Monthly Archives: September 2012

Savory cheese-herb granola

Let me introduce you to the most addictive snack to come out of my kitchen thus far: savory granola. Sounds funky, looks goofy, tastes like a cheese-and-herb cracker with the volume turned to 11. For a salty-crunch addict like me, this is daydreamy stuff.

I love finding out that sweet foods don’t have to be sweet. I held off on making granola for a long time, because the sheer amount of liquid sweetener needed to bind it together made my gut tangle uneasily. Then the all-knowing internet offered up the suggestion to replace the sweetener with egg white, and the sugary-chewy notes with cheesy-herbal ones. I gave it a whirl, and came away with a cookie sheet full of crisp, fragrant, salty-savory oats and nuts, coated oh-so-delicately with Italian seasoning and Parmesan cheese. The smell alone made my chilly little apartment a little cuddlier and warmer.

Of course, I stuck my paws in as soon as it came out of the oven. At first, there was a shiver of cognitive dissonance, as I teased out the flavors of hazelnut and pecan and almond and oat from the cracker-like seasoning. But it didn’t take long for my brain to register something good, and I was hooked. It’s a little hard to believe how healthy this stuff is, because it tastes like a total cheesy-snack indulgence.

This granola is looser and crumblier than its sweet cousins, making it more like confetti than clusters. I imagine it would be a terrific addition to a cheese board or an hors d’oeuvres spread. It makes a glorious gluten-free alternative to croutons, especially on top of a rich, creamy soup. I haven’t tried it with tomato soup yet, but I expect the clouds will open and beams of light will descend. You could use this instead of seasoned breadcrumbs on top of a gratin or casserole; for breakfast, you could sprinkle it over baked or fried eggs, or mix it with yogurt. And when it comes to out-of-hand nibbling, it might be the best secret office snack in existence. I can slip a jar into a desk drawer, shake out a handful or two of granola in the morning, and go happily for hours without a rumble of hunger. That’s pretty special.

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Roasted garlic, cauliflower, and red lentil soup

Summer is in its last flush here in California. The days are warm and clear and oh-so-slightly breezy. The farmer’s markets are still overflowing with stone fruit and tomatoes. The figs on my landlord’s trees are stubbornly waiting to ripen until the temperature really drops. But night is falling earlier now; the equinox glided by this weekend, and it’s time to face facts. Fall is creeping in.

As always, I’m half-sheepishly mourning the long hours of daylight. But I’m also excited, because fall weather means fall food. And right now, as the nights get chillier, fall food means soup. My little Ikea soup pot has been sitting on the stove all summer, quietly gathering grease spatters whenever I got up the gumption to stir-fry something. Last week I brought that poor patient soup pot back into commission, with my first soup of the season. And it’s a good one: a smooth, lightly spiced puree of cauliflower, red lentils, and roasted garlic.

This is a light-yet-lush soup, built on layers of sweetness: sharp-sweet onion, sugary-sweet apple, cabbagey-sweet cauliflower, and syrupy-sweet roasted garlic. The red lentils give a hint of body and an appealing earthiness, and a hint of cumin makes the whole thing smoky and slightly exotic. I decided at the last minute to add a big dash of turmeric–cauliflower and turmeric are great friends, and the spice played up the color of the lentils, taking the soup from muted gold to dandelion-yellow. It’s not absolutely necessary, but I thought it was a nice touch.

I especially like that there’s no dairy or starch in this soup, because the whole thing is at once comforting and nearly weightless. For a pureed soup, it’s a little on the thin-and-fuzzy side, which I happen to like. You could certainly add a small peeled and diced potato along with the lentils, or finish the soup with a drizzle of cream. I tried a dollop of yogurt in the picture below, but didn’t end up loving it–the richness of the yogurt masked the subtle sweetness of the vegetables, and blunted the spices. Call me a purist, but I prefer my soup as-is.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the lovely crispy-looking garnish on top …tune in next time for that story.

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Spiced chocolate date cake

So…this happened.

In retrospect, I should have known better than to try and turn that cake out right away–any recipe that advertises itself as sticky, gooey, and moist all at once is probably too delicate for the kind of manhandling I do in my kitchen. It was still gooey in the middle, and even as I upturned the pan to turn it out I could feel it sag ever-so-slightly into my palm. I should have just let it alone to cool in the pan, but I was hungry and jittery and I had a barbecue to get to. So I slid the cake out, and it came apart in my hands.

I dropped the two crumbling halves as gently as I could on the table, and felt myself deflate. I had drooled over this recipe for days, growing increasingly desperate to try a cake founded on chocolate and mortared with dates. I had followed the instructions meticulously, making only a couple substitutions I knew were foolproof. I sat for an hour, increasingly lightheaded and giddy from the deep syrupy-chocolate aroma wafting from the oven. My friends were going to be witness to my failure. I had been so close.

The cake sat, obstinately, unapologetically, growing limp on the table. Sam came up behind me. “Can I taste it, at least?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said dully.

He pinched off a piece from the edge of the jagged gap in the middle. “Wow. This is really good.”

“Really?” I reached out and took a piece. He was right–it was really good. Not quite a spice cake, not quite a chocolate cake, but something in between: dark and rich and almost creamy in the center, with a thrum of honey-sweetness from the dates. I took another bite, and then another. Maybe my friends would forgive me for the craggy, half-crumbled mess I was about to bring them.

They totally did. And demanded that I make this cake again. Next time, I’m putting on my kid gloves.

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Pork fried quinoa

L’shana tova, everybody!

It’s Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. If there was ever a time for reflection and renewal, this is it. Today is the day we eat apple slices dipped in honey, so that the rest of the year may be sweet. I love this day–it’s quiet and suffused with warmth, and even for a severely lapsed Jew like me, it offers an opportunity to burrow down inside and find the parts of me that are ready for change.

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, but I do like the idea of a surface wiped clean, ready for another year of markings. So that’s what today is for me–an opportunity to wash away last year’s labels and lines, and write myself some new ones. This year feels different, because I’m finally feeling out what my body needs and wants, and I feel like I can shape a year around that. I can eat more of the foods I love that nourish rather than drain me; I can get my rusty limbs moving, a little more every day.

So here’s a recipe for the day. Not traditional by any means–my mother points out that writing about pork fried anything on a Jewish High Holy Day is the height of irony–but still somehow fitting. I’ve been meaning for years to eat more quinoa–I love the pebbly nuttiness of it, and it always makes me feel whole and warm and satisfied. So this year, I’ll be eating more quinoa, in simple ways that make me feel at home. And one of my favorite homey preparations–fried rice–turns out to be a perfect vehicle for quinoa too.

This is fried grains my way: lighter and less greasy than familiar fried rice, with ham and vegetables and a quartet of fridge-standby sauces to lend depth and a little stickiness. As with so many things, this is tasty enough on its own, but downright transcendent with a runny-poached egg on top. If today’s intentions hold, I’ll be eating a lot more of this stuff in the future. I’m excited.

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Up the hill

Today I walked straight up a hill without stopping.

I mean that quite literally. It was a big hill–one of those storied San Francisco slopes, folding crazily upwards from the bay. I started in the Financial District and walked half a mile up through Chinatown, just to see if I could. It was far easier than I expected–my ankles didn’t creak, my calves didn’t seize, and my heart, though beating fast, stayed civilly where it is instead of pounding through my chest.

A year ago, that walk was different. I tried it, at about the same time of day, and for the same reason–just to see if I could. I had to stop every half a block and lean against the nearest wall until my calf muscles unclenched and stopped screaming for a moment. I turned downhill a full block before I’d intended to, and even then my breathing was ragged and gulping all the way back down to Market Street. It was painful, and embarrassing, and exactly what I had expected to happen–because I’d never thought that was anything other than normal for me.

I’m learning to walk without pain, for the first time in my life. I’ve had tendon and joint issues that have translated to a stiff, stumbling, blister-raising gait. Through a potent cocktail of physical therapy and diligent practice, I’m realizing what normal feels like. Not normal with an ache to it, like I’d had before; real, calm, levelheaded normal, where I know what my limitations are and how far I can tamp them down. I’m learning how to enjoy exercise–how to bask in the afterglow of a brisk walk or a head-spinning dance session or a beautiful mist-veiled hike in the hills.

I know this is a food blog, but when I talk about health and wholeness I tend to forget about the stuff outside the kitchen. There’s no grand lesson here, no tidy bow, just me being excited that I can walk up a hill without intense pain for the first time. This feels like a huge step in my continuing climb towards wellness, and the beginning of a shift that I’m sure runs deeper than I can imagine right now.

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Nectarine galette with rye crust

I made my first galette over the weekend. I’m quite proud, actually–I’m usually a bit of a pie wimp, and this was my first foray in a long time into the realm of flaky dough and bubbling fruit juices. As far as pie-type desserts go, I can now say from experience that a galette is an unfussy cook’s best friend: there’s only one crust to roll out, no pan-lining or crimping or pre-baking, and even the roughest and most haphazard attempts at folding the dough over the fruit end up looking like you meant to do it that way.

The real revelation here is the pie dough, a rye flour-inflected recipe I pinched from 101 Cookbooks. I love the old-country tang of good rye bread, and the notion of working that flavor into a pie dough was irresistible. Beyond the addition of the rye flour, the dough is pretty classic–flour, butter, salt, and cold fizzy water to keep the whole thing light. It was a dream to work with, rolling without complaint and baking to perfect crisp-flakiness. I could easily see this as the lid for a pot pie, or the wrapper for a batch of piroshki, and certainly as the base for any number of sweet or savory pies. This will be my go-to crust in future, no question.

As for what to wrap the dough around, there wasn’t much contest: nectarines are in their element in California right now, and few things make me weak at the knees like a sweet white nectarine. I found the perfect ones at the farmer’s market, fat and smooth and just coming into sugary ripeness. I cut the nectarines into wedges–more than a few of which disappeared along the way–and nestled them into the center of that simple gorgeous rye dough, on a bed of almond meal and flour to catch any oozing juices. Within ten minutes of putting it in the oven, the whole kitchen smelled like a little corner of summer: hot collapsing fruit and browning sugar and butter. It was the kind of dessert that makes you a little mournful when it’s gone, longing for just a little taste more of shattering crust and slumped fruit.

This was my first galette, and the first of many. I’m already planning my next one–perhaps something savory as we slide into fall. I’ll keep you updated.

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Red snapper en papillote

Cooking en papillote–in butterfly. It’s a lovely French term for a lovely French technique: wrapping food and flavorings in packets of parchment paper and baking them at high heat for a relatively brief time. The paper is cut into folded shapes like legless butterflies or enormous Valentines, then folded over a mound of raw ingredients and gently crimped around the edges. Then it goes into the oven, where the bits and pieces inside release their juices into fragrant vapor, trapped inside the packet, and delicately steam themselves. The process of cutting and assembling the packets is a bit elaborate, but they steam in a matter of minutes.

Vegetables and poultry take well to this method, I’m told, but every source I look at says the same: en papillote cooking really sings with fish. For sturdy, flaky fillets that can easily go from sashimi to sawdust with a little too much heat, cooking in parchment is a foolproof way to keep them glistening and pearly with juice. Because they’re steaming in their own juices, these fish fillets come out profoundly more flavorful than they went in. Streamlined seasonings stay subtle, not bland; aggressive ingredients get infused into the flesh of the fish.

I tried this for the first time this weekend, for my father’s birthday dinner, with red snapper fillets on a bed of leeks and fennel. I deliberately kept the seasoning simple–lemon, thyme, a splash of wine and a thin ribbon of oil–and was rewarded with a meal that smelled like a restaurant and tasted like the sea. I’ve never been much for mild white fish like snapper, precisely because I thought it had no flavor–but it does, sweet and subtle and easily masked otherwise. The most challenging part of the whole process was gauging doneness; I’m not usually comfortable going on cooking times alone, but in this case it’s more or less required.

I’ve posted an approximate recipe for what I did below, but this is really just a guideline to be traced. Any combination of fish, shellfish, vegetables, aromatics, herbs and spices, stacked together with a gloss of fat and a little extra liquid, will work beautifully in butterfly. Next time I’m thinking maybe salmon, with a puttanesca-type mixture of cherry tomatoes, olives, and capers. Or maybe Asian-style soy-steamed trout. I’ll keep you posted.

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