Sunday, February 24, 2008

Babes in Ireland

Oh it feels good to be home!

I am one of the very lucky people who has homes scattered across the globe. Not actual homes, of course, but the sense of home – the people who want me back, the streets my feet know how to walk. Call it a place where I feel like myself. St. Paul, New Orleans, New York, and Dublin: they each represent a different part of me, and if I had my dithers I wouldn’t go a year without spending time in each one.

Dublin is where I feel heady, invincible, and sexy. It’s where I first wore black leggings and tucked my jeans into boots, nine months before the American girls caught on. It’s where I can tease the grooviest magazine editor in town about his plastic surgery. It’s where my friends are creative, mad troubadours of the night. To put it tongue in cheek: it’s where I’m on the list.

Clearly, I just about howled at the chance to come back for a whirlwind visit in honor of the wedding of two bright Dublin stars.

The night before the wedding, I whipped up a Moroccan meal: chicken cooked in butter and water with ginger, saffron, and turmeric, chickpeas with raisins, couscous, and a salad of my own invention (more on that below).

Djej Bil Hamus (Chicken Tagine with Chickpeas) is a 1973 dish that the inimitable Molly O’Neill deigned to include in The Anthology (as I’ve come to think of American Food Writing). And, unfortunately, I can say little more about it, not even who published it and in what book. I had a photocopy of the recipe but I think I left it in the produce aisle of a supermarket. I had already typed up the recipe, thank goodness, but I didn’t include any citations. So I will fill in the blanks when I get home.

For now, suffice to say that it came to American shores in the disco, dance-dance years, was probably served at dinner parties filled with madcap young things, and seemed the perfect dish to take The Great American Cooking Project abroad.

It all came off quite well, except I had zero success cooking the sauce down to the consistency of “thick gravy.” After munching through a sultan’s spread of chili-oil olives, tapenade, and excellent lemony hummus from my new favorite shop, Fallon & Byrne (modeled by Grace at right), my girls were getting hungry for the main event. After about 30 minutes of cooking down the sauce, I gave up on getting to gravy and just went with something more like an Indian curry, perfect for ladling over couscous. The combination of turmeric and saffron made a fantastic vibrant yellow color.

The salad was inspired by a zany head of frisée lettuce spotted in Fallon & Byrne. I mean, how could I pass up something so delightfully Muppet-esque? I whipped up a lemon, Dijon mustard, and olive oil dressing (light on the mustard), added toasted almonds and insanely good feta cheese (again from Fallon & Byrne – the only place worth dropping my meager dollars-for-euros), and the segments of two Clementines.
Not Moroccan per se, but it hit the right notes, with a hint of a warm climate (citrus), the Mediterranean (feta, olive oil), and the fertile crescent (almonds).

NOTE: I'm back in Brooklyn and it's time to fill in those blanks. The recipe is from Paula Wolfert's Couscous and Other Foods of Morocco. Writes Molly O'Neill: "A cook's cook, Paula Wolfert has proven herself willing to travel anywhere to find the best recipe." Not unlike myself! But once again this is the case of being born at least a generation too late ... don't you ever get the feeling like you missed out on the best times? Man, do I.

Chicken Tagine with Chickpeas (Djej Bil Hamus)

6 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
1 pound dried chickpeas
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon ground ginger
Plenty of freshly ground pepper (about 1 teaspoon)
Pinch of pulverized saffron
1 teaspoon turmeric
¼ cup finely chopped parsley
1 cinnamon stick
½ cup chopped scallions, white part only
5 tablespoons butter
1 Spanish onion, sliced very thin
½ cup black raisins

1. The day before, soak the chickpeas in plenty of water. Wash the chicken in salted water and drain. Pound 4 cloves of garlic and 2 tablespoons salt into a paste. Rub the paste into the cavity and flesh, at the same time removing any excess fat from the poultry. Rinse the poultry well until it no longer smells of garlic. Drain well.

2. To prepare the flavor rub, blend 1 teaspoon salt, the ginger, pepper, and the remaining clove of garlic, crushed, with 2 tablespoons water and rub into the flesh of the chicken pieces. Place in a large bowl and refrigerate overnight.

3. The next day, drain chickpeas and boil in salted water until tender, about 1 hour. Transfer the chicken and any juices in the bowl to a large casserole. Add a pinch of saffron, turmeric, parsley, cinnamon stick, scallions, and butter. Pour in 5 cups of water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 1 hour, turning the chicken pieces frequently in the sauce. When the chicken pieces are very tender, remove and keep warm.

4. Add the finely sliced onions and raisins to the sauce and cook until the onions are very soft and the sauce has reduced to a thick gravy. This will take at least 45 minutes. After about 20 minutes, add the chickpeas. When done cooking, add the chicken pieces to the sauce and reheat. Taste the sauce for salt and add a good pinch of saffron for a lovely yellow color.

5. To serve, place chicken pieces in a deep serving dish, forming them into a mound. Spoon over the sauce. Serve with Moroccan bread or pita.

Serves 6.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Makin' it look easy

Would you trust this woman to make your Superbowl chili?

How about this one?

I did!

Life has been busy. I work 10 to 12 hours a day. I count myself lucky if I get 5 hours of sleep. I work out about 7 hours a week. Sometimes I cook, sometimes I eat. Occasionally I manage to put on my hot jeans, do my hair, and have a social life. Managing all this ain't easy.

As I'm learning from my venerable boss, it's all in the delegatin' -- and as we're learning from the primaries, it's all about the delegates.

Last week, I asked my roommate Jane to assume Superbowl chili duty. She's from Kansas City; she knows a thing or two about meat, spice, and a bubbling stockpot of comfort food. In my mind, there was no second choice: she was the woman to take on Lady Bird Johnson's Pedernales Chili, named for a river in Texas and the ranch that she and Lyndon Johnson bush-whacked back in the day. (The recipe was published in 2004 in The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh.) Happily, Jane was thrilled to both cook AND blog about it!

I'm off on two trips, one business, the other pleasure. Next you'll hear from me I'll be in Dublin, making Moroccan tandoori chicken for my devastatingly glamorous Irish girls. Until then!

And now, a few words from my very own "Super Delegate," Jane ....

For those of us not naturally blessed with the cooking gene, chili is a simple and easy way of covering those potentially embarrassing flaws.

Nora entrusted me with preparing one of the recipes from American Food Writing, and wisely chose Lady Bird Johnson’s chili as my debut into the cooking/blogging world.

We decided that the Superbowl would be a perfect time to make a little chili to spice up a potentially boring game (who knew the Giants could pull it off?!). With the best of intentions to follow the First Lady’s recipe to a T – I discovered, while perusing the meat department at the grocery story, that 4 pounds of ground chuck is a lot of beef, even for four Midwestern gals.

I reduced the beef to about 2 ½ pounds but kept the other ingredients true to the original recipe -- although I must admit I spiced it up with a little extra chili powder while Nora wasn’t looking. I think I probably shouldn't have added the full 2 cups of water, which made the chili a little more liquid-y* than I'm used to. Letting it simmer uncovered helped a little with the consistency and in the end I think it turned out pretty tasty -- for a chili with nothing but meat, onions, and tomatoes. T

Personally, I like my chili with a little more fixins. I think the best thing about this dish is making it up as you go – it’s virtually impossible to ruin (except perhaps when the chili powder top is loose, dumping a mound of the fiery stuff into the mix – but that’s a story for another time). Using Lady Bird’s recipe as a base, my “perfect chili” recipe would include doubling the cumin and chili powder, adding diced celery and carrots to the sautéed onions, and, of course, beans. For a standard chili like this I would probably use 2 cans of red beans.

And of course, no chili is complete with a full buffet of toppings, including shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, and corn bread. Another surprisingly delicious addition is vinegar-marinated diced onions, which are as simple as they sound. Set aside about ¼” cup of diced onions and cover with vinegar. Allow the mixture to marinate while the chili is cooking and enjoy!

*Please excuse my lack of proper cooking lingo.

Lady Jane Ehinger's Kansas City Chili

2 1/2 pounds ground beef chuck or beef chuck cut into ¼” dice
1 large onion, chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano (or regular oregano)
2 teaspoons ground cumin
4 tablespoons chili powder
1 ½ cups canned whole tomatoes and their liquid
2 cans of red beans
2 to 6 generous dashes of liquid hot sauce

Sauté the meat, onion, celery, carrot, and garlic in a large skillet over medium-high heat and cook until lightly colored. Add the oregano, cumin, chili powder, tomatoes, hot sauce, 1 1/2 cups hot water, tomatoes, and red beans. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for about 1 hour. Skim off the fat while cooking. Salt to taste.

Makes about 14 cups.

Monday, February 4, 2008

A Cake We Can Believe In

I looked into the oven and I saw the future rising.

And it is sweet.

There will be raw cane sugar, traded with equity and justice for all. (Yes we can.)

There will be organic flour that respects the earth and restores America's leadership in the world. (Yes we can.)

And there will be tart and never bitter Meyer lemons that unite lemon-lovers and lemon-detractors alike. (Yes we can.)

This, my friends, is a cake we can believe in. Fire up your oven and join the baking revolution.

On Super Tuesday, I invite you to vote with your whisks, as Miss Flora Ziegler of Columbus and Mrs. T. B. of Chicago did in the presidential election of 1876.

Their competing recipes for lemon cake, published in Buckery Cookery and Practical Housekeeping (1877), were named for their chosen candidates, Mr. Hayes and Mr. Tilden. Banned as Flora and Mrs. B were from the voting booth, the cake-as-political-statement has a sort of proto-proto-feminist appeal, wouldn't you agree?

Since first paging through American Food Writing, I've been intrigued and charmed by the concept behind the rival cakes. But until now, I haven't had the proper occasion to make them. And then my man Edwards dropped out, and an opportunity arose.

Invited to an afternoon tea party at the home of a new friend, mere days before 22 states vote in the Democratic primary, I donned my frilly apron and baked two cakes. One had granular sugar, the other powdered; one had effervescent soured milk, the other corn starch; one had fresh-squeezed lemon juice, the other bottled extract.

Substantially, they're not that different (a lemon cake is a lemon cake is a lemon cake), but there's an authenticity and inspiration gap. I see corn starch in a recipe and I feel deflated. I see fresh lemon juice, and I'm thrilled to use Meyer lemons, in season in California and at a co-op/fine food store near you (they're Alice Waters' favorite and my only substitution in either recipe.)

The likes of Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver would argue that all grocery shopping, all cooking, all eating is political. To the extent to which we are so privileged that those decisions are ours, I agree. But this isn't what they had in mind.

Senator Clinton's cake fell in the middle, leaving a large, uncooked, subterranean pool. Disappointing. Left a sour taste in my mouth, too. Now, I'm not sayin'. I'm just sayin'.

As I prepared the icings for the cake, I couldn't resist a little fun. I stirred dark chocolate into Obama's.

And if you are like one politically astute fellow tea-party reveler, you will have just one question: "So which of the cakes is which? Which one is the one that actually won?" (That would be Hayes, our 19th President; I looked this up AFTER I baked the cakes, mind you.)

"Obama," I told him, "Draw your conclusions."

Obama Cake

When Meyer lemons are no longer in season, use regular lemons -- but under no circumstances may you use extract! :) Top with a thin spread of chocolate icing; recipe below.

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 eggs beaten well together
1 teaspoon soda
1/2 cup sour milk (or 1/2 cup milk plus 1/2 tablespoon white vinegar. Let stand 15 mins.)
2 scant cups flour
Juice of 1 Meyer lemon
Greased 9 by 9-inch baking pan

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a mixing bowl, cream sugar and butter. Add beaten eggs and stir to combine. In a small bowl, combine soda and milk. Add to butter and eggs mixture. Add the flour, a little at a time, stirring between each addition. Add Meyer lemon juice. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for about 30 minutes, until toothpick emerges clean.

Clinton Cake

Not unlike a classic lemon pound cake, but a bit dryer and lighter. Top with a thin spread of vanilla icing; recipe below.

1 cup butter, softened
2 cups powdered sugar
1 cup milk
3 cups flour
1/2 cup corn starch
4 eggs, gently whisked together
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 scant teaspoons lemon extract
9 by 9-inch greased baking sheet

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a mixing bowl, cream sugar and butter. Add milk and stir to blend. Add flour, about 1 cup at a time, and corn starch, stirring in between additions until smooth. Add eggs, baking powder and lemon extract and stir to blend. Pour batter into prepared baking pan and bake for 40-45 minutes, until toothpick emerges clean. Allow cake to cool before icing.

Quick Icing: Vanilla and Chocolate

Adapted from The Joy of Cooking. This recipe yields about 1/2 cup, enough for a thin layer on both cakes.

1 cup powdered sugar, sifted if lumpy
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of salt
A chunk of dark chocolate, let's say about 1 ounce

In a medium bow, beat sugar and butter on medium speed. Add milk, vanilla, and salt and correct the seasoning if necessary, adding more powdered sugar or milk. Divide the icing into 2 equal parts. Use one potion to spread a thin layer over the Clinton cake. Allow cake to cool before icing.

To make chocolate icing, melt chocolate in the microwave (stick it in for about 45 seconds, then microwave at about 20 second intervals, stirring in between --- you really don't want to overcook). Stir the chocolate into the reserved portion of icing until well blended. (You may want to use an electric mixer). Spread it over the Obama cake.