re completely optional, but are lovely for color if you have them. 

The longest part of this recipe is marinating for 2 hours, and then cooking takes about 45 minutes. I don’t think the recipe will suffer if you marinate it in the morning and leave it, covered, in the refrigerator, until evening or if you give it a quick 30-minute counter top marinate.

Serves 3-4

- 2-3T harissa, divided in half for marinade and sauce

-1 t ground cumin

- 1 lb firm white fish, skin removed (paiche, sea bass, snapper, halibut, etc.)

- all purpose flour, for dusting

- 2 medium onions

- 2 T olive oil

- 6.5 T red wine vinegar (~1/3 C plus 1 T)

- 1 t ground cinnamon

- scant 1 C water

- 1.5 t honey

- 1 T rose water

- 1 T mint leaves (optional)

- 1 t dried edible rose petals (optional)

- salt and pepper

Marinate. Cut the fish into 3 or 4 pieces. Mix together half the harissa (1-1.5 T, depending on how spicy you like things), cumin, and a few pinches of salt in a bowl. Pat the fish dry and then coat with the marinade on all sides. Place the fish on a plate and let marinate for 2 hours in the fridge. While I normally marinate meat in a plastic bag, fish is too delicate and might fall apart.

Slice. Slice the onions into half moons. The original recipe calls for finely chopping the onion, but I like the longer strips.

Fry. Spread a handful of flour onto another plate. Dredge the marinated fish fillets through the flour and gently shake off the excess. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat and fry the fish for two minutes on each side. Remove the fish, but keep the oil in the pan.

Cook. Now that the fish is out of the pan, add the sliced onions and cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring, until the onions are golden. Add the remaining harissa (1-1.5 T), vinegar, cinnamon, a few pinches of salt, and several grinds of pepper.

Simmer. Pour in the water, lower the heat, and let the sauce simmer gently for 10-15 minutes, until quite thick. Add the honey and rose water to the pan, and simmer gently for another 5 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning and salt. Return the fish fillets to the pan. Spoon sauce over the fish as it warms up in the simmering sauce. This should take about 3 minutes. If the sauce gets too thick, add a few tablespoons of water.

Sprinkle. Serve the fish warm or at room temperature with some couscous. Sprinkle with torn mint leaves and crumbled rose petals. Keep the couscous and a glass of water nearby.

good roommates

The first time I liked eggplant was in London. Until then, I was one of the many eggplant haters. The flesh too bitter, too slimy. The skin too rubbery. My mouth too itchy with each bite.

Babaghanoush? No thank you. Eggplant parm? Nope, I make it with zucchini. Ratatouille? I’ll pass.

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And then, sitting in the Japanese restaurant  a block from her flat, Lau ordered the aubergine that changed my hating ways.

Lau and I worked at the same company, me in New York, her in London. We first met when she was on secondment to our New York office, and I lived a dozen blocks uptown from her, and after late nights in the office, we used to share a taxi home.

Around the time she returned to the UK, I started working with a client in Germany. I’d bookend every trip with a few days in London. You know, to make sure I wasn’t jetlagged for client meetings. Once my project was over, I took advantage of our cross-Atlantic company and worked out of our UK office every few months. I’d stay on Lau’s orange pull-out couch. Each time I visited, there was more framed art on the wall. They were mostly Lau’s paintings. And there was that five-foot piece she’d managed to get past security and onto a plane as her carry-on.

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We made good roommates. I’d stock her fridge with groceries and make dinner with her limited appliances. (She had no oven. For real. No oven. I had my work cut out for me.) She’d order in sushi from the place down the street. The same place every time. We’d eat on our laps on that orange couch. After dinner, Lau would make a pot of milky tea. And then usually we’d have to pull out our laptops and work.

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For a few years, I thought that the sushi place was take-out/delivery only. When we walked past it on the way to the tube every morning, I never noticed that there were seats inside. One night, with bags slung over our shoulders, we walked in. The little sushi place was long and narrow, at least twenty tables between the street and the kitchen hidden away behind a red and black curtain.

We ordered more sushi than two people should ever eat in one sitting. Those paper lists with the check boxes and the little nubby pencil, they get me every time. Just as the waiter was about to turn away, long list triumphantly in hand, Lau gestured him back. “Oh, and can we have the aubergine?” He nodded.

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I looked at Lau head tilted, brows furrowed. “You’ll love it, trust me.” And that was that.

The waiter set on our table two golden sticky eggplant halves, mirror images of each other. Lau scooped out the flesh and took a bite. I scooped out the flesh and took a sniff.  Sweet, and a little smoky. I raised fork to mouth and took a nibble. Sweet, salty, smooth, silky. Several scoops later, there was only thin crispy skin left. And there there was just a plate with a few golden brown sticky pools where eggplant had sat just a few minutes earlier.

I turned into an eggplant lover. I’ve never turned back.

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Nasu dengaku

I have dreamed about this caramelized salty sweet miso-glazed eggplant since the day I had it years ago, and after a few tries, I got the recipe right. I used the eggplant roasting technique from Ottolenghi’s Plenty and the miso glaze recipe from Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy.  Make sure to cross hatch the flesh so the eggplant cooks quickly and evenly, and the glaze seeps into the flesh during the second roasting. You’ll have some extra sauce which would be great on roasted vegetables or with tofu. I’ve been able to find miso in Whole Foods and health food stores. 

Serves 2 as a side dish or starter. 

- 2 thin-skinned eggplants (small Italian or long thin Japanese)

- 3 T olive oil

- 2 1/2  T sesame oil, divided (1 T for the eggplant and 1 1/2 T for the miso dressing)

- salt and pepper

- 2 T white miso

- 1 t mirin

- 1/2 t white sugar

- 3-4 T warm water

- 2 green onions

- 2 T sesame seeds

Prep. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Put one rack in the middle of the oven and another just under the broiler. Line a baking sheet with parchment or aluminum foil.

Cut. Slice the eggplants in half lengthwise through the green stalk. Use a small sharp knife to cross-hatch the flesh without cutting through the skin.

Roast. Arrange the eggplant halves, cut side up, on the lined baking sheet. Mix the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of sesame oil in a small bowl. Brush the eggplant flesh with the oil mixture, and keep brushing until all of the oil has been absorbed. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Go light on the salt because the miso is pretty salty itself. Roast the eggplant for about 20 minutes. They’re ready when they start to brown and the softened flesh pulls away from the cross-hatch cuts. 

Whisk. While the eggplant is roasting, whisk the miso, mirin, and sugar into a paste. Stir in enough warm water (I needed 3 tablespoons) to thin the mix to a smooth consistency.

Slice and toast. Thinly slice the green onions on a bias. Spill the sesame seeds into a small pan over medium-high heat. Shake the pan occasionally and remove from the burner when the seeds are golden brown and smell nutty (about 5 minutes). Watch closely so that the sesame seeds don’t burn.

Broil. Remove the eggplant and brush with the miso glaze. Turn on the broiler. Place the eggplant on the top rack and watch carefully. Within about a minute, the glaze will start to bubble and caramelize. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes before eating.

Serve. Sprinkle the eggplant with the green onion and toasted sesame seeds.

I pause

Meyer lemons

The weeks following February 22nd were the lemoniest weeks of my life. On that Friday, a box of two dozen child-picked Meyer lemons landed on my doorstep. (Thanks Jo!).

And just over a month later, I used up the last of these thin-skinned, almost sweet lemons. It was Passover and I zested the final five into macaroons.

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I was actually relieved to be done with all of those lemons. Which is strange. Or at least strange for me.

See, lemons and I have a funny relationship. There’s always at least one rolling around in my fridge or perched in a bowl on my counter. But instead of reaching for one when a recipe calls for its juice, I pause.

What if there’s another recipe just around the corner that really needs a lemon or two. Chicken skewers tomorrow? Joanne Chang‘s lemon poppy seed cake over the weekend?

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lemon poppy seed cake

So, I pause.

And then today’s salad gets dressed with a mild vinegar. One made from rice or maybe apple cider.

The first week I had the Meyers, I meted them out. I made some scones with fresh cranberries and another batch with blueberries and then hoarded the rest.

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Soon the irrational fear that I wouldn’t have a lemon when I needed it was replaced with a slightly more rational one.

What if those lemons go bad?

So there I was, struggling to use up all the lemons.

I scoured cookbook index after cookbook index for recipes that needed lemons.  

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I found recipes that feature lemons.

preserved lemons

I added lemons to recipes that don’t call for them. And that’s how I came up with Meyer lemon coconut macaroons.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALucky for me, last week when I was in San Francisco, Jo and I met for coffee. I now have another twenty lemons in my fridge.

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***

Before we get to the recipe, here are a few links I’ve been meaning to share.

Gabrielle Hamilton‘s article about a road trip to cook and eat with five home chefs in the South.

And while you’re at it, listen to the Tedx talk  that Penny de los Santos, the photographer who accompanied Gabrielle down South: “Yeah, I photograph food. I’m a a food photographer. But really what I do is capture human moments.”

Saveur senior editor Gabriella Gershenson’s writes about a trip to the Galilee (don’t forget the photos).

Jonathan Safran Foer’s opinion piece in the New York Times about the negative impact technology is having on our ability to provide undivided attention. “Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life.”

The Huffington Post on Sushi Yasusa’s recent decision to not accept tips.

***

Meyer lemon coconut macaroons

Adapted from Jess at Sweet Amandine who adapted it from Molly at Orangette who adapted it from Bon Appetit. The genius in Jess’s recipe is that it uses unsweetened coconut so you can control the level of sugar. Next time I’ll use even less sugar. 

Makes 40 small macaroons

- 3 C (9 ounces) lightly packed unsweetened shredded coconut

- 1 1/2 C granulated sugar

- 3/4 C egg whites (about 5 or 6 large)

- 1-2 pinches kosher salt

- 5 Meyer lemons (or 3 regular lemons) for zest

Preheat oven to 300ºF.

Heat. In a medium heavy-bottom pan, mix the coconut, sugar, egg whites, and kosher salt. Stir in zest. Cook over medium-low heat stirring frequently, for 10-12 minutes. It will start out looking sticky and creamy. As the mix heats, it will become drier and pastier. It’s ready when the mixture is still somewhat moist and still very sticky. Refrigerate the mix until cold, approximately 30 minutes.

Scoop. Line two cookie sheets with parchment. Once the mixture is cooled, scoop level tablespoons of  it onto the parchment, leaving about an inch between (they won’t spread). If you want your macaroons to be smooth, you can roll the spoonfuls into balls, but I prefer to leave them a little shaggy.

Bake.  Bake for 30 minutes until the coconut toasts and browns slightly. They should still be a little soft. As they cool, they’ll harden a bit.

Store. Keep the macaroons in an airtight container. They’ll soften a bit by the next day.

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