July 26, 2010

30 Lessons

I turned 30 this past weekend. It was a wonderful and quiet event; in the Hampton's, with my parents and husband, gorging ourselves on lobster in a shack on the water in Montauk... perfection.

As I was trying to think of something wise to say, some epiphany about my short, yet informative 30 years on this planet and absolutely nothing came to mind that you haven't heard before. I have too much to learn and experience, too many places to visit, people to meet, things to eat...

I'm glad that my 20's are behind me, though. Somehow, I feel refreshed. It's as if the mis-steps I made are gone and only the lessons learned are allowed to follow me now. So what is there to say? Well, rather than wax poetic, I'm going to be practical. I thought I'd share a few things that I've learned from my food mistakes. Lessons from burning things, from those epic failures, and also from those surprising successes.

Thank you in advance for indulging my little list.

1. When in doubt K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid).

2. Salt. Water. Well. Not sure if it's salty enough? Taste it, it should taste like, you guessed it: salt water.

3. Eat seasonal foods. Not only will they taste better, but you support the right kind of people, who are growing the right things, at the right times. Right? Right.

4. Think across lines. Soy sauce isn't just for Asian food. Tortillas aren't just for burritos. Soy sauce is salty, tortillas are made from flour -- you can think of 101 ways to use salt and flour.

5. In baking, there are decent substitutions for almost everything except sugar. Nothing else is sugar.

6. Good knives and proper usage of said knives, are extremely important. You can get away with cheap pots and pans, but nothing is a good quality knife.

7.Cheap, no-name brand bacon is almost always better than expensive bacon. It cooks better, has better flavor, and... its cheaper.

8. If it's not good, don't serve it. Keep it around to prove to your friends that you tried, but do them a favor and order a pizza.

9. Patience is a virtue. Yes, it takes better part of an hour to chop up everything you need for a truly stellar guacamole but, it's always worth it.

10. Careful with those flavored oils, a little bit goes a very long way.

11. Careful with those essences... see above.

12. People will forgive paper plates, plastic utensils, and cups, but only if the food is yummy.

13. Cheap doesn't always mean crappy & expensive doesn't always mean wonderful.

14. Don't turn your nose up at people's cultural delicacies. Not only is it rude, you do yourself a disservice.

15. They key to good pastry isn't butter, it's MORE BUTTER!

16. It's ok to buy pre-made pie dough, filo dough, puff pastry, and stocks. We can't all be Martha Stewart.

17. Find a chef or fellow foodie to be inspired by. My first foodie inspirations were the Two Hot Tamales. It wasn't about the kind of food they made, it was how much life they brought to the food, their passion and humor.

18. A lesson learned from said Tamales: use your hands whenever possible. Touch your food, mix with your hands, get a little dirty.

19. Let poultry and meats get to room temperature before cooking. If you cook meats when they are still cold or even cool, you steam the meat before you actually start cooking it. That being said, if you are steaming your meat, then it really doesn't matter.

20. Always be respectful of peoples food preferences, political views, and choices, but don't cater to them. It was their choice to eat that way, not yours. (Caveat to that is allergies, make sure people with allergies can eat something.)

21. Chicken soup really does heal.

22. Learn to make at least one thing really, really well.

23. If a host or hostess asks that you not bring anything food-wise, please listen to them. They have a plan and a menu, and feeling obliged to serve whatever you brought, may not be a part of that. Wine, liquor, flowers, or even thank you cards are always welcomed.

24. You can always buy dessert instead of making it. 
Even if it's ice cream, people will be more than thrilled with that.

25. Homemade, fresh whipped cream, is always better.

26. Necessity is the mother of invention; how true! Sometimes, when you only have pasta, eggs, and onions left in the kitchen, you make the greatest food discoveries.

27. Don't over sauce things. Nothing is worst than food swimming in sauces. Put enough on the dish to make things glisten and moist, then serve the rest to the side. Same holds true for salad dressing.

28. Everyone likes popcorn. You can dress it up and down, make it sweet or savory.

29. Acid, it's a good thing. A squeeze of lemon juice, or a dash of vinegar will do wonders.

30. Be brave! After all, you don't have to like it, but you have to try it.

July 19, 2010

When Simplicity is Best

I had plenty of this leftover and brought it to my father who happily gobbled it down. He appreciated how un-fussy this was. When you have good ingredients, ingredients that are in season and tasty, it doesn't take much to create something delicious.

So here is a very simple tomato salad that as most things, is way better the next day!

Simple Summer Salad
8 medium vine ripened yellow and orange tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 bunch, about half cup+, of chopped dill
1 bunch, about half cup+, bulb onions, finely chopped (if you can't find them replace scallion or more preferably, another sweet and mild onion like vidalia or cipollini)
8 oz. "pearl" sized mozzarella, drained. If you can't find them, use bocconcini or any fresh mozzarella chopped into pearl-sized pieces
1 1/2 tbs rice wine vinegar
Salt & pepper to taste

-Add tomatoes, onions, dill, and mozzarella to bowl.
-Add vinegar, salt & pepper to taste.
-Refrigerate covered for at least one hour or overnight to let all the flavors meld. Adjust seasoning - you might want more salt & pepper or even more vinegar. Serve.

July 15, 2010

A Supper Club in Queens

I thought they were myths, urban legends... I was wrong.

When I got an email from a friend saying she wanted to take me to a Low Country Shrimp Boil in Queens but I had to act quickly, there wasn't much thought to my immediate yes. After all, besides the food sounding amazing, how many times would I ever hear Low Country and Queens in the same sentence? How could I say no? So last night, four friends made their way to Queens after work, each armed with a bottle of wine.

*A quick side-note here, I'm no great wine connoisseur, that being said, I took the advice of the man behind the counter when the Riesling I wanted wasn't there. I walked away with a bottle of Geil Scheurebe Kabinett Bechtheimer Heiligkruez 2009, it was exquisite and it was also almost gone within 30 minutes of opening - needless to say I highly recommend it. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming:

Through the doors of the unassuming townhouse, up the stairs, and into a feast! On the back patio, overlooking the garden we were treated to boiled peanuts that were salty, spicy, and so irresistible. They were so good in fact, so wonderfully lip tingling, (maybe my favorite food of the night), that I will be desperately trying to re-create them at home.

Two long folding tables graciously set with tablecloths, mix-matched plates, tea candles, and bright colored napkins met us in the living room where all the furniture had been pushed aside. Wine glasses were simply unscrewed mason jars and the gansta' rap was pumping from the other room. Eventually we eased into something in a more soothing 60's soul, but nothing like a little Snoop to get the appetite roaring. As twenty hungry people sat to eat, salad with buttermilk-mint dressing, not to be believed collard greens with enough bacon to make you beg for more, and a stewed tomato dish with wax beans that was perfectly tomato-y and acidic were served.

When it was time for the main event we passed the bowls down to our neighbors eying the mound of goodies hungrily. Whole red potatoes, corn, shrimp, amazing sausage, peas... it was cooked to perfection and hit every Low Country spot I never knew I had.

The people around me were various colors, orientations, and backgrounds. A teenager sat next to a TV producer, sat next to a real estate agent, who sat next to a med student. The only thing we shared in common was a love of food and an appreciation for our host and chef. As the night wore on and people became happier and happier from full bellies and full glasses, cheers to the chef were shared but not before desert.

Peaches and figs and rum and sugar and rose-water scented whipped cream, oh my!

Our hostess was gracious, energetic, and shared her love of food with us, who could ask for more. Her ever present dish towel over her right shoulder, her wonderfully spiky red hair, combined with her sense of good food and company was a gift. After hugs, pecks on cheeks, and invitations to come to next months dinner party, four friends left to make their long way back to Brooklyn. Despite the plentiful amounts of food in my belly and the lingering headache from too much wine, there was a lightness in my step - I had found and conquered the urban legend and didn't it taste divine!

July 14, 2010

Berries and Almonds

We went to a picnic this past weekend, it was lovely as most picnics are. I offered to make something of course and then conveniently forgot about said promise until about 8pm the night before. I needed something fast and yummy with what I had in the kitchen. I know you've been there and I have the solution - no panicking allowed!

This is a terrific and easy recipe that you probably already have all the ingredients for. It's buttery and tasty and when I say easy... I really mean it.

Berry Almond Cake
4 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1 - 1 1/2 pints (or 2 - 2 1/2 cups) berries, if using strawberries rough chop them

-Preheat oven to 325
-Spray a 13 x 9 pyrex or baking dish with cooking spray
-Mix sugar and eggs until light lemony yellow
-Add softened butter and mix (don't worry if its a little lumpy)
-Add flour and extract and mix, scraping down sides as you go
-Gently mix in berries (I used blueberries and blackberries) with spatula or spoon and pour into baking dish, smoothing down top
-Bake for 40-45 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean
-Cool on rack completely before you cut and serve.Wrap in foil for next day picnic eating...

July 7, 2010

Our Sweet Weekend

While most people were grilling this weekend, we were eating the sweet life.

I had a real sweet urge and dove headfirst into sugar, vanilla, and butter. The seed was planted when I was reminded of exactly how wonderful The Barefoot Contessa's Lemon Pound Cake was, thanks to fellow blogger, Not Derby Pie. The memory of that supremely lemony pound cake stuck with me until I finally gave in and bought the small army of lemons required on Friday. Well, it spiraled from there; cookies, chocolate, and waffles. It was a rich and creamy few days and what kind of friend would I be if I didn't share the sugary wealth?

Whole Wheat-Buttermilk Waffles
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 large eggs
1 3/4 cups light buttermilk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
3 tbs sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbs vanilla
1 tsp cinnamon
Melted butter (optional)

-Heat waffle iron.
-Sift flour and baking powder together. Add salt, cinnamon, and sugar - set aside.
-With hand mixer, whisk eggs until frothy. Add oil, buttermilk, and vanilla, mix together well until all combined.
-Slowly add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and whisk until completely combined and air bubbles form in the batter.
-Using a piece of paper towel, wipe down the surface of the waffle iron with melted butter (this is the optional bit. Even though my waffle iron is non-stick, I still like doing this to add some buttery goodness to this butter-less recipe. But it's just for flavor, even without the butter this recipe comes out crispy outside and soft in the middle).
-Ladle batter into waffle iron and cook. Depending on size of iron, this will make anywhere from 6-10 waffles.
*This recipe works with regular all purpose flour and plain whole milk as well

Barefoot Contessa's Lemon Pound Cake

For cake:
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temp
2 1/2 cups sugar, divided (2 cups & 1/2 cup)
4 extra-large eggs, room temp
1/3 cup grated lemon zest (6-8 large lemons... don't skimp on this, its what makes this recipe so damn good!)
3 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp kosher salt
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided (1/2 cup & 1/4 cup)
3/4 cup buttermilk,  room temp
1 tsp vanilla extract

For glaze:
2 cups confectioners sugar, sifted
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (the original recipe calls for 3 1/2 tbs, but it's not enough juice.)

-Preheat the oven to 350. Grease and flour 2 (8 1/2  x  4 1/4) loaf pans. As you'll see I used pretty flower cake tins, you can use muffin tins as well, almost anything.

-Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl.
-In another bowl, combine 1/4 cup lemon juice, buttermilk, and vanilla.
-Cream butter and 2 cups sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a hand held mixer and bowl will work as well), until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, mix well. Add lemon zest, mix in with spatula.
-Add the flour and buttermilk mixtures alternately to the batter, beginning and ending with the flour. Divide the batter evenly between the pans, smooth the tops, and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until a cake tester comes out clean.
-Combine 1/2 cup granulated sugar with 1/2 cup lemon juice in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until the sugar dissolves to make a lemon syrup. When the cakes are done, allow to cool for 10 minutes (5 minutes if using smaller tins of any kind). Remove the cakes from the pans and set them on a rack set over a tray or sheet pan; spoon the lemon syrup over them. Allow the cakes to cool completely.
-For the glaze, combine the confectioners sugar and the lemon juice in a bowl, mixing with a wire whisk until smooth. Pour over the tops of the cakes and allow the glaze to drizzle down the sides.