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bonus days

Settle in, friends, for a few paragraphs of sunshine and relaxation that looking back make me long for the week my sister Robyn and I spent in Turks and Caicos in July.

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Our goal was to not have to think plan choose hike nothing. We found a reasonable all-inclusive resort built on the sand with good enough food and no need to even slide into flip flops, the water was so close to our room.

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Hammocks are my jam, so I spent a lot of time reading* in this one, and R bought the inner tube that allowed me to read in the pool as well, drifting side to side, one hand dragging in the water, wet fingerprints on the pages with each turn. (We left the pineapple behind for a bartender’s kids who played with it one day.)

The first five days of vacation were remarkable in their utterly perfect unremarkable-ness. Wake food beach food pool nap drink ocean hammock food drink lounge. One day we went to the gym. To stretch. Or at least that’s all I did there.

But from the moment we landed, I knew I wanted to extend the vacation. When the customs officer asked me how I was, I told him I was great and wanted to stay forever. The day before we were supposed to head home, I pulled the trigger and swapped out our tickets for one last day in the turquoise water.

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After booking an extra night in our room, we arranged for the next day our first foray off the resort properties (well, my sister had ridden a bike into town a time or two) – a day on a boat, snorkeling in the reefs for our bonus day.

My attempt to capture anything below the surface with my waterproof case clad phone resulted not in schools of yellow-tailed robin’s egg blue fish or fluorescent white-tipped black fish or waving branches of chartreuse seaweed. Rather, I’m left with nearly fifty fuzzy photos of water or one of my fingers blocking the lens. Instead, I give you an iguana hiding in the shadows on our last stop of the day.

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Back on dry land and in service range, I got a text from the airline: due to a storm in New York, we could change our flights without penalty. Out of concern for our safety – and truly only out of concern for our safety – we decided to stay one more night.

Bonus day number two!

Already scraping the bottom of our budget, we switched to a less expensive hotel (decision!), fended for food ourselves (more decisions!), and had to cross the street if we wanted to go to the beach (effort!).

Turns out exploring was good for us, and we were ready for it. R found an adorable flower slash coffee shop that we visited once, twice, (and she thrice). Across the street is vegetarian cafe Retreat Kitchen where we got lunch and found out about their adjacent yoga studio. More on that in a moment.

That last night, we stayed in the water – salty and buoyant enough for easy floating without the pineapple left behind – until the sun met the sea.

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Now, plastered on the window of that studio was an announcement about morning yoga overlooking the water at the Beach Enclave.

Which is how at 8 am on our (really, truly, no joke this time) last day, we ended up here…

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… doing downward dog, overlooking the water …

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… sweating our sports bras off. Suppressing giggles when I tipped over backwards during some sort of squat thing, rolled a few times like in Pilates to save face, and took a moment of repose in what I learned was shavasana (dead man’s pose) under the most barely detectable of fan-driven breezes.

From yoga to breakfast, we returned to Retreat Kitchen and took our food to go. I went straight to the beach with a bottle fresh watermelon juice and an unseasonable but delightful toast, sipping an affogato as my morning coffee because that’s what vacation is for, right?

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I parked myself on a low chair at the edge of the water, face towards the sun, waves slowly burying the frame and lapping at my tush as the chair sunk deeper and deeper into the soft sand.

***

Though I intended to publish this story over a month ago, it seems that this will be my pre-Rosh Hashanah post which always lends itself to some sort of reflection and wish. So, for 5779, I hope for the world a year of unremarkable times of normalcy and calm punctuated by bonus days of warmth (physical and emotional), sunshine (in the sky and in our hearts), beauty (inside and out), delectable food, friends and family and strangers to share it with, mistakes we can gracefully solve that we can giggle about later.

L’shana tova u’metukah to all those celebrating and Happy September to everyone else. With that, let’s eek out the last days of summer with one-ingredient watermelon juice, spiked if you’d like.

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Watermelon Juice

This recipe — if you can call it one — is inspired by our trip trip to Turks & Caicos and our meals at Retreat Kitchen.

Cut up a seedless watermelon and whizz it in a blender until completely liquified. Pour it through a fine-mesh strainer and discard the solids.

That’s it.

A squeeze of lime brightens the flavor.

If your watermelon isn’t sweet enough, add sugar until it tastes right.

If you want to get fancy, fill a dish with a 1:1 mix of sugar:sea salt. Wet the rim of your glass with a lime wedge, swirl it in the dish, and fill with juice.

If you want to get tipsy, stir in some tequila, vodka, or rum.

***

* ps – The book I read isn’t your typical beach read – it’s poet Nina RiggsThe Bright Hour, a delicate memoir of the author’s last years with terminal breast cancer. It’s hard to describe, but here’s an excerpt first published in the NY Times Modern Love column. The book has been compared to Paul Kalanithi‘s When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir of a neurosurgeon’s last years with terminal lung cancer. In a twist that can only be called poetic, Nina suggested that her husband connect with Paul’s widow and the two eventually coupled up. The Bright Hour is beautiful and good for a cleansing – but not sad – cry.

I just got back from vacation (more on that soon, pinky swear) and while I miss having a made-to-order omelette (tomato-mushroom-cheese, thank you very much) every morning draped over a pre-split English muffin (all I had to do was lower the halves into the toaster) and sidling up to a rainbow of orange, green, and pink melon slices, it’s still good to be back in the kitchen.

Most of my meals since coming home have been no-cook affairs, essentially lots of salads. But Sunday morning felt like pancake time and I begrudgingly fired up the stove. (My apartment layout is such that even with the a/c on full blast, the kitchen is warm and stuffy, even before I start cooking.)

In an attempt to detox after snacking on fries everyday for a week, I created a higher-ish protein breakfast, replacing buttermilk with yogurt and using a bit of garbanzo flour. I dotted the pancakes with a pint of blueberries threatening to shrivel if they sat one more day on the counter.

The result was a little less fluffy than my go-to pancakes, but otherwise a great addition to my weekend breakfast repertoire. I was feeling pretty proud of myself until I realized I had eaten half the batch. I put the remainder in a bag and in the freezer. Detox schmetox, I say.

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Blueberry yogurt (higher-ish protein) pancakes

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen. In trying to up the protein content of these, I substituted chickpea flour for rye. The batter is very thick – thicker than my normal pancake recipe – and it doesn’t bubble very much after a couple of minutes on the pan, so you’ll need to peek underneath to see when it’s time to flip. The pancakes aren’t very sweet, and I lightly sprinkle with white sugar rather than maple syrup which would hide the blueberry flavor.

Makes 12-14 4-inch pancakes

– 2 large eggs
– 1 C plain yogurt (I used 2%, a mix of regular and Greek because that’s what I had)
– 3-6 T milk
– 3T canola oil (plus extra for pan – I used a spray)
– 1/2 t vanilla extract
– 1/2 t lemon zest or 1/4 t lemon extract
– 1/2 C all-purpose flour
– 1/2 C whole wheat flour
– 1/4 C garbanzo (chickpea) flour
– 3 T sugar
– 1 T plus 1 t (i.e., 4 t) baking powder
– 1/2 t sea salt
– 1 C blueberries, rinsed and dried

Whisk. Whisk eggs and yogurt together in a medium/large bowl. If you use regular yogurt, you don’t need to add any milk; a thick Greek – add enough to thin it out to the consistency of cake batter, dripping from the whisk in a thin (not skinny) stream. Whisk in oil, vanilla, and lemon zest or extract.

Layer. Add the flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a layer over the wet ingredients. Gently stir them to mix just the dry ingredients. (Or you could dirty another bowl for the dry ingredients).

Stir. With a spatula, stir the dry into the wet only until the dry ingredients are moistened. A few lumps are ok. If you over-mix, the pancakes will be dense. The batter will be thick and when you drag your spatula through it, it will leave behind a trail of bubbles, the action of the baking powder.

Cook, flip, repeat. Heat a pan (I used a cast-iron one) over medium heat and spray sparingly with canola oil (or use whatever fat you’d like). The pan is hot enough when you flick a few drops of water on the surface and they jump around and dance. Drop a scant 1/4 cup (about 3 tablespoons) of batter at a time, leaving space between each pancake. Press a small handful of berries into the top of each pancake. When the pancakes are dry around the edges and golden brown on the bottom, about 3 to 4 minutes, flip them and cook for another 3 minutes until golden underneath as well. (Start by making one small pancake at a time so you can adjust the flame to the right temperature before making the rest of the batch. Despite what they say about the pancake, I just think of it as the cook’s treat.) Continue to adjust the heat as necessary.

Serve. Pile the pancakes high and serve with plain white sugar.

 

 

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Last weekend, a good friend threw a birthday party, complete with a candy bar (as in a bar stocked with candies like green apple licorice and jelly beans stacked by color in sand art layers) and a piñata. Let me just state here and now that whacking a papier mâché unicorn blind-folded until it poops a rainbow of sweets is something we as a society must do more of. It was the best of childhood, with alcohol.

As for that alcohol, my friend charged me with mixers. Despite a stash of just-in-case just-add-spirits lemon drop and appletini, I of course couldn’t leave easy enough alone. With a hope, a need, for Spring to stick around for more than a day or two at a time, I conjured a vision of something fresh and verdant, something that smelled (visions have scents, right?) of morning-mowed grass flooded by an afternoon shower.

My first (and only) thought: spa water. Yes, that cucumber-infused concoction that’s supposed to pamper and relax you. Add lime for brightness, mint to cool things off, and just enough sugar to remind you that you’re not eating a salad. But, if you want, you can think of it as salad.

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Spa-tail (cucumber-lime-mint) mixer

This makes a big match of mixer that you can spike with gin or vodka for as strong or as weak a drink as you’d like. My favorite combination for one cocktail is 1/2 cup mixer, 2 tablespoons (1 oz) gin, and a splash of Cointreau (or other orange liqueur). If you want to make up a big batch in advance, add to the 6 cups of mixer 1 1/2 cups of gin or vodka, and 1/2 cup of Cointreau.

The mixer does separate, so make sure to shake or stir well before pouring. 

Makes 6 cups of mixer

– 3 large English cucumbers, unpeeled and roughly chopped, plus 1/2 cucumber, unpeeled and thinly sliced for garnish

– 1/2 C packed mint leaves (about 80)

– 1 C simple syrup (boil 3/4 C water with 3/4 C sugar until dissolved; allow to cool)

– 1 C fresh lime juice (about 2 lbs)

– kosher salt

Puree. In a blender, puree the cucumbers and mint until as smooth as possible. You should have about 5 cups of mush.

Strain. Strain through a fine sieve, using a spoon to press down on any solids. This should yield 4 cups of juice.

Mix. Add the simple syrup, lime juice, and a big three-finger pinch of salt, and mix (or put in a large jar and shake).

Serve. Stir in vodka or gin, and a splash of Cointreau as above, or to your own liking. Float a few slices of cucumber on top.

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Big surprise: another soup.

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‘Tis the season, clearly.

You could call this one a lazy cook’s version of stuffed cabbage, essentially unstuffed cabbage in broth. It’s a throwback to my Eastern European roots, though it took me until my late twenties before even trying the traditional stuffed version. My reaction was mixed. The meat was dense, as if the leaves were rolled too tight, and studded with raisins. (Raisins! I plucked them out as best I could.) The sauce was on the too-sweet side but it did had a tart kick and a glossy silkiness that had me sprinkling it with salt and sopping it up with pieces of challah torn off the end of the loaf. I’ve only eaten stuffed cabbage a few more times since, and making it myself seemed a bit of a potscke.

Enter this winter when I’ve found myself eating soup for lunch or dinner at least five days a week. And ground beef in the freezer and a cabbage head rolling around the bin at the bottom of my fridge. I made the soup once. And then I made it again, tweaking and taking notes until I came up with my perfect savory-sweet-sour-spicy balance.

I played around with traditional (vinegar, paprika) and not-so-traditional (sumac, chili flakes) ingredients to get the tangy results I wanted. I also texted my Ukrainian-born sestra (Russian for sister, though we’re not officially related) Marina with questions. Do you put garlic in? NO! What do you put in your sauce? She sent a photo of a can with Cyrillic writing and a Chef Boyardee lookalike. It’s sweet, she said. Eh, I said.

Curious about the “true” taste profile of stuffed cabbage (I should have known there’s no single answer), I turned to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Jewish food historian extraordinaire, the late Gil Marks. In his multi-page entry on the subject, he traces this peasant food’s eastward path from Turkey and/or Persia and talks about differences in palates across different geographies. Seems that, like the “gefilte line” (talk to Jeff Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern about that), there is a distinct preference for sweet in Galicia (today’s southern Poland and northern Ukraine) where sugar beet factories were common – or, actually a sweet-sour combination. North of Galicia is savory stuffed cabbage, and in gefilte fish this translates to being all about the pepper.

Then I went down a rabbit hole, poking around the family tree that my sister started a few years ago to remind myself where my greats and great-greats and great-great-greats and even great-great-great-greats were born. Essentially, my father’s side of the family is from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (our last name used to be Skversky) and came to the US in the 1880s; my mother’s side is from Poland, Germany, and Hungary, coming over after WWII. So, both in and north of Galicia and that savory-sweet-sour-spicy preference makes sense.

Marina calls stuffed cabbage golubtzi. In my reading (Gil, again), I learned that the name comes from the diminutive form of the word dove – golub in Russian, holub in Ukrainian, golab in Polish – because all those cabbage rolls packed into the pot looked like cute little birds huddling together in a nest. Marina was floored when I mentioned this to her, I never thought of that, she said. Made all the funnier because she calls my sister (Robyn) ptichka – little bird.

I poked around in some of my other cookbooks to see what twists on stuffed cabbage I could find. First up, Jeff and Liz in their Gefilte Manifesto mix kimchi into their meat filling and sauce. Leah Koenig makes a soup in Modern Jewish Cooking that’s a mix of chorizo, cabbage, tomato, and potato. And my friend Meira told me about a soup she used to make that had ground beef and sauerkraut in it. Seems like there are a lot more variations to explore before Spring finally arrives.

(Thanks Inna for the great blue and white plates!)

***

This past week, I happened to go to two interesting dance performances, both of which explored identity, specifically Jewish identity. First was Ka’et Ensemble – a contemporary Israeli dance company comprised of only religious men. Their performance “Heroes” – described here – looks at different male roles and dichotomies such as secular/religious, spiritual/physical, strong/weak, and how they can influence each other, how there can be an ebb and flow. The other performance was Hadar Ahuvia‘s “Everything you have is yours?” – also discussed in the New York Times –  in which the choreographer and two other dancers show and tell and question the origins of Israeli folk dance, raising issues of cultural appropriation and looking internally into her own biases and assumptions.

I’d really love to get back to dance one of these days.

Unstuffed cabbage soup

Makes a generous 3 quarts

Make sure to taste taste taste as you go. I’ve put total amounts of salt and spices as a guide, but this may not work for you, so see where I suggest you taste and adjust along the way. Use a big Dutch oven – mine was 7 quarts – because there is a lot of cabbage to add. It eventually cooks down, but it’s easier if you can put it in all at one time.

If you don’t want to add the grains, use only half a can of water or the soup will be too thin.

– 1-2 t olive oil
– 1 lb ground beef
– 2 large onions, roughly chopped into medium-sized pieces
– 1 T kosher salt (I’m using Diamond Crystal these days, which is less salty than others)
– freshly ground pepper
– 2 t sumac
– 3-4 t hot paprika
– 1 t hot chili flakes
– 1/2 head celery (about 6 stalks), sliced into 1/2-inch chunks (about 1 1/2 C)
– 1/2 head cabbage, roughly chopped into bite-sized pieces (about 8 C)
– 1/4 C brown sugar
– 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes – don’t throw out the can because you’ll use it to measure water to add
– 3 T red wine or sherry vinegar
– 1 1/2 C cooked wheat berries or other grain (freekeh, barley, rice, etc.)
– Fresh parsley, chopped

Saute. Just barely cover the bottom of a big Dutch oven with olive oil – you don’t need much at all – and place over medium-high heat. Crumble ground beef into the pot and stir around, breaking up any clumps until it turns from pink to brown (but no need to really brown it until it develops a crust) and releases liquid and fat, about 7 minutes. Drain the beef and set aside, leaving the fat/liquid in the pot.

Stir. Drop the flame to medium and then cook the onion in the meat juice. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt, a few grinds of pepper, the sumac, 2 teaspoons hot paprika, and the chili flakes. Cover. Cook until softened but not browned, about 10 minutes. The onion will, however, turn brown as it absorbs all of the meat juice. Add a little water if the pot gets too dry. Stir in the celery and cabbage. Keep stirring until the cabbage wilts. Taste a piece of cabbage to see if it needs more spice or salt and adjust accordingly. I found it needed more salt so I added another teaspoon. Stir in the brown sugar. It will taste too sweet, but the rest of the ingredients will dilute the sugar.

Simmer. Add the meat back to the pot and pour in the tomatoes followed by 2 cans of water. Bring to a boil and then a slow simmer. Add the vinegar. Taste again – at this point I added another teaspoon of salt and 2 teaspoons hot paprika.

Submit. Add in the cooked wheat berries and continue to simmer until the cabbage completely submits, about 30 more minutes. Taste along the way, adding salt or spice or vinegar or sugar.

Serve. Serve with parsley.

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the soupiest

Winter is soup time chez moi. Probably chez toi as well. When the temperature drops – and whew, how it’s dropped! – all I want is hot lunch or dinner in a bowl that I can warm my hands around and lift to my lips when too tired or lazy to bother with a spoon until I get to the bottom. Since Thanksgiving, I’ve pulled down a rainbow of cocottes (Dutch ovens, if you must) from the narrow space between my kitchen cabinets and the ceiling. There was a riff on Marcella’s tomato sauce, Joanne Chang’s hot and sour soup thickened with not cornstarch but egg swirled in like the egg-drop soup of my childhood, a return to my long-ago Ukrainian roots with an unstuffed cabbage soup, and a clean-out-the-fridge minestrone.

Today’s soup is tortilla — piquant with jalapeño, loaded with shredded chicken (that you sear in the pot so as not to dirty an extra pan) and black beans, scented with cilantro, doused in lime, and topped with baked stale tortillas (or crispy chips if you have them around) and avocado. It’s kept me going the past few days and I froze a quart to save me the next time I’m resigned to Rice Krispies for dinner.

On another note, since I know you check this blog every few days (ha!) and have been wondering where I’ve been (ha!), I wish I had a fun story to tell. There’s been lots of family time and a bit of travel over a bunch of holidays, an intense project that required a recovery longer than the work itself, and a good number of library books. There are a bunch of recipes that I’ve written up and just need to get out there, so stay tuned.

In the interim, here are some things that are worth checking out, while warming up with a steaming bowl in the soupiest time of year.

This article and music video.

Photos from a pencil factory.

I love flour tortillas and use them in this soup even though most recipes call for corn – this made me feel less bad about it.

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Tortilla soup

Inspired by Simply Recipes and The Pioneer Woman

This is the type of soup that’s an entire meal. I’d say a serving is about 2 cups, and then you’re good for the afternoon or evening. Kale is clearly not traditional, but I wanted to slip in some extra vegetables. Leave it in, leave it out, or add in other vegetables – corn (frozen works just fine here), bell peppers, and maybe some small diced butternut squash or other pumpkin. 

This has a nice heat, but you could definitely add another half jalapeño if you like things on the spicier side or a tablespoon or so of chipotle in adobo sauce (I always have leftovers when I make this vegetarian chili, a smooth black bean soup with a kick, or salpicon and then freeze it in ice cube trays in one-tablespoon scoops). Make sure to add a squeeze of lime before you serve, and don’t skimp on toppings either – especially fresh cilantro and, of course, the tortilla strips.

Makes just under 3 quarts (12 cups)

– 3-4 T extra-virgin olive oil, divided
– 3 boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs, any large pieces cut in half
– Kosher salt and pepper
– 1 – 1.5 onion, roughly chopped (1 – 1.5 C)
– 1 jalapeno, seeds and ribs removed, minced
– 3-4 cloves garlic, crushed
– 1½ t cumin
– 1 t coriander
– 1 t chili powder
– 1/2 t garlic powder
– 1/2 t onion powder
– 10-12 stems kale, sliced into small pieces (2 cups)
– 28 oz can black beans, rinsed and drained
– 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
– 4 C chicken or vegetable broth
– 1/2 bunch cilantro (10-12 stems), stems wrapped in twine so you can easily remove
– 1-2 limes, cut into quarters or sixths, depending on the size of the citrus

Toppings: tortilla strips (recipe below, or store-bought), extra shredded chicken, avocado, finely diced red onion, chopped tomatoes,

Cook. Pour enough extra-virgin olive oil, about 3 tablespoons, to cover the bottom of a medium to large heavy-bottomed pot (I used a 4-quart Staub cocotte – thanks Mom! – which was just big enough), and turn heat to medium. Once oil is hot (a drop of water should make it splatter), add 3 chicken breasts or thighs and a large pinch of salt and a grind or two of pepper. Sear on one side until the chicken forms a crust and releases itself from the pot, about 10 minutes. Turn over and repeat, cooking until the chicken is just done on the inside. Remove and set aside to cool. When cool to the touch, shred the chicken with your fingers.

Saute. Add 1 more tablespoon olive oil to pot if too dry. Add onion and jalapeño pepper, and saute for 3-5 minutes until the vegetables start to soften but don’t brown. Stir in garlic, cumin, coriander, chili, garlic poster, and onion powder. Turn the heat down a tad if the garlic starts to burn. After a few minutes, add the kale and stir until it begins to wilt, another 3 minutes or so.

Boil and simmer. Add the black beans, tomatoes, broth, and cilantro. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes, then taste for salt and spice, adding salt and chili powder as necessary. Add most of the shredded chicken (set aside about a half-cup to use as a topping) and simmer for another 10 minutes. Remove the cilantro.

Serve. Ladle into large bowls. Top with a squirt of lime, extra chicken, slices of avocado, tortilla strips, cilantro leaves, fresh tomatoes, minced red onions, or some combination thereof. But do not skip the lime and fresh cilantro.

***

Baked tortilla strips

– 2 flour tortillas (I used whole wheat) or 3 corn tortillas
– 1-2 T extra-virgin olive oil
– 1/2 t kosher salt

Preheat. Heat the oven to 350ºF.

Cut. Using a large knife or pizza wheel, cut the tortillas into strips about 1/4-inch wide and 2-inches long.

Toss. Toss the strips with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet.

Bake. Bake for 7-10 minutes until toasted but not burnt. Allow to cool.

 

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Dorie Greenspan shared a recipe for Ispahan sablés in her New York Times column earlier this month, and it reminded me of the first time I tasted anything Ispahan almost exactly a decade ago. It was in Paris where I was spending several weeks taking dance classes and trying to figure out what to do after losing my job. While the flavor combination of rose, raspberry, and lychee is a signature of pastry chef Pierre Hermé (Dorie talks about him here), I first experienced it in the Ladurée salon on the grand Champs Elysée.

I was on a date with this guy, Reuben was his name. It wasn’t our first date, but our second.

For our first, we walked around the Latin Quarter, the Left Bank neighborhood where I had swapped apartments, checking out the Vélib’ bikes that sat dormant, ready for their grand opening the following week. We perched on the still stationary bikes and pretended to ride around town. We sat next to statues, emulating their poses. We got crêpes and I was schooled on the best way to order them: citron sucrée – a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar.

For our second date, Reuben wanted to share a classic Right Bank experience. We sat in a dim corner on a robin’s egg blue tapestry-covered banquette, voyeurs to the choreography of waiters, the bustling of the tourist-filled dining room in the Ladurée salon I mentioned earlier. Some food and a few glasses of wine in, it was time for dessert. I had never tried a macaron, so Reuben ordered what he said was the best one in the city. (Parisians are opinionated about their food, non?) It arrived: two bright pink meringues sandwiching rose cream, lychee bits, and the most perfect specimens of raspberries. This was a knife and fork kind of macaron, more cake than cookie and almost too pretty to dive into. Almost. The contrast of textures, the complement of flavors was quite possibly magical.

Reuben and I went out one more time, but then I moved on to Nice for the rest of the summer. His parting words: “I’ll always remember you as the girl who was lost in Paris.”

When I visited Paris this past June, one of my first stops was for an Ispahan macaron. It was a mini-one in a random patisserie with mere hints of rose and raspberry, mediocre at best, but the cookie is how I orient myself back to the city and it’s always on my day-one list.

My prior visit two years ago was a brief one, but I still managed to grab an Ispahan or two. I spent most of the time with Laurence and Gerald, sticking close to my Airbnb and their 17e arrondissement apartment. I was there to see them and to remind myself that I could visit the city of romance alone and do just fine.

And then this time, this summer, I made Paris my own again and could almost imagine myself living there. I stayed in Laurence and Gerald’s second bedroom in their picture-perfect Parisian apartment with floor to ceiling windows that let in dramatic shadows and sunlight, rooftop views, a strong cross breeze to cool everything down without air conditioning, shallow balconies, stairs spiraling an elevator whose door you have to push open, wrought iron everywhere, one (and only one) friendly neighbor, and one very cranky lobby attendant.

After snacking on that first mac of the trip, I made myself right at home in the city, hopping on the métro like a champ (indeed, google maps does help quite a bit), exploring parts of Paris that I know (le Marais) and those that I don’t (Montmartre, les Halles, the 11e). I joined a few food tours to get the lay of the land because the last time I really spent much time there, I wasn’t as into la cuisine as I am now.

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And yet, we didn’t eat out in many of the newer hot spots. I made it to Miznon and Fish La Boissonnerie and a neighborhood gem for couscous, but otherwise we ate at home. Gerald likes to cook – he owned a Lebanese restaurant in Strasbourg back in the day – so he treated Lau and me to dinner most nights. He even cleaned up – she’s got herself a winner, folks. Over the weekend, I popped to the outdoor market and overfilled my bag with peak fruits, croissants, and an obscene number of pastries, and we had a serious brunch before heading out to Clignancourt flea market – one of les puces – where I picked up some art and silverware and we mostly wandered through a maze of antique furniture.

It felt good. It felt comfortable. It felt normal. I felt like I could return without fanfare, without worry, without expectations. It was no longer a big deal.

Pierre Hermé’s Ispahan Sablés

This recipe comes straight from Dorie Greenspan’s in the New York Times, and I added a few small instructions based on my experience. The dough is really easy to work with. I’ve made roll and slice cookies in the past (another Dorie recipe) and ended up with holes in the middle from trapped air, but these cookies roll between your hands and the counter into perfectly solid cylinders. I wrapped the logs well and have frozen two of them when the need for a little sweetness strikes. 

There are a few ingredients that may require a special trip to the store (or Amazon). Sanding sugar is coarser than what you normally use, with crystals slightly smaller than sugar in the raw; it’s white and a little bit shimmery and often comes dyed. I dyed mine red with McCormick. Rose extract is much more intense than rose water and you need it here because sablés can’t take much moisture or they’ll lose their texture. I used Star Kay White brand – it’s pricey but you can use it in baking where you might normally use rose water, but a much, much smaller quantity. I used Whole Foods 365 freeze-dried raspberries, Dorie uses Trader Joe’s.

Makes about 5 dozen cookies

For the sugar:

– ¼ C (60 grams) sanding sugar

– ¼ t pure rose extract 

– Red liquid food coloring 

For the sablés:

– ½ C (10 grams) freeze-dried raspberries

– 1½ C (204 grams) all-purpose flour

– 11 T (155 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature

– ⅓ C (67 grams) sugar

– ½ t pure rose extract

– ¼ t fleur de sel

Color. Put the sanding sugar, extract, and 2 drops of coloring in a small zipper-lock plastic bag, seal the bag and shake until the color is even. Add more color if necessary to get to bright pink.

Crush. Put the raspberries between sheets of wax paper or in a zip-top bag, and crush them with a rolling pin or the bottom of a skillet. Don’t expect perfection — it’s fine to have mostly powder and a few small nuggets. Whisk the raspberries into the flour.

Beat. Working with a mixer, beat the butter at medium speed until it’s soft and creamy, but not airy, about 2 minutes. Add the sugar, extract, and fleur de sel, and beat 3 minutes more. Turn the mixer off, scrape down the bowl, add the flour mixture all at once and pulse the mixer on and off to begin incorporating the dry ingredients. Mix on low speed until the dough forms soft curds and then starts to clean the sides of the bowl (i.e., it wraps around the paddle and no longer sticks to the bowl). Give it a few last turns with a spatula, then scrape it out onto the counter.

Roll. Divide the dough into 4 pieces, and roll each into an 8-inch-long log. If you don’t have a ruler, use the short edge of a piece of paper (8.5 X 11 inches) as a guide.

Coat. Spread the sugar out on a piece of wax paper, and roll the logs in the sugar until they’re completely coated. Wrap each log in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 3 days.

Prep. When you’re ready to bake, position the racks to divide the oven into thirds, and preheat it to 325ºF. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Slice. Unwrap the logs, trim the ends if they’re ragged and cut the logs into ½-inch-thick rounds. Place them on the baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between each round.

Bake. Bake the cookies for 19 to 21 minutes, rotating the sheets top to bottom and front to back after 10 minutes, or until the cookies are firm around the edges and golden brown on the bottom; the tops will remain pale. Rest the sablés for 2 minutes, then transfer to cooling racks. Serve – or pack into a container – when the cookies come to room temperature.

 

Well, I’ve had a sourdough starter for about four months now and have used it for its intended purpose exactly once. The loaves were fine, nothing special, not particularly sour, way too dark, sorta spongy. Clearly I have lots of practicing to do but I haven’t felt up to the dedication and attention necessary to master a perfect sourdough loaf. Gosh, I haven’t even named my starter yet. (But I have named my robot vacuum the Noonoo. Any Teletubbies fans out there? Anyone? Naughty Noonoo!)

Despite my sourdough sloth, each week I diligently feed my starter. When I’ve filled a quart container with discard, I use it up. Luckily, because discard is typically a 1:1 ratio (by weight) of flour to water, recipes aren’t much different than others requiring flour and water, though with the addition of a little tang. I started with muffins and quickly moved on to crackers. And crackers are where I’ve gotten stuck. Stuck in the sense that I just can’t move on and see no reason to move on. Friends swear by pancakes and English muffins, so perhaps I’ll branch out one of these days, but for now, I’m happy right were I am. Every time I bake up a batch, I think to myself, “who am I? Have I become that annoying person who makes her own crackers?” Apparently I have. (Also, granola. Who seriously makes granola? I do, that’s who.)

While I’ve made some crazy shit — Sachertorte (one of only two multilayer, frosted cakes I’ve ever attempted), a Passover tart (who makes a coconut macaroon pressed crust on Passover), zwetschgendatschi (yeasted Bavarian plum tart), Cassatelle (ricotta turnovers , the dough rolled out in a pasta machine) — what amazes me the most is when I make in my own kitchen something I’d normally buy. Case in point: chocolate covered graham crackers like the ones my Bubbie used to bribe me to drink milk. Also, now, whole wheat crackers.

Before I get all in awe of myself, I have to come clean: these crackers are dead easy. The hardest part is rolling them out thinly and evenly. The dough itself is a dream to work with — the vegetable oil makes it smooth and pliable. So, when I’ve collected a quart of discard, I make a quadruple batch. When I’m in the mood for crackers, I measure out two chunks of dough, roll as thinly as I can over a piece of parchment, and decorate with whatever flavors and textures I’m in the mood for.

Slice the dough with a pizza wheel, prick each square with a fork, and they’re ready for the oven.

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Sourdough whole wheat crackers

Adapted from King Arthur Flour. I like to top with a flavor and a texture. In this recipe, I used garlic powder (I have Leah Koenig to thank for my recent embrace of the spice) and flax seeds. I’m also a huge fan of za’atar, sumac, and sesame seeds or just some oats. Next, perhaps nutritional yeast? Pepitas? Maybe brush with a different oil – how about a sesame-miso mix, maybe if I use rice flour instead of whole wheat. And I can’t help but wonder if I might make some faux cheez-its by mix sharp cheddar into the dough.

I make a triple or quadruple batch and either separately wrap single batches or write the weight required for a single batch on a ziptop bag so I can measure out the right amount for next time. Normally I wouldn’t be so picky about how much dough you’re rolling out, but I’ve found that if you try to roll out too much, it’s just that much harder to get the dough thin or even.

Makes about 100 crackers

– 1 C whole wheat flour

– 1/2 t fine sea salt, plus 1 t for sprinkling on top

– 1 C unfed (“discarded”) sourdough starter

– 3 T vegetable oil, plus more for for brushing

– 1/2 t garlic powder for sprinkling

– 1 T flax seeds

Mix. Mix together the flour, salt, sourdough starter, and oil to make a smooth cohesive dough. If the dough is to sticky, add a little flour. Too dry, add a tiny bit of oil. Still too dry, a tiny bit of water. 

Chill. Divide the dough in half, and shape each half into a small rectangular slab. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes, or up to a couple of hours, until the dough is firm.

Preheat. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Roll. Very lightly flour a piece of parchment, your rolling pin, and the top of the dough. Working with one piece at a time, roll the dough to about 1/16″ thick – essentially as thinly and evenly as you possible can. The dough will have ragged, uneven edges; that’s OK. 

Brush and top. Transfer the dough and parchment together onto a baking sheet. Lightly brush with oil and then sprinkle the salt, garlic powder, and flax seeds over the top of the crackers. Sprinkle from high above the dough to ensure it’s evenly distributed rather than clumping. Gently roll the pin over the dough to press the seeds into the dough (as you can see in my photos, I didn’t press down hard enough this time).

Slice and prick. Use a pizza wheel to cut the dough into into squares between 1 and 1 1/4 inches. Doesn’t have to be perfectly exact. Prick each square with the tines of a fork.

Bake. Bake the crackers for 15-20 minutes, until the squares start to brown around the edges and are lightly golden in the center. At the 7- to 8-minute mark, turn the baking sheet 180 degrees to ensure the crackers bake evenly if your oven has hot spots (mine clearly does).

Cool. Remove the crackers from the oven, and transfer them to a cooling rack. Store airtight at room temperature for up to a week, if they last that long; freeze for longer storage.

skyrversary

I called Natasha last month to wish her a happy one-year skyrversary. On our trip to Reykjavik, we ate the thick creamy yogurt-like deliciousness at least once a day, often twice, once even thrice. Yes, it was lovely for breakfast but it really shines in dessert. Each of the restaurants we went to had a sweet skyr course, typically layered with something frozen and something crunchy. One night, blueberry sorbet and oats. Another, strawberries and green strawberry granita. And also, sorrel granita, hazelnut gelato, merengue, and blondies. I mean, seriously people, the desserts were insane.

Just a few days after returning home, I took a first step at reproducing our desserts: I pulled out Cheryl Sternman Rule‘s Yogurt Culture to start from scratch. I inoculated a heavy pot of warmed milk with a dollop of skyr starter (Icelandic Provisions because they use “heritage cultures” and I was aiming for authenticity) and let the whole mix incubate overnight in an oven warmed only by its light. (Am I sounding overly scientific with all this inoculation and Incubation? Yeah, a little. And I’m OK with that.)

In the morning, I pulled the heavy pot from its oven incubator and was pleased to see that the curds had sunk to the bottom and the liquid whey had risen to the top. My plan was to strain the curds as if I were making Greek yogurt (not that I’ve made that), and then strain them a little bit longer.

I lifted the pot and tipped it over a bowl to pour off the whey, but the curds slid out and I lost hold of the pot and the floor was soon a slick puddle of yogurt. Warm yogurt. Turns out, the scent of warm fermenting yogurt is not only unappealing but it permeates everything. After I mopped up the floor, I had to change outfits. And after a day outside, I thought I was coming home to a dairy farm.

I’d like to say I got back on the horse, but I didn’t. I just moved on. One by one, I pulled together the components for an approximation of the simplest of our skyr desserts. There were blueberries to roast. Sorbet to churn. Cookie crumbles to bake. I then layered and layered and layered to compose a ridiculously complicated dessert.

Fancypants blueberry and skyr dessert

– Skyr

– Roasted blueberry compote

– Blueberry lime sorbet

– Oatmeal cookie crumble

Layer. Fill a glass two-thirds with skyr. Cover with blueberry compote. Top with a scoop of sorbet. Sprinkle with cookie crumble. Drizzle with a few more roasted blueberries.

***

Roasted blueberry compote

Just barely adapted from Cheryl Sterman Rule‘s Yogurt Culture. This is actually the first time I’ve roasted fruit – strawberries, you’re up next! – and I like how the flavors concentrate differently than stove-top compote, making a more soup-like (as opposed to stew-like) compote. The berries wrinkle up as the oven dries them out and because they’re not crowded together in a pot, they don’t reabsorb their released juice. 

If your blueberries are tart (for example, the tiny ones from Maine), add up to a tablespoon more of sugar.

Makes 1 1/2 cups

– 2 1/2 C fresh blueberries

– 2 T white sugar

– 1 T lime juice

Roast. Heat oven to 350°F. Toss 2 cups of blueberries with the sugar and spread on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast for 15-20 minutes until the skins burst, the berries shrivel up a bit, and the released juices thicken and slightly caramelize.

Mix. Using a bench scraper, pull the berries and juices into the center. Carefully lift the long edges of the parchment towards the center and tip the berries and their juices into a bowl. Don’t wait too long or the juices will harden. Stir in the lime juice and let cool.

Serve. Mix with yogurt (or skyr), drizzle over ice cream, or put a jar on a cheese plate.

***

Blueberry lime sorbet

This recipe follows the guidelines for Any-Fruit Sorbet from The Kitchn. While making simple syrup is a bit fussy and not necessary for a berry sorbet, I added this step so I could infuse mint into the sugar water concentrate. Just a tiny bit of vodka helps lower the freezing point so that the sorbet doesn’t get too hard. Depending on what type of ice cream maker you have, you might need to put the canister in the freezer the night before. 

– 1/4 C sugar, plus extra if needed

– 1/2 C water

– 4 sprigs fresh mint

– 2 lbs (about 5 C) blueberries

– 1 t lime zest

– 1 T vodka

– 2 T fresh lime juice, plus extra if needed

Simmer. Make simple syrup by combining sugar, water, and mint in a pot over medium-high heat. Simmer, stirring periodically, until the sugar dissolves. This is a very concentrated 2:1 sugar syrup as I didn’t want to add too much water. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.

Puree. Use a blender, immersion blender, or food processor to puree the simple syrup, berries, lime zest, and vodka until smooth.

Strain. Strain mixture through a fine mesh strainer to get rid of any pesky blueberry skins and larger pieces of lemon zest.

Taste. Add the lime juice and taste the mixture for sweetness. It should be a bit sweeter than you want because the sweetness dissipates during the freezing process .(How? I have no idea.) Way too sweet? Add lime juice, teaspoon by teaspoon. Too sour? Add sugar, tablespoon by tablespoon.

Chill. Chill the base in the fridge until very cold, at least an hour.

Churn. Pour the cold base into your ice cream machine and churn until the consistency of a thick smoothie. This takes about 25 minutes in my Cuisinart.

Freeze. Transfer to a container or two, cover well, and freeze for at least four hours before serving.

***

Oatmeal cookie crumble

Makes 1 1/2 cups

– 1/2 C flour

– 1 C oats

– 1/4 C brown sugar

– 1/4 C cold butter

– 1/2 t salt

– 1 egg

Pulse. In a small food processor, pulse together all ingredients until the mix resembles cornmeal.

Bake. Spread evenly on a parchment covered baking sheet and bake in a 350ºF oven until it starts to brown, about 10 mins. Use 2 forks to break up chunks and return to oven. Bake for about 10 more minutes until golden brown, checking every 2-3 minutes to break up chunks and make sure that the pieces aren’t burnt. Once cool enough to handle, break up chunks until the size of grape nuts.

Store. Store in an airtight container.

I’ve got a lot to tell you about – some amazing travel and a skyr dessert from last year’s Iceland adventure – but this recipe has been sitting in my draft pile since May and despite these long sticky days of summer when all you want to do is crawl into your freezer, I’m here to encourage you to turn on your oven and sweat it out.

There’s no backstory to this recipe, no seasonal ingredients, no science, but I’ve made it more than a handful of times and it’s a keeper. I call it tofu candy because the brown sugar in the teriyaki marinade caramelizes during a long bake in the oven, and I can’t help but paw little cube after little cube into my not-so-little mouth and end up eating an entire block of tofu (nearly a pound of the stuff) before I realize. I mean, seriously, these are the Jelly Bellies of the hippie dippie crunchy granola world.

Roast some broccoli at the same time if you want to call it dinner.

Teryaki tofu (aka, tofu candy)

Adapted from Cooking Light. If you want to add some vegetables, slide a baking sheet of broccoli (tossed in olive oil, salt, and pepper) in the oven ten minutes into the baking process – it should be ready around the same time as the tofu. Double or triple the marinade so you can toss in some pressed tofu and have candy on a whim (plus about 40 minutes of oven time).

Serves 1 or 2 as dinner

– 1 (14-oz) package extra-firm tofu, drained

– 1 T brown sugar

– 1 t grated fresh ginger

– 1 garlic clove, minced

– 1 T low sodium soy sauce

– 1 t rice wine vinegar

– 1 t toasted sesame oil

– dash hot sesame oil

– cooking spray

– 1 T toasted sesame seeds

Drain. Cut the tofu crosswise into 5 (1-inch-thick) slices. Place slices on several layers of paper towels and cover with additional paper towels. Place a cutting board on top and weigh down with several cans. Let stand 20 minutes, pressing down occasionally.

Whisk. While the tofu is pressing, whisk together the sugar, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, oils, and sesame seeds.

Cube. Cut each tofu slice into 1/2-inch cubes.

Soak. Add tofu to marinade and toss to combine. Let stand for 10 minutes. Heat oven on to 375ºF.

Bake. Arrange tofu in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Bake at 375°, stirring periodically, for 30 – 40 minutes or until tofu is browned on all sides. Toss with sesame seeds.

I was gifted a sourdough starter right before Passover. My family was visiting Pirch to look at kitchen designs —  we’re renovating the Lower East Side apartment where my mom grew up — and I struck up a conversation with Chef Tracy Justynski over a fig-studded loaf of bread and gluten free chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven. I’m not sure what prompted my chutzpah, but I asked her if she had any sourdough starter to share.

She did.

Tracy told me that her starter is over two years old, and she drove it cross-country from San Diego, leaving a trail of blobs with friends along the way. She disappeared into the prep kitchen, and came out with a plastic quart container filled with a cup or so of a flour water mix inoculated with Southern California yeast. Inscribed on the top, in Sharpie: “Starter – feed me flour + water every 2 weeks.”

I slipped it in my bag and would have skipped home if I weren’t a decade of blocks away. I kept the starter in the fridge, keeping it alive with a one-to-one (by weight) ratio of flour to water (approximately 1 cup flour to 1/2 cup water) every other weekend.

Finally I attempted to bake bread using an adaptation of Chad Robertson’s (of Tartine) recipe. It was a five-day process: three days to wake up the starter; one day to mess up the first attempt; two days to get it right. Well, sort of right. The bottoms were burnt. The crumb was spongey. The taste lacked oomph. But at least it sang.

I fed the starter and returned it to the fridge for another weekend project. In the interim, I had amassed a quart worth of starter discard. See, before your feed your starter, you pour out about half (if you don’t, the starter will take over your kitchen). I can’t bear to throw out the discard — especially since I suspect I’ll eventually name mine. So I collected it and searched for recipes. I mostly found English muffins and pancakes, but I tracked down one for blueberry muffins that seemed simple. Also, it used up a lot of excess starter.

My first attempt yielded blueberry-less muffins that were tough. Yesterday I made a second batch, this time with cut up strawberries, a bit more liquid, a lower oven temperature, and a longer bake. Success.

In light of the disaster of a healthcare bill that recently passed the House, I can’t help but find meaning in valuing what some may discard, in cherishing what gets left behind.

Sourdough discard muffins – strawberry version

Adapted from King Arthur. This is a very simple recipe to use up discarded sourdough starter that you just can’t bear to throw away. The sourdough flavor isn’t particularly pronounced. This is essentially a quick bread, and you need to mix the wet ingredients into the dry very quickly (like pancake batter) and then immediately spoon it into the muffin pans. This allows you to capture the rising action of the baking soda. You can substitute 1½ cups of any other berry or fruit (the original version has blueberries and cinnamon). You can make these in mini muffin tins – bake for 20 minutes – which will yield about 3 dozen.

Makes 1 dozen muffins

– 1 C all-purpose flour, plus more to toss with the berries

– 1 C yellow cornmeal, fine

– ¾ t salt

– 1 t baking soda

– 1 C sourdough starter, fed or unfed

–  1/3 C milk

– 1 large egg

– ¼ C melted butter of vegetable oil, plus more to grease the pans

– 1/2 C maple syrup (or honey)

– 1 t vanilla extract

– ½ t rose water (optional)

– ½ lb strawberries, cut into small pieces (about 1½ cups)

– Demerara or coarse sugar, for sprinkling tops

Prep. Preheat oven to 375° F. Grease the wells of a muffin pan (or use cupcake liners).

Stir. Combine the flour, cornmeal, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl and set aside.

Whisk. In a second bowl, beat together the starter, milk, egg, oil, maple syrup, vanilla, and rose water (if using).

Toss. Coat the cut strawberries in a few tablespoons of flour.

Blend. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and blend together quickly, about 30 seconds or so, until just combined. There may be a few lumps – that’s OK. Gently stir in the berries.

Fill. Fill the greased muffin cups to the top, and sprinkle the tops with Demerara sugar. Try not to get too much sugar on the pan itself or it will caramelize and make it difficult to remove the muffins.

Bake. Bake the muffins for 30 – 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool. Allow the muffins to cool in the pan for 5 minute and then remove to continue cooling on a rack.

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