Friday, April 29, 2011

Tea and Crumpets?

There's a big English wedding happening today, or so I've been told, so naturally I got to thinking about British food. For your royal viewing party you could do the English tea party theme, serving tea and "biscuits" as they do in England - of course following these Dos and Don'ts:

  • Do use classically British teas, such as English Breakfast and Earl Grey.

  • Don't use teabags - a proper High Tea uses strainers

  • Do have an assortment of savory and sweet treats to choose from

  • Don't have crusts on the sandwiches!

  • Do use china teacups and saucers, serving trays, and an antique teapot if you can find one - go all out

If having tea with the royals you would wait to begin after they started drinking and eating, and you would stop as soon as they did. Some classic tea party foods include tea sandwiches - cucumber or smoked salmon, for example - scones and clotted cream, and of course biscuits (British speak for cookies, people), such as shortbread or madeleines. My favorite part of tea time when I was in the U.K. was all the little pots of jam and dishes of sugarcubes and such that were served with the tea itself - presentation is everything! (Just don't overdo it on doilies. Gross.)

I never really knew what a crumpet was, so I looked it up and discovers it's what we call here in the States an "English muffin." So apparently I've been having tea and crumpets for years, I just didn't know it. How pretentious.

If the tea party concept isn't your style, then you could throw a bash with British food for your theme instead. Now before you get all nervous, having the commonly-held notion that British food is crap, let me enlighten you to the tasty foods that British people actually eat today:

Digestive biscuits: they're delicious and filled with fiber - how great is a culture that embraces food that's widely known to make you go?

Cadbury's: chocolate that melts on your tongue and comes in every form imaginable - once you've had the real stuff you'll never go back to Hershey's, trust me.

Oh and pub fare, obviously - "chips" (fries) etc.

If you're going for the real deal - and if there's one thing I learned about British people when I lived in London, it's that they know how to drink - then stock your party with an authentic bar. Snakebites are always a crowd pleaser, a shandy made with lager and cider, and often served with a dash of blackcurrant cordial to make a "snakebite and black" - these are lethal and good. So stock up on Ribena, don't worry about chilling the beer (it's just how they drink it to better taste the flavor, they say ...) and be sure to wear a tiara. Cheers.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter Brunch

For Easter brunch I made my family's traditional holiday sausage egg casserole, according to my mother's instructions:

1) Brown one pound bulk sausage, drain. (I used sweet Italian sausage packaged without the casing and added red pepper flakes - my addition._
2) Trim crusts from 5-6 pieces good white bread (my mother uses challah but I got a good dense pain de mie from our neighborhood bakery), cut into one inch cubes and lay on a 13" by 9" buttered pyrex dish.
3.) Crumble sausage over bread.
4.) Grate 1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese (I use sharp, and let's be frank, I'm generous with the quantity here,) and sprinkle over top of the bread and sausage in the dish.
5.) Beat 9 eggs, 3 cups of milk (2%), one tsp salt, a good sprinkle of cayenne and nutmeg, and one tsp dry mustard.
6.) Pour liquid over bread/cheese/sausage. Cover with plastic wrap and refridgerate overnight.
7.) Preheat oven to 350 degrees and bake 30-40 minutes. (Note the meat-free portion:)

Along with the casserole we of course dyed hard-boiled eggs, had my family's traditional kielbasa, ham, and horseradish, mimosas, pastries from Clear Flour bakery, and a truly epic fruit salad I made with pineapple, mango, orange, grapefruit, banana, strawberries, kiwi, pear, passionfruit, and lime juice. Here was our table spread:

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Best Carrot Cake Recipe

This recipe for carrot cake is my mother's college roommate Betty's - seriously - and for at least two decades my father has made it for my mother's birthday every single year, so it's safe to say that I've sufficiently tested this recipe. This carrot cake is damn good, if (as I've been reminded) you follow my father's instructions.

For the cake:
1) Mix 2 cups sugar and 1 cup oil.
2) Beat in four eggs and 2 tsp vanilla.
3) Add 2 cups flour, 2 tsp. baking soda, 1 tsp salt, 2 tsp. cinnamon (dry ingredients mixed together).
4) Fold in 3 cups grated carrots. (My hands turned orange from grating all the carrots - remember to peel them.)
5) Pour into three greased and floured baking pans.
5) Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, rotate pans half way through and don't overcook. (this last comment is Daddy's extra note to himself)

For the cream cheese icing:
1) Beat one stick of butter and 8 oz. cream cheese, beat in one box confectioners sugar. (Now I will note I did not follow the icing proportions because frankly that's a bit intense - I used closer to half a stick of butter with low fat cream cheese and about a third a box of confectioners sugar, so it was not overwhelmingly sweet and yet complimented the carrot-y cake well.)
2) Spread on cake and then press 1 cup of chopped pecans in between the layers and on the surface.

My father's advice for making this cake (and he's had years of experience!):

"Definitely grate the carrots by hand. The larger strips and size of the pieces with a standard grater improves the texture and moisture of the cake. I hand grate on the larger holes (not the tiny little ones) and measure the cups of volume by gently pressing the carrots down (not totally squishing them into a ball). It usually takes close to a whole pound of carrots after peeling and trimming, but I never start with a full bag, so I don’t know exactly.

Mix the sugar and oil with a spatula, beat the eggs into this mixture with the vanilla. Combine (ideally sift) the remaining dry ingredients together and add this mixture to the sugar/oil/egg and beat. I usually use a generous 2 tsp of cinnamon and a little bit of nutmeg (not too much). You then blend in the grated carrots but don’t need to beat too much. It will be very lumpy with carrot shreds. These don’t always go evenly into the three pans, so I stir it well and add it in parts to each pan (like 1/6, 1/6,1/6, and repeat instead of 1/3, 1/3,1/3.) The bottoms tend to stick, so make sure they are well greased and floured.

As noted, you don’t want them to be too dry after baking. I usually rearrange the pan a little over half way through by moving them from higher to lower and front to back, since the heat is different and with three plans they tend to block each other more.

Good luck!"

My first attempt at the cake:

Friday, April 22, 2011

Feed Your Mother (Earth, That Is)

As a self-taught home cook who loves granola (and makes it herself, no less), counts down to farmer's market season (three and a half weeks, a painful seven weeks to wait until the one in my neighborhood opens), drinks tea, eats tofu, does yoga ... you get the picture ... well as my friend Andrei would say, "you're a damn hippie" - so not surprisingly, I love Earth Day.

In addition to hugging a tree, my Earth Day today will be all about sustainable agriculture.
Sustainable agriculture is agricultural production that can be maintained without harming the environment. The aim is to make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and integrate natural biological cycles on the farm, ultimately enhancing the environmental quality and natural resource base. This model also helps to sustain the economic stability of farmers and in the long-term helps to fight worldwide hunger in an environmentally-conscious way.

How to "eat green" in every day life? Eat fresh and eat local, whenever possible. Eliminate the middle man and environmentally detrimental costs of production and food transportation by getting food directly from the source, or at the very least your local farmer's market. The Farm-to-Table movement, in which chefs are cooking with the produce grown in their own backyards, bringing the freshest ingredients to your plate, is gaining steam all over the country as locavores raise awareness to the global benefits of eating eco-friendly, not to mention the health benefits of eating nutrient-packed fresh farm fare. This is how we ate for most of humanity, of course, sustaining from the surrounding produce and livestock, so we are quite literally "going back to our roots."

In my mind, there are two kinds of cooking: following a recipe, going to the store with the list of ingredients; or going to the market to see what's fresh in season, and building the meal around the ingredients you find there. Now I've done both kinds of cooking (and also constructing meals out of the assortment of leftovers in my kitchen, which is another art entirely,) but especially in the warmer months I really prefer to follow the fresh food cooking model. The next time you find yourself wondering what to make for dinner, go to the market and play this game - see what produce looks ripe and beautiful, and let it inspire you. (I admit this works especially well with a smartphone to look up recipes in case you're not sure which other ingredients to get, but if you really want to challenge yourself just make it up from scratch and see where the cooking creativity takes you.) Spring is here, and it's time to eat green!
Fresh strawberries just picked on the farm:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fresh and raw

Tuna tartare with chopped avocado over a sesame glaze

Sunday, April 17, 2011


It's Palm Sunday so of course I made salad with hearts of palms

Friday, April 15, 2011

Sel de la Terre

When you think Provençal and Southern French country fare, do you think duck liver mousse, braised rabbit and lard? Well that's what you'll find at Sel de la Terre in Back Bay, a restaurant, bar and boulangerie that's as très chic as its Boyston Street location.

While I did not opt for the various pates or butchered baby animals, my date couldn't resist to get the lardo - the Italian urge prevailed - a traditional Tuscan salume (Italian charcuterie.) Lardo is made by curing strips of fatback with rosemary and other herbs and spices; in this case the clever Mediterranean fusion of what else? Herbs de Provence! The lardo arrived with an impressive bread basket from which diners could choose their preference from the varied bread selection - French baguette, focaccia, sourdough, the works. Now if you're hellbent on consuming a pot of fat, this is the way to do it.

As he indulged in the lard-smearing, I opted for the fresh, handcrafted burrata, arguably one of the greatest cheeses ever. Burrata has the unique texture of a solid mozzerella shell and creamy interior, creating the most wonderful consistency. "Burrata" in Italian means buttered, and this soft cheese is so delicate and moist that it seems to melt on your tongue like butter. Paired with a little fresh fruit and you have the perfect simple culinary masterpiece.

I would have been happy with that alone, but we moved on to the first course of razor clams and squid in a savory broth - this was my first time trying the long molluscs which are regarded as a delicacy, and though too salty for my taste, it was undisputably fresh and authentic. For the main course I chose the salmon served with haricots verts over farro with za'atar sheep's milk yogurt and golden raisins, which was delicious. Farro is a wheat grain with an appearance similar to brown rice but a nuttier flavor, and combined with the subtle cream of the sheep's milk it was an ideal compliment to the perfectly-seared piece of salmon. Za'atar are Arabic herbs mixed with sesame seeds, dried sumac, salt and hints of spices, ground to a nice blend - this rendition had a soft majoram flavoring, which provided a nice undertone throughout the dish. All the elements came into perfect harmony on the plate, peppered by the surprising golden raisins, unexpected little amber nuggets of pleasure that burst in your mouth. Then came dessert: amaretto crème brûlée bigger than the moon!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Black Day

Today is Black Day, the South Korean holiday that serves as an anti-Valentine's Day - on this day, singles who have not found love wear black clothes and eat black food, traditionally the jajangmyeong noodles with a thick black bean paste.

In South Korea, customarily it's women who give chocolates and romantic gifts to men on Valentine's Day, and on White Day on March 14 is when men give gifts to women. But a month later, on Black Day, those who received no gifts of affection on the preceding holidays take the day to mourn, wallowing in their loneliness, or celebrate their singledom proudly.

To celebrate Black Day here in the States, if you don't have access to Korean food near you, you can make the traditional jajangmyeong yourself:

1) Start with wheat noodles - go for the thicker ones similar to fettucine or linguine - and black soybean paste, which you can find in the Asian food section of your grocery store or local Asian market if possible. *Note it may be marked as "chunjang" sauce.

2) This dish originates from Chinese cooking, so stir fry some vegetables and meat in a wok - onions, mushrooms and your preference of beef, pork, or shrimp - and dilute the bean paste in a pot of simmering stock or water to reduce the saltiness.

3) Cook the noodles al dente, then toss in with the cooked stir-fry and stir the sauce in to coat the noodles. Top with fresh cucumber and chopped scallion.

4) Then eat your noodles and cry - be sure to wear black.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Southern Trifle

In developing this recipe, I took elements from different beloved family desserts and created this trifle: I call it "Southern" because to me the flavors speak South, not to mention the "go big or go home" attitude of this dish - if constructed in a clear vessel this trifle has a definite wow factor, so it's great for entertaining:
For my latest dinner party, I wanted to combine both my cousin's love for banana cream pie and my sister's famed Punchbowl Cake recipe, a chocolate-y version using chocolate cake for banana, kahlua for rum, and chocolate pudding for butterscotch (essentially I made the Blondie version of her trifle) - this was a different take, but ultimately tasty creation!

Here's how it's done:
1 package butterscotch instant pudding mix
2 cups cold milk (2 Percent or Skim will do)
1 container Cool Whip, defrosted
2 slices banana pound cake
Rum - about 1/4 cup
Snickers 8-pack fun-sized treats 2 ripe bananas, sliced

1) Prepare pudding mix according to package directions and chill in refrigerator.
2) While the pudding sets, dice the pound cake into 1-cm chunks and fill shallow dish with rum. Dip pound cake chunks into rum to soak up the flavor and remove after a few seconds - any longer and the cake will become over-saturated.
3) Cut Snickers into small pieces and crumbles and slice the bananas. Retrieve the set pudding. 4) Assemble the trifle: using a tall glass dish (see photo for example), cover the bottom with a layer of rum-soaked banana pound cake. Cover with layer of butterscotch pudding, topped with banana slices. Next spread a layer of Cool Whip, sprinkled with Snickers crumbles.
5) Then reverse trifle order (or layer as you please - the beauty of a trifle is that you can be creative and do as you like!) with more bananas, pudding, pound cake, etc. - finish with a layer of Cool Whip and top with remaining banana slices and tiniest chocolate crumbles from the Snickers. Chill in refrigerator until serving - this dish tastes even better the next day!

Friday, April 1, 2011

April Fool's Food

Some seriously fun food ...
Think it's an ice cream sundae? Guess again! It's mashed potatoes and gravy!

Looks like sushi? Take a closer look and you'll see this is the sweet take on the Japanese dish -- the "rice" is shaved coconut, the fillings are candy, and note the clever Swedish fish!

Then there are these adorable cupcake creations:

The "spaghetti" cupcakes use truffles to mimic meatballs, raspberry preserves to appear like tomato sauce ...

The "TV dinner" cupcakes are ingenious - using graham cracker crumbs to create the chicken coating, green Skittles for peas and diced orange Starbursts for carrots, and finally mashed potatoes made from vanilla icing, caramel sauce for gravy and a yellow Starburst for a pat of gravy on top. Adorable!