Monthly Archives: February 2013

Manhattan lox chowder

My boyfriend doesn’t like bivalves. Clams, mussels, oysters–he thinks they’re strange and unpleasant to eat. When we order paella at a restaurant, he carefully picks out every nugget of meat and places them all on my plate. He’s suspicious of cioppino, and bouillabaisse, and pretty much everything else that’s served with a cluster of shells poking out. And he has never in his life eaten clam chowder.

I, on the other hand, have been known to eat a pot of steamed clams for dinner and then drink the leftover liquid with a straw. (Don’t judge–you know you’ve always wanted to.) So this aversion of his is perplexing to me. But I love him, so I’m willing to play along. Which means getting creative sometimes. Like the day I started craving a good seafood chowder, and decided to make it with something he’d be happy to eat.

I love a good New England clam chowder as much as the next guy–creamy and gloopy and salty and rich, studded with potatoes and chewy nuggets of clam. But I was home, cooking for me and mine, and a whole lot of cream and starch didn’t sound fun. So I went with a Manhattan-style chowder, tomato-based and chunky with vegetables. And, inspired by a recipe in the Grey Lady herself, I decided to go full-on New York and flavor the chowder with lox instead of clams.

Once that happened, a whole cascade of tweaks presented themselves: red onion, dill, a scattering of capers and a little spike of horseradish. As it turns out, smoked salmon isn’t a perfect substitute for clams in a chowder, but it’s flavorful and fun in its own right. Exposed to a brief simmer, the fish turns firm and flaky, and the caper-horseradish spike at the end helps boost the flavor of the soup beyond the usual tomato-herb thing.

Because this is San Francisco, and bread bowls are our birthright, I hollowed out a couple little sourdough loaves and spooned the soup into the hollows. We gobbled every last morsel of chowder with our spoons, then tore the crispy-soggy bowls apart with our hands. There’s really nothing better than that.

lox chowder

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Masoor dal tadka

I remember the first time I had homemade dal. It was my friend Maya’s recipe, learned from her mom. I watched her make it, in a cramped and dingy dorm kitchen, shoulder-to-shoulder with two other friends chopping vegetables. It was blustery outside, and we had decided to give ourselves a break from disappointing dining hall food with a real home-cooked dinner. I’m sure we had other dishes–in fact, I’m sure I made one of the other dishes–but that dal stole the show. I’d never had anything like it: deeply and warmly spiced, flowing like soup but with a soft thickness to it. We ate it with rice, out of mismatched bowls with flimsy forks, sitting at a wobbly table under the sickly yellow lights of our dorm basement, and it was perfection.

I’ve tried making dal at home a couple of times since then, but it never ends up speaking to me the way that first bowl did. I have a tendency to over-spice and underseason, making dals that are aggressive but weirdly bland, and watery instead of souplike. For a while, I shifted my focus elsewhere. But then it got to be the doldrums of February, gray and nippy and generally dull, and suddenly I needed something spicy and fragrant and full of legumes. I needed dal, desperately, I realized one day on the train on the way home from work. So I turned to Mark Bittman–the man whose food I always want to eat–and found out something really cool.

It turns out, dal isn’t just as simple as cooking legumes with spices and hoping for the best. There’s a texture issue involved. Great dals–including the one Maya made, I’m pretty sure–are cooked and then whipped with a whisk, to break down some of the solids into starchy mush. The result is a half-pureed melange with exactly the soupy-smooth quality I remember from that dinner in college. Add that to a technique I’d already tried, making a fried onion and spice mixture called a tadka to stir in at the last minute, and you get really good dal.

This dal I cobbled together from Mark Bittman’s article rests on red lentils, which have become a staple in my pantry. I doubt this version is especially authentic, but it’s definitely flavorful, with sweet onions and smoky-crisp cumin seeds running all through it. It’s nice enough on its own, but extra-satisfying spooned over a bed of rice. And, if you have no rice in the house, it’s also delicious swirled into a bowl of plain salted oatmeal–something I just discovered tonight.

masoor dal tadka

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European hot chocolate

It’s Valentine’s Day. Time for the obligatory dark chocolate fix. I have just the thing.

I first encountered European-style hot chocolate on a cold July day in St. Petersburg, towards the end of my summer abroad there. Classes were done for the day, and I was wending my way back through downtown towards the dorms. It was the height of the White Nights, and Nevsky Prospekt was choked with tourists. I ducked down a side street, looking for a quiet spot to kill some time before dinner.

After a little wandering, I came across a rather sterile-looking cafe–obviously part of a chain. The decor was spare and oppressively beige, but it seemed inoffensive enough, and there was a long but briskly moving line of customers. I went in and scanned the menu for something warm and familiar-sounding. Bingo: горячий шоколад. Hot chocolate. I ordered and claimed a seat at the window.

I was expecting a big steaming mug of what we Americans call “hot chocolate,” but is really hot cocoa: light and milky and just the tiniest bit grainy, meant to be consumed in great desperate gulps. Instead, a surly girl in an apron came to my table and plunked down a tiny cup on a tiny saucer with a tiny spoon. In the cup was a thick espresso-colored elixir, quivering like pudding. When I took a sip, the chocolate clung to the rim and to my lips. The flavor was deeper and bolder than any hot cocoa I’d ever had. I sat at the window, lapping chocolate from the side of the cup as slowly as I could, until it was gone. And then I made it my mission to consume as much hot chocolate as possible before the summer ended.

In the years since, I’ve had really good European drinking chocolate only a handful of times, and never cheaply. Recently my friends and I stumbled across a hip new chocolate shop in the Mission district, where I had a barely-espresso-sized cup of drinking chocolate that was perfectly rich, bittersweet and elegant–and cost nearly $6. That spurred me to look for a homemade alternative, and I’m happy to report that European hot chocolate is dead simple to make. All it takes is whole milk, top-quality chocolate (I’m a Scharffen Berger girl, but use whatever you like), and a few focused minutes of whisking. Et voila, a decadent chocolate treat for four–which is especially convenient if, like me, you’re grappling with a Valentine’s Day that snuck up behind you and pounced.

european hot chocolate vday

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Country omelet

So far, it’s been an omelets-for-dinner kinda year.

Shortly before Christmas, I came home one day to a mass of ants hustling their way across my kitchen floor. They were fully fanned out, an ever-moving black army, and every time I blocked one point of access, they found another way in. I went on a cleaning spree, jarred and hid all my baking supplies, hid my honey bear in the fridge, laid down ant traps in every corner of my apartment. But in the middle of the night, when the mercury dropped near freezing, the ants would march right around the traps and back into my nice warm kitchen. It took over a month and a half to get rid of the infestation; I finally resorted to blanketing every flat surface in the kitchen with diatomaceous earth and leaving it untouched for two weeks.

Thus, for much of 2013 so far, my kitchen has been unusable–first swarming with ants, then blanketed with dead ants and dust. I could cook at Sam’s apartment on weekends, but not at all during the week. So I gave up on trying to feed myself well, reaching instead for crackers and frozen hot dogs and chicken tenders from the supermarket deli counter. And as it turns out, even when you’ve finally scrubbed and swept and vinegar-sprayed your kitchen back into service, the lure of processed foods is strong. I kept snacking instead of eating dinner, feeling increasingly salt-bloated and sugar-weighted and sick. Finally, about two weeks ago, I snapped myself out of it, marched myself down to the grocery store, and picked up a heavy bag’s worth of nourishing meal ingredients, to force myself to find something to do with them.

Of course, now that I’m back in the cooking swing, the holiday lull has worn off and I’m back to longer workdays and grumpier commutes. So the order of the day is stupid-simple meals. Sriracha shrimp with steamed broccoli. Veggie fried quinoa. And omelets. Lots and lots of omelets.

I’m picky about my omelets. I don’t like the fancy French ones, those piles of tiny fluffy egg-curds wrapped around themselves just so–they set off my scrambled-egg aversion something fierce. What I like is a good country-style omelet, hardly scrambled at all, a single springy egg-pillow with just a kiss of brown on the outside. Make a country omelet right, and you get a gorgeous progression of textures, from spongy outside to soft middle to creamy inside. You can fill an omelet with just about anything–it’s a great use-up for leftovers–but lately I’ve been on a straight-up cheddar cheese kick, with lots of black pepper on the eggs. Something about a mouthful of peppery egg and stringy-melted cheese is really hitting my comfort food spot these days. I suspect I’m not alone.

cheese omelet

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