Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Passage to India

My New York posse rolls 8 deep. There's Julie, the former advice columnist and future HBO exec, Jane, the architect with a heart of gold, Liz, the loyal young teacher with legs to her ears, Lila, the brassy, sassy life of the party, Katie, the one most likely to live happily ever after, Andrea, the incorrigible flirt, and Shane, the brains and brawn of the operation.

Our gift-giving theme for Secret Santa this past Christmas was a flight of the imagination --- the working(wo)man's holiday. We each wrote our names and a country that we've always dreamed of visiting and tossed the scraps of paper into a hat. Santas would select gifts in keeping with the fantasy vacation.

It was in a dead heat with Morocco, but I chose India as "my" country because I am intrigued by its juxtaposition of old and new, sacred and vulgar, razzle-dazzle and dirt-poor. Its ceremonies, movies, costumes, jewelry, and colors are life-affirming and inspiring. (At left: my snake charmer costume for a "Burlesque Circus" fancy dress party in Dublin in 2005.)

I remember going to a celebration for Ganesh on a windswept beach near San Francisco as a kid. The idol is submerged into the sea, mums scatter and float away, the scent of camphor fills the air: it was thrilling, if odd. I loved the story of Ganesh, that tragic, elephant-headed young prince; I fell for Indian mythology almost as hard as I fell the soap opera tales of the Greek gods and gray whales (twin obsessions circa age 9.) At 23, I got a tattoo of an Indian elephant. They're gentle, loyal and so strong and disciplined they can move mountains. They mourn their dead.

My adopted mom is one-fourth Indian. In the early 70s, she went on a sojourn to live with relatives there. In photos, she stands with aunts and cousins of some remove, wearing a nose ring, her hair thick, long, and oiled. She is so beautiful. She still has many of her saris. When my dad and I moved in with her, my double-height bedroom window was hung with a silk sari of saturated purple and pink that cast a glow like the inside of a genie's bottle.

Over the years, there has been talk of a family trip to India, but my sister and I have had to make do with beautiful saris which our parents bought for us in 2003 in a "little India" neighborhood in Chicago. I've never found an occasion to wear mine outside dress-up in the house. You'd think one would make a reason.

And the food! For years, I didn't like Indian flavors, so complex and fiery, and then my taste buds woke up and now, oh, I do. It was really a no-brainer for Katie, the one who picked my name out of the hat. She presented me with a red silk scarf with silver embroidery and a cookbook, The Food of India: A Journey for Food Lovers.

Tonight I took my roommates and our taste buds on a little magic carpet ride to India. But as it was a work night, I kept it very simple (one could argue it's hardly Indian cooking at all, then!). Dear Jane brought home take-out naan, potato samosas, and a few other little nibbles to round out the meal.

From American Food Writing, I made Madhur Jaffrey's moong dal, pea-green, cumin-scented "everyday" lentils from the woman who taught the West to cook with spice (she published An Invitation to Indian Cooking in 1973 as well as a series of other influential cookbooks and appeared, as an actor, in over 15 films). From The Food of India, I made yakhni pulao, rice flavored with cardamom and cinnamon. And finally, a dish of my own invention: roasted curry cauliflower and carrots, thin-sliced, crispy-roasted, and so tasty you want to just toss 'em in your mouth like popcorn. (All recipes below serve about 4.)

Moong Dal

Madhur Jaffrey says this simple recipe, beloved throughout India, regardless of caste, "can be used for the white urad dal, the salmon-colored masoor dal, and the large arhar or toovar dal as well." I used mung beans.

1 1/2 cups moong dal (aka mung beans)
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 slices peeled fresh giner, 1 inch square and 1/8 inch thick
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley (or cilantro)
1 tbsp. ground turmeric
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tbsp. kosher salt
1 1/2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
3 tbsp. ghee or vegetable oil
A pinch ground asafetida
1 tsp. whole cumin seeds
Lemon or lime wedges for garnish, optional

1. Clean and was dal thoroughly. Put dal in a heavy-bottomed 3-4-quart pot, add 5 cups of water, and bring to a boil. Remove the froth and scum that collects at top. Add the garlic, ginger, parsley, turmeric, and cayenne pepper. Cover, leaving the lid very slightly ajar, lower heat, and simmer for 45-75 minutes [note: the given recipe said 90 minutes. My dal was soft after 45.] Stir occasionally. When dal is cooked, add the salt and lemon juice.
2. In a skillet, heat the ghee or oil over medium-high flame. Add the asafetida and cumin seeds. As soon as the cumin seeds turn dark (this will only take a few seconds), pour the oil and spiced over the dal and serve with yakhni pulao, crispy fried onions, and roasted curry cauliflower and carrots.

Yakhni Pulao

Adapted from The Food of India. I didn't have whole cardamom or cinnamon sticks on hand, so I used ground. The recipe calls for only 15 minutes of simmering time. It was about 40 minutes until my rice was perfectly tender and the stock was absorbed. I used brown basmati rice, so that may explain the long cooking time.

1 cup brown basmati rice
2 cups chicken stock
6 tablespoons ghee or oil
1 teaspoon ground cardamom (or 5 pods)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (or 1 2-inch stick)
6 cloves
10 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves (or 4 Indian bay leaves, aka cassia leaves)
1 onion, VERY finely sliced.

1. Wash the rice in a sieve under cold running water and drain.
2. Heat the stock to near boiling in a saucepan.
3. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of the ghee or oil over medium heat in a large, heavy-based saucepan. Add the cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, and bay leaves and fry for 1 minute. Reduce the heat to low, add the rice, and stir constantly for 1 minute. Add the heated stock and a big pinch of salt and bring rapidly to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30-40 minutes. Leave the rice to stand for 10 minutes before uncovering. Lightly fluff with a fork.
4. Meanwhile, heat the remaining ghee or oil in a frying pan over low heat and fry the onion until soft. Increase the heat to medium-high and fry until the onion is dark brown. Drain on paper towels, then use as garnish.

Roasted Curry Cauliflower and Carrots

If the only cauliflower you've ever had is steamed, prepare yourself for a revelation. Sliced as thin as dollar coins and roasted 'til golden brown, they need just a dash of seasonings to become exciting. You can use almost any combination of flavors --- garlic and olive oil; lemon and thyme; mustard, honey and cayenne pepper --- to transport this basic dish to another continent.

1 cauliflower head, florets sliced 1/8-inch thick
4 carrots, slices into discs 1/8-inch thick
About 2 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil
About 1 tablespoon mild curry
About 1 teaspoon cinnamon
About 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Dash of cayenne pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Arrange cauliflower florets and carrots on a baking sheet, in (more or less) a single layer. Drizzle with melted ghee or oil. Bake for 15 minutes, tossing once or twice.
2. Remove sheet from oven and sprinkle vegetables with curry, cinnamon, salt, and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Return to oven and bake another 15 minutes, until the vegetables are starting to turn golden brown and are a bit dried and shriveled (trust me, in this case, it's a good thing).

One last photo: an Irish friend went to work for Google in India and had a Bollywood themed going away bash. My Dublin friends throw hands-down the best costume parties, because everyone takes it quite seriously and makes an effort to impress and humor their fellow revelers.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Marbella de jour

I've told you about my first cookbook, from the crafty folks at Klutz Press. But the cookbook that got me cooking proper dinners --- as opposed to baking endless chocolate chips cookies and rolling hot dogs in ready-made puff pastry --- was The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Russo and Sheila Lukins. Of course, I'm not alone here. It's right up there in the pantheon of American cookbooks, with over 1 million in print.

My family actually wore out our paperback copy. For about 5 years, it was strapped together with a rubber band, random chunks of pages still clinging together with a thin strip of binding, the sections in disarray, the index rendered almost useless. We have a new copy now --- hard-back.

This was the cookbook I was working with when I had my cooking breakthrough at the age of 13. I was fulfilling my familial duty to put dinner on the table on Friday nights. I spent a good hour pouring over The New Basics, as was my wont (I have trouble with decisions), and finally settled on something called a soufflé. In particular, a Gruyere and proscuitto soufflé. I can say with near-certainty that I'd never eaten one before, but they sounded pretty, and I was a big fan of proscuitto. Soufflé it would be.

I'd never folded in egg whites before. I'd heard about this technique, because I was a great fan of Disney's Sleeping Beauty as a child and in one scene --- one that ranks among the all-time classics of cooking in cinema --- the three fairy godmothers must bake a cake, sew a dress, and clean their cottage in the glen without the help of magic. Fauna, the particularly dippy fairy, reads from a dusty old cookbook, "two eggs --- fold in gently." She gives a doubtful little shrug and proceeds to tuck the batter over the eggs, shells and all, like putting two babies to sleep. I knew that was wrong --- this was Fauna we were dealing with --- but I couldn't tell you what she should have done to make it right.

Thank goodness I had Julee & Sheila. They actually explained this business of folding and that gave me the confidence to give it a shot. It is as Molly O'Neill notes in American Food Writing: "
If Julia Child was a teacher, Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins ... were more like coaches."

soufflé was a complete success. I didn't doubt that it would be; I didn't know enough to know they are supposed to be intimidating and notoriously temperamental. But the kudos I got when I presented it at the table! I thought, I could get used to this. My soufflés became a Friday night staple and a minor piece of family lore.

I owe much to Julee & Sheila. I don't think they've ever failed me. Their recipes always turn out as they say they will, and they always have another good idea up their sleeves. They make you excited to cook, and they nudge you gently to what is local, seasonal, and help you make it special.

Last week I made their Chicken Marbella, the first main-course dish that they offered at The Silver Palate, their Upper West Side better-than-take-out take-out joint (since closed). It's chicken marinated in a mixture of olive oil, garlic, oregano, red wine vinegar, prunes, Spanish green onions, capers, and bay leaves, and cooked with brown sugar and white wine. The recipe was published in The Silver Palate Cookbook, which turned 25 last year. "A spectacular party dish," according to its inventors, so crowd-ready that the recipe serves 10 to 12. Molly O'Neill wrote that the recipe "cut a huge swath through company dinner in the 1980s."

A dinner party dish from a New York institution? I knew just the occasion to make it. I left my job as a development assistant at Jeanne Sigler and Associates last month. Last week, the office team together for a casual not-really-farewell supper at Jeanne's apartment. Jeanne, her husband Jim Fratto, and her longtime associate Carolyn Huggins have been doing good works all over Manhattan for decades. They also love to eat well.

When I announced my plan to make Chicken Marbella, Jim and the other development assistant, Sarah (an NYU student & total foodie), got Spanish fever. Jim supplied two delicious Spanish cheeses, figs, spicy chorizo, and saffron rice. He regaled us with tales of a year spent in northern Spain, where his precocious little boy would sniff cheeses at the cheese shop and demand, "¡No! ¡Mas viejo!" Sarah made a fantastic salad dotted with balsamic-candied walnuts and Manchego. The night before, she was making flan in precious individual ramekins when her oven gave out. Instead, she brought a spectacular chocolate and marzipan "Busy Bee Cake" from Black Hound, an East Village bakery.

Chicken Marbella, Sheila & Julee wrote, is a great make-ahead dish because it improves with a little time. And, yes, there was some time involved. It was a three-day effort: I prepared the marinade on Tuesday, baked the chicken on Wednesday, and lugged it in a large disposable pan to my other job on Thursday morning, planted it in the communal fridge, and lugged it a few stops uptown that evening. (I'm as ambitious and determined in the subway as I am in the kitchen). And then all the way over to the far-far east side (we're talking Pepsi Cola views) in the sleet & wind.

But once I got inside, once we finally got it reheated, once we sat down to supper with a lovely glass of Spanish red and candles twinkling around us: delicioso.

You can find the recipe for Chicken Marbella here. I made 6 chicken breasts (bone-in, skin-on) and 2 chicken legs, enough to serve 8. I reduced the other ingredients by about 1/4. (I.e., the recipe calls for 1 cup of prunes, I tossed in about 3/4.) And I was out of oregano, so I substituted an Italian seasoning blend of rosemary, oregano, parsley and basil.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tunnel of Pudge

The Pillsbury Bake-Off is Serious Business. The prize money is a cool $1 million. It's held every other year, because it takes that long to prepare for it. Entries are due a year in advance. Any entrant worth her salt will test and retest recipes for months. Some people --- great bakers among them --- try for decades to make it to the golden circle of 100 finalists. Many will never succeed.

For America's many competitive cooking addicts, this is the Big Kahuna. The One To Win. Molly O'Neill simply couldn't put together an anthology of American food through the ages without one winning recipe.

These days,the Bake-Off wants "creative," easy-peasy recipes that can be marketed to working women. It helps if you use several General Mills/Pillsbury family products, but you must use at least two. Judges seem to favor recipes that use prepared foods in unexpected ways. The stay-at-home mother (of one school-age child) who won in 2006 made a baked chicken dinner for two with a stuffing made from Pillsbury® Dunkables® frozen homestyle waffle sticks and 1 (9 ounce) box Green Giant® frozen spinach, thawed, drained. It's fairly simple, prep time is just 35 minutes, and, perhaps most appealing of all, it gets parents eating their kids' frozen breakfast "sticks."

When the competition started in 1949, it was about innovative baking. The first winner was No-Knead Water-Rising Twists (made with Pillsbury BEST® All Purpose or Unbleached Flour). Here was a recipe women could use: an unusual preparation that got them out of the kitchen faster, leaving them time to make lots and lots of babies. (The recipe posted now on the Pillsbury website instructs to wrap the dough in greased plastic wrap --- which wasn't invented, apparently, until 1953. Hmmm. I guess Pillsbury's been cookin' the ol' recipes. This looks like an investigation for my --- spoiler alert! --- book.)

Ella Rita Helfrich of Houston won in 1966. Her recipe is all Bake-Off, all Texas, all heart. And a LOT of butter besides.

It's called the Tunnel of Fudge Cake and it's the kind of thing that would take weeks of experimentation --- or one happy accident: a very undercooked Bundt cake that just happened to turn out dee-lish. According to Pillsbury, the cake is "arguably the recipe most closely identified with the Bake-Off® Contest." It's easy to see why: it's different without being, you know, weird. And did I mention it has a helluva lot of butter? (I had to run to the store twice for butter because I couldn't believe I'd really need almost a whole pound. Just look how it holds up the hand-mixer!)

These days, the Tunnel of Fudge cake wouldn't even qualify for the contest. It's made with
Pillsbury BEST® All Purpose or Unbleached Flour but all the other ingredients are generic. (I used General Mills Gold Medal flour --- General Mills and Pillsbury were once arch rivals, and their competing mills faced each other from either sides of the Mississippi, very near the site of the I-35 bridge collapse. But then one bought out the other and it's all happy families these days.)

I made the cake for my roommate Jane's 26th birthday party. Sadly, I didn't achieve the proper fudgy tunnel. Instead of a 12-cup Bundt pan, I used a pretty 10-cup "Bavarian" style pan from Martha Stewart's line, a Christmas gift from my wonderful Martha-loving cousin. I reduced the powdered sugar by half mostly because I refused to run to the corner bodega again (and I mean, c'mon: it calls for 2 cups ON TOP OF 1 & 3/4 cups granulated sugar!)

I guess in the smaller pan, it got slightly overcooked. The result was moist, decidedly brownie-like, but not molten lava as in the picture on the Pillsbury site. Still tasted fab, though. All the pretty girls at the party just LOVED it. I did them the favor of not telling them it has 550 calories and 32 grams of fat PER SERVING (and it serves 16). It's true what they say: everything's bigger in Texas.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Mandeltorte Peace Accord of 2007

We joked over Christmas that if a person starts showing too much emotion in my family, he's probably hungry. Or, in any case: you shed tears, we'll feed you.

It works another way, too. When my daddy's girls get mad, get stubborn, get blue or get bored we work it out with some dough. I was mean to my little sister Gena on Christmas Day (I know, what a scrooge) and we were temporarily not speaking. Meanwhile, after a morning spent fiddling with a computer, my Dad had fixed a network or something and was starting to look like he needed a new project (anything to keep that man out of trouble). So I told him, "You're going to make this torte thing for my blog. It's MANDELtorte, Dad." (He's such an Austrophile. Tell him the dessert's from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and he's all over it. As he likes to remind us, the Austrians are the brilliant spin doctors who managed to convince the world that Hitler was German.)

This particular Mandel --- or Almond --- Torte is from the third edition of The Joy of Cooking published in 1952 by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. (The first was written by just Irma, a newly widowed single mom, and published in 1936 and a second "post-war" was published in the 40s. Then Irma's daughter, Marion, joined the fun in the early 50s.) TJC is THE cookbook, as everyone knows. It's Molly O'Neill's "desert island" cookbook, an essential primer AND reference for beginners, experts, anyone in between. But the recipes are far from foolproof, as you shall see.

We had plenty of lemons picked fresh from the neighbor's tree (don't worry --- they asked my aunt & uncle to do this while they were away), some almonds in the pantry, breadcrumbs in the fridge and dark chocolate galore (it was Christmas, after all), so I put my dad & sister to work on Irma's German Mandeltorte (shh! don't tell Dad!). I had high hopes for both the reparation of my sisterly relationship, and the torte itself. Irma writes that the recipe should "be starred as 'the' nut cake my friends frequently ask for."

At first Gena continued to more or less ignore me (except for the dagger looks: exhibit A at right), but by the time she was folding the egg whites into the batter, she was grudgingly accepting advice from me --- in limited quantities, but then I am very bossy.

The batter came together nicely and tasted divine. But taking it out of the cake pan -- uh-oh. Irma instructs us to line that pan with greased wax paper. And, uh, she wasn't kidding. The cake is incredibly moist & crumbly --- it was a bit of a mess. Dad called Gena and I to the dining room table to asses the situation. We told him we were behind him, 110%. Let's go in there with a thin knife, do our damndest to get that cake out, leave no man, woman or child behind. Nothing like a minor kitchen catastrophe to bring bickering sisters back together.

We spread the bottom layer with a lemon curd filling (my only contribution to the finished torte, except, of course, the totally crucial producer credit) and covered the rather sorry looking thing with a dark chocolate butter icing. Not the comeliest cake but it fulfilled its purpose as both a sugar fix at the end of a legendary meal, and as a Camp David peace summit in miniature. Except, you know, a successful one.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Joy of Fizz

New Year's is tricky. Like Prom, it's so hyped it's always in danger of being utterly lame. This year we got it right.

My recipe for a perfect New Year's Eve:
1.) Real friends
2.) Fake Champagne
3.) Hot music
4.) Cold egg whites

What made the night so great this year was that we did something that would make ANY night awesome: a group of my bestests went to a Rebirth Brass Band concert near Times Square (thankfully, the concert was after midnight & most of the tourists were stumbling home).

Rebirth has been there through a number of my own personal rebirths: I've been a foolhardy & ambitious college student and a dreamy, directionless postgrad; I've drifted around post-Katrina New Orleans to their music; I've been rowdy and hungry, new to New York and itchin' to find my place. I've seen them twice at the vast and soulless BB King Blues Club, countless times at the Maple Leaf, and a few places in between. I have NEVER danced like I have at a Rebirth concert. If my mate, whoever he is, is reading this: I don't care what it costs, they're playing at our wedding, honey.

And while we're on the subject, I think I'll serve a special fizzy cocktail; something sparkling and frothy (to compliment my dress and mood) with a kicky bite that gets everyone on the dance floor for "Do Whatcha Wanna."

Something along the lines of Roman Punch, though of course we'd have to rename it in honor of, say, the place where first we shared true love's kiss (can you tell I saw Enchanted over the holidays?).

Roman Punch was a tipple that society gals & guys served after festive dinners of the late 19th century. My recipe came from no less a formidable source than The White House Cookbook (1887) by Mrs. Fanny Lemira Gillette & Hugo Ziemann. Fanny was a savvy self-promoter from Wisconsin who achieved cookbook fame late in life, and Hugo was, according to his publishers, once a caterer for an exiled son of Emperor Napoleon. (Perhaps together an early blueprint for countless duos of fabulous straight girls and their equally fabulous gay boyfriends?).

The White House Cookbook
is a popular title that's been revised and updated through the years. The most recent one, published in 1996, prefaces with this warning:
"The original recipes and remedies contain ingredients which may not necessarily be healthful for some of today's lifestyles."
Ain't that just so like our dull times?

Fanny and Hugo offer two versions of Roman Punch.
No. 1 has:
* An elixir of sugar, lemon and orange zest, and lemon and orange juice
* A bottle of champagne
* Egg whites "beaten to a stiff froth"

No. 2 has:
* Tart homemade lemonade, frozen into an icy slush
* Half a pint of brandy
* Half a pint of Jamaican rum

Because I love cocktails with egg whites (remember those gin fizzes?) and because only champagne (or, uh, cava) will do on NYE, I made No. 1. I halved the sugar, doubled the cava and spiked it with a half pint of brandy for good measure. The directions suggest that you serve over snow -- how charming would that be? -- but there was none to be had so I smashed up ice as best I could.

Recently I read an article in Vanity Fair in which a lot of aging muckety-mucks complained that Washington D.C. just isn't fun anymore. The Bushes have held 5 state dinners in 7 years, when the Kennedys would have had that many in about 2 months. Wouldn't it be nice if George was getting sloshed on Roman Punch every day instead of running the country into the ground?

But that's enough of the pessimism! It's 2008, set to be a heckuva year. In 11 months we get to finally pick a new president, reason enough to break out the bubbly and make some Roman Punch. Cheers!

Roman Punch 2008

6 lemons
3 oranges
1 1/2 cup sugar
Whites of 12 eggs
About 2 cups of crushed ice
2 bottles of champagne or champagne substitute
about 1 cup of brandy (or rum), to taste

  1. Zest the lemons and oranges. Combine the zest with the sugar and set aside. Juice the lemons and oranges. Add juice to sugar mixture and reserve.
  2. Just before serving, beat the egg whites to a stiff froth. Put the ice in a large punch bowl and add the juice. Fold in the egg whites. Pour in the champagne and rum. Serve immediately.