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Archive for May, 2010

Frickles

The first time you encounter them on a menu, you can’t help but laugh.  Are they really fried pickles?  Who on earth would even think up such an idea, let alone actually put it on a plate and charge $5.99 for it?  Is there any sort of history, any credibility behind such an unlikely dish?  Or is this yet another case of retro Americana (as peddled by eyebrow-pierced, sideburn-sporting, PBR-swilling hipsters) gone sadly awry?   And, most importantly, could these things possibly taste good?

I do not know whence frickles have come, but I can tell you that they are delicious, as appetizing as onion rings (or zucchini fritters or fried mushrooms or any other vegetable that you’ve ever wanted to submerge in hot oil) and dead easy to make.  Do bear in mind, though, that even though this dish sounds like something a five-year-old would invent, it depends very much on the quality of the ingredients.  The better the pickle, the better the frickle.  Real garlic dill pickles from a real deli are best, with Claussen pickles running a close second.  You could cut the pickles into spears (or halves or wedges or icosahedra, I suppose), but cutting them into slices gives you the best batter-to-pickle ratio.

  • 8 whole dill pickles
  • 1/2 c + 1/4 c flour, divided
  • 1/2 t baking powder
  • 1/8 t baking soda
  • pinch of cayenne
  • 1/2 c lager (come to think of it, PBR would be an excellent choice here)
  • 1 egg
  • olive oil, as needed
  • lemon wedges, as needed

Cut the pickles into 1/4-inch thick slices.  Set aside.

Take two medium-sized mixing bowls; put 1/2 c flour in one and 1/4 c in the other.  In the bowl with 1/2 c flour, add the baking powder, baking soda, cayenne and several grinds of black pepper; stir to combine.  Add the beer and egg and whisk to form a smooth batter (don’t worry if there are a few lumps).

Fill a cast-iron skillet with deep sides or a Dutch oven with oil to a 1/2-inch depth; put over medium heat.  Dredge a quarter of the pickle slices in the flour, making sure to coat both sides; shake off any excess flour, then transfer them to the batter, stirring to coat them thoroughly.  When the oil is hot and shimmery, use a slotted spoon to carefully transfer the battered pickles to the skillet.  Using the spoon, spread them out so that they lie flat in a single layer in the skillet.  Fry the pickles over medium heat until they are golden brown on the bottom, about 2 minutes.  Using tongs, carefully flip over the pickles and brown the second side, another 1-2 minutes.  Remove the pickles from the oil and drain on a wire rack over paper towels.  Squeeze some lemon juice over the pickles and season with black pepper, a little more cayenne (if desired) and perhaps a *tiny* pinch of salt.  (Remember:  These are pickles and therefore already salty.)

Repeat in batches with the rest of the pickles; you can keep the fried pickles warm in a 200 degree oven while you finish.  Serve hot, preferably with aioli, remoulade, ranch dressing or any other dip you like.

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Corn Chowder

This was pretty darn good with supermarket corn.  I can’t wait to try it with farm-fresh corn, come August.

I wanted to make a chowder that really highlighted the flavor of the corn; the trick turned out to be roasting the cobs (along with a few other vegetables) to make a highly flavorful stock.  I thought about making this a completely vegan chowder, but the combination of corn and butter proved too magnificent to resist.  (Feel free to substitute olive oil, though, if you prefer.)  I finished the chowder with a little skim milk, which, to be frank, didn’t really contribute much to the soup.  I think next time I will either omit the dairy entirely and sacrifice the richness that it contributes in exchange for keeping the corn flavor in the spotlight, or I will add whole milk (or maybe even some cream!) for its decadent lushness.

  • 4 ears of corn
  • the contents of the Vegetable Stock bag, especially carrots and celery
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 10 peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 T butter
  • 3 medium Yukon Gold Potatoes, washed and scrubbed
  • 2 medium shallots or 1 small red onion, peeled
  • pinch of cayenne
  • 1 c milk or cream (optional)

Garnishes (optional):

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Shuck the corn.  Holding the ears over a bowl, cut the kernels off with a sharp knife.  Set the kernels aside.

Trim the ends off the corn cobs and put them in a roasting pan or Dutch oven along with some vegetable trimmings from the vegetable stock bag:  Carrot and celery pieces are ideal here, as are onion and leek trimmings.  You want the corn cob flavor to predominate, though; a 1-to-1 ratio of corn cobs to other stuff is ideal.  Put the roasting pan in the oven and roast for about 45 minutes, turning the vegetables and deglazing the pan with water occasionally, until they are golden brown.

Transfer the contents of the roasting pan into a stockpot; make sure to deglaze the pan thoroughly.  (If you used a Dutch oven, you can just put it right on the stove.)  Cover the vegetables with water, salt liberally, add the garlic, peppercorns and bay leaf, and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for about 45 minutes.  Strain the stock, pressing on the vegetables to extract as much flavor as possible, and discard the solids.  Reserve the stock.

In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium-low heat.  Cut the potatoes into 3/4-inch cubes and add to the butter with a pinch of salt.  Stir to coat with the butter and cook until they start to brown, about 10 minutes.  Dice the shallots and stir into the potatoes.

Cook until the shallots are soft, about 5 minutes.  Add the reserved corn kernels and stir in with the potatoes and shallots.  Add the cayenne and several grinds of black pepper.  Cook for about 2 minutes, then add the reserved corn stock.  Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil.  Cook at a boil until the potatoes are soft, about 10 minutes.  Turn off the heat, add the milk or cream, if using, and stir to incorporate.  Taste for seasoning.

Serve hot, garnished with red pepper purée and diced avocado.

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Memo to the restaurateurs of America:  Please add this dish to your brunch menus, effective immediately.  After all, brunch is one of the greatest things about this country, right next to baseball, bourbon and the blues, and everyone should be able to partake of this venerable tradition of beginning breakfast in the afternoon and drinking champagne during the first meal of the day.  However, brunch can be a difficult meal for vegetarians, especially ones who aren’t fond of eggs:  These restrictions tend to eliminate 95% of brunch dishes.  Sure, there are always pancakes, but what if you’re in the mood for something savory?  And what if, God forbid, you actually want some vegetables in your meal?

I could call this dish “glorified hash browns”; Anya von Brezmen, whose The New Spanish Table was the inspiration for this recipe, calls it trinxat de la Cerdanya, which I don’t think is going to appear on my local IHOP’s menu any time soon.  She translates this as “Pyrenean potato and kale cake” since, according to her, it is a specialty of “a section of the Catalan Pyrenees where Barcelonans escape to breathe mountain air, pick wild mushrooms, or just lose themselves rambling on the back roads among wild goats and ramshackle Romanesque churches.”  I would tell you that eating trinxat will make you feel as if you are standing amidst ramshackle Romanesque goats, but I try to keep the outlandish claims on this blog to a minimum.

I can promise that it is delicious any time of day, and I imagine you could swap out the kale for spinach, chard or any other leafy green; you could also probably replace the greens with firmer vegetables, like broccoli or asparagus.  Like hash browns, this dish goes well with cheddar cheese melted on top, sauteed mushrooms, poached eggs, bacon, kielbasa or anything else that you’re moved to eat with it.

Because it seems I can’t refrain from putting quinoa into everything, I added half a cup of cooked quinoa to the potatoes to add some whole grain goodness as well as some textural and visual contrast.  The combination of potatoes and quinoa seems very Andean to me, so I thought about calling this “Pyrenean-Peruvian Potato Pie”.  I’m not proud of these impulses.

  • 2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
  • 1 large bunch of kale
  • olive oil, as needed
  • 1 clove of garlic, peeled
  • 1 medium onion, peeled
  • 1/2 c (or more) cooked quinoa (preferably red)

Scrub the potatoes well, then cut them into 1-inch cubes.  Put them in a large pot and cover with water by an inch; salt liberally.  Put the pot over high heat until the water comes to a rolling boil; reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes, until the potatoes are tender.

Wash the kale thoroughly and chop roughly.  When the potatoes are tender, add the kale to the pot, pushing it into the water.  Cook for about 5 minutes until the kale is tender.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 450 degrees.  Heat a few tablespoons of oil over medium heat in a cast-iron skillet; add the garlic clove and cook until it starts to brown.  Dice the onion and add it to the skillet with a few pinches of salt; saute the onions until translucent and soft, about 3-4 minutes.

When the potatoes and kale are done, drain them and put them back into the pot (or into a large mixing bowl).  Stir in the sauteed onions and the quinoa, reserving the skillet that you used to saute the onions.

Using a wooden spoon, mash everything together.  The dish should have the texture of “smashed” potatoes, or really chunky mashed potatoes.   Using the same cast-iron skillet as before, heat a few more tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat.  When the oil is hot, spoon the potato mixture into the skillet.  (You may have more potato mixture than you can use for one cake, and that’s wonderful news:  Refrigerate the mixture, and you can use it the next day to have breakfast on the table in ten minutes.)  Using the back of the spoon, spread it as flat as possible; you want to create a 1-inch thick cake that goes up to the edges of the skillet.

Saute the cake for 2 minutes, then drizzle a little olive oil on top and place in the oven.  Roast the cake for 15 minutes; it should be brown at the edges and firming up.  If you want, broil it for a few minutes to get a nice brown crust on top.

Cut into wedges and serve hot under a mess of black beans, creamed chicken or tomato ragout.  It’s also delicious with a little aioli, as in the picture below.

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It is highly regrettable that, in some circles, arugula has become a code word for effete yuppie snobbery.  Good, honest, salt-of-the-earth Americans apparently will eat romaine, Boston bibb and the occasional bunch of spinach, but, for reasons unknown, arugula seems to smack of elitism and pretension in a way that Swiss chard, say, doesn’t.

This is regrettable because arugula is nothing less than the greatest food on the planet.  That was not a misprint:  It is THE greatest food in the world.  I could eat arugula every day and never tire of it.  I’m sure it’s chock full of vitamins, antioxidants, phytochemicals and all sorts of things that will improve my blood pressure, peace of mind, inner harmony and credit history, but I could care less, to be frank.  I’m in it for the flavor.  Arugula just tastes great.  I crave it.  I crave it the way some people crave a seared medium-rare ribeye (which, as it just so happens, is the perfect accompaniment to an arugula salad).  I crave it the way some people crave bacon.

Speaking of bacon, I have a request for the United States of America:  Can we please chill out on the bacon, just a little bit?  Please?  Don’t get me wrong:  I love bacon as much as the next man.  The insistence of some restaurants to slip bacon into seemingly meatless dishes, however, makes it rather more difficult than it needs to be for me to have an enjoyable dinner out with my Lovely Vegetarian Wife.  Does that curried pumpkin soup really need a garnish of lardons?  Must the green tomatoes be fried in bacon fat?  And are you seriously offering a Bloody Mary made with bacon-infused vodka?

I have a sense that bacon has become many a poor cook’s crutch:  When in doubt, throw some bacon on it.  This does a disservice to many wonderful foods whose opportunity to shine is snuffed out by bacon’s overweening smokiness; conversely, when I feel like mainlining all of bacon’s saturated fat, sodium and nitrates, I want to get my money’s worth and put the bacon flavor front and center.  Rich, smoky, salty, meaty—bacon that tastes like bacon.  What could be more American than that?

One food that is assertive enough to stand up to and pair beautifully with bacon?  How did you guess that it’s arugula?  Now we’re back to our much improved version of the BLT:  the BAT, a sandwich that allows sweet, smoky bacon and spicy, peppery arugula to share the spotlight.  The one thing left to do for this sandwich is to upgrade the standard supermarket Cardboard Tomato.  A little roasting does the trick (since we’re baking the bacon, we can just roast the tomatoes right alongside), as does grinding the tomatoes with some almonds to make a quick pesto.

For a vegetarian, bacon-less sandwich, almost any grilled or roasted vegetable you want would pair beautifully with the arugula and tomato-almond pesto.  Cheese would also be a natural addition:  I can imagine a few slices of fresh mozzarella wedged amidst the arugula.  To compensate for the missing bacon’s smoky edge, I would add a little pimentón to the tomato-almond pesto (or just go whole hog, as it were, and use romesco).

  • 3 thick slices of good bacon
  • 1 handful of grape tomatoes
  • 1 sandwich roll or 2 slices of bread
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • 1 handful of blanched slivered almonds
  • olive oil, as needed
  • 1 handful of arugula

Place the bacon on a rack over a rimmed baking sheet.  Place the tomatoes in a separate baking dish.  Put the bacon and the tomatoes in the oven and heat the oven to 400 degrees.  (Whenever baking bacon, start with a cold oven.  It stays straighter this way.)  Roast, stirring the tomatoes occasionally and flipping the bacon after about 10 minutes, until the tomatoes are cooked to death and the bacon is brown and crispy on the edges.

Slice the roll in half and toast it.  Rub the cut side of the bread with the garlic; discard the garlic clove (or, better yet, put it in your vegetable stock bag).

Add the tomatoes and almonds to the food processor along with enough olive oil to get the mixture moving.  Pulse a few times until the almonds are coarsely ground and a loose pesto is formed.  Add a few grinds of black pepper and perhaps a little salt (but, remember, you’re putting bacon on top of this).  Add a few tablespoons of this mixture to one side (or both sides!) of the roll.

Layer on the bacon and arugula.

Put the other half of the roll on top, smoosh the sandwich flat (you could even give it the panini treatment, if you want), cut in half diagonally and enjoy.

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The feta in the fridge got me thinking of a Greek salad, bursting with Kalamata olives and sun-ripened tomatoes.  The tomatoes, in turn, got me thinking of panzanella, the Italian salad that, like Spanish gazpacho, resurrects stale bread by combining it with tomatoes to form something greater than the sum of its parts.  Thus, this:  A Greek salad-panzanella hybrid.  Greek bread salad?  Italian bread salad with feta?  I thought about calling this panzanella dei greci, but figured that my Italian-speaking acquaintances would never talk to me again if I did.

Tomatoes are, of course, fruit in a biological sense and therefore share in all of fruit’s attendant glory and misfortune.  The glory comes in August, when I am up to my eyeballs in tomatoes, peaches, cherries, peppers and corn-on-the-cob in all of their fully-ripened, resplendently juicy sweetness.  The misfortune is ours the other eleven months of the year, when the supermarket produce tastes like it was made out of 85% post-consumer recycled material.  This is where a little technique and a little forethought create a culinary sleight-of-hand, an alchemical transformation by which the Cardboard Tomato becomes something good to eat.

Stale bread?  Tasteless tomatoes?  Dinner is served.

  • 4 medium tomatoes
  • 8 slices of bread
  • 1/2 c Kalamata olives
  • 1 shallot
  • splash of sherry vinegar
  • pinch of red pepper flakes
  • olive oil, as needed
  • 2 oz. feta, crumbled
  • 2 handfuls of arugula

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Halve and core the tomatoes; cut in half again to form quarters.  WORKING OVER A LARGE MIXING BOWL, use your fingers to remove the seeds from the tomatoes.  Place the seeds in the bowl.  DO NOT DISCARD THE SEEDS!

There is a method to this madness:  A recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated taught me that a tomato’s seeds contain a high proportion of glutamic acid, which is what gives many foods that savory quality that pretentious foodies love to call umami.  Some recipes call for removing and discarding tomato seeds to improve a dish’s texture.  Unfortunately, this sends a lot of flavor down the drain.

So, we’re going to use the tomato seeds.  However, at this point in the recipe, we put the seedless tomato quarters in a baking dish and stick them in the oven.  This will concentrate their flavor and banish all traces of Cardboardiness.  We don’t want to roast the tomato seeds, though, because we need sufficient liquid to permeate the stale bread in the salad.  If we were to keep the seeds in the tomatoes while they were in the oven, too much of this liquid would evaporate and we wouldn’t have enough moisture to dress the salad.

Roast the tomatoes for at least 15 minutes, until they start to shrivel.  Meanwhile, cut the bread into 1-inch cubes.  Place the cubes on a baking tray.  Put the bread cubes in the oven beside (or underneath, or above—it doesn’t really matter) the tomatoes.  Roast the bread cubes for about 12 minutes or so, until they are toasty.  They should be done about the same time as the tomatoes are.  If they’re not, you’re much pickier than I am.

Press down on a Kalamata olive with the flat side of a chef’s knife.  Whack the knife with your hand to crush the olive.  Remove and discard the pit.  Repeat with the rest of the olives.

Roughly chop the olives and reserve in a bowl.  Peel and thinly slice the shallot; add to the bowl with the olives.

In the mixing bowl with the tomato seeds, add the sherry vinegar, red pepper flakes, a small pinch of salt and several generous grinds of black pepper; stir to combine.  Drizzle in some olive oil, whisking constantly, until a nice dressing is formed.

When the tomatoes and bread cubes are ready, add them to the dressing.  Add the olives and shallots; toss to combine thoroughly.  Check for seasoning.  If you plan on serving the salad later, place in the refrigerator for a few hours.  If you are going to serve it immediately, add the feta and arugula and toss to combine.

Serve as a light lunch and enjoy.

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It can be challenging to come up with names for these dishes.  First of all, you must avoid the temptation to use hyphens to excess, or else you create names like, say, Citrus-Jicama-Avocado Salad with Red Onion-Cilantro-Chipotle-Lime Vinaigrette.  Then there’s the excessive adjective trap, nicely detailed by a recent NPR piece.  Which items should be referred to in a foreign language, and which ones should be translated?  (Would you rather eat “pureed vegetables and bread” or “gazpacho“?)

I wanted to avoid referring to this salad as tabbouleh, because I feel like that would do injustice both to the versatility of cooked bulgur as the basis for a room temperature salad and to the uniqueness of tabbouleh as a particular Middle Eastern dish.  (My Lovely Vegetarian Wife, however, has advocated for the name “Bastardized Tabbouleh”, and there is something to recommend that.  Certainly, I would pay good money to see a restaurant menu refer to a dish as “bastardized”.)  The final consideration in naming this dish is the fact that “cracked wheat salad” sounds so much better than “bulgur salad” (even though cracked wheat and bulgur are two different, but related, things).  Besides, I have no idea which of those two things I actually have in my freezer:  I just let the grain steep in boiled water until it’s tender, then I drain it and proceed with the dish.  (This tells you something about how effectively I label items before putting them in the freezer.)

Once you’ve cooked the asparagus and the bulgur/cracked wheat, the salad takes all of five minutes to prepare.  You could omit the goat cheese, but unless you don’t eat dairy or you really have a thing against goats, why would you?

  • 1 bunch (let’s say, 2 c) cooked asparagus, preferably on the thin side
  • 1 c cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 4 c cooked bulgur or cracked wheat
  • 1 T Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 T sherry vinegar
  • olive oil
  • 4 oz. chèvre (soft, fresh goat cheese)
  • 1/2 c blanched slivered almonds

Cut the asparagus into bite-sized pieces; add to a large mixing bowl.  Cut the tomatoes in half and add to the asparagus.  Add the bulgur to the bowl and stir to combine.

In a small mixing bowl, combine the mustard and vinegar.  Whisk in enough olive oil to form a creamy vinaigrette.  Toss the vinaigrette with the bulgur and vegetables.  Add salt and pepper to taste; stir in completely.  (If you want to keep the salad to serve later, refrigerate at this point.)

Crumble the goat cheese over the salad.  Sprinkle the almonds over the salad and stir to combine lightly.  Transfer to a serving dish.  Serve at room temperature.

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There’s nothing like asparagus season.  I still vividly remember the first time I tried asparagus:  I was at an Asparagus Festival at Tait Farm in central Pennsylvania, and somebody was serving bite-sized pieces of grilled asparagus on toothpicks.  The asparagus had nothing more than olive oil and salt on it, and it was one of the greatest things I had ever eaten.  (Dare I say that it was love at first bite?)  I must have had about 40 pieces of asparagus that day.

When I get tired of simple grilled asparagus, I move on to asparagus with hollandaise, or asparagus with poached eggs (or both!).  However, sometimes I want something a little lighter, a little faster.  This sweet-sour-salty combination is a knockout:  The combination of honey and vinegar is one of those “Why haven’t I been making this all my life and putting it on everything?” concoctions.

I’m not very picky with asparagus.  I love thin asparagus; I love thick asparagus.  It’s great steamed, it’s great grilled, it’s great roasted.  My only pieces of advice are:

  • Don’t overcook it!  Better that it’s slightly on the raw side than overdone.
  • When using a dry heat method, medium-high heat (say, a 400 degree oven) works well.  You want the outside of the asparagus to shrivel and brown a little bit, but you don’t want the outside to burn before the inside gets hot.  The thickness of the asparagus will determine the exact cooking time, so keep an eye on it and check it often.

Finally, the grating of almond at the end adds beautiful color and a faint hint of nutty flavor.  It’s a nice trick for a dish that needs a little extra visual appeal but that wouldn’t necessarily benefit from grated cheese.

  • 1 bunch cooked asparagus (grilled, roasted, sauteed or steamed)
  • a generous drizzle of the best extra virgin olive oil that you have, can afford or can steal
  • a moderate drizzle of honey (I actually used both buckwheat honey and, uh, regular honey on this:  The buckwheat honey is a nice mahogany which adds an extra color to this dish’s palette)
  • a parsimonious drizzle of sherry vinegar
  • a sprinkle of flaky sea salt, preferably Maldon
  • 2 blanched roasted almonds

(By the way, if you do not eat honey, you can use either maple syrup or agave nectar in this recipe.  You could also use a sweeter vinegar, such as balsamic, or omit the sweet element from the dish entirely.)

Arrange the asparagus (hot or cold) on a fancy-shmancy plate.  Break out your inner Jackson Pollock and drizzle the oil, honey and vinegar over the asparagus.  Sprinkle the sea salt evenly over the asparagus and add a few grinds of black pepper.

Using a Microplane or other such grater, grate an almond or two evenly over the asparagus.  Serve.

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