Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Entertaining 911: The Crostini

This is the first in a little series I'm going to be calling "Entertaining 911" : it's a survival guide to the ins and outs of everything from drinks to dessert. To find more articles in the future, click on the tag "Entertaining 911" in the sidebar. 

Plans are hastily made, a doorbell rings. The impromtu cocktail party: there's plenty of wine and spirits, but what about the food?!

Enter the crostini: This little h'ors d'ouerve is going to be your very best friend. Some fresh crusty bread or a baguette, an oven, and almost anything in your fridge can transform into what is essentially a fancy piece of toast. Basically, you will want your bread slices/pieces to be 2 bites - the perfect snacking size at a party. The sky is the limit, and the bread is a blank canvas waiting to make your lack of preparedness a thing of the past. Top it with whipped goat cheese and freshly cracked black pepper, some caramelized onion with figs, or the recipe for roasted tomatoes below.

Roasted tomatoes are one of my all-time favorite snacks. The natural sugars of these sweet little tomatoes caramelize when roasted, and fresh rosemary creates such a nice balance to the salty-and-sweet flavor combo. When they're sitting on top of some toasty, garlicky bread, it's a match made in bite-sized heaven. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Cookbook Wishlist

I love cookbooks for all of the wrong reasons. To be honest, I never really follow a recipe unless I absolutely have to (ie, baking one of my grandmothers' recipes).

Before I could even read, I would sit with my mother's massive encyclopedia-sized cookbook (I don't remember what it was, just that it was big and blue and full of pictures) and just look at photos of amazing recipes for ages. My love affair with food porn started at a really young age.

I use cookbooks for inspiration more than the actual recipes. I don't think I ever go to the grocery store with a list of food to buy; I start with whatever looks freshest and best (and isn't ridiculously expensive), and then I come home and browse for my inspiration based on the ingredients I have on hand. My current favorite cookbook is Cicchetti, a beautiful styled cookbook full of simplistic preparations of the freshest veg and seafood in Venetian tapas style. I scored it during a holiday sale at Anthropologie last year (an awesome place to find good cookbooks, by the way) and I've been obsessed with it ever since.

I think the lure of cookbooks is in the beautiful photography, the inspirational nature of all of the varied recipes, and how they motivate me to cook outside of my day-to-day comfort zone. If I'm in a cultural cuisine rut and I've been cooking Italian for a week straight, my cookbooks can switch my mentality and give my food a little Moroccan flare instead.

Here are a few of my favorite wish list wants in the cookbook department:

Plenty - Yotam Ottolenghi
The chef of the wildly successful Ottolenghi restaurants released this beautiful vegetarian homage to the flavorful cuisine of the Meditteranean & Middle East. His restaurant in London is definitely on my bucket list for a special occasion.

Pok Pok  - Andy Ricker
One of my deepest regrets of my time living in New York was that I did not get to eat at the famed Pok Pok. Yet. I will. I will be back, and I will eat there. Until then, I'll be dreaming of this fabulous northern Thai cookbook.

The French Market Cookbook - Cldaotilde Dusoulier
I'd love to get my hands on this book of veg-centric Parisian recipes that rely on seasonal ingredients and working with what's fresh today - much like the way I like to cook. I have a sample of this cookbook on my Kindle, and it's chock full of inspirational flavor combinations like chocolate & zucchini.

The Sriracha Cookbook
This one's just for fun. I don't anticipate anything extraordinarily exciting in this book, but I still might be surprised. My obsession with rooster sauce prompts me to find actual recipes based on my favorite condiment.

So what type of cookbooks do you like? What's your go-to for favorite recipes? Leave a comment below!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

'Tis the Season: Figs!

Each season brings with it new weather, endings, beginnings, and most importantly, new foods! Shopping at farmers' markets are a perfect way to see what is fresh and in season right now.
With September blending now into October, a few of my favorite foods are fresh from the harvest. 
Butternut & acorn squash, pumpkin (of course), artichokes, pears, beets, and figs, just to name a few. Here's an unusual use for a bounty of figs, using one of my favorite vegetarian salad recipes. 

I've always had the opinion that "salad" doesn't only have to refer to "lettuce + toppings + dressing". No, to me, salad is the combination of a variety of vegetables and cold items (and even some warm), tossed together with plenty of complimentary flavors, colors, and textures. It can be made of vegetables, proteins, grains - anything that tastes good and is whipped up without actually cooking. 
Some of my very favorite salad recipes don't involve any type of lettuce or greens at all (and this is one of them!) I actually came up with this classic in my college days, when I lived with several vegetarian roommates, and today I thought that these ripe figs would be a perfect addition. It's a hearty, filling white bean salad with floral-y herbs de provence and a tangy balsamic vinaigrette. There's a bite from some fresh onion, and the mellow sweetness of the figs blends in just wonderfully. It would also be fantastic with some feta cheese sprinkled on top (but leave that out if you're opting for the vegan version). 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Roasted Eggplant Tapenade

Every great culinary tradition seems to involve or contain a recipe made from roasted eggplants that are mashed or beaten into a rough paste with garlic and spices. As a rule of thumb, if you happen to notice the Russians, Indians, Greeks, Italians, Spanish, and Turks doing the same thing culinarily, it's probably a really good idea. And so, here is my interpretation of my very favorite variation of an eggplant tapenade. It's best served at room temperature on some nice crusty bread, and is even better if you make it a few hours (or a day) in advance, so that the flavors can really mingle.

 I'm getting hungry already.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Easy Peasy (Indoor!) Herb Growing

I've found that there is a fundamental difference between "home cooking" and restaurant quality food: fresh herbs. Think about it - most basic, classic recipes (you know, the ones passed down from generation to generation, and typically involving gravy) usually call for dried herbs, if any. It's that freshness, that spark of flavor, and pop of color on the plate that fresh herbs deliver which can completely transform a meal from ordinary to exceptional. Not to mention, many herbs were originally incorporated into foods for medicinal purposes; for example, parsley detoxes the kidneys and can help alleviate bloating and water retention. Who knew?

I've tried - and failed - to grow my own herbs on numerous occasions. Even when I've bought fully grown plants and attempted to simply keep them alive, no luck. In some cases, I chalk it up to my cats. Ever heard the saying "you can have a cat, or a houseplant, but not both"? Well, it's apparently true. As it turns out, cilantro just isn't going to grow on my apartment windowsill, and basil is... well, I give up on basil for now. The bummer is that these are two of my favorite herbs, and that I haven't really been able to provide the optimal growing conditions for either of them (full sun versus full shade, ample heat, dry soil, lack of cat). Luckily, there are plenty of herbs that are super simple to grow, even in a cramped NYC apartment. 

1. Rosemary - these plants with their thick woody stems are super sturdy and can survive just about anything. The bonus is that my cat doesn't seem to like eating it. You can even plant it from an existing plant - just stick a cutting of new growth into the soil. How easy is that? And as one of my favorite dried herb ingredients, the fresh version adds so much more flavor to marinades, meat, and all of my Italian cooking that it's absolutely indispensable. 

2. Parsley - I'm partial to flat leaf, which has a stronger flavor than its curly, 1980's-plate-decoration cousin. A fresh addition to any salad and a perfect garnish for just about everything, this herb likes damp (but well-drained) soil and you will need quite a bit of direct sunlight. If you have an east- or south-facing windowsill, this herb will flourish. Just sort of leave it alone until its nice and big (the size of a full-grown bunch you'd buy at a grocery store) and it will spread like wildfire in a large container. 

3. Chives - Who doesn't like a little sour cream and chive? Chives are great for adding an oniony, garlicky freshness to savory foods and fresh vegetables alike. These are easy to grow from seeds- simply follow the instructions on the packet, and they practically grow themselves. If you end up with an overwhelming bounty of chives at the end of the season, they're great for freezing so that you can have your fresh herbs all winter long. 

4. Garlic - Are you familiar with those little fingernail-sized, mini cloves at the center of a garlic bulb that are too much of a hassle to peel and chop? How about those stragglers in the fridge that have already begun to sprout, so half the time they get thrown away? Well, plant them. Yep. Pointy side up, about 2" deep in soil, and you'll have a garlic plant (and a new bulb) in about a year!

5. Thyme - Another woody, self-sufficient herb like rosemary, thyme will keep well in a windowsill that gets lots and lots of sun. Make sure the is well drained (I like to fill the bottom of a planting pot with gravel) and this hearty plant will keep itself growing year-round!

What are your favorite herbs to grow at home? Any tips and tricks for indoor gardening? Comment below!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Chicken Chimmichurri

Chicken: that go-to family dinner ingredient. I'm always trying to come up with recipes to make it feel new and exciting... and to prevent anyone from saying, "Chicken...again!?" when sitting down to the dinner table. This one's a real crowd pleaser and packs a South American punch to juicy and flavorful chicken thighs.

This recipe would also be great with pork chops, and I've used this sauce over grilled skirt steak as well. If you're not cooking in large quantities, you can refrigerate or freeze the chimmichurri sauce for later use!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Meatless Monday: Lemony Leek & White Bean Soup

This recipe is perfect for anyone who has jumped on the "Meatless Monday" bandwagon - and everyone else, too! I try to eat veg-centric as much as possible, for my own health and because of the environmental impact... but remembering to take time to go completely meat-free for a day is important. It gives your digestion time to relax and detox, especially after a weekend of heavy eating (or drinking). Today seemed like the perfect afternoon for a soup lunch, and this hearty white bean soup packs a punch of flavor with lemon zest and fresh thyme.

This recipe contains both a vegan and "regular" version: for the vegan one, omit any ingredients with an "*" next to their name.

Friday, September 12, 2014

*Easy* Italian Bread

"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are" - Brillat Savarin

I must be bread. 

Nothing quite excites me like a good rustic crusty loaf of REAL bread. My eyes light up in an Italian restaurant every time a basket full of hot-out-of-the-oven goodness plops down on the table in front of me. When I don't feel like cooking, I'll pick up a fresh baguette on the way home and just dip it in some good olive oil, or spread some nice soft bleu cheese on it while it's warm. Ah, the wonders of good bread.

I've seen countless recipes of the "no-knead Dutch oven" variety floating around the internets lately, but upon further investigation, these look like they come out resembling a dense white bread, which is not what I am looking for. No, I want hard-crusted oblong and round loaves with a fluffy, bubbly interior. And I want to make it myself.

So, without further delay, I present to you my first attempt at homemade crusty bread. And I double-pinkie-promise that it's easy.

You will need: 
Patience (Start to finish, this recipe takes about 4 hours)
3 1/2 cups bread flour (may be labeled as "strong flour") + extra for kneading/dusting
1 tsp dry instant yeast
2 tsp fine sea salt
1 1/4 - 1 1/2 cups warm water (Tap water is fine, it should be "bath water" temperature. Not too hot!)
1 baking sheet OR pizza stone
1 metal or glass pan with 1" sides
1 large mixing bowl
Your hands

The Dough:
Mix the flour, dry yeast, and salt in a bowl.
Slowly add the warm water, stirring constantly (I used a regular spoon to mix, but this can also be done in a stand mixer with a bread hook. I have none, so I did it the old fashioned way.)
When the dough is "sticky" (should look like the photo above), stop adding water, dust the top with flour, cover with a tea towel and let sit.

Let it rise for two hours. Leave it alone. Go do something else.

Dividing the Dough:
Divide the gooey dough into 3 balls. To do this, dust some flour on your countertop or wooden cutting/baking board, and roll the balls in it so that they're less sticky. Cover again, and let rest for 15 minutes.

Kneading the Dough:
A lot of people think that this is the hardest stage. Well, it's not. This isn't pasta, so the kneading part isn't the most difficult. Actually, the difficult part is done (for me, that was the waiting).
Take each ball and knead 5-8 times. Basically, roll the heel of your hand into the center of the ball, fold it in half, turn 90 degrees, and repeat. Once you have kneaded all 3 balls, either leave them in a round shape, or form/roll/stretch them into a baguette-like shape. Cover again, and let rest 30 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 450 Farenheit (or 230 Celsius) with the baking pan inside, and the 1" deep pan below your baking pan on the lowest rack.
Score (slash) the tops of your bread balls/loaves a few times with a very sharp knife. If it is too stretchy and doesn't want to be scored, then use scissors and take a few shallow snips right in the middle. That's what I did for my first try, and it worked like a charm.

Get some hot water ready - about 3/4 cup. Once the oven is preheated, sprinkle a little flour onto the preheated pan (don't remove it from the oven, though! It will cool off too quickly) and plop your little dough balls onto it. Pour the hot water into the pan in the bottom of the oven, and quickly shut the door to trap the steam. This steam is what creates a really nice crust.
Bake for 25 minutes.

Remove from the oven, and let cool on a baking rack. You're done! Enjoy! Wasn't that easy???

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Classic with a Twist: Russian Nicoise Salad

There is something so elaborate and inviting about a good Nicoise salad. This particular version takes me back to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, a neighborhood known to locals as "Little Russia." I loved shopping the fresh air markets there, with their abundance of richly flavored baked goods, beautiful ripe beets, and of course the massive bunches of dill. Walking down the street, I remember seeing sprigs of dill lying here and there on the pavement. A ubiquitous ingredient, always present, making itself known.

*For a vegan option, omit the hard boiled eggs and replace the yogurt dressing with fresh squeezed lemon.*

I love fresh dill, so I decided to incorporate it into a yogurt dressing* for this salad, which has the addition of freshly cooked beets on a bed of sharp arugula (or rocket). The creamy, sweet, spicy and savory flavors make this quite a meal of a salad.