Friday, June 27, 2008

Under the Solstice Sun

Last weekend, we celebrated Katie's birthday and her new home in Stamford, Connecticut. (Can you believe I have friends who are already buying condos in the 'burbs and moving out there with their boyfriends??)

Katie and Chris (the boyfriend) ordered live crawfish from Louisiana and boiled it up under the sweltering sun -- felt just like NOLA! It was so hot the cheese melted on the plate, but I had my wide-brimmed hat and a pretty summer dress to keep me just cool enough to brave the barbecue. At about 5 p.m., when the oppressive solstice sun was mocking us with its sloooow descent into the West, we fired her up.

Luckily, there wasn't much to grill: just one great big flank steak and two corns on the cob, and I covered the grill and let the trio do their thing while I hightailed it to the single patch of shade.

How might so little feed so many? A salad, naturally Using strips of beef as an interloping ingredient among a riot of vegetables is a smarty-pants way to stretch one fantastic piece of ethically-raised, grass-fed bovine. And it also happens to be the way us omnivores should be eating, period.

I was (very, very loosely) inspired by a 1938 recipe for "Planked Porterhouse Steak," published by Rex Stout in Too Many Cooks -- an excellent title for a cookbook, don't you think? The steak gets its name because it is first grilled over a fire and then finished under the broiler, on a well-seasoned oak plank (instead of a baking pan), brushed with olive oil and surrounded with "a border of fluffy mashed potatoes." Just before serving, Stout brushed butter, sprinkled salt and pepper, and squeezed a bit of lime over the undoubtedly glorious-looking creation.

It's too hot to turn on the broiler, too hot to eat mashed potatoes, just too hot. But lime? Lime I can do. And grilling? That's practically my middle name (okay, not even close, but I can hold my own.)

A second inspiration was Marion Cabelle Tyree's "Meat Flavoring" from Housekeeping in Old Virginia (1878). The vinegar-based, highly-seasoned elixir is for the busy maid on the go: "As the housekeeper is sometimes hurried in preparing a dish, it will save time and trouble for her to keep on hand a bottle of meat-flavoring." Why, I couldn't agree more. And if you have found, as I have, that it's so hard to find good help these days -- the kind that flavors the meat on my plate -- then I suggest you print out the recipe below and pin it to her pinafore. The marinade I came up with (which is nothing like Miss Marion's) is a doozy.

On came together in a Latin-influenced salad of grilled corn, red peppers, avocado and mixed greens topped with strips of medium-rare steak marinated in lime and cilantro. It was, frankly, awesome. I just love it when a

And now, back to packing for a one-night camping trip for my friend Liz's birthday (we got her a tent but shh! It's a surprise.)

I'll be taking on "A Michigan Receipt for Making Shortcake in Camp," an 1876 recipe that calls for the aid of an Indian guide and a smooth sapling for a rolling pin. But this is Putnam County, NY, mere minutes from a Metro-North station -- not Lewis and Clark country. My Indian guide is bringing blueberries.

Solstice Steak Salad

1 1/2 to 2 pounds flank steak, preferably ethically-raised and grass-fed (you can taste the difference)

For the marinade:
3/4 cup lime juice
1/4 olive oil
1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, finely minced
Big pinch of kosher salt
1 tablespoon Mexican seasoning blend
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon cayenne
A few good cranks of freshly ground black pepper

For the salad:
2 ears of corn, shucked
2 small-t0-medium red bell peppers, or 1 large, sliced into thin strips
1 avocado, sliced into thin strips
4 green onions, chopped
8 cups mixed greens

For the dressing:
1/4 cup freshly-squeezed lime juice
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped
Big pinch of kosher salt
A few good cranks of freshly ground black pepper

  1. Combine the marinade ingredients. Place in a Ziploc bag with the steak (easy to bring it outside to the grill) and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
  2. Preheat your grill. Get all your salad ingredients ready. Place the greens in a salad bowl or on a serving platter and arrange the other bits prettily on top (except the corn).
  3. About ten minutes before grilling, toss the corn cobs into the steak marinade. Once the grill is hot, put the steak above the fire and the corn on the upper rack or in the corner, away from direct flame. Cover and grill for about 5-6 minutes, then turns the steaks and corn and grill another 5-6 minutes for medium-rare. Let the steak and corn cool completely, then slice the steak(across the grain) into strips about 1/2-inch thick. Cut the kernels off the corn.
  4. Make the dressing by slowly adding the olive oil to the lime juice while whisking. Stir in the cilantro, salt, and pepper. Taste and correct the seasonings, if desired. Drizzle the dressing over the salad. Arrange the steak strips on top and sprinkle with the corn. Serve to the delight and amazement of your friends.

Makes enough for 12-16 people as a side dish or 8 people as a main course.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Duck, Duck ... Goose.

When I was twelve years old, some rare and fortuitous circumstance brought me to dinner at the St. Paul Grill, a steakhouse with dark wood, white linen tablecloths, and a carousel of Minnesota politicians rotating through the bar. I was buzzing with self-importance and the certainty that these scenes would feature prominently in my adult life.

In this refined setting, I ordered the chicken pot pie.

For a girl coming from a proto-Pollan, couscous kind of family, this was exotic fair.

So it should come as little as surprise that meatloaf made infrequent appearances in my childhood. It inspires zero nostalgia in me, unlike roast chicken, which made its glorious debut in my life when my dad and I moved in with Shelley, the woman who would become my adopted mother, or German apple pancake, spongy, eggy, and big enough to feed at least six, which my dad sometimes makes on wintry Sunday mornings.

It wasn't just the children of once-long-haired radicals who grew up without meatloaf on their plate. There's no equivalent in Latino, Indian, and Arabic cultures, to name but a few. But to my surprise, there is one in Chinese culture -- or, at least, Chinese-American culture. Ken Hom's Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood (1997) offers a recipe for Steamed Pork Loaf with Salted Duck Eggs.

"This dish is well known to many of my fellow Chinese-Americans," Hom writes, "It should become a favorite of all Americans, hyphenated or not."

I made a special trip to Manhattan expressly for salted duck eggs, which, Hom promised, would be hard, rich with briny flavor, and would "add much to the already zestful blend of robust pork and spices." In Chinatown, I asked a few Chinese people where I might find a suitable grocery store. They were very nice but had no idea what I was talking about. It was a pleasantly disorienting experience, speaking my native tongue in my native land and feeling so foreign. I was saved by an Anglo British man pushing a stroller with a beautiful child of indeterminate, mixed race, who overheard my query and said, "Just up the street. I used to live in Bejing and I miss those eggs."

I'd like to know what brand he misses so much, because the kind I purchased were the sort of thing that could cause nightmares, never nostalgia.

For all Hom's declarations of the meatloaf's "exciting seasonings," I thought the recipe looked a little bland (it is a meatloaf after all), so I mixed turkey with pork and really revved up the spices, adding garlic, ginger, and spicy sesame oil. I replaced canned water chestnuts with fresh, which filled me with immense guilt but saved a great deal of time.

When it came time to add the duck egg yolks to the top (the whites were discarded), I unwrapped one of the eggs from it's red candy-like wrapping and gave it a tentative crack against the counter. The white was that sallow gray shade common to hard-boiled chicken eggs that have been cooked too long. I gave it a sniff. Smelled fine, like nothing much. I gave it a nibble. Salty. Very salty.

I peeled away the white ... and there was the yolk. I felt queasy. It was mealy, moist, dark gray, and frankly, disgusting-looking. The package showed a preternaturally yellow yolks that shone like small suns. I was unnerved.

A quick Internet search assured me that so long as there was no foul smell, the eggs would be fine. I proceeded, slicing the gooey yolks in half and pressing them into the top of meatloaf.

I set up an impromptu steamer by bringing a couple inches of water to a simmer in my roaster pan on the stove, and gently floating the loaf pan in the bath (Hom uses a wok and a rack.) In less than half and hour, I fished out the loaf pan, turned the meatloaf onto a serving platter, and arranged stir-fried boy choy, celery, and asparagus around it.

The egg yolks were now an innocuous, pale Easter egg yellow. But my roommate, Jane, and I could not forget the undead look they had when they were straight out of the shell. We bravely, gingerly tried a bite while my friend Liz, who wasn't there for the preparations, innocently dug right in. Though she didn't share our vivid visuals and the accompanying negative predispositions, she didn't like them either. They were still mealy and had no flavor to add but intense salt. I scraped them off the whole loaf, so my guests wouldn't have to.

The meatloaf itself was wonderful. Well-seasoned, a lovely, dense texture, and even better the next day, cold and warmed-over.

And now I have three salted duck eggs staring at ominuously from the top shelf of the fridge. You've seen the photo. Admit it: you'd be scared, too.

Chinese-Style Meatloaf

1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground turkey
4 8-ounce cans water chestnuts (or 1 1/2 pound fresh water chestnuts, peeled and coarsely chopped)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
4 teaspoons Mirin (sweet rice cooking wine)
3 teaspoons Kosher salt
2 teaspoons sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
2 teaspoons spicy Asian sesame oil
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoons fresh minced ginger
1 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
3 salted duck eggs (optional)

In a food processor, mix the pork, turkey, and water chesnuts until they are nearly smooth. Scrape the mixture into a large stainless-steel bowl and add the scallions, then soy sauce and rice win. Add the salt, sugar, cornstarch, sesame oil, and pepper. With your hands, mix well, then turn the meat into a greased loaf pan. Crack open the duck eggs, discard the whites, and cut the yolks in half. Arrange the yolks on the top of the loaf, pressing the yolks into the meat mixture.

In a large roasting pan, preferably with a flat rack in the bottom, bring about 2 inches of water to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and carefully place the loaf pan on the rack or in the bottom of the pan. Cover the roasting pan and let it simmer and steam for 25 minutes, or until the loaf is done.

Serves 4.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

La Dolce Vita

There is a surplus of savory recipes in this line-up, and far too few that feature chocolate. Sweets are my secret weapon to gain friends and influence people (now not so secret, but the technique will, I'm confident, lose none of its effectiveness) -- so I've been forced to improvise.

And so I did something to Marcella Hazan's 1973 recipe for Risotto alla Pamigiana (Risotto with Parmesan Cheese) that may be sacrilege to those who believe that oozing cheese is the mark of good risotto. But one bite of my Risotto al Cioccolato, slow-cooked Arborio rice blended with dark chocolate and layered with strawberries in their own syrup and liqueur-spiked whipped cream, and I'm sure they will find it in their hearts to forgive me.

It's best paired with a glass of fine prosecco, perhaps something from Carpené Malvolti, the original producer of sparkling Italian wine, which my guest had the good sense to bring.

Watch the video for the excellent, chocolaty adventure...

Risotto al Cioccolato from Nora Leah on Vimeo.

Risotto al Cioccolato
When the weather demands it, you might also serve this hot, perhaps with a crisp Italian cookie on the side instead of fresh strawberries.

6-7 cups of water
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cup Arborio rice
6 ounces dark chocolate (60% cocoa and up)
1/4 cup granulated sugar plus 1 teaspoon (approximately)
1 pint cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons white chocolate liqueur, such as Godiva (optional)
1 pint strawberries, sliced very thin

  1. In a saucepan over medium heat, bring the water to a steady simmer. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the rice and stir to coat. Saute lightly and add 1/2 cup of simmering water. As the rice dries out, continue adding simmering water, 1/2 cup at a time. Stir frequently to make sure the rice doesn't stick. Continue until all the water is absorbed and the rice is quite soft and creamy. After you've added about half the water, stir in the sugar. (You may not need all 7 cups of water. As you get to the end, add just 1/4 cup of water at a time, to avoid drowning the risotto.)
  2. While the risotto is cooking, prepare the strawberries. Sprinkle sliced strawberries with about 1 teaspoon sugar (or more, if the strawberries are tart) and about 2 tablespoons of water. Reserve in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
  3. When the rice is finished cooking (it will take about 30 minutes), place chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high y until melted, 30 seconds at a time, stirring every 30 or 15 seconds. (It will take 60 to 80 seconds.) Add melted chocolate, vanilla extract, and 1/2 pint cream to rice and stir well. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
  4. When ready to serve, whip the remaining 1/2 pint cream with an electric mixer (add 2 tablespoons chocolate liqueur or 1 teaspoons sugar, if desired). Arrange risotto in martini or other glasses: a layer of risotto, followed by a layer of strawberries, another layer of risotto, and topped with plenty of whipped cream.
Serves 6.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

(Another) Alternaburger

Please don't revoke my citizenship, but I'm not much of a hamburger person. Sure, I get their appeal. While no dietitian would agree, they are a remarkably balanced food, rolling all the things we crave into a packet easily maneuvered with just a hand and a mouth.

But as a kid, I preferred Chicken McNuggets (as I've mentioned), and these days, given the choice, I always go with a grilled something-or-other sandwich, or a salad full of crumbly goat cheese, interesting greens, and crunchy bits 'n bobs, or, when the opportunity presents itself, a hunk of barbecued meat, dripping with sauce.

But there are a exceptions. Take the beef out of it, add some flavah-flave, and I'm down with the burger. Case in point: the "working girl's tuna burger," inspired by the Union Square Cafe Cookbook. And now, a new one to add to my (admittedly very girly) burger repertoire, inspired by one of the first burgers every recorded, back when it was still know as the Hamburg Steak.

The recipe is by Sarah Tyson Rorer in Mrs. Rorer's New Cook Book (1902). Without saying so explicitly, she encourages the intrepid cook to disguise ground meat as steak. She forms the patties into steak shapes and serve it sans bun, as you might a T-bone: "dust with salt, put a little butter on top of each and send at once to the table; or they may have poured over them tomato sauce, or you may serve them with brown or pepper sauce."

I decided that I, too, would forgo the bun – in deference both to Mrs. Rorer and the modern dictum that limited white bread is not a bad thing. But if you're going to drop the carbs, you've got to add toppings that make you forget what you're missing. Instead of Mrs. Rorer's tomato sauce, I created a relish that would be a perfect foil for my favorite condiment, feta cheese, and would incorporate some incredibly fresh and fragrant mint grown in my friend’s suburban greenhouse. Feta and mint? I dare you not to think of Greece. I ran with the theme, adding kalamata olives, garlic, chopped tomatoes, and green onions, all quickly cooked in a bit of olive oil.

The result was a healthy, fast Wednesday meal for two that sang of the Mediterranean. The relish was really quite fantastic and would also be lovely on a bit of grilled fish or chicken, pasta, bruschetta – hell, even an all-beef patty between two buns.

Turkey Burgers with Olive and Mint Relish

With such flavorful toppings, I don't think this burger needs a bun. But add one if you'd like, or maybe serve atop a slice of country bread rubbed with garlic and olive oil and lightly toasted.

For the burgers:
1/2 pound ground turkey meat
2 tablespoons minced white onion
Big pinch of Kosher salt
A couple good cranks of freshly ground black pepper

For the relish:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Roma tomato, finely diced
2 large green onions, finely diced
1 tablespoon minced fresh mint
1/4 cup pitted Kalamata olives, finely chopped
Big pinch of Kosher salt
A couple good cranks of freshly ground black pepper

1/4 - 1/3 cup crumbled feta

  1. Preheat the broiler and arrange a broiler pan about 2 inches from the heat. Combine all the turkey burger ingredients, mix well, and form into two patties about 3 inches across. Spray the broiler pan with cooking spray. Place the patties on the pan and cook for about 4 minutes on each side.
  2. While the burgers cook, make the relish. In a skillet, over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil. Add the garlic and saute until just beginning to color. Add all other relish ingredients. Saute until the burgers are fully cooked.
  3. Place the burgers on servings plates. Top each with half the relish and half the feta and put back under the broiler. Cook until the feta just begins to brown. Carefully remove and serve.

Serves two.