Monthly Archives: November 2013

Sweet potato latkes with sage

Over the past few months, I’ve been doing some occasional writing for CASE Magazine. My latest piece went up today, and it’s about a topic that’s on all of my loved ones’ minds this week month year: Thanksgivukkah.

That’s right, folks. For the first time in well over 100 years, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are coinciding. Over at CASE, I discuss the ways that Thanksgiving and Hanukkah make sense as a mash-up, and then again don’t: how the traditions, history, and cultural significance push and pull at each other in slightly unsettling ways. But this here is a food blog. And everyone knows that the real buzz around Thanksgivukkah is the food. So let’s talk turkey (heh heh).

If there’s any foodstuff that perfectly represents the marriage of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, it’s the sweet potato latke. This is Hanukkah form meets Thanksgiving substance: shredded sweet potato and diced onion, squeezed as dry as possible, bound together with starch and egg, and fried until crackly-golden on the outside. Because sweet potatoes are less starchy than ordinary potatoes, they make for a softer, slightly chewier latke. The flavor is wonderful, with shades of sweetness from the potatoes and onions. I add a healthy dose of fresh sage, deep and musky and slightly bitter, which really takes these from good to soooooo good.

Because of the less-starchy sweet potatoes, these latkes will likely need a bit more binder than the ordinary potato kind, and you have choices for what to use. If you want the familiar crackery flavor of a traditional latke, use matzo meal; if you want plain old binding power, use all-purpose flour; and if you want to keep things gluten-free, use cornstarch. Whatever you use, though, keep in mind that the best latkes are made by feel, not by strict measurement. My mother never uses a recipe to make latkes–she just mixes and adjusts until the mixture holds together enough to fry. The proportions below are a start, but feel free to use more or less egg, and more or less binder, if needed. It’s always a good idea to fry a teeny test latke first–that way you can make sure the mixture hangs together, and taste for salt and pepper and sage. After that, get to frying. There’s a crazy mash-up holiday to celebrate.

sweet potato latke

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Turmeric ginger tea

Last week I had a nasty little cold. It didn’t last especially long, but it knocked me flat for a good solid two days. Well, not quite flat–I worked from home, and found myself juggling conference calls for hours on end. It’s a bit hard to come across as professional when you’re muting your phone every couple minutes for a coughing fit.

When it comes to colds, I’m very much of the “tough it out” school. I’m leery of medicating myself, so I stick to hot fluids and zinc. But after about my third conference call in a row, with a scraping dry cough that just would not quit, and no chicken broth in the house, I decided it was time for a real restorative. So I hit up the Internet for ideas and went rattling through my kitchen cupboards and fridge, hoping to stumble on a concoction that would at least help me get through the rest of the day.

This tea was actually the second thing I tried (the first, which involved flaxseeds, turned out kind of snotlike and had to be thrown away). The base of the tea is a paste made of honey, turmeric, and ground ginger; it’s pungent stuff, a deep yellow-brown color, the kind of color I could imagine in a very chic trenchcoat. I whisked it all up in a cute little jar, and slipped it onto a pantry shelf with my other boxes and tins of tea. A bare spoonful stirred into some hot water, with a squeeze of lemon and a grinding of pepper, turned out to be just the wake-up call my body needed. Within half an hour, I noticed that my coughs were less frequent and more productive; after several hours, when I started feeling nasty again, I made another mug of tea and went to bed. In the morning I could already feel my chest clearing out.

There’s a lot going on here. Between the anti-inflammatory turmeric (which the black pepper helps the body absorb), the cough-suppressing honey, the stomach-soothing ginger, and the vitamin C-rich lemon, this stuff packs a punch. It definitely tastes like a tonic, but in a pleasant way: earthy and slightly bitter, sharp and spicy, sweet and tangy. A little of the concentrate goes a long way, so even the small amount I made is likely to last through the New Year. I’ll be using this all through the winter to ward off colds–or, at the very least, help soothe myself once they take hold.

turmeric ginger tea

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Whole wheat banana bread

My office shares a small kitchen with the other offices on our floor. It’s a tiny but magical place, where drinks and snacks and sandwich fixings are free, plentiful, and replenished every week. There are always several different kinds of fresh fruit, including a basket of bananas. Recently, I started noticing something: even if there are old spotty bananas left on Friday afternoon, the basket is always filled with flawless yellow bananas come Monday morning. So where do the Friday bananas go?

In the compost bin, that’s where. Every week, the ugly but still perfectly edible bananas are thrown out to make way for the pretty new ones. I found this out myself on a recent Monday, when the admin who normally stocks the kitchen was a little late making the rounds. I went into the kitchen to turn on the electric kettle, and there was a bunch of brown bananas in the basket. I came back in two minutes later for my tea, and they were in the bin.

Well, no more. I am the banana rescuer. Whenever there are leftover bananas on Friday, I’ve started bundling them up and taking them home with me. Some of them get eaten as-is, but the majority get tossed in the freezer, peel and all, for a day when I feel like making banana bread.

There are approximately 2.6 bazillion banana bread recipes in the universe. I’m not pretending to break new ground here. But I have learned, from hard experience, that there are two things that make for really good banana bread: use the squishiest, ripest bananas you can find, and a lot of them. When I bring my already-splotchy bananas home from the office, I’ll leave them in a paper bag over the weekend, until their peels are almost completely brown, before freezing them. My friend Shaw swears that the best banana bread he ever made was with a bunch of forgotten bananas that were so ripe, their skins turned black and they started to ferment. Shaw also doubles the amount of banana in any banana bread recipe; I don’t go quite to his extreme, but I’ve found that using 5 bananas in a recipe that calls for 4 only makes it better.

The benefit of using so many ripe bananas is that you can then dial way back on the added sugar. Over the past couple years, I’ve found myself wanting less and less sweetness in my baked goods, and using pungently sugary bananas is a great way to compensate. To use up my most recent banana windfall, I made two banana loaves: a whole wheat loaf sweetened with just a touch of maple syrup, and a chocolate loaf fortified with cocoa and sweetened with brown sugar. I was lazy about mixing, so that the breads came out with large yellow pockets of banana throughout. I didn’t have a problem with this, but if you do, just mash your bananas into oblivion.

banana bread - maple and chocolate

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Pasta with mizithra and garlic

This is the story of the oddest pasta dish I’ve ever made.

Over the summer, Sam and I took a trip up to Portland and Seattle. While we were in Seattle, we went out to dinner with some friends at a Greek restaurant in the Ballard neighborhood, called Plaka Estiatorio. It was a stunning meal–perfectly plump dolmas, crisp and sprightly Greek salad, crunchy fried smelts with their fishy little heads still on, fat orange mussels as big as my thumb. But the dish that really blew us all away was something the menu called Yannis Makaronia.

It arrived piled high in a bowl, with little fuss and less explanation: a tangled mass of spaghetti, each strand lightly coated with crisp brown flecks. The flavors were quite subtle–it was as if the pasta itself were somehow caramelized–but whatever was clinging to the pasta gave it texture, a kind of prickly resistance that felt wonderful on the tongue. It was, as Sam said, “dusted” instead of sauced. We ate and ate until the bowl was empty, and then chattered at each other, trying to figure out exactly we’d just eaten.

As we finished eating, the owner–a twinkly-eyed, gray-haired fellow named Yannis–came over to our table. He sat with us, told jokes, explained where the ingredients in our meal had come from, gave us straws and passed around the mussel bowl so we could drink the aromatic broth. Finally one of us–I think it was our friend Hilary–got up the nerve to ask just what was in that extraordinary pasta. He grinned proudly, sat down, and told us a story.

mizithra pasta 2

He’d first eaten this pasta, he told us, at a restaurant in Athens. He was so impressed that he walked straight into the kitchen and persuaded the chef to show him how to make it. Once he returned to Seattle, he began making it for himself, for lunch, to eat while he was working. One day he brought his lunch out into the dining area and sat down at the bar to eat. A customer asked him about it, and then another, and then another, and before long he was offering tastes to all and sundry. It was a huge hit, and that day he added it to the menu as a special. He had no idea what to call it, so he immodestly named it after himself: Yannis Makaronia. Before long, it became so popular that he promoted it to the regular dinner menu.

Wow, we said. That’s amazing. But how on earth do you make it? He sighed indulgently, leaned forward in his chair as if preparing to give a lesson, and explained:

“You take olive oil, extra virgin olive oil, and burn it. Then you take mizithra–you know mizithra? It is a cheese, a Greek cheese. You take it, and you grate it very small. You put that in the pan, with garlic, and you cook it until it turns brown. Then you mix with pasta. That’s it.”

We hung on his every word. Somewhere in that beautifully odd description was the secret to Yannis Makaronia. It seemed to violate every basic cooking principle I knew–burn olive oil? brown garlic? cook grated cheese directly in a hot pan?–and yet he explained it so matter-of-factly, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. I had no idea how I might replicate his signature dish at home, but I suspected that it all hinged on the cheese: mizithra. And, as it turns out, I was right.

mizithra

As soon as I got home, I started researching. Mizithra (sometimes spelled myzithra) is an unpasteurized goat or sheep cheese. It’s made from whey and then aged with salt, becoming hard, white, and nearly as solid as styrofoam. The flavor is very similar to feta, sharp and salty and animal-funky. And mizithra also shares another quality with feta, a quality that makes Yannis Makaronia possible: it doesn’t melt. It browns. It caramelizes.

After a little searching, I found mizithra at Whole Foods, and also at a local specialty cheese shop. I brought home a hunk of cheese, and set about making the pasta just the way Yannis explained. I minced the garlic and grated the cheese, boiled water and cooked the spaghetti. I heated the oil just until the faintest plumes of smoke came off the surface, then dumped in the garlic and cheese and stirred like crazy. It felt so wrong. So weird. So completely counterintuitive. But it worked. It browned like he said it would. It coated the pasta like he said it would. The whole thing came together in less time than it took to grate the cheese. Doggone it, it worked.

In fact, that first time, I was too timid. I didn’t scorch the cheese enough, and the flavor was anemic. The next time I tried it, I made sure to cook the cheese to an even caramel-brown before adding the spaghetti. In less than 15 minutes, I had a bowl of glistening dark-flecked pasta, eerily reminiscent of the one we demolished in Seattle.

Sam says he could eat nothing but this pasta, all day long. I actually like it better as a side dish, served with an assortment of brightly-flavored Greek dishes, the way we ate it in Seattle. And here’s another unexpected and un-pasta-like thing about it: it tastes better at room temperature than it does warm. Every time I make it, I taste it straight from the pan, and am underwhelmed; but after 5 or 10 minutes on a plate, it’s difficult to stop eating it.

So if you’re in Seattle, go visit Yannis and eat his Makaronia. If you’re not, get some mizithra and make it at home. Either way, you’ll never look at a bag of spaghetti the same way again.

mizithra pasta

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