Frontier Psychiatrist

Posts Tagged ‘Cooking

March has come in like a lamb and out like a lion, it seems.  I had to revive my gloves today!  Gloves!  The horror.  Thankfully, regardless of the irreverent spring weather, March means one thing for sure: Girl Scout cookie season.  Unfortunately, I don’t know any 8 year olds these days, and since I don’t work in a traditional office, I don’t have co-workers vying for my cookie purchases on behalf of their daughters.  This means that sometimes Girl Scout cookie season comes and goes before I have time to even register that I’m missing out.  This year, however, my connection to the food world has paid off in the form of one complimentary box of Savannah Smiles, the newest Girl Scout cookie, sent from the Girl Scouts of Nassau County,Long Island.  My status as a food blogger (and long time GS cookie connoisseur) qualifies me as an official cookie reviewer!  Score!

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For six months I lived in Sevilla, Spain, with my very own temporary Spanish family.  My Spanish “mom” had very little in common with my real mom, but they both had a penchant for worrying about me, and feeding me.  Actually, I think the two (worrying and feeding) are inversely related for them both: worry decreases when feeding increases.  Needless to say, I ate a lot in Spain.

Once we established the ground rules of no mayo and lots of vegetables, everything I was served was delicious.  Smoky paprika sat sprinkled atop most dishes, luxurious olive oil coated every nook and cranny of fresh tomatoes, and fresh bread sandwiched fluffy, gooey tortilla Española.  It was heavenly.

Before I returned to New York, I requested a cooking lesson so I could take a little bit of the Spanish dream I had been living back home with me.  I looked over my Spanish mom’s shoulder, taking notes, as she made all of my favorites in a single afternoon: tortilla, lentil soup, spinach and garbanzos, and stuffed eggplants.  The eggplants had been a mystery to me.   They always came out creamy and gooey with melted, super sweet summer veggies and cheese, and a slight nuttiness.  For all the complexity of flavor, it’s a pretty simple concept: ratatouille, stuffed back into the vegetables from which it came.  Except in Spain they call the mixture pisto.

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Winter in New York may seem like a remarkably inconvenient time for seasonal cooking, and I won’t deny that it’s a more challenging season than others.  Walking around the farmers’ market this time of year leaves much to be desired.  The vibrant colors of fall are long gone, and in place of that liveliness are, well, a whole lot of varieties of potatoes.  And while potatoes are wonderful in their own right, a full meal they do not make.  Luckily, with a little persistence, you can find some really great local produce.

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I live in a primarily Mexican and Puerto Rican neighborhood. Every day, Mexican food vendors set up shop on the main streets with big containers of tamales for sale. To accompany the tamales, they sell cups of atole or champurrado, a thickened hot breakfast drink. When I lived in Mexico, in the countryside, atole was a breakfast staple. Tamales, however, were special — festival food. Anyone who has made them understands why. They are a labor of love, each tiny packet of masa individually wrapped in a sheath of corn husks. An elderly woman from central Mexico was lamenting the other day about the sheer availability of tamales in the neighborhood. “They used to be special”, she sighed. “Now they are a daily food, and this is no good”. She herself only makes them at Christmastime, and she feels that their appearance on her table but once a year make them taste all the better to her family.

I, too, have learned the value of special, annual foods. Even if they are not labor-intensive, it is worth saving certain recipes for festivals, large and small. It adds a thrill of anticipation, and sets the day apart, especially in a commercially driven environment that has created holiday “months” rather than days. My son is still remembering the apple-studded challah I made for the Jewish new year, and asking when “Rosh Hashanah Bread” will come again. My husband has already started the countdown to the duck in clementine sauce that I always make on Christmas.

Thanksgiving always brings a special sweet bread from Martha Stewart.  That’s right, Martha Stewart.  Rich, citrusy and studded with dried fruit, it is just the thing to eat before facing the preparation of the Thanksgiving meal. This bread is a memory-thread that runs through the beginning of my adult life: I’ve eaten it in a small New York apartment with my sister and mother, in Minnesota with my in-laws and in Chicago with my own small family. To eat it more than once a year would diminish the strength of these memories.

These past few years, the bread has actually featured a home-grown ingredient: poppy seeds. I was browsing for early spring-sown seeds at a local nursery, and found a packet of “Hungarian Bread Seed Poppy”. The lady at checkout gave me the eye after I told her I wanted to grow the seeds for my kitchen and reminded me curtly that this was the opium poppy. I did my research, and the seeds of this particular flower have been saved for generations for culinary purposes. A state extension office website gives this advice:

“All plant parts except the seeds are toxic and contain alkaloids used to manufacture opium and morphine. It is legal to grow Papaver somniferum in the United States for garden and seed production purposes”.

The lady could have saved her attitude! The seeds grew into tall, sturdy plants with delicate pink flowers and gorgeous dusky green seed heads, and they have been a part of my garden ever since. In early fall, I gather up the seed heads and hang them to dry for a few weeks, until the seeds rattle inside. I split each open to harvest about a tablespoon of blue-grey seeds. From a very small flower plot, I can generate a cup or so of seeds. I stick them in the freezer, designating them for the Thanksgiving bread. A few go into an envelope for sowing in the early spring.
The first year, I raided my Thanksgiving stash and toasted a few tablespoons of the seeds to garnish our carrot soup. As my husband and son scooped the speckled orange soup into their mouths, I did have one horrible moment of imagining the two of them nodding off in a heroin haze like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Needless to say, we all survived the night.

So pick your own signature Thanksgiving recipe…. use mine if you want. The bread is rich enough that, when eaten as a late breakfast, you will be able to hold out until the feast of the midafternoon. And if you can make your recipe with a mildly illicit homegrown ingredient….all the better.

Cream of tomato soup — well, not cream actually, just Campbell’s tomato made with skim milk — was a staple of childhood, usually served alongside a grilled cheese sandwich. As a grownup, the Campbell’s version offers a trip down memory lane, but little else — it is salty and thin, with the texture of baby food. Just as I have abandoned American for Gruyere in my grilled cheese sandwiches, so have I moved on to a more complex and delicious cream of tomato soup. This soup is a knockout: chunky and flavorful, robust enough to make a meal in and of itself. Serve it with some bread if you like, or a salad, but a grilled cheese sandwich is too heavy an accompaniment for such a rich and satisfying bowl of soup.

Now, I am an avid gardener and the first to wax poetic about the taste of just-picked homegrown tomatoes. But it can’t be August forever, and the next best choice once those sun-kissed August days are behind us is a can of whole tomatoes. Their flavor is far superior to any mealy greenhouse-grown tennis ball sold in the produce aisle, and cheap, delicious meals are but a twirl of the can opener away. I have tried the expensive cans of imported San Marzanos, and find little difference between those and a supermarket brand like Progresso or Redpack (those nerds at Cooks Illustrated agree). So find a supermarket brand that you like, and stick with it. Having a few cans on hand in the pantry means that you are always able to whip up a little dose of vitamin C in the dark days of winter.

This recipe yields a very thick, chunky soup, which you can thin down with water or milk, or puree for a smoother end product. While I like a thick soup, there is a fine line between “hearty texture” and feeling like you are spooning a bowlful of pasta sauce directly into your mouth, so be careful. If you can’t find mascarpone, you can go lowbrow and substitute Philadelphia cream cheese with no ill effect. Enjoy.

Cream of Tomato Soup

(Adapted from Mollie Katzen…if memory serves)

1 tablespoon butter

1 large onion, finely diced

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 teaspoon rosemary, minced

2 tablespoons basil, minced

1 28 oz can whole tomatoes (reserve the juice from the can!)

3 tablespoons sherry

1 teaspoon honey

4 ounces mascarpone cheese

salt and pepper to taste

Parmigiano cheese, grated, for serving

1. In a saucepan, melt butter and saute onions and garlic with a pinch of salt over moderate heat. While they are cooking, squish up the whole tomatoes with your fingers into somewhat smaller chunks — if you are squeamish, roughly chop with a knife. Once the onions are translucent, add the herbs and saute for one minute more.

2. Add tomatoes, their canning juice, the sherry and the honey to the onions and stir to combine. Bring to a boil then cover and simmer over low heat for 40 minutes. The tomatoes will eventually break up, but you can help them along by occasionally mashing on them with the back of a wooden spoon.

3. Add the mascarpone cheese, stir until melted and well combined with the tomatoes. Season to taste. If the texture is not to your liking, thin with milk or water, or puree half the soup and return to the pot. Serve with grated Parmigiano cheese.

Recently, the unimaginable happened: I hosted a bagel brunch and had leftover smoked salmon. This is like having leftover shrimp cocktail from a dinner party….what sort of guests leave the expensive seafood on the tray, yet eat me out of fruit salad? I suppose this is the benefit of being friends with people who perpetually flirt with vegan and vegetarian diets, depending on who has read the latest version of Ominvore’s Dilemma that week. This puzzling – and, no doubt, once-in-a-lifetime – occurrence of fishy leftovers has happily left me with four ounces of smoked salmon to work into my menu. Yes, I could load it all onto one luxurious sandwich and my family would be none the wiser. It is, however, high season for fennel in these parts — it’s going two for a dollar at the local market. Seeing the piles of licorice-y bulbs, I was reminded of a simple and delicious pasta recipe I ate long ago.

I am such a compulsive consumer of new recipes that whole cookbooks-full of creations have slipped in and out of my culinary repertoire, never to be seen again. These recipes, mind you, are not just the okay ones, but the sources of delicious, surprising meals that my husband and I ate happily. I will make the recipe once or twice and then give away the cookbook (so many new ones to test out!), usually forgetting to copy out the favorites. After he caught on to my easy-come-easy-go attitude to the collection of recipes, my husband learned to demand that I Xerox the keepers. Otherwise, I will find him hastily thumbing through whatever giveaway cookbook I have pressed onto some hapless guest who mentions to me that they have decided to “get into cooking”.

This smoked salmon pasta recipe is reconstructed from my memory of  a cookbook I gave away long ago. It is a book titled Pasta, from an excellent out-of-print series, the Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library. (Side note: These books reflect the culinary trends of the nineties the way that the Time-Life series reflects those of the sixties. I highly recommend that you pick them up when you run across them at used book sales. It will be a dollar well spent, even if you have to edit out the excess of recipes featuring sun-dried tomatoes and Brie). If you own the book and the recipe is nothing like the one I printed here, my apologies. Perhaps the real recipe calls for creme fraiche, pink peppercorns or other trendy ingredient circa 1992…..but this reconstruction tastes like the essence of my memory, reflecting the spirit of the original.

The recipe can be made with store-bought or homemade fresh pasta. Either way, you want wide-cut, thinly-rolled ribbons of pappardelle — you can fudge it and downgrade to fettuccine, but it won’t be quite as good. It is quite basic but features two bold flavors, and you can, if you want, embroider the dish with chopped dill, lemon zest or even a few capers. But I urge you to try it once as it is, with just four ingredients: pasta, butter, salmon and fennel. The bright licorice flavors of the fennel pair well with the salmon and will bring a bit of sunshine to a gloomy autumn evening.

Pappardelle with smoked salmon and fennel (serves 4 as an appetizer, 2 as a main course):

1 fennel bulb, trimmed

4 ounces smoked salmon, cut into thin strips

4 tablespoons butter

1/2 pound pappardelle

salt and pepper to taste

optional: chopped dill, grated lemon zest, capers

1. Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil.

2. While the water is heating, cut the fennel bulb in half and slice each into a pile of paper thin half-moons — easiest to use a mandoline for this, but if you have a sharp knife and steady hands, you can do it manually.

3. Melt the butter in a large saute pan, add the fennel and cook until just wilted. Remove from heat and season to taste.

4. Cook the pasta and drain, then add to the saute pan, toss well to mix then add the salmon strips and one of the optional flavorings. Toss well again, season to taste, and serve.


(Does your inner gourmet want more? Check out K-Town Homestead)

Crispy, light and bursting with cheese flavor, gougeres are the pinnacle of cheese-puff greatness. As the weather cools, who doesn’t want something toasty and cheesy to soothe your soul after a long workday? Forget the cheetos, dear reader, and go straight to their choux pastry forefather, the gougere. Usually ascribed to the French region of Burgundy, these bewitching cheese pastries are easier to make than it seems on first glance. They even freeze well — you can make a big batch, freeze them, and just crisp them up in the oven when guests arrive. You will look very glamorous, trust me.

You have probably run across choux pastry before — it forms the dough for eclairs and cream puffs. Gougeres are cream puffs with Gruyere stirred in. The texture should be light but with a slightly chewy inside and a crispy baked exterior. The pastry starts with a boiling pot of butter and water, into which you unceremoniously dump a bowlful of flour. After a dry ball of dough has formed, you beat in eggs, one at a time. Each time you crack an egg into the dough, you will despair — it always looks like a slimy, incohesive mess. But a few brave stirs of the wooden spoon and the egg magically starts absorbing into the dough, eventually leading to a yellow, sticky blob. If you want to be fancy, you can force the dough through a pastry bag and measure out a series of beautifully formed puffs. I usually just scoop a walnut-sized bit of dough up with a spoon and gently roll it onto the parchment paper. They come out a little craggier, but delicious nonetheless.

Cheese pastries such as these pair excellently with wine, and are traditionally eaten with a kir aperitif or a bubbly flute of champagne. I spent several years in Bolivia, which I readily admit is not an area known for its culinary greatness (llama stew, anyone?). But the Bolivians got one thing right — they served their afternoon coffee with a cassava-based version of gougeres called cuñapes. The savory cheese puffs paired very well with the bitter edge of the coffee beans, and since then I eat my gougeres with a mug of java in hand whenever possible. But I suppose I can make do with a flute of champagne. Enjoy.


(Adapted from Susan Herrmann Loomis’ French Farmhouse Cookbook)

1 1/4 cups flour

pinch of nutmeg

1 cup water

3/4 teaspoon salt

7 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into chunks

4 eggs

3/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese

1. Preheat oven to 400. Line two baking sheets with parchment.

2. Mix flour and nutmeg together in a small bowl and set aside.

3. Combine water, salt and butter in a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Let the mixture boil for 30 seconds, remove from the heat and dump in the flour all at once. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon. It will go from a thick paste to a big ball of dough that pulls away from the sides of the pan. Set aside and let the dough cool slightly.

4. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition until the egg is well incorporated.

5. Using a spoon, place walnut-sized portions of dough on the parchment, leaving about an each between each one. Bake until puffed and golden, 30 to 35 minutes.

6. Remove from heat and cool on a wire rack.

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