Sunday, January 30, 2011

On sandwiches

Joey Tribbiani may not have been the brightest nipple-shaped ceiling lamp in aisle 9 of Home Depot, but he was a genius in my book because his favorite food was sandwiches. Guess what? My favorite food is sandwiches, too. Twinsies!

I love spreads, and breads, and meats, and cheeses. I had a challah, butter, ham, cheddar sandwich for lunch everyday for a week and stopped only because my heart couldn’t take anymore. And, though I like the variety and possibilities that wiches offer, I am always drawn to one of the simplest combinations: the fresh mozzarella sandwich.  Every respectable sandwichery has a version of this caprese salad between bread. Whether a sub or a Panini, the basics are the same: fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil.
I grew up eating mozz subs from the UM in Hyde Park—ingredients included: tangy balsamic vinegar and chewy ciabbata.  The UM is since defunct, and the Medici has taken over their deli responsibilities for the neighborhood, keeping, albeit slightly transforming, the sandwich of my childhood.  This new mozz sub is more “elevated,” if you will, as it swaps out the romaine lettuce for stylish mixed greens and a basil-speckled vinaigrette replaces the dark splashes of pure balsamic. 
At BU, where I studied the foreign culture of New England, I found a new incarnation of my sandwich.  On focaccia. Crispy salty crust, deep olive-oil flavor, rosemary or caramelized onions?  Sold. However, it is in Chicago that I found the best mozzarella sandwich I have ever had.  It’s from famed cheesery, Pastoral, and I think the secret is in the deliciousness of each of their ingredients. To begin with, their fresh mozzarella is the best. Creamy, tender, rich—you can taste the “fresh.” But what makes the sandwich oh-so good: basil-fennel pesto. Incredible. I crave this sandwich.
I do eat other sandwiches.  And I like dedicated sandwich places.  Alex and I recently tried grahamwich, Graham Elliot’s new sandwichery that, speculation has it, will compete with Rick Bayless’s XOCO.  In two words, grahamwich was overhyped and under-delicious.  In one word, it was lame.  Some items were over-seasoned (the popcorn was soggy from truffle oil and parmesan), others were bland (pulled pork tacos to die from).  The grilled cheese was pretty good, but any grilled cheese is good if the cheese is melted and the bread is not burned.  A disappointment, to be sure.
And in no way competition for XOCO, whose cubana torta knocks my face off.  “Smoked Maple Creek pork loin and bacon, black beans, avocado, artisan Jack cheese, chipotle mustard.”  Bangarang, Rufio.  I suffer from white-people-can’t-handle-spicy-food syndrome (among my many syndromes), but I eat this sandwich until my lips, tongue, and throat are on fire and then I keep going.  It is fantastic. Smokey bacon, creamy avocado, sharp melted cheese, and bread that is grilled crisp on the outside but still fluffy on the inside. The cubana is as delicious as this picture is blurry (my b, I was hungry). 
Don’t be a fool and go to XOCO during the Saturday burbies-who-like-Top-Chef-Masters lunch rush. And don’t be a fool and order the salad because your vegetable quota for the day is low, you’ll just end up eating Alex’s torta (and you know he doesn’t like that).  Finish your XOCO experience with churros and cinnamon soft-serve. This is a necessity for me because I have a sweet tooth (and because the ice-cream soothes my over-heated mouth (and because churros taste like magic)).  It is cinnamon perfection in both of its components, hot fried dough dripping with cool soft-serve. 
In grahamwich’s defense, they also had a tasty cinnamon soft-serve with apple pie toppings. I still recommend the churros... because they are churros.
While on the subject of dessert, I should also mention my favorite post-dinner sandwich.  From the Purple Pig, this sweet Panini combines chocolate, banana, and marshmallow into a decadent between-bread indulgence. From fried manchego to shaved brussels sprouts with pecorino, everything at PP is good, and this goody is no exception.
So that’s how I feel about sandwiches... and churros, apparently. They are versatile, satisfying, and at their best when the simplest ingredients are used.  To steal a line from Mitch Hedberg, I like sandwiches all-encompassingly. 
Grahamwich on Urbanspoon
XOCO on Urbanspoon
Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Make sauce, not gnocchi

I tried to make gnocchi once.  It was a class-three disaster (class one being “Oh no, I slightly burned the bottoms of the cookies on the lower rack but the others are perfect” and class five being “Oh no, I made up the recipe for these cookies and they taste like death”).  I had watched Giada de Laurentiis craft the little potato dumplings earlier in the day and I was sure I would have no problems.  Plus, the ingredient list (flour, egg, salt, pepper, one potato) satisfied my cheap and lazy nature. 

When I got to the part where you add ridges to your dumpling using the tines of a fork, Sarah Tobol (my gnocchi-loving roommate) stepped in to help.  It was at this time that we realized there might be a problem. The dough was soft—too soft—and grainy. Where Giada’s gnocchi had looked strong and doughy, ours barely held their shape when handled. Boiling water worsened this situation.  They broke up completely, turning the water cloudy with specks of potato shrapnel swirling around. We scrapped the project and fried the dough up as pancakes. 

Tobol was convinced the failure was on my part.  I have a tendency to follow directions  loosely—however, when she remade the recipe later, she encountered the same problems. We scrapped the project and fried the dough up as pancakes.
I never got far enough in the gnocchi making process to actually make a sauce for the finished product. Now that I buy my gnocchi, I’m all about the sauce.  It begins with brown butter.  Nutty, bubbly, fragrant brown butter.  To this I add walnuts, which toast up in the hot butter and provide crunch to the tender potato bites.
I chose sweet potato for my gnocchi base to add depth and balance to the walnuts… and whole wheat to add balance to the butter.  I’m not reinventing the wheel here, just eating it.

Brown butter walnut sauce (over sweet potato gnocchi)

Put half a stick of unsalted butter (4 tablespoons) in a small sauce pan.  Let it melt and bubble and brown, until it is fragrant and toasty. Remove from heat and add 2 cups of chopped raw walnuts.  Stir to incorporate and heat walnuts through.  Mix in a big pinch salt, a couple of cranks of black pepper, and any herbs you like (I had none fresh on hand, so I added a small pinch of dried thyme). 

Serve over sweetpotato gnocchi and top with freshly grated parmigiano reggiano.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Po-ta-toes

Behold!  A roast chicken that is cooked all the way through!
And who to thank? Martha Stewart. My dependence on her expertise is becoming a bit blatant, so I will simply say that when it comes to the classics, Martha knows best. 

Speaking of classics, who is a better buddy to roast chicken than roast potatoes?  No one. That’s who. Roast potatoes win. Potatoes win. I love potatoes. 
More questions: Who do you go to for a classic roast potato recipe? Jamie Oliver. Why? Because he is British.

Let’s walk through it… with pictures.

Start with potatoes of a similar size. I used half German butterball and half Yukon gold.  The butterballs are a little sweeter, which I like.  You don’t have to like what I like. You do have to like potatoes.
 Peel potatoes. 
Put them in cold, salted water. Bring to a boil. Boil six minutes.
Drain and let steam in pan for a minute.
Dress parboiled potatoes with salt, pepper, olive oil.
Put into hot (375-ish) oven for 30 minutes. Take out and smash. Smashing increases surface area, thus increasing crispiness, which increases deliciousness, thereby increasing happiness. 
Other things that increase happiness include dogs playing with unicorn pillow pets.  But I digress.
Mix a couple tablespoons of olive oil, a splash of red wine vinegar, a few garlic cloves, a big pinch of thyme. 
Pour over smashed potatoes and return to oven for another 30 minutes or until super crispy and delicious.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The cupcake truck

Now hold on—don’t boo me just yet.  I know cupcakes are a little over played right now, as super-hip Ruth Bourdain stated, “If I read another food trend list, I'm going to drink a beer cocktail, hijack a food truck, and drive a cupcake up your bacon-infused ass.” …Well at least this doesn’t concern bacon.
If you don’t mind me getting too official with this outdated trend, I’d like to announce my favorite cupcake of 2010: The Curious George from FlirtyCupcakes on wheels (a local food truck that tweets their location and frequents the area near my office).  They get brownie points for salting the caramel and naming their confection after my favorite hat-wearing monkey.
According to the FCow website, the George is a “banana chocolate cupcake with a light, salted caramel Italian buttercream frosting.”  I could probably stop right there, but I think it is important to tell you how moist the cake is and how smooth the frosting is, and how the ratio of frosting to cake is pretty damn close to 60/40. In a word, it is irresistible.  
Try one of these and tell me you are over cupcakes.  I’ll work on tracking down a late-night, beer-serving, maple-bacon doughnut truck. You are welcome.
Flirty Cupcakes on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 10, 2011

Failure eggs in bitter sauce

Status update: Cash money millionaire… Still cursed

The only thing I wanted to do on Saturday was buy a chicken.  Got to the deli late: Chickens all gone! We may have electricity again, but the curse powers on.  It powered all the way through Saturday to Sunday morning, when it established its presence in my kitchen, burning my challah toast, thinning out my hollandaise, and generally fucking with my first poached eggs.
Fine. Maybe that was me.  I shouldn’t even be posting about this.  “Come read my cooking blog… I don’t recommend making any of this shit but I thought I’d tell you about it anyway. You want eggs Benedict? Go to brunch. That’s what I should have done.”  
Let’s be more constructive and talk about what I learned:
  1. When poaching eggs, swirl the water a little to help the cloudy messes take shape and keep them from flattening to the bottom of your pan. 
  2. Good idea:  Toasting the last of your challah in already-greased pan used for melting butter.  Bad idea: Forgetting about it.  
  3. Listen to Martha Stewart.  I didn’t—I know, it’s the most blasphemous thing I could write. But it is true.  She wanted the butter for my hollandaise bubbly and hot.  It wasn’t.  Perhaps this caused the thinning? Like I care. 
It was shambles.  Tasty, yes, but shambles still.  A poorly executed egg massacre.  

The upside: I made these mistakes so you don’t have to.  Kind of like Jesus, dying for your sins.  Except not so sacrilegious.


2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon warm water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

Combine yolks, water, lemon juice, and salt in a bowl.  Whisk.  Melt the butter in a pan and when it is bubbling (but not browning) don’t put it to the side and go check your e-mail. Instead, pour the butter while hot into the egg mixture in a slow, steady stream, whisking continuously until the sauce is thick and tasty.  

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Chili-bottomed cornbread

I won the lottery this week. That $350 megamillion jackpot was just too tempting.  My first time playing, and I walked away with 150 big ones. On the downside, I am cursed now.  I played Hurley’s numbers from LOST and I’m not sure if the curse was worth the payout.

Luckily, I made this chili before the blight was laid upon us.  Winter is the time for stew and spice, so chili certainly fits the bill. Plus, ever since the caterer for our “It’s chili” ugly-sweater holiday office party fell through, I’ve been feeling the saucy beans. Side bar bonus: This is an ingenious way to get side and main into one dish—veggies, meat, beans, and cornbread all in one pot.  Miraculous! (Props to Martha Stewart, yet again.)

I packed my chili with a bunch of fresh vegetables (what up, all you resolution-laden readers!).  Keep in mind that the sauce doesn’t get as thick and tomatoey with the fresh stuff.  Mom had a problem with that aspect of my dish; I told her it was “deconstructed” and that seemed to make her feel better. 
Another plus: the beef can be substituted out for a leaner meat, such as turkey, or you could easily do away with the con-carne concept and swap in a can of kidney beans.  Regardless of the chili base you use, what makes this dish a standout is the cornbread baked on top.  This sweet dumpling is a classic complement to the hot chili—and sharpness from the melted cheddar doesn’t hurt, either. 
So we dined quite well on this humble feast, not knowing then that it was our last meal in what was once domestic bliss.  We are slaves of our own greed now, weighed down by our regrets.  The curse has us in its dark clutches.  Everything is black. 

I mean that literally. I’m writing this in the glow of my laptop’s battery-powered screen because Alex blew one of two fuses in our home trying to move his 27-inch supercomputer into our bedroom so we could watch the netflix like sultans perched on purple velvet pillows.  We have since lost power to the bedroom, bathroom, dining room, and kitchen.  The extension cord that normally feeds my laptop has been repurposed to keep our all-important ice cream from melting. Alex is running around the house in his underroos, cranking our charge-and-go lantern and whittling pencils into electrician tools.  At least he stopped vacuuming the socket.  In the meantime, all extraneous electronics have been decommissioned so as not to overpower the one working breaker—we will fight this curse for as long as we have energy… in our limbs.
Lucky Chili with Genius Cornbread

For the cornbread (from marthastewart.com
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large egg, beaten
1/4 cup chopped scallions
¼ cup sharp cheddar cheese

In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients: cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Stir in the wets: buttermilk, oil, egg, and scallions.

For the chili:
¾ of a pound of ground beef
1 shallot
4 scallions
2 ribs of celery
1 big carrot (3 small carrots)
3 plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1.5 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon cayenne
2 cups chicken stock
1 can black beans (drained)

Brown meat in Dutch oven.  Remove and set aside.  Add shallot, celery, and carrot. Season with salt and pepper.  Let soften about ten minutes.  Add scallions and tomatoes. Cook about five more minutes until the tomatoes break down.  Add chili powder, paprika, cayenne, and tomato paste, stirring until combined.  Add stock and browned beef, scraping the bottom of the pan.  Simmer for half an hour.  Stir in beans and top chili with cornbread batter. Finish with shredded cheddar.  Bake in 400 degree oven for 20 minutes.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Roll out the fun

If you are one of those people groaning about how they can’t look at another cookie, you probably shouldn’t read this post.  I could lie and say I was purposefully holding this recipe to prepare you for a fun Valentine’s Day cookie… but it simply isn’t true. Though, if the only cookie cutter you own is a heart, this may be of interest to you after all.

The most important aspect of making sugar cookies is choosing the right recipe.  I am partial to the classic Joy of Cooking rich-roll cookies.  They are buttery and maintain a bit of chew, without being too delicate to work with (unless you are a four-year-old Megatron slamming cookies down on the marble counter like you mean it).  

Plus, these cookies don’t fall into that terrible sugar-cookie-tastes-like-raw-flour category.  You know that’s right.
I come from a shortbread-oriented family and would have been happy eating these cookies with a modest sprinkling of decorative sugar.  However, it was more fun making a sticky mess with my two sisters.  We used the timeless liquid + powdered sugar = icing method.  I have developed a sudden fear of food coloring, but since all my youngest sister cares about is pink, we used pomegranate juice to make a rose-tinted icing and water for a plain icing.  (Heart-shaped cookie cutter owners take note of this love-appropriate color scheme.)  The plain icing was, in my opinion, a little too sweet (little Megatron would disagree).  I recommend using lemon juice or orange juice to make a more palatable glaze.
We ended up with a sugared-up four-year-old who ate more sprinkles than she decorated with, three headless reindeer, and pink penguins, pink snowmen, and pink Christmas trees. A worthwhile activity, to be sure (no matter the season).

Rich-Roll Cookies (from Joy of Cooking

Beat in a large bowl until creamy:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar

Add and beat until combined:
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Stir in until blended:
2 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Pat into a disc and refrigerate for 30 minutes. (The original recipe tells you to do some crazy stuff around this step... I just ignore all that and get down to making cookies.)

Roll chilled dough out to about ¼ inch thickness. Cut and arrange on cookie sheet covered in parchment paper. Bake at 350°F for 6 to 9 minutes (rotating the tray once).  I like for the cookies to be pretty pale, but slight toasting of the edges is a fine sign.  Let cool and then decorate.