Monthly Archives: August 2012

Popovers

I had never heard of a popover until I went to college. There was a restaurant in town, just off-campus–the kind of place visiting parents would take their kids, usually with a small posse of friends tagging along for a free meal. The food was spiffed-up American, burgers and sandwiches and pastas and seafood. And every single item on the menu came with a mysterious side called a “popover,” a crusty brown breadlike balloon-thing, as big as my face, served on its own white plate with a little dish of apple butter.

Breaking into my popover was always the best part of the meal. The tickling anticipation as I picked it up, crisp and shaggy and light; the tiny crackle as I broke the surface and pulled it apart; the golden hollow inside, draped here and there with wattles of soft, stretchy dough. The best way to eat the thing, of course, was with a generous spread of sweet apple butter. It’s one of the things I miss most about college–that, and having four or five equally blissed-out friends to share the experience with.

I had always assumed that popovers were elaborate and time-consuming to make. But, as I’ve recently learned, they’re dangerously easy. Four ingredients, a well-greased muffin pan, and just a tick or two over 30 minutes. That’s it. The popovers go into the oven as unremarkable pools of batter, and come out as great golden puffs, rising crazily out of the pan. Anywhere bread lives, these airy morsels are welcome–though, of course, I’m still partial to a dollop of apple butter.

These are quicker than quickbread, easier than dinner rolls, lighter and less guilt-inducing than almost any other kind of bread I can think of. They don’t even need a preheated oven. I can now go from zero to popover in just over 30 minutes–nostalgia be damned.

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Apple pandowdy

Shoo-fly pie and apple pan dowdy

Makes your eyes light up and your tummy say howdy.

Shoo-fly pie and apple pan dowdy,

I can’t get enough of that wonderful stuff.

Of all the songs I learned in high school choir, “Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy” was one of my favorites. It was upbeat, jazzy, a little silly, and mercifully easy to sing. I had never heard it outside the rehearsal room, and it wasn’t until years later that I learned it was a beloved old standard, recorded by the likes of Dinah Shore and Ella Fitzgerald. Years later, in moments of mind-wandering, I still catch myself singing it.

For a long time I assumed the words themselves were nonsense–made up to suit the bouncy rhythm of a song. But, as it happens, shoofly pie and apple pandowdy are both very real, and totally all-American. Oddly enough, they hail from a community not much known for its contributions to popular music: the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Of the two, shoofly pie seems to get more attention. It’s a rich molasses-based custard pie, said to be so sweet that it attracts flies that must be shooed away. I’ve never found it particularly compelling. Apple pandowdy, on the other hand, intrigued me quite a bit. What is a pandowdy, I wondered, and how does it differ from its other evocatively-named cousins–crisps, crumbles, cobblers, grunts, slumps, buckles, brown betties?

The answer, at least according to an hour or so of Internet research: apple pandowdy is reminiscent of cobbler, with a fluffy biscuit topping laid over a pan of sweetened, spiced fruit. But unlike cobbler, which has its topping laid down in “cobblestone” pieces, apple pandowdy gets a single rolled layer of dough laid on top. Then, partway through the baking process, the cook takes a wooden spoon and pushes bits of topping down into the fruit below. The result is a rough, “dowdy” surface, with a mix of textures and flavors underneath: some of the biscuit stays pillowy on top, while some gets gooey and soaked with juices. It’s quite lovely.

This version, which I found through good old-fashioned Google timewasting, has a dark, spicy apple filling, sweetened with molasses and candied ginger instead of sugar. It’s a gutsy, down-to-earth variation on the familiar chord of apple-cinnamon-butter-sugar. And it still passes the true test of any good American apple dessert: it pairs effortlessly with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream. Clearly this California girl should look to Pennsylvania Dutch country more often.

apple pandowdy

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Accidental shrimp soup

Most of the time, when I come here to write, I’m vibrating with eagerness to share something you, the reader, can repeat. These are the recipe posts, neatly lined and limned, ingredients measured and just-the-right equipment dirtied–all in the hopes that one or two of you will have the same moment of giddy flavor recognition that I did. It’s so easy to pretend I’ve caught lightning in a bottle, that I’ve strewn the path with pebbles instead of breadcrumbs. But here’s my confession: more often than not, the most exciting food eurekas are the ones that I know will never happen again.

This weekend I went to a birthday party. There was an avalanche of food, and no matter how we packed our gullets, we couldn’t polish it off. So each guest was bundled home with leftovers from the grill: skewers of enormous shrimp, pearl onions in their skins, a cob of corn slathered with chili-garlic butter. I also begged the discarded shrimp shells from the hostess, who would otherwise have thrown them away. On the drive home, I started fitting together puzzle pieces in my mind, plotting how to turn our bounty into an invigorating dinner for two.

I started by turning the shrimp shells and onions into a rich broth. While it simmered, I rooted through the cabinets in Sam’s kitchen for inspiration: a can of tomato sauce, a dwindling jar of chili garlic sauce, a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, an open box of orzo. I mixed the hot broth with the sauces, cooked a handful of orzo in it, sliced the corn kernels off the cob and cut the shrimp into chewable pieces. Then I stirred everything together and ladled the whole steaming muddle into bowls.

I wasn’t expecting much. I rarely do, from my ingredient-scramble dinners. But that soup was special: smoky and sharp, with nuggets of charred shrimp and intensely sweet corn kernels bobbing in a fiery barn-red broth. It was unlike anything I usually make, and all the more delicious for how unexpected it was. There was no way to reverse-engineer what I’d done into a neat and tidy blueprint. I had never made this soup before, and I probably never will again.

So this post is not a recipe. It is an apology. All I have for you is a memory, a rich and spicy soup washed down with glasses of sake while watching old Masterpiece Mystery! episodes on Netflix. I love when these things happen, for the sheer untamable magic of it, and I hate it because I can’t transmit the experience to you. That’s what electrifies me about cooking: there’s no guarantee I’ll ever find my way back to where I’ve been.

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Vegetable udon

My boyfriend is a funny creature. Ask him what his favorite food is, and he’ll say, “Sushi.” Ask him where he wants to go for dinner tonight, and he’ll say, “Sushi.” Ask him what he had for lunch yesterday, and more often than not, he’ll say, “Sushi.” And yet, when we go to our favorite sushi boats restaurant, it’s not the sushi that gets him excited. It’s the vegetable udon.

I don’t blame him. At this particular restaurant, it’s sublime–shiitake mushrooms, zucchini, carrot, Napa cabbage, noodles, broth, nothing else. The mushrooms infuse the liquid and punctuate each bite, chewy and meaty and just the right size. The carrot and zucchini are julienned, and the cabbage is thinly sliced, so that they mimic the slither and slip of the udon noodles. The broth itself is soft and subtle, ideal for letting the fresh flavor of the vegetables burst through. It’s deceptively simple, and of course it was only a matter of time before I tried to recreate it at home. The result? A quick-cooking, feather-light soup, perfect for dinner on a cool summer night.

There are not many ingredients here. The key is a lightly-flavored broth, or dashi, and vegetables that are cut to maximize textural fun. The dashi itself couldn’t be simpler: a couple sheets of konbu–dried Japanese kelp–and a handful of shiitake mushroom stems, tossed into a bowl of cold water and left to soak overnight. The biggest challenge, unexpectedly, was finding the konbu; I got lucky, and knew of a Japanese market that sells it in resealable packs. If you can’t get your hands on konbu, you could use a very lightly-flavored vegetable broth.

As far as the vegetables, if you have a mandoline with a julienne blade, you’ll fare way better than I did. My knife skills are…well, lacking, and so I ended up with fat matchsticks instead of thin ribbons. It wasn’t a crisis, of course, but I did feel like the chubby vegetables competed with the noodles for attention, rather than gracefully flanking them the way they do at our sushi boat place. But that’s what happens in a home kitchen–things are coarser, stubbier, chewier and stranger than in the restaurant that inspired them. And that, I guess, is the whole charm of taking restaurant recipes like this one home.

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Cheese-stuffed dates

One of my favorite stands at the local farmer’s market sells Medjool dates. They’re enormous, plush and sticky and sweet as candy, so rich that you can’t eat more than one or two at a time. The most popular dates at the stand are the freshest ones: soft, pillowy and priced for a splurge. But I prefer the older, firmer dates–not just because they’re cheaper, but because they’re ideal for stuffing with cheese and wrapping in prosciutto.

I’m a sucker for salty-sweet things, and these scratch my itch every time. There’s nothing quite like tangy cheese, sugary fruit and fatty, salty ham all mashed into one perfectly-sized bite. They’re quick to put together–if you don’t mind a bit of assembly-line work–and make the perfect entrance at a party. Give me one or two of these morsels and a glass of dry rose wine, and I’m a happy girl.

Most stuffed dates in the world have goat cheese inside them. This is where I push away from tradition. I adore goat cheese, but it’s just not my favorite date filling–it’s too soft and malleable, no contrast at all against the gooey stickiness of the fruit. Instead, I like to use cubes of Parmesan or another firm, aged cheese: the sharpness cuts right through through the sweetness of the dates, but the cheese still has enough chew to stand up to the fruit around it. And then, of course, aged cheese is a natural partner for the thin layer of prosciutto holding everything together.

These are delicious just-assembled, at room temperature. In the sweltering height of summer, there’s no need to do anything more. But if you can stand to, try running them under the broiler until the cheese melts and the ham starts to shrink in on itself. At room temperature, the dates are subtle and layered; warmed through, they’re butter-rich and decadent. Your call.

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Sriracha-buttered shrimp

Jet lag is a cruel mistress. After two weeks on Eastern Standard Time, I’m having serious trouble clicking back over. For the past three days I’ve been crawling through the early evening, passing out as soon as it’s seemly, then bolting wide awake in the wee hours. It’s a grinding adjustment, as always, and I’ve been alternating between manic bursts of energy and limb-dragging bouts of inertia.

I missed my little kitchen terribly, but I haven’t had the follow-through to do more than the simplest of cooking projects. Like this one, borrowed from Bon Appetit: shrimp sauteed in Sriracha-spiked butter, with a splash of lemon and a shower of basil and mint. It’s spicy, but not overly so; the butter rounds out the rough edges of the hot sauce, and the herbs give it an unexpected sniff of sophistication. The whole thing comes together in a whopping 10 minutes–15, if you peel your own shrimp.

This is a dish that sauces itself. The shrimp as they cook give off a burst of liquid that mixes with the chili-infused butter and the lemon juice to form a rich lipstick-red slick in the bottom of the pan. I served the shrimp over soba noodles, to catch all of those wonderful fatty-spicy juices; the original recipe suggests a mound of steamed artichokes. I’m convinced this would be just as great over rice, quinoa, couscous, spaghetti squash, or any sauteed vegetable you like–just make sure you catch every last bit of sauce. I wished I had bread to swab out the pan.

Oh, and a confession: despite my overwhelming love of Sriracha, I had none on hand when I made this. So I used the dregs from a jar of chili garlic sauce, and the shrimp came out terrific. Darned pretty, too.

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