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for snacking

Enough with the vegetables folks, let’s eat some cake.

Since it’s just me in my apartment, I’ve been making mini ones – easier to share with neighbors or freeze for cake emergencies. These are chocolate yogurt ones, not overly sweet, and the perfect size for snacking for two to three days each. Maybe even a distanced picnic, separately packaged for each friend joining so you can share dessert without it becoming a viral cesspool (appetizing, n’est-ce pas?). I make them in mini-loaf pans and they look just so cute, with their round bellies protruding.

My regular go-to cake is a French yogurt one – phenomenally moist from the dense dairy with a hint of tang and the scent of lemon. But change is good every once in a while, and I recently stumbled across a French chocolate yogurt cake which, in case you’ve noticed the photos, went from page to oven in less than an hour since I always have yogurt and chocolate on hand.

With so much indoor time, I’ve been rearranging my apartment and about a month ago, I created a reading nook. I had gotten rid of my rickety old desk last year (actually half a repurposed oval table from a friend, balanced on 2 legs and a small filing cabinet and a thick cookbook) which opened up a corner. I moved both of my bookshelves to line the walls (thanks for the idea, Robyn) and wedged in an arc lamp with the shade spotlighting my Bubbie’s rocking chair. It is a non-work zone: I call friends, read books, and sometimes eat dinner rocking away. I like to turn the chair around sometimes and face the books, imagining that I have a small library.

I rearranged my cookbooks in rainbow order, spent a few hours flipping through old favorites that had gotten buried over the years. The paperbacks were particularly well-hidden, typically slid on top of lined up heavier tomes, pushed to the back as the piles grew, under the shadow of the shelf above. David Lebovitz‘s The Sweet Life in Paris – the story of his move to Paris from California interspersed with recipes he picked up or developed along the way. Stuck midway through the book was a stainless letter opener twisted and reminiscent of a Möbius strip, prying the pages apart at bouchées chocolate au yaourt, aka chocolate yogurt snack cakes. As Lebovitz explains, “The French call things that don’t neatly fit into any other dessert category bouchées (mouthfuls), and these little cakes certainly fit that description). I didn’t make them in a cupcake tin, as you can clearly see, so I doubt you can shove one of these mini loaves into your mouth, but I wouldn’t blame you for trying.

Chocolate Yogurt Snack Cakes (bouchées chocolate au yaourt)

Adapted from David Lebovitz‘s The Sweet Life in Paris. Lebovitz makes these as cupcakes, which cuts the baking time down to 25 minutes. My mini-loaves take 35-40 minutes and a standard loaf takes 45-55 minutes. While my old stand-by yogurt cake uses only one bowl, this chocolate version requires three: one for the warm chocolate, one for mixing wet ingredients, and a third for the dry ingredients. I tried my go-to shortcut of mixing the dry ingredients in a large bowl, making a well in which to mix the liquid ingredients, and then stirring it all together, but I couldn’t mix the yogurt and eggs thoroughly enough before the flour started sliding in, resulting in some pretty major lumps. So, sorry about the dirty dishes, but these cakes more than make up for it. Light, not too sweet, and just enough to satisfy a craving without making you feel like you need to wait a few minutes to take a swim.

Makes 3 mini-loaves (5.75 X 3 inches) or 1 regular loaf (8 X 4 inches)

– 7 oz (200 g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
– 1/2 C (125 ml) vegetable oil, divided
– 1/2 C (125 ml) plain, whole-milk yogurt
– 1 C (200 g) sugar
– 3 large eggs, at room temperature
– 1 t vanilla extract
– 1 1/2 C (200 g) flour
– 1 1/2 t baking powder
– 1/2 t kosher salt

Prep. Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly oil and line loaf pan(s) with parchment paper (I find a little bit of oil helps the paper stay in place).

Melt. In a double boiler (or, a metal bowl set over simmering water), melt the chocolate with 1/4 cup of the oil. Once melted and smooth, remove from the heat. (Alternately, you can do this in the microwave on high for 30 seconds, then in 15 second increments, stirring well between each until smooth.) Allow to cool slightly (but not too much – you want it to be pourable) before adding it to the rest of the batter.

Mix. In another bowl, mix the remaining 1/4 cup oil with yogurt, sugar, eggs, and vanilla.

Mix again. In a large bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the yogurt mixture. Stir lightly a couple times, then add the melted chocolate and stir until just smooth.

Bake. Divide the batter among pans (or pour all of it into a regular loaf pan) and bake 35-40 minutes (more for a loaf pan – about 45-55 minutes) or until they feel barely set in the middle and a tester or toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack before serving. If you want to freeze, allow to cool completely and then wrap in one layer of plastic wrap and another of heavy-duty foil.

warm weather soup

A simple warm weather soup and some photos inspired by the cover of Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy. (Last photo is bolted cilantro that I got from this year’s first CSA haul, has absolutely nothing to do with the recipe, but I felt like the image belonged.)

Happy week, all!

Creamy zucchini soup with dill and chives

Makes 2 quarts

This is a light and mild soup, perfect for warmer weather, and can be served hot or very cold. Use chive blossoms is you can find them at your farmers market to push this over the top. Not merely for adornment, these purple flowers, raw, add a subtle allium kick when you catch one in your spoon.

– 1/4 C butter, divided
– 1 T extra virgin olive oil
– 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
– Kosher salt
– 3 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
– 4 oz cauliflower rice (1 C)
– 1 medium thin skinned potato, roughly chopped
– 2.5 lbs zucchini, roughly chopped (3 large)
– 2-3 C water
– 1 T chopped fresh dill, tightly packed
– 1 T chopped fresh parsley, tightly packed
– Fistful of chives or 5 chive blossom stems, snipped into roughly 1/4-inch pieces
– 1/2 lemon, juiced (2 T)
– Optional garnish: chive blossoms, chives, fresh dill, fresh parsley

Cook. In a heavy 3-4 quart pot over medium-low heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter and olive oil. Stir in the onions, a pinch of salt, and cook very gently for 5 minutes until translucent but not browned. Add garlic, cauliflower, and potato, cooking for another 5 minutes. Taste for salt. Stir in zucchini and let it cook down for a few minutes. Add 2 cups of water to just barely cover the vegetables; pour in a more water if necessary to cover. Stir in herbs and chives.

Simmer. Turn up the heat to medium-high and being to a slow boil. Lower heat to medium and simmer for 20 minutes, checking periodically to make sure the bottom isn’t burning and tasting for salt.

Puree. Using an immersion blender, puree until very smooth. Stir in lemon juice and remaining 2 tablespoons butter, and taste one more time for salt.

Serve. Either divide into bowls immediately, or allow to cool to room temperature and refrigerate for 3 hours, and then serve very cold. Garnish with some chopped dill, chopped parsley, snipped chives, or a few flowers plucked from a chive blossom ball.

Well, today just may be the day that I turn on my air conditioner for the first time this year. I’ve cleaned the filter of my unit, so it’s ready for action, but, like all years, I try to hold out for as long as I can. I just don’t like air conditioning. Don’t get me wrong, I love having it – they sure didn’t have such a luxury in the shtetl – and I love standing in front of it every once in a while, but I like being able to keep the fresh air flowing rather than recycled. And so, two windows flung open, all three fans cranked up, I’m hoping that the heavy humidity breaks into a quick cooling downpour soon.

Eventually, I know I’ll have to bring the temperature of my apartment way down so that I can once again turn on the oven for two, almost three, hours to melt some cabbage. This is another cult classic of Adeena Sussman‘s from her Sababa cookbook that itself has developed a cult following. This dish transforms the humble crucifer into a complex yet comforting dish by braising it with other shtetl staples and then a splash of white wine (like air conditioning, not a shtetl staple). You end up with spoon tender cabbage, garlic and onion softened and sweetened and nestled in the leaves, and pools of what can best be described as potlikker.

Hot, cold, room temperature, it’s all good any which way you want to eat it. (The photo above was second day cabbage, eaten cold, straight from the pan, straight from the refrigerator.) So, even if I could resist the air conditioner through the end of the month, I doubt I’ll make it that long without this melted cabbage.

Adeena Sussman’s Melted Green Cabbage

Just barely adapted from Adeena Sussman’s Sababa (recipe published here). While I typically rewrite recipes in my own language, I’ll let Adeena’s stand on its own. I’ve noted any substitutions or tips I have in italics.

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 2 1/2 to 3 hours

1/3 cup (75 mL) extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp (10 mL) kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/2 tsp (2 mL) coarsely cracked black pepper, plus more to taste
2 small heads of green cabbage (2 lb; 900 g), quartered (but not cored)
10 whole garlic cloves, peeled
4 shallots, peeled and halved (no shallots, so I substitute 1 medium or 2 small yellow onions)
1/2 cup (125 mL) dry, acidic white wine, such as Albariño or Grüner Veltliner
1/2 cup (125 mL) chicken or vegetable broth, plus more if necessary (I’ve even used water)
4 sprigs fresh thyme (I’ve omitted)
3 tbsp (45 mL) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup (50 mL) crème fraîche or sour cream
Lemon wedges, for serving (optional)

STEP 1

Preheat the oven to 300°F (150°C).

STEP 2

In a heavy, large, high-sided skillet or shallow Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon (5 mL) of the salt and 1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) of the pepper directly onto the oil, then arrange the cabbage wedges in the pot, making sure that each is lying on a flat side (you can cram them in; they’ll relax into one another as they release liquid). (I had to do this in 2 batches.) Let the undersides get nice and brown, resisting the urge to move them too much but checking once to make sure they’re not burning (reduce the heat slightly if they are), 6 to 7 minutes. Using tongs, flip the cabbage wedges, then tuck the garlic cloves and shallots into the pot, and brown the undersides of the cabbage, another 6 to 7 minutes. Add the wine and broth, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and add the remaining 1 teaspoon (5 mL) salt and 1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) pepper along with the thyme. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, transfer to the oven, and cook until soft, slumped and mahogany brown, 2 hours, or 2 1/2 hours for even softer cabbage. Uncover, cool slightly, and serve the cabbage with the liquid accumulated in the pot. Season with salt and pepper and top with butter and crème fraîche. Serve with lemon wedges, if desired.

Serves: 4

Walking distance from my mom’s place in South Florida, we discovered earlier this year a no-frills Russian grocery store. Well, we always knew it was there, and that it drew large crowds seated on plastic chairs at plastic tables on the sidewalk, but this year I popped in. After checking out the produce (a pretty normal assortment) and the aisles of Cyrillic-labeled bottles, jars, and cans, I was drawn to the buffet that ran the length of the store. I bee lined to the cold section: an overabundance of cold salads consisting of combinations of vegetables, heavy on the dill and cabbage and pickling. I got hooked on the more vinegary of these salads, taking home more than a few pints and quarts of them and rounding out most lunches and dinners with a little of this, a little of that.

Fast forward to the “pause” and “stay-at-home” orders that keep getting extended, and I’ve returned to my Eastern European roots. I’ve been loading up on what my friend and I like to call shtetl vegetables – beets, potatoes, carrots, cabbage – ones that are hardy and last for weeks, months even, helpful during these times of limited grocery runs. As I’ve grown weary of soup and look forward to more spring vegetables, I’ve been using up these shtetl staples to make big batch salads that stay good in the fridge.

My most recent batch: salat vinegret*.

In watching a discussion of Soviet-Jewish Cuisine featuring Bonnie Morales of Kachka and author Boris Fishman, I learned the word zakuski – a spread of appetizers similar to mezze – that are always in the fridge, ready to pull out when a guest drops by, a tangible element of hospitality, usually served with vodka. Each of the participants had prepared zakuski, and my friend Gabi who was leading the talk showed a bowl salat vinegret, pink-tinged cubes of beets and potatoes, dressed with pickled cabbage, vinegar and traditional sunflower oil.

Remembering how much I loved the salads from Matryoshka’s buffet, I looked up salat vinegret and – not surprisingly, has most of the ingredients. I made do with what I had – those shtetl genes run deep, I tell you – and have been eating from this huge bowl for days. No guests allowed, so I shared with a friend who lives across the street from me.

* Of course I have a footnote. Vinegret comes from the French vinaigrette which is a diminutive of the word vinaigre (vin aigre = sour wine = vinegar). Most agree that the term came eastward due to the Russian nobility’s Francophilia and Francophonia, and the preparation – using vinegar to hide any off flavors – became popular in the early Soviet era when fresh produce was scarce, and frozen or canned goods dominated. Over time, vinegret has come to refer to any beet salad. It can also mean a mish-mash.

Salat Vinegret

Recipe developed in reviewing this and this, and rummaging through my fridge and pantry.

Makes a lot, 2 quarts perhaps (I didn’t measure)

– 1 lb new potatoes potatoes (4 medium)
– 2 lbs beets (2 large)
– 4-5 medium pickles (and 1/4 C pickle juice, optional)
– 1 small yellow onion
– 1 T chopped dill
– 1 T chopped parsley
– 2-3 T vegetable oil (ideal is sunflower from Ukraine, but it’s not something that I had in my pantry)
– 1-2 T mild vinegar (I used cider vinegar)
– Salt
– Other traditional ingredients: cooked carrots, peas, sauerkraut

Roast. Roast (or boil) beets and peel. I roasted by wrapping them individually in foil with a little salt and vegetable oil and cooking in a hot oven (400F – 425F) for a little over an hour (depending on size) until a paring knife pierced easily through to the center. When cool enough to handle but still warm, the skin will slide off pretty easily with your hands (the hotter, the easier). If you’re having a hard time peeling, they may need a little time in the oven.

Boil. While the beets are roasting, boil the potatoes in salted water over high heat, 10-15 minutes until that same knife pierces easily through the center. Don’t overcook, or they potatoes can get water logged.

Cut. Cut the beets into 1/2- to 3/4-inch cubes/pieces. Transfer to a large bowl, and clean off the cutting board and knife. Cut the potatoes and pickles into pieces roughly the same size. Finely dice the onion. Add the vegetables and chopped herbs to the bowl.

Mix. Drizzle in oil, vinegar, and pickle juice, and mix. Start tasting. Add some salt. Keep tasting until it suits you.

I went to Israel on Friday!

Ok, it was just an hour. And it was over Zoom. But the challah workshop I attended truly, truly transported me to Mattat in the Galilee, to the kitchen and garden of Erez Komarovsky. Guided by my friend (and Sababa author) Adeena Sussman and hosted by The Jewish Food Society, dozens of us worldwide baked wild spring challah alongside Erez, whom Adeena calls the godfather of artisanal baking in Israel.

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In his kitchen, at a stone-paved, wood-covered counter and against the soundtrack of chirping birds, Erez kneaded and rolled and braided challah, incorporating greens and herbs and roots and flowers plucked from his garden. Fittingly, he prepared two different versions – one stuffed with artichoke confit, studded with artichoke leaves and flowers and herbs, then showered in rose petals. I’ve photographed my version of the second type – infused with garlic oil, stuffed with garlic confit, and interwoven with root-to-stem strands of wild garlic, green onion, and scallions (he uses freshly dug entire garlic cloves, but I used what I was able to get at the greenmarket and grocery store).

Erez explained that moving to Mattat, just south of the Lebanese border, nearly two decades ago completely changed his life: “I improved my skills as a chef and baker because I live in nature, see seasons, grow my own vegetables.” He laments that baking has been slow to embrace the idea of cooking locally, seasonally, and with terroir. Adeena nicely summarizes that with challahs that come straight from the garden, Erez can bring the essence of nature and one’s surroundings into his bread. And, so could we.

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The virtual audience peppered him with questions to which he and Adeena responded with equal parts technical culinary knowledge, commitment to season and locale, dry humor, and near-continuous laughter.

On the mechanics of challah baking, Erez advises:

… store your yeast in the freezer, it’ll last a year, more than a year, probably longer.

… use the highest protein flour you can find. In Israel there is specialized challah flour, ground from inner part of the kernel, that is less elastic so that when you open the challah (which is how Israelis refer to rolling out the strands), they don’t spring back. Bread flour is nearly as good, AP will suffice if that’s what you have. 

… instead of whole wheat, try spelt, it’s nutty but not as coarse.

… add salt only after kneading dough for a few minutes because it slows yeast growth.

… after rolling out the strands, twist them to give them more strength.

… braid challah loosely to give it room to expand in the oven

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But more fun are his dramatic responses that demonstrate his philosophy on food and life, tempered with an understanding that we each have our own reality and we can’t (unfortunately) all live in Erez’s world:

What if  you can’t find fresh young garlic? If you can’t find fresh garlic, do not make garlic challah. 

Can you use canned artichokes instead of fresh? No. Use what’s in season. You can use mushrooms if mushrooms are in season. If you have good tomatoes, you can roast the tomatoes. Onions, onion confit. You can do peas. You can do mushrooms. You can do chicken liver. 

Do you make sweet challah? Yes, 100%! I love making sweet challah. Now is the season for apricots, so I make knoedel – marillinknoedel – an apricot dumpling. What about using jam? No, too sweet. Well, maybe you can use apricot jam. Or roast the apricots and then drain in a colander. 

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Is there a point in the process when you can freeze the challah dough, so you can bake it in the future? Freezing is good in Wyoming and for the wolves. Freezing challah, why do you have to freeze the challah? Make it fresh. I do not freeze challah. And I know, but really, you can freeze it any time you want. 

How do you store challah, how do you keep it fresh? You eat it. You don’t store it. But, if you want some for tomorrow, if you have some extra, keep it in a paper bag or wrap it in a towel overnight. 

What if  you wanted to make smaller challot? Rolls even? Sure, you can do small, very small if you are obsessive. Go ahead if you have a lot of time because you’re still in quarantine…You can do very small, you can make even microscopic challah if you’d like.

Ahem, guilty:

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And then there’s using baking to honor tradition and history.

What flavor will the rose petals add to the artichoke challah? Smell, and rose flowers do not have a lot of flavor. My grandmother used to make rose jam, so it’s memories here, and my family. 

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After leaving the loaves to rise, Erez and Adeena led us out to the garden. First stop is one of Erez’s several outdoor ovens: This was my first taboon. It’s straw and mud, like in Egypt, by our ancestors. We follow as they meander through the greenery, pausing to look at flowers, pull herbs, taste leaves, pick strawberries, sigh at the views.

Erez approaches some sunflowers: I also use sunflower leaves, and the sunflowers for baking. It’s very good, it’s kind of nose to tail baking. It’s something I don’t know why we’re not doing it. I use every part. Exhibit 1: his sunflower challah.

Adeena asks, how did you learn to grow these vegetables so well? I didn’t learn. I don’t do it so well. It’s trial and error. You just put down good earth. And give it a good compost, and a lot of sun and a lot of water. 

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I think Erez would appreciate the moniker that a new friend, Eve Sicular (bandleader of Isle of Klezbos and Metropolitan Klezmer) dubbed a photo of my challah: vilde challah*. 

Vilde challah. So perfect.

Erez Komarovsky’s Wild Spring Challah 

I’m not going to recreate Erez’s instructions here because they speak for themselves. Here is Erez’s challah recipe shared by the Jewish Food Society. If you scroll down a bit, you’ll find instructions for artichoke and garlic confits. 

However, I do have to make a confession: I used Adeena’s challah recipeYears ago, my father had lost a good amount of weight using the Diet Center meal plan; when asked by a friend whether he had added exercise to his regimen, he responded, “of course not, I didn’t want to add too many variables. I have no doubt that Erez’s base challah recipe is top notch, but as my father’s daughter, I stick with Adeena’s which has been a constant since receiving her cookbook last year. The confit and leaves and roots provided enough variables for me at one time. 

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* In Yiddish, vilde means wild, and vilde challah is a play on the phrase vilde chaya which translates to wild beast. It’s a term often used to describe a kid who is especially rambunctious. Maurice Sendak’s mother used to call him a vilde chaya, and he went on to write Where the Wild Things Are.

stone soup

You’ve heard the story of stone soup, right? A stranger comes to town, hungry, but no one will help him. So he makes a big production of scrubbing a stone and placing it in a big pot of water set over a fire. The locals watch. As the “soup” comes to a boil, the stranger dips a spoon for a taste. “It’s great, but would be even better with some potatoes.” Someone runs inside to their cellar for a few potatoes and dumps them in.

“This is delicious, but a few carrots would make it even tastier.” And a kid sneaks into his garden and yanks out a handful of carrots by their tops.

And on and on until the whole town contributes to the soup and everyone eats dinner together.

Stone soup was one of the first things I cooked. As a kid, I actually did drop a (cleaned) stone into the pot. We used V8 as a base and threw in whatever vegetables we had around.

It remains part of my winter repertoire but I’ve replaced the stone with a large chunk (or two) of Parmesan rind, taking a cue from classic minestrone. During these stay-at-home days with limited grocery runs and a need for comfort, stone soup season is still running strong. Each batch larger than the next, and I’ve finally graduated to my largest stock pot and a wooden paddle so long (18 inches!) that I feel like a witch toiling over my bubbling brew.

The majority of the soup goes straight into the freezer in quart containers and zip-top bags. And while I can’t invite people over and share in person, I’ve dropped off frozen quarts for a few friends and my sister.

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Kitchen soup (aka stone soup, vegetable soup)

I started calling this kitchen sink soup, and then I shortened it to kitchen soup. This is more guideline than recipe. The basic formula that I’ve found to work, to give me the right consistency and balance, is as follows 2:1:2:1 – vegetables : crushed tomatoes : liquid : beans

So, here are the quantities that I consider a single batch (about 4-5 quarts):

– 8 C vegetables: bite-sized pieces of onion, celery, carrot, cabbage, kale, new potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, green beans, broccoli, zucchini, spinach (in approximate order of when you should add them, with zucchini and spinach last as you can just add them in the last 30 minutes)

– 4 C crushed tomatoes (1 28-ounce can is ~3.5 C, but this is close enough)

– 8 C liquid: even mix of vegetable broth and water (1 box of broth = 4 C; 1 tomato can of water = almost 4 C)

– 4 C red kidney beans (2 15.5-oz cans = 4 C)

– Plus a stone, aka Parmesan rind (approximately 2×3 piece)

– other stuff to gather: olive oil, salt

– other stuff that’s optional: 1/2 t red pepper flakes (if you like spice), 2 T tomato paste (to deepen tomato/umami flavor)

Sauté. In a very large pot over a medium flame, heat up enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom (2-3 tablespoons, depending on the size of your pot). Stir in onion, carrot, and celery and sauté until soft but not browned, 7-10 minutes. Add tomato paste and red pepper flakes, and cook, stirring, until the tomato paste changes from a bright red to a deep maroon, about 5 minutes, turning the heat down if it starts to burn.

Deglaze. Pour in a cup of broth or water and scrape up all the bits of tomato paste.

Keep stirring. Add the Parmesan rind and a good pinch of two of salt. Stir in crushed tomatoes, the remaining vegetables (except zucchini or spinach), and drained beans.

Simmer. Add rest of liquid and bring to a slow boil, then turn the heat down to low or medium low to simmer for at least an hour, covered. Keep tasting and adjusting for salt and spicy-ness. Like tomato sauce, the longer you cook, the deeper and richer the flavor. I typically let the soup simmer for about 2 hours. If the soup comes out too thick, call it stew or add more broth. If soup is too thin, keep simmering uncovered until some of the liquid evaporates. If you’re using zucchini or spinach, add it about a half-hour before you plan to serve it.

Serve. Remove from heat and fish out the rind(s). Sprinkle with shredded Parmesan and serve with a nice hunk of bread (or matzah).

Today’s installment of quasi food science – or is it food quasi-science? – will also involve salt and water and protein.

Last time, we used a salt (or sugar) solution to prevent (egg yolk) proteins from denaturing and aggregating during the freezing process. This week, that same salt solution (no sugar here) causes partial (fish) protein denaturation and also prevents aggregation which in this situation is a good thing because it creates a water-retaining gel. I turned to Harold McGee and Cook’s Illustrated (here and here) for a little help.

So, let’s talk fish protein for a sec. Like meat, fish protein is largely muscle fibers. Unlike meat, fish proteins are shorter and run perpendicular to very delicate connective tissue made of collagen. When heated to 120F-130F, the collagen dissolves into gelatin and the muscle layers separate – the fish flakes.

For tender flakes, we don’t want the muscle fibers to contract any more than they need to before the connective tissue dissolves. A salt-water brine helps. It allows salt to enter cells through diffusion (there’s more salt in the brined than in the cells), and then water follows by osmosis (cells have a greater concentration of “things” floating around in them than the brine does). Salt partially dissolves the contracting fibers and also disrupts their ability to aggregate. As with the yolk, salt ions trap charged protein groups and the proteins can’t bind as tightly to one another or fold onto themselves. This loosening up makes more space for water molecules to wedge their way in. When you apply heat, protein fibers contract but not as much as they might if those water molecules weren’t in the way, and the fish loses less moisture as it is heated.

Brining offers two more benefits. One, it seasons the fish, giving it better flavor. Second, it reduces albumin, the white protein (egg white albumen is a type of albumin) that often congeals on the surface of the fish and really noticeable on pink salmon. So, it’s prettier too.

If you’re still awake, here’s the recipe. Finally.

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Quick-brined salmon with miso-lemon glaze

Makes 8 4-ounce servings

Adapted from Food & Wine. The recipe calls for 2 pounds of salmon but I typically make one pound at a time (I’m just one person, especially during “stay-at-home” orders) and save the leftover glaze in the fridge for a few nights later. Make sure to bring the glaze to room temperature and stir well before spreading on fish. I’ve only ever used this on salmon, but I suspect it’s quite good on milder white fishes as well. 

– 1 T kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
– 2 lbs salmon (with or without skin)
– 3 T canola oil
– 2 T fresh lemon juice
– 1 T shiro miso (white)
– 1/2 t grated garlic (one medium-large clove)
– Sesame seeds, for garnish
– Lemon wedges, for serving

Prep. Preheat the oven to 450F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Brine. In a shallow bowl or baking dish large enough to fit all of the fish in one layer, combine the salt with 2 cups room temperature water and stir to dissolve. Add the salmon and additional water to make sure it’s submerged. Let brine at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Whisk. In a small bowl, whisk the oil, lemon juice, miso, and garlic until smooth.

Bake. Drain the fish, pat dry with a paper towel, and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Generously brush all over with the miso lemon glaze. Roast until golden and just cooked through, 10-12 minutes. Transfer to plates, garnish with sesame seeds and serve with lemon wedges.

the main event

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Right in the middle of Passover, my Girl Scout cookies arrived from California. Thin Mints, and they went straight into the freezer. There’s only one sleeve left. Thank you, Mia, for sending them!

Also in the box, nestled delicately in bubble wrap, lay several stunning citrus specimens. Meyer lemons. Thin skinned, some more spherical than ovoid, smelling of sunshine. Mia’s mom Joanne – whom I’ve known since high school – really knows how to spoil me. 

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Unless you have a tree in your backyard like Mia and Joanne and Evan and Jordan do, in which case you can use them with abandon, these lemons aren’t for just any old recipe. 

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In my home – sans tree – these lemons deserve to be the main event. And so, for now, I’ve zested and juiced enough lemons for three batches of lemon curd. I’ve got just a few left, and they’ll either make their way into more curd, or lemonade, or a cake that uses peel, pith, and pulp (similar to Claudia Roden’s orange and almond cake).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMaking curd during Passover is perfectly logical because after baking macaroons and granola with egg whites, I had frozen over a dozen yolks in ice cube trays. But before we get to the recipe, we have to review a tiny bit of science so that you don’t make the same mistake I did. 

An egg yolk that has been frozen and thawed undergoes “gelation.” Essentially the water in the yolk freezes into ice crystals which causes the surrounding proteins (largely LDL) to cluster tightly into a 3-D matrix. When thawed, the proteins stay clustered and the yolk itself remains a gel, nearly solid with barely a jiggle. When you use these gel yolks for curd, you end up with a lot of small yolk chunks that don’t make it through the strainer. And your curd is a bit less silky. And straining is pretty messy. Not the end of the world, but still.

To deter ice formation, you need to add a cryoprotectant to the yolk before freezing. You can use sugar or salt. Different solutes work to varying degrees, so there’s something more than just freezing point depression. My understanding – after reading some of the scientific literature (I’m such a nerd) – is that sugar prevents denaturing (the uncoiling of long proteins which enables them to bind with other proteins and form a matrix) while salt ions prevent protein molecules from aggregating (the salt ions match up with the protein’s charge groups, blocking the proteins from hooking up). 

Conventional wisdom is that you need to create 10% sugar or salt solution with the yolks,  but despite calculating weight and volume concentrations, I can’t reconcile this with the most commonly cited recommendations (e.g., America’s Test Kitchen and the Egg Board) of 1.5 teaspoon sugar or 1/8 teaspoon salt to each 4 yolks. I’m tired, so I’m content to trust the food scientists, and call it a day. 

Now, I give you lemon curd. Thanks for attending this week’s session of food quasi-science and incomplete analysis.

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Lemon Curd

Makes approximately 1 cup

When not eating this by the spoonful, I love it layered with berries and Greek yogurt or spread on buttered, toasted bread with a sprinkle of flakey salt. 

Adapted from Glorious Treats, the recipe that Joanne sent me. 

– 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (1-2 Meyer lemons)
– 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest 
– 1/3 cup sugar
– 4 egg yolks
– 3 T butter 

Whisk. Combine all ingredients in the top of a double boiler (I use in a metal bowl over a pot of simmering water). Heat over low to medium flame, while stirring constantly with a whisk, until mixture thickens. It’s done when thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, or reaches 170F on a candy thermometer. 

Strain. Allow the curd to cool slightly and then strain it into a bowl or jar. 

Store. Cover tightly and store in the refrigerator. 

***

Freezing egg yolks

To freeze one yolk at a time, whisk it with 1/3 t sugar or a pinch of salt, and then pour into your ice cube tray. 

For bigger batches, whisk 1.5 t sugar or 1/8 t salt into 4 egg yolks. Divide equally between 4 cells of an ice cube tray (~1 tablespoon per yolk) and freeze.

Make sure to mark whether you’ve used sugar or salt. 

Thaw in the refrigerator overnight before using. 

NOTE: no special treatment is needed to freeze egg whites. 

 

if you insist

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I was speaking with my friend Veronica over the weekend, comparing stories about our daily COVID lives. In Lima, Peru, her family is in strictly-enforced lockdown with no outdoor excursions allowed. To get some exercise and fresh air, she and her husband and their kids run around – masked, of course – in the garage of their apartment building. And while I’ve been able to go outside for walks in Central Park and get groceries, I too spend most of my time indoors.

Another thing we share: we were both cooking while we chatted. Her, a prune cake for Easter. Me, oat-free granola for Passover.

“Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of granola, not having oats?” Veronica laughed, the same distinctive cackle that I’ve known since high school.

“Well, I guess it does. But it has everything else that I put in my granola and I like it on yogurt, so I’m calling it granola. Maybe it’s faux granola. Or faux-nola?”

She laughed again.

Anyway, I present you Passover granola. Faux-nola if you insist.

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Passover Granola (of Faux-nola)

Makes 6 cups

Adapted from Epicurious. Mix and match large coconut flakes with whatever nuts (and seeds if you eat kitniyot) you like. My regular granola uses a 1:1 oat to nut ratio, and here I replace all oats with coconut, same ratio. This year’s nuts are almonds, hazelnuts, and pine nutsI add egg whites to help the granola clump because though I like it as a topping for yogurt, I tend to eat it out of hand much more over Passover, and it’s less mess to eat large pieces than tiny ones. Though, I’m vacuuming and sweeping up matzah bits all day anyway, so what’s a few more crumbs?

Don’t overcrowd the baking sheets or the granola will burn on the edges before it crisps in the middle. And, you do need to watch it in the oven closely because the granola goes from a toasty burnished brown to burnt if you’re not paying attention as the last few minutes count down.

I tend to scale the recipe, but if you follow the basic ratios, you can make as much or as little as you want – 1 C coconut : 1 C nuts : 2 T sweetener (honey, brown sugar, maple syrup) : 1 t fat (olive oil, butter). A few drops of vanilla, pinches of salt, and an egg white or two for clumping are optional. 

– 3 C unsweetened raw coconut flakes (sometimes called coconut chips)
– 3 C assorted nuts, rough chopped
– 2 egg whites
– 2 T olive oil
– 4 T honey
– 2 T brown sugar
– 1/2 t kosher salt (or more to taste)
– 1 t vanilla

Prep. Heat oven to 300ºF and line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Mix. In a large bowl, mix together the coconut and nuts. Whisk the egg whites in a separate bowl, and then pour them in, mixing until coconut and nuts are evenly coated.

Cook. Stir olive oil, honey, sugar, salt and vanilla in a small pan over medium-low heat until hot and easily pourable (but not bubbling).

Pour. Pour the honey mixture over the dry ingredients and stir until evenly coated.

Bake. Spread the mix thinly and evenly across the baking sheets and bake for 25-35 minutes, until the mix is dry and the coconut flakes are as brown as the nuts. After 10 minutes, swap the sheets top to bottom, front to back. At the 20 minute mark, stay close and check the color every few minutes. There’s about a 3-minute window between perfect and burnt.

Store. Store in an airtight container, in freezer if you want to keep it around longer.

back

Crazy time, no?

I’m back in New York. Back in my apartment. Back here.

I thought I’d be returning to something resembling my old life. And I did for a brief period after pulling stuff from storage and setting up my kitchen again and hanging my clothes. I’ve been seeing friends across the street or downtown or even Long Island, catching up on doctor appointments that had been pushed off, going to my favorite dance class (floor barre!), reconnecting with colleagues over coffee.

And now that I’ve settled back in to my cozy studio with huge windows, I’m wondering when I’ll ever leave. Sure, there are walks in nice weather when the streets and Central Park aren’t too crowded. Trips to the grocery store more frequently than I’d like due to space constraints in my fridge and freezer (and second freezer) and cabinets.

But while I’m cooped up, I’ve started making my way back to cooking how I used to. With a camera by my side. With notes in the margins. With hills of cookbooks kicked to one end of the sofa as I page through one after another for inspiration. I’m not much for writing these days, so long intros are a thing of the past, but for now I’ve got a backlog of recipes that could serve us all well in the weeks and months to come.

First up, meatballs. (With a Passover variation as well.)

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Meatballs

Makes approximately 4 dozen meatballs 

Recipe adapted from The Kitchn.

The key to meatballs is texture – you don’t want them to be dense or tough. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years. Don’t use meat that’s too lean. Beef should be 15% fat. If you use a leaner meat or mix beef with poultry, I add a little bit of olive oil to the mixture. Mix your meat and other ingredients by hand, and be very gentle. Don’t use a spoon, don’t use a spatula, don’t use a spoonula. Use your hands. (Wash them first, please). To make it a little easier, take your meat out of the fridge about 10 minutes before you plan on starting to take the chill off and let it soften a bit. (Don’t take it out too far in advance. I’m looking at you, E. coli and salmonella). When mixing, be gentle and handle the meat as little as possible, mixing just until the ingredients are evenly distributed. When rolling into balls, the meat will be pretty sticky, so dip your hands into a shallow bowl of water or oil every few balls.

Meatballs freeze well. If you have the space, freeze them in a single layer on a tray, and then put into a container so they won’t squish together. 

Passover modification: replace breadcrumbs with matzah meal, or omit bread crumbs and water altogether and make them gluten free.

– 2 lbs ground meat (I usually use a combination of beef and chicken/turkey)
– 1 medium onion
– 2 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 C fine breadcrumbs
– 1/3 C water
– 2 large eggs
– 1/4 C finely chopped fresh parsley
– 1 T kosher salt
– Freshly ground black pepper
– Olive oil

Prep. Pull the meat out of the refrigerator and allow to rest in a very large bowl for 10-15 minutes, to take the chill off and make it easier to handle. Line a large baking sheet with parchment or heavy-duty aluminum foil.  You can place a metal cooling rack over the lined baking sheet – this allows the meatballs cook evenly from every direction, and if you’re using fattier ground meat, prevents the meatballs from sitting in their own fat. Heat the oven to 400F.

Grate. Over another, smaller bowl, grate the onion on the medium holes of a box grater. You should have about 1 cup of onion, including its juice.

Mix. To the meat, add onion (and its juice), garlic, bread crumbs, water, eggs, garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper. With your hands, gently incorporate all the ingredients until just barely evenly distributed.

Scoop. With the baking sheet nearby, pinch off pieces of meat (about 2 tablespoons) and lightly roll into a golf-sized ball. You don’t want to press too hard to get the meat balls perfectly round, or they’ll be too tough. I cup my hands and gingerly roll/tumble the meat   between them until it forms a slightly lumpy ball. Place the meatballs on the baking sheet or cooling rack so they’re not touching.

Roast. Roast the meatballs in the oven for 20-25 minutes until browned. At 20 minutes, break one meatball open to see if it’s fully cooked through without any pink. Keep checking – once the broken meatball is cooked through, you’ll get to sacrifice another meatball. The more meatballs you need to check, the more treats for you. You can also use a thermometer – the official temperature the meat should hit is 160F (165F for poultry).

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Tomato sauce

Makes ~5 cups

Adapted from Simply Recipes. This is one of those recipes where you spend all of your time chopping vegetables, and then you just throw it in a pot and let it cook and cook and cook and cook. You can take it off after 30-40 minutes, but it will lack the richness and tang that comes with time. If you prefer your sauce chunky, skip the pureeing step, but chop your vegetables more finely and uniformly. 

Use between 3 and 4 cups of sauce for the meatballs. I’m sure you can come up with a use for the rest. 

– 3 T extra virgin olive oil
– 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
– 2 medium carrots, roughly chopped
– 2 celery stalks, including leafy tops, roughly chopped
– 2T finely chopped fresh parsley
– 4 cloves garlic, minced
– 3 T tomato paste
– 2 t red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
– 2 28-oz cans crushed tomatoes
– Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Sweat. Heat olive oil in a large cast iron pot on medium heat. Stir in the onion, carrot, celery, and parsley until coated with oil. Drop heat to low and cover the pot. Cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are softened and cooked through, but the onions aren’t browned.

Cook. Stir in the garlic, tomato paste, and red pepper flakes, and increase the heat to medium. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the tomato paste starts to darken and brown. Add a half-cup of water (or use read wine if you have it) to deglaze the pan – scrape up all the good stuff sticking to the bottom.

Simmer. Add tomatoes and bring to a boil. Lower heat so sauce is simmering gently. Cover. Check on the sauce periodically, stirring and tasting for for salt and pepper. If it gets too thick, add some water. If too thin, leave the cover ajar so some of the liquid can evaporate. Let simmer for about 90 minutes.

Puree. Using an immersion blender, puree the sauce until smooth.

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