Sunday, September 26, 2010

Back to Basics: Polenta

Somewhere between metal cans filled with all sorts of things that used to be vegetables and dried beans stuffed in oversized plastic bags stood unrefrigerated with an 18 month shelf life a roll of polenta. Imagine my shock. Here I am, a young girl from Romania, recently moved to Denver, trying to navigate the intimidating isles of pre-packaged foods of her local King Soopers. There stands in front of me the food item that was ingrained in my taste memory since I can remember: polenta. Except that this time, it takes an unrecognizable form - stuffed like a yellow corn sausage in a thick plastic encasing- and it finds itself in an unacceptable context - that of a pre-packaged food that lasts - phew, too long.

I am an avid polenta lover. Most Romanians are. When you grow up in Romania, polenta is normal, traditional, not a big deal. When you grow up here, polenta is intimidating. I have been here long enough to know and understand that there is something foreign about the cornmeal and process of making polenta. Grits-makers aside (love grits!), polenta seems to have the fear-of-cooking undertones that risotto has. And I must tell you, it is much easier.

You decide how it tastes- spicy (add minced hot peppers), cheesy (you know what to add- grated), garlicky (minced), loaded with flavor from any spice that works with your savory palate. And you also decide how it looks- it can be runny like a thick sour cream or hard as a rock on the grill. Just don't buy the roll.

Polenta, a Romanian Staple

Ingredients: 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced; 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock; 1 3/4 cup coarse cornmeal or grits ( I am not a fan of the superfine cornmeal- you lose texture); 1/2 cup heavy cream; 3 tablespoons butter cut in small pieces; salt and pepper to taste.

Bring the stock to a boil in a heavy bottomed pot. Add salt to the water - about 1 teaspoon. Add the minced garlic and reduce the heat to a simmer.

Rain the polenta in stirring for a couple of minutes until there are no lumps and the polenta is well absorbed in the water. Cook stirring occasionally for about 20-25 minutes until it gets thick and most of the liquid evaporates. It will be thick- that's ok. If it gets too thick before the 20 minutes, add a few tablespoons of water. It will incorporate. Add more water as needed.

Turn the store off and start adding the cream in bit by bit stirring constantly to incorporate it. Do the same with the butter. Add salt and pepper to taste. This can be served soft immediately. If it isn’t creamy enough, add more butter or heavy cream. I served it this time with a generous sprinkle of chopped chives. Parsley works great too.

To grill it, set it in a pan in an even layer about 1 inch deep to cool. When cooled, just cut it into your desired shapes and sizes. And what to do with those leftovers? Croutons or Fries! Polenta croutons to add to any salad or main dish: cut up the polenta sheet into desired crouton sizes. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Broil turning often for 3-4 minutes until the outside hardens into a crust. For fries: cut up the polenta sheet set in the pan into desired fry size- my suggestion is half an inch by an inch thick and about 3 inches long. Brush with olive oil evenly and bake under a broiler for about 4-5 minutes turning the fries several times to get the evenly crispy.

Share with loved ones; I would too.

Photography by Jennifer Olson.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Confession Wednesday- Bittersweet Peach Immersion

If you realize the magnitude of my discovery, you might begin to understand the somewhat extreme behavior that ensued. I spent the last four days attempting to catch a break from all regular programming- cutting out all writing, most online reading, a lot of cooking, and some required activities to allow myself the time to read. Immersion reading. I read for hours every day- as many hours as I could. I read like it was the last book on the planet and someone was about to take it away from me any moment. I loved it.

At a book sale last week (an unusual book sale where advance copies are available) I uncovered in a stack a copy of Colman Andrews' Ferran, not to be released for another few weeks. The thrill that this bookworm felt! I had the book. I was holding it, walking to the car alone, smiling like a school girl who just got asked out to prom by her biggest crush. I was going to prom and I had not one but two dates. Ferran Adrià on one side, Colman Andrews on the other. My prom lasted four days- four inspiring, exciting, arousing of my imagination and desires to cook, travel, and learn days.

In my world, the odds are that you heard of Ferran Adrià. Adrià has been named by the French master chef Robuchon the best chef in the world years ago and he has been recognized as remaining so in most circles. Known for his restaurant, El Bulli, Ferran is most often associated with molecular gastronomy. He rejects a lot of the assertions made about his cuisine, he enjoys sharing his discoveries and techniques, and no matter what you call his cooking, he is undoubtedly creative, daring, and inspired.

Perhaps you haven't heard of Colman Andrews. Aside from being the founder of Saveur, a highly acclaimed food writer, and likely the foremost expert in Spanish cuisine in food writing circles, Andrews is fascinating to me because of his heated romantic involvement with another favorite author of mine, Ruth Reichl [her book, Comfort Me With Apples, gives some insight into their relationship]. Now, sure it has been years since the two were romantically involved and both of them were then young and crazy, but for me, in a food-sort-of-way that romantic episode mirrors William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor dating in law school. Somehow, both made it to the top of the very field that brought them together in the first place.

The timing of Andrews's book is impeccably charged. Ferran (he and I are on first-name-basis since the prom date) announced recently that at the end of the season he will close his flagship business, the legendary El Bulli- indefinitely, likely for good. Shock waves are still felt in the food world and anticipation for Ferran's new ventures is still building. Colman Andrews just won the James Beard award (international category) for his book The Country Cooking of Ireland and after reading Ferran, I can tell you that he is on a roll. The story of this new book is compelling and the writing is satisfying. It is a page-turner, a book you cannot put down and at the same time you hope never to end.

Bittersweet was the moment when I approached that end. With some 25 pages left, the low of my high, the halt of my reading ride, the light at the end of my pleasure tunnel was nearing. It was deja-vu from other books I've loved. I wanted to see the end, but I didn't want it to be over. Like the greatest show, the best vacation, the happiest moment- this book would never to be relived the same way.

Two weeks ago, I didn’t have that book to go crazy on, or any book that I couldn’t immerse in and be slightly bitter finishing. But I had peaches, 40 pounds of Ela Farm peaches and an irresistible urge to can. I dedicated a weekend to it- immersion canning. It is that time of the year- jams, preserves, sauces- and let me tell you- here, there are STILL beautiful peaches awaiting their hot jar.

No matter the fruit, my recipe is meant to say that canning is not hard. It is easy, pleasurable, and rewarding. There is some magic in allowing yourself to relive summer just by opening a jar of fragrant peaches in December. There is also the joy of sharing the pretty creations- I consider some of my Christmas shopping completed!

Peach Jam, a made-up recipe.

Ingredients: 5 pound peaches, 2 pounds sugar (you can also do less, or more, depending on how sweet you like your jam), 2 lemons, juiced. Plus a bunch of mason jars with new lids and bands.

Ask yourself- do you want the peel in your jam? There is no wrong answer, just a matter of preference. Most will say no peel, so here's how you take it off- with a sharp knife, cut an X on the bottom of each peach. To make it easier, you can continue your knife superficial indent into the skin peach all around it.

Fill up a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Place the peaches in the boiling water in batches - fewer at a time is better. The goal is to blanch or flash boil the skin without cooking the inside. To do that, the temperature of the water needs to be very hot. The fewer peaches you place in there at a time, the more likely the temperature of the water is to remain high. After 10-15 seconds of roaring boiling, remove the peaches. Allow to cool a few minutes and take off the skins.

Cut the peaches into quarters, remove the seeds and discard them. Repeat for the rest of the peaches and place them all into the heavy bottomed pot that you plan to cook your jam in. Sprinkle the sugar onto the cut up peaches. Stir well until the sugar is incorporated and becomes syrupy. Let stand for 4-6 hours.

Bring the pot with the peaches to a simmer over medium heat. Stir often for about 30 minutes. At this point, you have to ask yourself another question- what texture you prefer for your jam? Anything from quarter peaches to puree goes. I chose an in-between that I obtained by taking my trusty masher and mashing up the stewing peaches. Do what you need to do to get to your desired texture- yes, you can put it in a food processor and then return it to the pot.

Texture of the peach aside, the whole jam has to come together to a point where it is not all the way runny- if you put a drop of the liquid on a plate it doesn't run in all directions, but rather tends to stay together in a circular shape. There are degrees of 'doneness' for this, but again, it is a matter of preference- if you find it to be too runny, let it stew longer.

Before you put your new creation into jars, you have to boil the jars. No, you need no special tools- I had none. I boiled a big pot of water and carefully immersed the jars into simmering water in batches. I used a thin long spatula-like kitchen utensil to help me lower the jars and remove them without scorching my hands. Boil the tops and bands as well. Fill up the jars leaving half an inch at the top. Seal the jars and find a pot big enough to fit the sealed jars with an inch of water over them. [That is, of course, if you can with no special props like I do]. Boil the water, place the sealed jars in, and simmer for 12-15 minutes. Remove and voila- you made jam!

Right around the time when I made this, I experienced one of the most positive side-effects of social media, in this case- twitter. A chef and blogger I met on twitter (find him at dropped off a beautiful piece of this foie gras torchon that I served along a bit of jam and a small taste of arugula-mint salad.

If you read or can like a maniac, we're a match- share your stories, can your fruit.

Photography by Jennifer Olson.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Confession Wednesday: Crushes, Peelers, and Zucchini Pasta

I have a crush on Rahm Emanuel. I am not obsessive or stalker-ish, nor do I do anything to manifest my infatuation. But when I see a picture of him in the news, as it happened today, I cannot help but think- damn, he is hot. This particular attraction, in my mind, is written off to the 'I am really getting old and odd' list alongside other previously-thought oddities like preferring the Hilton hotels to the W, frowning at young couples kissing on park benches, refusing to wear short skirts, and never ever embarking on any connecting flight with the destination being in the continental U.S..

The plan for the confession today had nothing to do with Rahm Emanuel. I just got distracted by a picture of him in the news before I started writing and refused to help myself from dishing about the crush.

I was just going to stick with the cooking-related confessions- in today's chapter- I hate vegetable peelers. I do. I hate them. Currently, I have two in my possession to hate - a traditional-blade one and a ceramic one. Knives and other sharp kitchen objects are no threat to me but for some reason the peeler always gets me and it strikes where it hurts the most- figuratively speaking- my nails. I love my manicure and to chop off part of the nail polish or sometimes part of the nail itself is just sinful. So generally, aside from carrots, I use a paring knife to peel my veggies.

I did, however, find a use for the dreaded peeler; a good use too: zucchini and summer squash noodles.

Zucchini and Summer Squash Pasta, something I learned from a chef in Seattle this summer

Ingredients: 2 medium zucchini; 1 medium yellow squash; 1 large shallot, peeled and chopped small; 3 tablespoons butter (or more if you are so inclined); 5 springs of Italian parsley, chopped; salt and pepper to taste.

Wash the zucchini and grab the dreaded peeler. You will essentially peel long thin strips of the zucchini off all around the zucchini until you reach the seeds. Discard the part with the seeds. Do the same for the squash.

Toss the zucchini and yellow squash with salt and set aside.

Heat up a couple of tablespoons of butter in a large pan. Add the shallots and cook for 1-2 minutes stirring a couple of times until shallots start to become translucent. Put the zucchini noodles in and stir around to coat with the butter. Sprinkle another pinch of salt in and stir occasionally over 3-5 minutes, until the noodles are tender, limp, and cooked through.

Remove the pan from the heat and toss in the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Set the noodles onto a serving plate. Drizzle a few flakes of maldon or kosher salt over it.

Sprinkle with freshly chopped parsley and profess your crushes and hatred of certain kitchen gear.

Photography by Jennifer Olson.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Taste of Harvest: Ratatouille

If I had all the time in the world, a scenario that will 100% never occur, I would write down all of the lists I wish to write down in my head: what not to wear when I am old; what not to do to my child when she'll be a teenager; why I went to law school; how I want to treat my mother; how not to react to new perspectives, ideas, and dishes!

The capacity to forget certain experiences- pain, sorrow, suffering, and inflict the same on those around us is a curious human condition. 'Don't do onto others what you don't like done onto you' is a good ideal, yet oh so easy to break on a routine basis, with every sentence, every attitude, every dirty look. Practicing empathy can be a full time job and thanks, but I already have one of those, so the lists I was thinking of making would come in handy, but right, there is no time for those either.

The rant comes from watching my mother, whom I love dearly, completely dismiss a dish that took me very long to prepare (no, not the one I am sharing today). The dish or preparation are irrelevant. The fact that that is just my mom and I should have made peace with it a long time ago is also irrelevant. My explanation for her attitude is that her defense mechanism for her own cooking, lifestyle, beliefs is to reject and mock all that is new and inconsistent. I am my mother's daughter and have the same tendencies she does. lesson and item to add to the list I will never get to make is 'don't do that.'

Ratatouille, the way my mother would NOT make it, a Duo recipe

Ingredients: 1/2 cup olive oil; 1 large yellow onion, diced; 1 medium eggplant, diced; 1 large red bell pepper, diced; 2 medium zucchini, diced; 1 medium yellow squash, diced; 3 garlic cloves, minced; 4 tablespoons tomato paste; 1/4 cup water; 1 pinch chili flakes; 2 tablespoons chopped parsley; juice of half a lemon; salt and pepper to taste; a fresh baguette and 4 oz of your favorite goat cheese.

In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat one tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the diced yellow onion and a pinch of salt. Cook for about 12 minutes and transfer in a colander over a bowl. Add two more tablespoons of olive oil to the pot and add the diced eggplant. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over it and cook for about 12-14 minutes or until cooked through and tender. Transfer the eggplant in the colander with the onions.

Add a couple more tablespoons of olive oil to the pot and lower the heat. Cook the red bell pepper until tender- 12-15 minutes. And by know you should know what's next- put the pepper in the colander.

Pour more oil to the pot and cook zucchini and yellow squash after you sprinkle it with a pinch of salt for about 10 minutes or until tender and cooked through. Transfer to the colander.

More oil in the pan to saute the garlic. Add the tomato paste to the sauteed garlic and stir for about a minute. Pour in the water. Bring the tomato, garlic, water mixture to a boil then cook for 2-3 minutes.

Return all of the vegetables to the pot and blend it all together. Toss in the lemon juice, chopped parsley, chili flakes, and salt and pepper to taste.

Serve it warm or cold over a toasted slice of baguette, top with goat cheese, and share it with loved ones.

Photography by Jennifer Olson.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Confession Wednesday- Salt (-Crusted Red Snapper)

My love for salt is no secret. I have owned up to it here. My anger with the anti-salt movement on the other hand has been growing exponentially in the last few months. One quiet morning, while leaving for work and checking Twitter, I got this tweet "why salt sucks." WHAT? Who sucks? It was linked to a blog post, this one, (no it isn't exactly worth visiting). The blog urged the readers to take a leap and go salt-less for a week- zero salt. Why not just get a lobotomy instead? Burn my taste buds or something and that way I won't enjoy any of the things that make me happy- butter, salt, foie gras, dark chocolate, coffee.

It isn't this blogger that is responsible for my anger - although, in fairness, him and I don't see eye-to-eye- in other blogs he urged quitting coffee in a week and explained why artisan chocolates are not worth the money; he can keep the Hershey's bar.

It is a bit of a fad now to revolt against the evil salt, praise low sodium diets, and think of all the reasons why salt is bad for your health. The New York Times ran a big spread not long ago- this one. The Wall Street Journal did the same- here. And while the New York Times also ran this article explaining that even when it comes to pure sodium analysis there is no evidence showing that a reduction would lead to a healthier individual, I still feel the anti-salt wave.

Salt is life, taste, pleasure. It transforms, recreates, enlivens. We need it, crave it, and celebrate it. Now, we seem boxed in a corner to defend it, protect it. I am not giving up salt! Seriously. If you want to take a leap and give something up, drop the canned stuff, the boxed up chicken stock, the frozen lunches. It isn't the salt you should quit cold turkey, it is all the processed foods. Yes, your Cherrios have salt and so does the store-bought ice cream. My granola salt. None in my ice cream either. On my fish on the other hand, plenty of it!

Salt-Crusted Red Snapper, a Jose Andres recipe

Ingredients: 1 whole red snapper (mine was about a pound, yours can be up to 2 1/2); about 2 lbs kosher salt (more if your fish is larger); 3 tablespoons water; 3 bay leaves; 3-5 rosemary sprigs; 6-8 thyme sprigs; 2 tablespoons olive oil; half a lemon; parsley for garnish.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

The herbs- thyme, rosemary, bay leaves are nothing fancy or complicated, just flavor added to the salt, infusing into the fish. Mix the salt and water in a bowl. Add the herbs.

Make a bed of salt on the bottom of a baking dish or a baking sheet and set the fish over it.

The goal is to fully cover the fish in salt and distribute the herbs as evenly as possible.

Bake for 26 minutes in the middle rack of the oven. Remove and allow it to rest for 5 minutes before you crack the salt crust open. The upper side of the fish should now be a hard shell that is easy to lift if you just sneak your fork or spoon under it. Discard the salt shell and peel the skin away.

Cutting along the spine, on each side of the snapper, carefully separate the spine and bones from the meat. Discard the head, bones, and skin.

Serve it with your favorite brew, a slice of lemon, and a bit of parsley while summer is still here!

Photography by Jennifer Olson.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Confession Wednesday-the Beet Soup

Drop me off in the cookbook section of say Peppercorn in Boulder and I could probably spend days without needing food or water. I love them. I love seeing them all stacked together, organized in sections, shining from the shelves, easy on the eyes, inspiring, exciting, appealing. Some so appealing that they nearly scream to come home with me.

My strategy in the cookbook section is restraint. Browse, flip pages, think of recipes, remove yourself from the situation. It works- most times. This is not a quantity-type fetish. I don't care to collect them. Actually, it is a bit the other way: I want fewer books that will provide me with more inspiration. I have one shelf dedicated to cookbooks in my loft and plan on trying to keep it at that for a while.

There are 22 cookbooks I kept over the years, plus a Romanian cookbook, a couple baby-food ones and a small binder of clipped recipes. The books I kept (to the exclusion of many that were exiled to better homes), I connect with on some existential level, I believe in their philosophy, in the approach, the attitude. The only reason Bobby Flay stayed on the shelf is because I wrote a nice note when I gifted it to my husband years ago. Batali's book is not stellar either but sometimes it is a nice source of inspiration for simple grilled summer treats. The rest I just love and cannot part with.

And that is where the confession comes in- or perhaps a better name is a resolution or a NEW RULE: no new cookbooks can be admitted on the premises until we have made at least 5 recipes out of each of the cookbooks that already live here. This is a small goal- I started thinking 10 but then got cold feet thinking it will be way too long till that happens. At least half of the cookbooks have not made it to 5; some haven't made it to 3; two are still at zero. But that has just changed with this recipe.

Beetroot Soup, a Moro recipe

Ingredients: 3 tablespoons olive oil; 1/3 large yellow onion thinly sliced; 2 small garlic cloves, thinly sliced; 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin; 1 pound golden beets, peeled and diced; 1 medium russet potato, peeled and diced; 3 1/2 cups cold water; 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar; a few branches of flat leaf parsley; 1/2 cup greek yogurt; salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste.

Heat the oil in a large sauce pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the onion. Sweat the onion for a couple of minutes and sprinkle a pinch of salt over it. Cook the onion for another 8-9 minutes, until it begins to color but not brown. Add the garlic and the cumin and cook for 2 more minutes. To the onion/garlic mixture, add the beetroot and potato. Coat with the oil and mix all the veggies briefly then add the water.

Bring to a gentle boil on higher heat then reduce to a simmer for 20-25 minutes, until the potatoes and the beets are cooked. Check for softness with a fork.

Put everything into a blender and whizz up your golden beet smoothie. If your blender is not large enough, do this in batches. Always remember to take the little plastic top cap off your blender and cover with a clean cloth when you blend a hot liquid. Save yourself the burn.

Return to the pan, add the vinegar, as well as salt and pepper to taste. Plate it in your desired bowls and portion-sizes.

Serve with Greek yogurt, a grind of pepper, and a sprinkle of pepper flakes.

Photography by Jennifer Olson.