Monthly Archives: April 2014

Quiche lorraine

It’s hard for me to admit this, but: I may have been wrong about bacon.

For the longest time, I was convinced I just didn’t like bacon. It started when I was a kid, after eating a strip or two at a hotel breakfast buffet and coming down with a tummyache later that day. It was too heavy and greasy for me, and the smoky fat coated my mouth for hours afterward. Over the years, my dislike morphed into an identity-defining quirk. I wasn’t just anybody; I was a convention-flouter, a foodie rebel, a weirdo. The Girl Who Didn’t Like Bacon. (My college roommate had a very hard time wrapping her head around this. Bacon is her favorite food. It was awkward for a while.)

But over the past few years, my solidly constructed Dislike of Bacon has cracked and chipped. The first breach came at a tasting event at Il Cane Rosso, where they passed around housemade pretzel bites anointed with mustard and just a hint of bacon fat. They were perfect bites, chewy and salty and just the tiniest bit smoky, and I still think impure thoughts about them sometimes. From then on, bacon started showing up in more and more appealing guises: wrapped around chestnuts at a fancy holiday party, crumbled into a brussels sprouts salad at one of Sam’s family gatherings, nestled between slices of bread at a charcuterie shop in Wellington, NZ.

I don’t think I’ll ever really love chomping down on a crispy slice of bacon. But when it comes to bacon as a flavor and texture enhancer, as part of a more complex and flavorful dish–dare I say it–I’m on board. And a couple weeks ago, I took the last step towards fully embracing bacon, by doing something I’d never done before: buying a big slab of it and cooking it up myself.

For my first-ever bacon-cooking attempt, I chose a classic: quiche Lorraine. It started out of necessity–I had milk, cream, and eggs that needed using up, and a pastry crust in the freezer. So it only seemed right to add bacon, leeks, and Gruyere cheese, and then to serve it to my friends with a vinegary green salad for a late Sunday brunch. As a reformed bacon-hater, I was shocked at how utterly delicious bacon, leeks, and cheese are together: smoky balancing sweet, salt balancing fat, hammy and crisp balancing tender and silky. This is the kind of indulgent brunch dish that’s perfect for impressing people. It’s French, it takes a while to make, and it demands high-quality meat, cheese, and eggs to really make it sing. But when it’s done right–and yes, that includes bacon–it’s spectacular.

quiche lorraine

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Arros negre (black paella)

Normally I’m not one for esoteric ingredients. Most of the time, I’ll go for fresh and familiar over strange and exotic. But there are exceptions to everything, and here’s one of them: I love squid ink. Madly. I’d never cooked with it until recently, but after making my first-ever squid ink paella, I’m completely and utterly smitten.

To my mind, there are few more intriguing foods than black paella. In Catalan it’s called “arros negre,” or black rice, and it’s really unlike any other rice dish you’re likely to encounter. Fleshy pieces of squid or cuttlefish are cooked deep into the rice, and then the whole thing is tinted black with a healthy dose of ink. Where an ordinary paella is bright, flashy, a riot of meats and vegetables, this is something else altogether: subtler, calmer, with a darker and richer flavor. The ink stains the outsides of the rice a deep grayish-black; the squid pieces relax into tender nuggets scattered through the rice. There’s a hint of tomato and pepper, and a little prick of smoked paprika, but the dish itself seems to murmur rather than shout.

So what does the squid ink add, exactly? I tend to think of it in the same way I do turmeric: its biggest draw is its dramatic color, but it also has a muted flavor of its own. Most descriptions will tell you that squid ink tastes, “briny,” or “like the sea,” which is entirely unhelpful. Clams and mussels taste “like the sea.” Good-quality fish tastes “like the sea.” Squid ink is more than that. It’s briny, yes, but it also has a slight iodine-like tang to it, a kind of dark rustiness. To me, the flavor is a little reminiscent of saffron, but heavier and just a wee bit saltier. It takes a fair amount of ink for that flavor to come through, and it suits rice and other starches particularly well, since they can robe themselves in it without competing for attention. I used a full tablespoon of ink in my paella, and it was not at all too much–in fact, I could have stood a bit more inkiness.

This is definitely something to make when you have people to impress, or an extravagant event to celebrate. Squid ink is expensive, but squid and rice are relatively cheap, so it’s easy to make a big pan of rice look more indulgent than it is. It’s also just as delicious at room temperature as it is warm, making it surprisingly low-impact for a multi-course affair. I made this as the main course for a tapas party, and was able to set it by with a towel over it while Sam and I prepped the rest of the food. And, of course, since Spanish rice dishes like this one must be eaten directly from the pan, you get to bring a heaping pan of gleaming black rice to the table and bask in all the oohs and ahhs.

black paella

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Dried peach and amaretto galette

For some reason, I’m extra-impatient for stone fruit season this year. Maybe it’s all the news of the drought; maybe I’ve just burned myself out snacking on apples all winter. But somehow, I’ve convinced myself that the peaches and plums and nectarines will be extra-delicious and extra-hard to get my fill of this year. So I’m missing them terribly.

But try as I might, I can’t make peaches appear at the markets out of sheer willpower. So when, a couple weeks ago, my friends and I started craving a warm fruit tart, we had to improvise a little. Fortunately, we were able to get our hands on some truly phenomenal dried peaches and nectarines. I could have tried simmering them in water to soften them up for baking, but then I had another idea. What if I cut up the fruit and soaked it in Amaretto for a while? Would that make them suitable for piling into a tart?

The answer, I’m happy to say, is a (qualified) yes. The peaches soaked up the sugary liqueur, taking on an intense sweet almond perfume. Just eating pieces out of the bowl was enough to make our eyes roll back in our heads. The fruit didn’t soften quite as much as I’d hoped, making the tart a little difficult to slice, and the exposed edges singed a bit in the heat of the oven. But really, given how improvised this was, those are small and mean quibbles. The combination of squishy, boozy fruit and crumbly pastry was incredibly satisfying, and Sam said he thought the burned bits on the fruit were the best part, since they cut the sweetness with a bit of caramel-bitterness.

Is this ever going to replace a juicy, in-season peach tart? No, but it’s incredibly delicious in its own right. It’s a decidedly grown-up dessert, elegant and boozy without being too fussy. And as something easy and slapdash–the kind of thing you can rustle up from the pantry in a couple of hours and serve to a crowd–it’s mighty fine. I don’t even think you need whipped cream or ice cream here. Let the fruit and the liqueur do the talking.

dried peach amaretto tart 1

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Vegetable and goat cheese lasagna

This has been a bonanza year for people who like to complain about the weather. Between the drought in California and the…well, not-drought everywhere else, it’s been a strange, unsettling, and dangerous stretch of time. But–and I may be jinxing myself by saying this–it seems like things are starting to return to a sort of normal. At least, it’s been somewhat rainy in NorCal, the way it should be in spring.

This is the time of year when burly, rib-sticking meals are giving way to lighter, livelier fare. And for a rainy weekend afternoon, I think a vegetable lasagna is the perfect kitchen project. It’s got lots of little steps, none of which is particularly demanding: lots of chopping, some stirring, some simmering. It involves a bit of construction, layering sauce and pasta and cheese in a pan, but there’s no reason to worry about making it pretty or neat–in fact, the chunkier and more homemade it looks, the better. And it includes some of that precious oven-waiting time that’s so lovely on a wet day, when you can sit at the kitchen table with a mug of tea and enjoy the fact that the rain is outside and you’re inside.

The other great thing about a veggie lasagna for spring is how flexible it is. Any combination of in-season and in-fridge vegetables will work beautifully, as long as they’re cooked tender but not mushy before layering. The lasagna can be made as rich or as restrictive as you like, depending on how much cheese and pasta you work into it. I like a tomato-based sauce, personally, but spring vegetables take perfectly well to a cream or cheese sauce as well–or you could use both red and white sauces, if you’re in particularly ambitious spirits. The only thing I think is required is a generous shower of Parm on top.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I went over to my parents’ house and puttered around for a few hours making a lasagna. I decided not to try for anything particularly seasonal, and just to go with the vegetables that seemed appealing and easy: mushrooms, carrots, bell peppers, zucchini, and broccoli. I also mixed in a fat log of goat cheese with the more traditional ricotta, figuring that the animal tang of it would do nicely to perk up the vegetables. It was a very good decision: the sharp goat cheese and milky ricotta tasted so good together that I couldn’t stop dipping my spoon into the mixing bowl. The lasagna came together just as I’d hoped, with tender vegetables, a bubbling tomato sauce, and that familiar ricotta graininess. As a one-pan meal on a gloomy day, it was just about perfect.

veggie goat cheese lasagna

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Lentil sloppy joes

I may not be a vegetarian, but I sure act like one sometimes. Case in point: I’m probably the only meat-eater I know who goes to Umami Burger, scans the menu, and says, “I’ll have the lentils.”

But in my defense, these weren’t just any lentils. They were lentil sloppy joes, which is one of those ideas that I’m now kicking myself for not coming up with years ago. The version I had at Umami Burger was bound in a thick sauce of tomato and mushrooms, and piled high with cheddar cheese, jalapeno slices, fried onions, and sour cream. The lentils were cooked into a slightly cobbled mush, far less sloppy than I would have expected, and nicely flavored with sweet-and-sour. It was an absurdly satisfying sandwich, and not just because of the MSG. So, of course, I set out to make it at home.

This is my take on lentil sloppy joes, and I think it’s wildly successful. I kept the lentils a bit on the nubbly side, to give the filling some meaty texture. The sauce is sharpened with vinegar and sweetened with molasses, for an instantly familiar sweet-and-sour sloppy joe impact. I also ratcheted up the spices, because lentils can handle them, and cooked the mixture down until it was cohesive but not sludgy. The result is a roughly textured, deeply flavored sandwich filling that holds together just long enough to get a bite to your mouth, then collapses onto the plate.

As with any sloppy joe, these can handle just about any topping you like. But I would highly, highly recommend doing what I did when I made this for my family, and adding some pickled jalapeno rings. The sour crunch and slow-moving heat of the jalapenos added a wonderful dimension to the sandwich, and cut through some of the starchy richness of the lentils. We ate our sandwiches on pumpkin buns, which was a very smart decision: my brother pointed out that the sweetness of the bread and the spiciness of the lentils gave the whole thing a chili-and-cornbread vibe. But really, any kind of bun will work, as long as you’re prepared to get a little sloppy.

lentil sloppy joe fingers

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