Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Quick "Preserved" Lemons: A Sunny Pickle from Morocco

It was pure serendipity that I found a piece by Mark Bittman about preserving lemons the day after I couldn’t resist buying a bargain bag of lemons at a farmers market. I love to keep fresh lemons about. They’re nearly magical to me – a bit of juice and zest can transcend every day steamed broccoli to heavenly status.

But I had forgotten that I already had an ample supply and what was I going to do with all of them? The notion of preserving lemons lured me to read on. (And the bargain bag of lemons was past its prime begging for some kind of salvation.)

These “preserved” lemons aren’t really so; they’re kind of like refrigerator cucumber pickles. But it was only going to take a few hours of sitting in sugar and salt to salvage my impetuous purchase. Perfect.

The hardest part of making these lemons was preparing them. Bittman recommends using organic or unwaxed lemons, and if they’re not organic, they’re probably waxed. To remove the wax, you need to blanch the lemons in boiling water for 30 seconds, then rub the wax off with a towel.

The concept of preserved lemons is new to me and I learned that this relish is a staple in Moroccan cooking. It’s a sweet-sour-salty condiment that usually sits for weeks fermenting. Recipes – like most pickle recipes – vary widely and may include everything from shallots and garlic to cinnamon sticks and coriander seeds.

This very simple “minimalist” approach of Bittman’s worked out very well for me. The preserved lemons will last up to a week in the refrigerator – a lot longer than they would for me otherwise! He recommends them as a complement to almost any stew, simply cooked fish or chicken. What did I do with them? I ate them straight from the jar, for one thing; and I added them to a leftover black bean dish and it gave the beans a fresh new life.

Preserved Lemons
from Mark Bittman, The New York Times
4 unwaxed or organic lemons
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Cut the lemons – peel, rind, flesh and all – into small pieces, about ¼ inch or less. Remove as many seeds as you can. Put the chopped lemon into a bowl, add the sugar and salt, cover and let sit at room temperature for at least three hours. Stir every so often. Then place them in a jar and refrigerate. Will keep for a week.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Classic Caesar Salad with a Neo-Classic Dressing

I’m a big fan of the classics. Any classic. Pearls. A little black dress. Red roses. Shakespeare. Beef Wellington. And a great Caesar salad. But I’ve often been disappointed when I order one at a restaurant. The romaine’s wilted, or there’s too much dressing, making the croutons soggy.

Before I go on, I must confess that I have no problem with two of what are considered standard ingredients in a classic Caesar salad: anchovies and coddled, sometimes raw, eggs. For one thing, I get my eggs farm fresh from my neighbor Dude’s roaming free chickens. For another, I’m always well-stocked with good quality anchovies thanks to a sister who always stuffs my Christmas stocking. (Although there were sardineslast year. What’s up with that?)

I know that anchovies are just one of those things that people either love or hate, with the majority in the hate camp. (I love a Julia Child quote I just ran across: “If you don’t like anchovies, well, that’s just too bad.”) And if someone is particularly belligerent about the point, I’ll delight in shocking them by saying, “You didn’t know there are anchovies in that Worcestershire sauce?”

My renewed interest in Caesar salad was ignited a few weeks ago when I helped my sister – not the anchovy-giver – with the end-of-season cleaning at the family’s summer cottage on Lake Erie. After a few hours of dismantling and putting away, she treated me to a delightful lunch at a very nice wine and coffee bar in Westfield, NY, called Sapore.

She ordered what looked – and tasted – like one dandy Caesar salad. (While I, typically, overindulged in a “tortilla espanolla,” a decadently delicious potatoey, cheesy, garlicky frittata-like dish.) As she murmured how good her salad was, saying, “There’s nothing like a great Caesar salad,” I vowed to give it a go with maybe a cheater’s riff.

Since, in my house, I’m the only one who will dare to eat the little fishy things, I waited for a day when I’d be home alone for lunch. I had the romaine ready, crisp and chilled. I made garlic croutons, I opened my anchovies. And I was debuting a new Caesar dressing I discovered in a great new cookbook I bought called, “Raising the Salad Bar,” by Catherine Walthers.

Whirring all the dressing ingredients in a food processor makes short work, and easy emulsifying. The author also suggests a “Lemon-Anchovy Dressing” as an eggless alternative. It has the same ingredients, just no eggs. I’ve tried it, too, and it’s very good, just not quite as rich.

Classic Caesar Salad Dressing
from Catherine Walthers, “Raising the Salad Bar”
1 or 2 egg yolks
3 anchovy fillets
½ teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
½ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper
Place everything but the olive oil in a food processor and process thoroughly. With the food processor still running, slowly add the oil. Season with salt and pepper, then pulse to combine everything once more.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Spaghetti Squash, Spinach and Feta Toss -- A Great Side

I know that spaghetti squash is supposed to be a great stand-in for pasta for those of us who, at least from time to time, keep an eye on calories and carbs. But frankly, I think that it’s great in its own right, with no apologies, even if it is a dieter’s dream. (A four ounce serving has only 37 calories, but it does need a few extras to jazz it up.)

My last raid into my neighbor Dude’s garden -- “I’m turning it over tomorrow. Get what you can find!” – landed me one nice 4 pound spaghetti squash and two acorn squash. (More about the acorns another time.)

I’d thought about making the squash do the spaghetti substitute gig, but after rooting through a few recipes, I was inspired by the Cookin’ Canuck to make a spaghetti squash and spinach dish. Her recipe had cannellini in it and can be, I’m sure, an excellent meatless main dish. But with no beans and grilled chicken, it was a great meal for us, and satisfied the carnivorous male (and female) in our house.

I loved cutting things into ribbons. The spinach took on a new look mimicking the strands of spaghetti squash and slices of onions. There’s plenty of varying texture and tastes and I could have eaten this without any kind of protein alongside, legume or otherwise, and been quite content.

If you’ve never manhandled a spaghetti squash, it is a hoot to see the humble squash transform itself and take on a new form as you scrape the flesh into noodle-like strands. I so wished I had a kid around while I was shredding it just to see their eyes bug out when you’d say, “See, honey? This is why they call it spaghetti squash!”

Spaghetti Squash with Spinach and Feta
adapted from the Cookin’ Canuck
and Six O’Clock Solutions

1 3-4 pound spaghetti squash
1 bunch spinach, washed and stems removed, about 6 cups (packed) leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup sliced onion
4 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup feta cheese crumbed
Salt and pepper to taste

Using a large sharp knife, pierce the squash in several places. Place squash in a glass baking dish and cook in microwave on high for about 15 minutes, turning the squash halfway through cooking. Before handling, let the squash stand for 5 minutes. (I still used hot pads to hold the squash.) Cut it in half lengthwise and scrape out the seed and fibers. Using a fork, twist out strands of spaghetti squash flesh and place in a large bowl.

Working in batches, stack the spinach leaves and cut across the leaves into ¼ inch wide strips.

In large skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic. Cook stirring constantly for one minute. Add the spinach ribbons and cook just until the spinach is wilted, about one or two minutes. Add the squash and feta cheese and gently toss. Serve.  Makes four servings.  (Or two helpings for my husband, one for me at dinner, and one for me at next day's lunch!)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

How to Cheat on Your Egg Roll

Only days after my sister had sent me a birthday package with (can you believe it!) a cookbook in it, did she confess that there should have been two, but she started to read one of them – and what cookbook giver hasn’t done that? – and got so interested she kept it. I had to know what that cookbook could be: It was “How to Cheat on Your Man (in the Kitchen)."

The sneaky premise the author, Missy Chase Lapine (aka The Sneaky Chef), proposes to us is that you can surreptitiously slide healthy vittles into vegetable loathing husbands and significant others while they’re not looking and they’ll never know they’re eating healthily.

By making purees of cauliflower, garbanzo beans, carrots, spinach, broccoli and the like, you can create a veritable palette of brightly colored vegetable paints and by merely adding them to the traditionally manly favorites – of, let’s say, meatballs (green puree), spaghetti sauce (orange puree), or potatoes (you guessed it - white puree), you can get a pile of nutrients into unsuspecting victims!

Now my husband is really a pretty good vegetable eater. He gets broccoli and cauliflower mixed up now and then and he does think starchy corn is a great vegetable. But if there’s a way we can get our five-a-day in more easily, I’m curious.

All this is a roundabout way of telling you how I decided to make baked egg rolls. I didn’t add any colored puree to the egg roll filling; I was just inspired by the cookbook discussion with my sister to look for ways to eat a little better. I generally like the real thing in its original form, but I’m open to learning new ways of doing things.

I wanted to find a way to cut back on the fat and the calories of one of my favorite fatty foods – egg rolls. I make them at home fairly often, but any deep frying is messy and it always leaves a lingering odor (or is it fragrance?) How would egg rolls be baked, I wondered.

So I scoured my own cookbook library, searched the internet and headed to the kitchen. I found a recipe from Emeril I liked, but he asked for Napa cabbage or bok choy, which would have been great, and I just had regular ol’ cabbage. And several other sources also referred to a Cooking Light version so, relying on safety in numbers, that’s what I did.

The only things I did differently were to use roast pork I had on hand and I just used water to seal the egg rolls.

And while the egg rolls weren’t real crispy, they were pretty good and I’ll try them again, with a few adjustments:
  • Instead of the soy-based sauce, I’ll use mustard next time.
  • I’ll brush with canola oil instead of using vegetable spray.
  • I’ll thicken the filling with cornstarch and soy sauce.
  • I may be adding a few more calories and fat but since my only complaint was that they were a tad dry, that’s a compromise I can live with.

Baked Egg Rolls

from Cooking Light
Egg rolls:
2/3 cup coarsely chopped celery
2/3 cup coarsely chopped carrot
2 cups shredded cabbage
1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil
2/3 cup chopped onion
1/2 teaspoon minced peeled fresh ginger
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 pound ground turkey breast
1 1/2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
14 egg roll wrappers
1 large egg white
Cooking spray
3/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
6 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
1/3 cup thinly sliced green onions (optional)

Preheat oven to 425°. Combine celery and carrot in food processor, and pulse 10 times or until finely chopped.Combine celery mixture and cabbage in a medium bowl. Cover with plastic wrap; vent. Microwave at high 5 minutes; drain.

Heat vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, 1/2 teaspoon ginger, and garlic; sauté 2 minutes. Add turkey; cook 5 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in cabbage mixture, 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce, and pepper. Cover and chill 15 minutes.

Place 1 egg roll wrapper at a time onto work surface with 1 corner pointing toward you (wrapper should look like a diamond). Spoon 3 tablespoons turkey filling into center of wrapper. Fold lower corner of egg roll wrapper over filling. Fold in corners  Moisten top corner of wrapper with egg white; roll up jelly-roll fashion. Repeat procedure with remaining wrappers, turkey filling, and egg white.

Lightly coat egg rolls with cooking spray, and place, seam side down, on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Bake at 425° for 18 minutes or until golden brown.

To prepare sauce, combine 3/4 cup soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, and 1 tablespoon ginger; serve with egg rolls. Garnish with green onions, if desired.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Failed Dinner Becomes a 4 Star Lunch

Although I called my chicken roulade a failure, my husband disagreed. Actually, what he said (and I wouldn’t make this up!) as he waltzed into the kitchen while I was cooking was, “You’re amazing!”

Now what cook doesn’t want to hear that?

He was impressed that despite the fact that we’d been out all day, we were still about to enjoy a nice dinner, not just our usual impromptu frittata, all because I’d done some prep work in the morning before we left the house.

And I was pretty pleased with myself, too.  My chicken roulade was going to have a lightened up filling of Neufchatel cheese, spinach, and dried tomatoes spread on a thin layer of ham on top of the chicken breast.  

I’d done everything right – pounded the chicken breasts, made the filling, got my assembly line going, rolled the filled chicken pieces, tied them, spread them on a baking pan. Popped them in the fridge. Ready to go. I also cleaned and prepared broccoli for a simple side.

So when we got home, all I would have to do was roll the breasts in a little seasoned flour, and cook them in a bit of butter and olive oil on the stove while the broccoli steamed. We’d be eating in fifteen minutes.


Something went awry, not dangerously so, just enough to ruin my image of perfectly fanned pinwheels of chicken on the plate. What happened was this: Despite the steps I’d taken, I hadn’t made sure the chicken was evenly pounded, so when I sliced the perfectly browned rolls of chicken, I found pinkness here and there. In too much of a hurry to make sure it was right.

So I had to put them back in the pan and cook them more and in the process they lost their shape, not their taste, just their good looks.

The chicken un-roulade tasted great and I didn’t screw up the broccoli, dressed with a little lemon zest, butter and a sprinkle of red chile pepper. My husband couldn’t say enough good things about the dinner, commenting only that he wished there was more cheese.

And we tasted it all again in the next day’s soup!

All I had to do was chop up the remaining chicken pieces and filling, along with the leftover broccoli, a bit of cooked rice (kept in the freezer for just such soup-making), chicken broth and some green onions for the ta-da finish. The bit of cheese gave the soup just a smidgen of creaminess and all the other bits of red and green flavored bits tumbled together with the chicken, broccoli and rice for a colorful mélange of flavors. I could barely detect the little bit of nutmeg I’d added to the spinach filling giving just a delicate hint of spice.

I could not have planned it better. If I had, I might have given it five stars – and a name.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Ina’s Coconut Cake Topped the Birthday Surprise!

Pulling off a surprise birthday party is no small feat. Planning, coordinating, sneaking around, out-and-out lying. And even if you can keep your own poker face on, you have to trust your compadres, too. But when your efforts are rewarded by a near-speechless, red-faced birthday friend blurting out, “Oh, you rats!” plus a Barefoot Contessa coconut cake, it’s all worth it.

And so it was a couple weeks ago, when our friend Susie was the target of a surprise birthday party on her actual birthday, but a year before one of those big decade milestones we really don’t like drawing attention to.

Susie’s daughter-in-law Courtney and her son Josh, with the conspiring talents of Susie’s (and our) good friend Mary, invited thirty people to their home on a weeknight after a workaday, directed us to out-of-the-way parking places, hid us all quietly (miraculously!) in a closed off den, and plotted how to get Susie to open the door on cue.

(The fact that Mary had -- just the night before -- baked a beautiful coconut cake, Susie's fave, for us all to share at a Wing Night certainly diminished the prospect of Susie even dreaming anyone might have anything up their sleeves. She was feted royally -- with singing, prezzies, even a tequila!)

And it all worked just as planned. (Knowing the party conspirators, I bet they had a Plan B in their back pocket, just in case; that’s why they’re so good at it!)

Courtney baked Ina's celebrated version of Susie's favorite cake. She made two double-layer cakes to accommodate the crowd, and even the most calorie-conscious among us couldn’t resist.  Courtney’s cake did not disappoint:   moist, creamy, sweet, but not cloying.  Delectable.  Food for the gods.

Ina Garten's Coconut Cake

• 3/4 pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pans
• 2 cups sugar
• 5 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
• 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
• 1 1/2 teaspoons pure almond extract
• 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pans
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
• 1 cup milk
• 4 ounces sweetened shredded coconut

For the frosting:
• 1 pound cream cheese, at room temperature
• 1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
• 3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
• 1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
• 1 pound confectioners' sugar, sifted
• 6 ounces sweetened shredded coconut


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 2 (9-inch) round cake pans, then line them parchment paper. Grease them again and dust lightly with flour.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium-high speed for 3 to 5 minutes, until light yellow and fluffy. Crack the eggs into a small bowl. With the mixer on medium speed, add the eggs 1 at a time, scraping down the bowl once during mixing. Add the vanilla and almond extracts and mix well. The mixture might look curdled; don't be concerned.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. With the mixer on low speed, alternately add the dry ingredients and the milk to the batter in 3 parts, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Mix until just combined. Fold in the 4 ounces of coconut with a rubber spatula.

Pour the batter evenly into the 2 pans and smooth the top with a knife. Bake in the center of the oven for 45 to 55 minutes, until the tops are browned and a cake tester comes out clean. Cool on a baking rack for 30 minutes, then turn the cakes out onto a baking rack to finish cooling.

For the frosting, in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the cream cheese, butter, vanilla and almond extract on low speed. Add the confectioners' sugar and mix until just smooth (don't whip!).

To assemble, place 1 layer on a flat serving plate, top side down, and spread with frosting. Place the second layer on top, top side up, and frost the top and sides. To decorate the cake, sprinkle the top with coconut and lightly press more coconut onto the sides. Serve at room temperature.