5th Annual Cheesemonger Invitational

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Sunday night, I went to a cold storage warehouse in Queens to the 5th Annual Cheesemonger Invitational, a battle of skill pitting monger against monger in a championship bout – and raucous cheese party. Forty six cheesemongers spent the previous two days in the preliminary stage of competition, judged on their knowledge, skill, taste, and charisma. Sunday night, the mongers presented their “perfect bites” to the public and the finalists (Top 11 this year) battled for the title. And welcoming us all to  The Cheesemongers Invitational this year was an adult man in a cow suit, Mr Moo aka Adam Moscowitz, the tournament’s fearless organizer.

Inside the warehouse, I walked a gauntlet of cheesemongers presenting their perfect bites. I had a clear favorite: Leslie Uhl from Di Bruno Bro’s in Philadelphia’s The Full Cremonty, a bright, fresh concoction of La Quercia, Thai Basil, Whipped Prosciutto, Key Lime Pie, Cremont. I wasn’t surprised when she was called as one of the top three best bites.

The competition rolled through rounds of cutting to weight, wrapping, “selling” the monger’s favorite cheese, a beer pairing, and finally the winner was announced: the first NYC based female monger to win, Emily Acosta of Eataly.

Seeing the group of cheesemongers who were competing, the cheesemakers and writers and business owners attending the competition reinforced for me my belief in the importance of those whose role is to match-make between food and the inexperienced eater. In the hands of a snob, cheese becomes  the apocryphal vol au vent of larks tongue, inaccessible and unappealing; in the hands of a pedant, it becomes boring. But cheese making and selling is hard, dirty work, work that is often fueled by passion above profit, for love of the fascinating world of milk and microbes and cows, goats, sheep, of grass and earth.

For me cheese is the “everyman” artisan food in large part because of the kind of people who make and sell cheese. I don’t want to generalize, but wine can have an intimidating aura surrounding it, walls reinforced by the vocabulary and cost. Cheese people may take their work seriously, but they seldom take themselves too seriously. They tend to be generous people, knowing that what they do enhances and is enhanced by the good work of other artisans.

I also see cheese as the food to help a larger swathe of the public appreciate why a slower food system is worth supporting. It has been exciting to see the growth and refinement in the craft and business of cheese that has taken place in the last few decades; new creameries are coming to market all the time and cheesemakers are refining their skills to produce world-class cheeses that can hold their own against anything from Europe.

The people who sell wine, cheese, or any new food to people are the ambassadors for that product and as such, their approach to neophytes can either open or close the door on exploration. During a trip to Europe in my early twenties, I visited a cheese shop in Rotterdam. I had read  David Lansing’s Confessions of a Cheese Smuggler describing the raunchy sticky glory that is Epoisses de Bourgogne. I really wanted to try it in Europe where it is made with raw milk but being young and on a tight budget and a little intimidated by the Euro I was a little afraid to ask for it lest I accidentally find myself the unwitting buyer of  a ruinously expensive piece of cheese. The shop owner greeted me graciously, asked if I needed help as I wandered around looking at the bounty in the glittering cases. I demurred, but a few minutes later, she persisted, asking if I’d like to try anything. I said I was interested in Epoisses but didn’t know how much it cost. As any good monger slash psychologist would do, she read my unease and said emphatically “Nothing is too expensive to taste.” Looking back, and knowing what I now do about which cheeses are usually sold as whole pieces, I don’t know if she already had a wheel of Epoisses open to sample already or if she broke one open for me, but she gave me a taste of the cheese and then sold me a quarter of it. It was a generous gesture and an approach to the timid eater that has informed nearly every interaction I’ve had with a nervous customer since then.

Here is why I think cheese and cheesemongers are important: cheese reflects certain stages of growth in a culture. Great cheese happens when a society is sufficiently established to advance from a subsistance agricultural existence to an agrarian model with the resources of time and money to support culinary arts. In the case of American artisan or farmstead cheese, it has been formed by advancement from subsistence to industrial and then the fortunate (and progressive)retreat to a “slower food” approach from the goal of peak efficiency that industry forces upon food producers. We’ve seen the shortcomings in an industrial model of food production and have begun the work of establishing a support level for food production that takes longer, is less of a cost/benefit decision, and is more of an investment of time into the quality of the product. It’s a progression that is easy to see in the maturity of American wine making- from the rustic wines of early American vineyards to the jug wine mechanically harvested giants of the mid to late 20th century and now the plethora of smaller grower producer wineries that are emphasizing terroir and healthy ground and the deft touch of the maker’s hands. Cheese has followed a similar route. And with smaller farmers struggling to survive in a bulk commodity crop economy, cheese is a value addition to a raw product that creates more profit for daily farmers who may not be making ends meet selling milk to dairies at constantly fluctuating prices determined by the commodity futures markets.

American palates have matured too. I remember my grandmother telling me that she had never tasted pasta during her childhood in Montgomery Alabama or her college years in Philadelphia until her husband and brothers returned from Europe after WW2. Food writers like Julia Child and Marcella Hazan fueled American’s curiosity taste for European food and created a market for imported cheeses, wine, olive oil, charcuterie, and daily baked bread. American food began to develop an identity, an aesthetic, a rich broth created by the waves of immigration and the growing ability of middle class Americans to travel. And the rise in awareness of the “slow, local, and sustainable” model of food production has made us more conscious of where and how our food is made.

The Cheesemonger Invitational was a lot of fun. I got to taste a lot of great cheese. but more than a great party, it was a glimpse into the future of cheese and I’ve gotta say, the future looks bright.

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Okra, the Finale: Fried Okra

Well, I’ve pretty much laid bare my okra loving soul to y’all over the past three posts. It’s not an exhaustive treatment of the topic, but I’m hoping it’s enough to get some of you over the fence and back into the fold.

It wouldn’t really be an okra series without talking about probably the most popular way to cook okra: I’m talking fried, baby!  It’s the first thing most people think of when you say “okra”But never fear, I am not without sturdy opinions on the topic. Let’s talk technique.

First, I think I’ve mentioned before that I am neither a frequent nor enthusiastic deep fryer.I’ve never had a kitchen with a ventilation system that could stand up to it and that day old fried smell is enough to stop me. I like to pan fry okra about waist deep in hot oil. It’s quick and effective and it suits my dredge approach to the okra’s crust without the mess or commitment of deep frying.

On to the next point: dredging versus breading. As you may know, if I want a deep fried corn bread nugget, I’ll go with a hush puppy every time. The breaded version of fried okra is just a substandard tiny hush puppy with a piece of soggy okra inside, which is neither want I look for in a hush puppy or in fried okra. The beauty of fried okra is the okra. Covered in a thin crunchy carapace, it’s the okra that you taste, not the pouf of breading, and the moisture released from the cooking okra has more of a chance to escape. I think the texture of the cooked okra is superior to the swaddled steamed version that happens when you have breading. I just like it better. I think it’s a better bite. This is why I dredge my okra.

Having established my position on pan versus deep fry and dredge versus bread, let’s move on to the ingredient portion of the dredge. I’ve gone through several versions of the dredge over the years and have found my favorite. I started with a mixture of regular corn meal, all purpose wheat flour and seasonings, but found the contrast in texture between the corn meal and flour too extreme. The okra stayed gritty or fell off and burned leaving me with a thin veil of flour dredge. I discovered corn flour, a finer grind of corn meal that I use a lot not only in cornbread but in pan fried recipes because it adheres evenly and cooks quickly without leaving behind the sensation of a mouthful of sand. I mixed it with wheat flour as I had with cornmeal, which was fine, but when I tried the corn flour by itself once, I found that I preferred just the corn flour. It coated the okra evenly, had a good flavor, and gave it a nice crunchy (but not gritty) texture. It seems to fulfill the roles of both cornmeal and wheat flour without the drawbacks of either.

As far as recipes go, this is necessarily an “eyeball it” recipe. The measurements really depend on the amount of okra you have, the moisture in it, and your preference in seasoning. It’s more of a guideline than a recipe, but that’s all you really need.

 Fried Okra

1 pound of okra

About ½ cup of corn flour, enough to evenly coat the okra slices

Salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste

Corn, vegetable, or peanut oil, enough to cover the bottom of your frying pan by about ¼ inch

Rinse the okra and remove the stem ends. Slice the okra into about ¼ inch rounds. I usually cut them a bit thicker toward the pointed ends so that everything cooks in more or less the same amount of time. Don’t dry the okra off; in fact, if it gets dry, I usually sprinkle a little water or buttermilk over the slices to make it damp enough for the dredge to stick.

In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the corn flour, salt and peppers over the okra. I usually just start with a generous handful or two, not even bothering with a measuring cup. Using both hands, toss the okra with the dredge until all of the surfaces are covered. If any of the slices have stuck together, separate them. If the okra is sticky, add a little more corn flour until everything is dry and no longer sticking together. Any extra dredge usually settles into the bottom of the bowl

In a large frying pan, heat the oil over medium high heat until it shimmers. Try a test piece; the okra should immediately sizzle. Some of the corn flour is going to fall off into the oil but if the oil is hot enough, most of the dredge should stick and start to cook immediately. Working in batches if you need to, add just enough okra to make one layer in the pan with a little elbowroom. Allow it to sit in the sizzling oil for 2-3 minutes without moving it; then after checking the bottom side to see if it is brown enough, use a wide spatula and turn the okra over so that the other side can brown. Other than shaking the pan occasionally to even the layer, don’t mess with it. It needs to stay in contact with the hot oil to crisp and brown. Once the okra has gotten as dark as you like, scoop it out of the pan with a slotted spoon or spatula onto absorbent paper to drain off any leftover oil. Sprinkle with some flaky salt and eat it while it’s hot (or cold- it’s awesome both ways).

Okra Part 2: Maque Choux

My last post was for okra cooked whole, a good way to enjoy okra without any of the “slime” factor. Once you cut into okra, like aloe vera, the mucilage starts to seep out. Adding liquid for a braised or stewed dish enhances this seepage. There are a lot of tricks and techniques that people say will prevent this from happening – cut it in thin slices, cut it as little as possible, sear in with high heat, don’t add any liquid, just to name a few.

 My approach is to just go with it: okra contains mucilage, mucilage is slimy, so rather than try to change the nature of okra, I try to make this quality work for me. Okra is commonly used in gumbo as a “thickener”, a term which I don’t think is entirely accurate, or maybe just isn’t the most complete or descriptive term for what okra does for gumbo. I would say that it adds body to the broth.

 I’ll explain what I mean in terms of chicken stock: good gelatin-filled stock slips over the tongue silkily and substantially, filling the mouth with the essence of its ingredients, rich but never greasy.  The richness of a good homemade stock is not from fat but from the cartilage that has been slowly broken down and infused into the liquid. Okra has much the same effect, not creamy or thick, but lip-smacking.

 Gumbo is the obvious and most common way to take advantage of okra’s bodyfying qualities. I have, however posted a couple of gumbos here on the blog, so I’ll branch out and share another favorite: maque choux (mok shoo). Maque choux is like a succotash where the lima beans are replaced by okra. It is a fresh braise of corn, okra, tomato, onion, and peppers. The crispness of corn kernels and acidity in the tomatoes balance the tenderness of the okra. So to make a silky braised okra dish, balance the proportions of ingredients so that the okra doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the vegetables, add some acid (tomatoes), and cook the dish just long enough to get through the slimy stage to a richly flavored but light bright vegetable dish. It’s a perfect summertime side dish for fish or fried chicken (and yes, I know it’s September, sorry. Check back next year?)

 One of the tricks I use for this dish, I picked up from David Walbert’s brilliant chowder recipe: *after stripping the kernels, break the cobs in half and just barely submerge them in a pot or water. Cover the pot and bring it to a simmer for about 20 minutes, or about as long as it takes to prep everything else. All of the flavor that was left in the cob will infuse the water to make the corniest broth you’ve ever tasted. I prefer not to add a lot of water when I cook vegetables, but with all of the natural sugar in the vegetables, it can get pretty thick and sticky. The corn broth adds nice flavor and loosens up the mixture with out watering down the vegetables.

 Also of note: green bell peppers are probably the traditional choice for this dish. I just prefer almost any other pepper to green bells. I don’t think they have a lot of flavor and I also prefer a little heat, so I usually use a combination of poblano and serrano chiles. If you like other varieties better than the ones I use, they will work perfectly well. Feel free to improvise.

And a final note: if you live somewhere where it is difficult to find okra, this one will work very well with frozen okra. I like to get pods frozen whole and cut them up myself, but sliced is fine.

 

Maque Choux

serves 4

2-3 tablespoons oil (or half oil and half bacon grease, if you’re so inclined)

1 medium white onion, diced

2 poblano chiles, diced

1 serrano chile, minced

2 cup sliced okra

3 ears of corn, kernels removed, cob reserved for broth

2 cups diced tomato with their juice

*Corn broth as needed

Salt

Cayenne pepper if desired

Prepare all of your ingredients and start the corn broth.

In a large sauté pan or skillet, heat the oil and or bacon grease until it shimmers. You need just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan.  Add the onions and chiles and a pinch of salt and sauté until they begin to soften and become fragrant, 5-7 minutes. Add the okra, tomatoes, and corn and another pinch of salt, which will help the vegetables release their water and keep them from sticking as much. Cover the pan and let it simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally; the okra will start to look “stringy”but the acid in the tomato juice will begin to break that down and melt it into the sauce. Add about ½ cup of corn broth at a time if the vegetables begin sticking to the pan. Once the okra no longer looks stringy, taste test to see if the vegetables are tender. It will probably take 15 minutes or so, but the main thing is to get them past the stringy stage with enough liquid in the pan to make it a loose but not soupy mixture while removing them from the heat before the vegetables become mushy. Salt to taste and add a pinch of cayenne if you like it spicy.

Okra Part 1: Whole Roasted Okra

After writing the last post about okra, I planned to quickly post the follow-up recipe posts, but when I went in search of okra for some last-minute testing and photos, I couldn’t find any! The bin at the local supermarket here was full of the sorriest most pathetic pile of okra I have ever seen (due less to being picked over by discerning shoppers than to the general attitude of apathy and torpor under which that particular produce department seems to generally operate) and the farmers market was a wash over the weekend. I guess the stand that carries the beautiful okra I posted last week is only there on weekdays. Oh the trials of trying to cook Southern food in NYC! As a New Orleans transplant I was chatting with said, “You can get anything in the WORLD here, just not anything in the COUNTRY.”

pathetic- just pathetic

This has to be the simplest way to cook okra. Whole, with a lightly crisped spicy exterior, roasted okra is easy to throw together as part of a meal or as I like it as a tasty salty snack. It’s a perfect little finger food to have with beer, salty and spicy without the oily heaviness of a bowl of chips.

I have tried a few different methods of making roasted okra:  slicing it into quarters and tossing it with slivered chiles and onions, tossing whole pods with spices, corn flour and corn starch, tossing whole pods with oil, corn starch and spices, low heat, high heat, you name it. Trial and error brought me to conclude that the simplest, most predictably successful method was to toss whole trimmed pods with oil, then lightly coat them with a cornstarch and spice mixture and then roast them at high heat on a large baking sheet.

Before I detail the recipe I use here, I’ll explain a couple of the problems I’ve had with other methods.  First, quartering the okra and roasting them with chiles and onions is tasty, but it’s not as crisp as the whole roasted pods and at high heat (to try to crisp them up) the chiles and onions tend to burn before the okra is done. Second, adding corn flour (which I use when I fry okra) adds a little extra crispness to the exterior, but the spice coating tends to be clumpy and not adhere as well. Third, my trigger-happy smoke detector taught me to always coat the okra with oil BEFORE putting it on the baking sheet! I tried drizzling the okra with oil while it was on the pan once and the oil that was on the pan started burning and smoking, the smoke detector was shrieking and I was standing in the hall frantically waving a plastic cutting board at the ceiling to get it to shut up! Finally, low heat doesn’t brown the exterior quickly enough, so by the time the exterior has crisped up, the entire pod has collapsed into mush.

One of my favorite spice blends for roasting okra is a vaguely Indian mixture with cumin, ginger, and chile, but I say try whatever seasoning suits your fancy, as long as the spices are finely powdered so that they will stick to the okra – in other words, no big flakes of oregano leaves or rosemary. They will just fall off and burn. I have also used coconut oil instead of regular vegetable oil which compliments the curry-esque spice mix.

Whole Roasted Okra

Serves 4

Preheat oven to 425

1 pound of okra pods

1-2 tablespoons of oil (coconut if you have it)

2 tablespoons cornstarch

½ teaspoon cumin

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ to ½ teaspoon cayenne (more or less to your personal heat tolerance)

½ teaspoon powdered garlic

1 teaspoon sea salt or Kosher salt (reduce by half for table salt)

Trim the stems of the okra down to within ¼ to 1/8 inch of the top of the pod. Wash and drain thoroughly in a colander, shaking off as much moisture as you can.

In a small bowl, thoroughly mix the spices and cornstarch so that the coating on the okra will be even.

In a large bowl, toss the okra with the oil, coating each pod evenly. Sprinkle the spice mixture over the okra and the toss again, lightly coating each pod.

Scatter the okra onto a large baking sheet, giving the okra as much elbow room as you can. The browning happens where the okra is touching the pan and NOT touching its neighbor which would cause it to steam and not roast.

Place the pan in the oven and cook for 12 to 15 minutes (or until the okra is browned to your liking – I think my oven may be a bit fiercer than some others). Give the pan an occasional shake to turn the okra, giving each side time on the pan’s hot surface.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before checking for salt and devouring.

The 3 Pillars of Potato Salad

Potato salad is one of those basic all-American dishes that everyone ought to have in their recipe repertoire. I’ve made a lot of different kinds of potato salad over the years, some versions better than others, but it goes so well with so many occasions that I’ve made an effort to refine a few techniques that bring out the best in it. Seasonings (and seasons)  change, but these techniques form the three pillars of all my  potato salad:

1.  Cook the potatoes whole. I’ve cooked a lot of potatoes in my day and will say that this is the most flavor and texture preserving technique for potato salad. Good potatoes actually have a lot of flavor, and the dense waxy potatoes I use for salad have a firm, creamy texture. Peeling, cutting them up and cooking them in boiling water dilutes the flavor and the texture that I want to be a significant component in the salad. Imagine that – potatoes as a feature, rather than a vehicle for dressing in potato salad!

2. Soak the potato pieces in apple cider vinegar. To counter the creaminess of the dressing, the dense starchiness of the potatoes and the juicy crunch of vegetables, I infuse the potatoes with a flavorful acidic vinegar steam bath. It lifts and brightens the salad from a typical blandness to a subtly tangy well-balanced bite.

3. I use dashi soup powder in the dressing. This is the point at which I will tiptoe into a very hotly debated health topic: glutamate and MSG. This very interesting article in the Guardian explains the history and controversy far better and in more depth than I possibly can, but my takeaway on the topic is that glutamate is a naturally occurring flavor enhancer, found in concentrated forms in aged cheeses, kelp, fish, mushrooms and mother’s milk (yep). My preference is to use ingredients that are in their most natural usable form rather than those that are industrial by-products or manufactured compounds imitating a natural product. Sugar and salt are examples of this, rawer versions having more mineral content and flavor that more refined versions. I first heard about these dashi soup mixes from this post on No Recipes as a more natural version of the flavor enhancing properties of  MSG. So, while I know this might be a controversial topic (what food isn’t these days anyway), it is something that I happily use and feed to the people who I love.

This is my favorite basic recipe:


Bacon Dill Potato Salad

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

2 pieces of smoked bacon

Dressing:

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/3 cup sour cream

1 small clove garlic

¼ red onion

2 ribs celery with tops

1 tablespoon dill weed

½ packet smoked bonito dashi mix

salt

fresh black pepper

Chop the bacon up and fry it. Once it is crisp and browned, remove the pieces from the fat they have rendered and set the bacon on paper to drain.

Wash the whole potatoes and cover them with an inch or two of salted water in a pot. Bring them to a low boil and cook until a sharp knife slides in and out of the center of the potato easily (given that the potatoes are cooked whole, it makes sense to try to get all of the same potatoes as close to the same size as you can). Time will vary, but start checking after 15-20 minutes.

Drain the water and let the potatoes cool just enough to be able to gingerly handle them. Cut the hot potatoes into bite sized pieces (I did eighths). Return them to their cooking pot and pour the apple cider vinegar over the potato pieces. Cover the pot with a lid and let the potatoes cool and soak up the vinegar.

While the potatoes are cooling, make the dressing. Mix the mayo and sour cream in a big bowl. Grate the small clove of garlic on a microplane grater, or use a garlic press or heavy knife to mash it into a paste. There should be about ½ teaspoon of garlic, just a hint in the dressing. Mince the onion and celery and stir the garlic, onion, and celery into the mayo and sour cream. If you have fresh dill weed, take the bigger stems out and roughly chop the fronds; dried can go into the mix whole. Add half of the packet of smoky bonito soup mix. Taste the dressing for salt, and add some if needed, keeping in mind that the potatoes have been cooked in salted water. Stir everything together well.

Once the potatoes have cooled to about room temperature, put them into a big enough bowl to stir the dressing into them with out them falling out all over the place. Pour the dressing over and grind about 10 grinds worth of black pepper over everything. At this point the bacon can be mixed into the potato salad too, or it can be sprinkled over the top of each serving. Mixed in, it loses a little of its crispness, but incorporates its flavor throughout the salad. Allow the potato salad to sit, refrigerated, for 30 minutes or so before serving (it’s even better the next day).

We had it last night with thin slices of peppery hangar steak and a cool tomato cucumber salad –

Hummus is Yummus

Last night was my turn to host my book club. The host usually has snacks and wine and since most of us are either arriving from work or from handing children off to a spouse who has just walked in the door, most of try to go hearty with snacks since it is essentially supper. Typically, I had so many things keeping me busy that I didn’t get any prep done ahead of time and walked in the door with a bag full of groceries and wine at about 5:30 to see a herd of dust bunnies galloping down the hall, piles of mail and clutter everywhere, a full dishwasher, and a lot of cooking ahead of me.

Fortunately, the ladies of book club do not care a whit about my careless housekeeping, particularly if they are well fed, so I turned some MGMT on really loud, put my apron on, and cranked out my hummus recipe because it is so fast and easy and everyone loves it. With hummus in the bag, I got to work on a trio of crostini toppings – diced tomato and basil with olive oil, salt and pepper, chopped mushrooms sautéed in butter with rosemary and a little cream, and this Parmesan spread from 101 Cookbooks that I mixed with chopped artichoke hearts. Kate arrived first and  helped me slice and toast my baguettes from the Antique Bakery (which still bakes all of its bread in an old coal oven) and open wine bottles. I have to admit I had worked up a little sweat getting everything done at the last minute, but our book club is always fun and worth the effort.

Having recipes like hummus that are easy to throw together are great if you like to have people over but don’t have a lot of time to prepare. I served mine with a platter of crudite – red pepper slices, cucumber spears, slender blanched green beans, and celery to balance the richer crostini toppings, but I often bake whole wheat pita wedges to make quick pita chips.

Hummus

– 1 – 19 ounce can of garbanzo beans, drained

– 2 cloves of garlic, chopped or microplaned

– 3 Tablespoons tahini

– 1 lemon, juiced

– 1 teaspoon ground cumin

– 1/2 teaspoon ground smoky chipotle

– about 2 tablespoons olive oil

– salt to taste

Note: because of the variety of textures in canned beans, I sometimes need more or less olive oil to get the texture I want. If, after blending, the texture seems stiff or dry, add a little more olive oil, or if it seems loose and soft, add a little less. Same thing with the salt- taste it before adding any because some canned beans are already salty.

In the bowl of a food processor (I used my mini prep), combine the beans, garlic, tahini, lemon juice, and spices. Pulse the mixture until you like the texture- I prefer it pretty smooth but with a bit of chunky texture. Once you get the texture you want, taste it for salt and add the salt and olive oil. The olive oil and tahini make it creamy. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil on top.

“Great Personality” Cauliflower Olive Penne

I made this delicious cauliflower pasta for the first time this winter and immediately loved it. I had seen this recipe and liked the idea but it was one of those weeknights when I had cauliflower and pasta but not much else from the original recipe and I was tired and hungry so I used what I had already. In one of those happy accidents of leftovers alchemy, I liked my version so much I never went back to try the original inspiration.

I knew I wanted to share the recipe here but there was a problem. Nutty roasted cauliflower, green picholine olives marinated in coriander and herb de Provence, smoky sweet piquillo peppers, creamy salty tangy sheep’s milk feta – it was delicious and satisfying. But if the explosion of Pinterest has illustrated anything, it is that people like to cook food that not only sounds good, but looks good too. We want the whole package. And when I take pictures of some things I cook, the visual just don’t do the flavor justice. Some dishes just aren’t as easy on the eyes as others.

It’s like the classic set – up conversation:

“I have this friend. He’s smart, funny – you’ll love him!”

“Awesome! What does he look like?”

“He looks smart and funny! He’s a lot of fun!”

“But what does he look like???”

“He has a GREAT personality.”

Don’t judge this recipe by its looks alone. Get to know it. Look for its hidden depths. Because, really,  it has a great personality.

Cauliflower Olive Penne

– 1 head cauliflower

– olive oil

– 6 brined green peppercorns, crushed*

– 1 teaspoon anchovy paste

– 1 clove garlic, crushed to a paste

– 1/4 cup coarsely chopped green French picholine olives

-1/4 cup chopped roasted piquillo peppers (or roasted red bell peppers)

-about 2 ounces feta, crumbled (I used a sheep’s milk feta)

– 1/3 cup panko crumbs

– 6 ounces dried penne pasta

Heat the oven to 400. Separate the cauliflower head into small florets, cutting the stems and bigger florets into bite sized pieces. Toss with just enough olive oil to lightly coat, spread the florets out onto a big baking sheet and roast until the bottoms and edges start to brown, about 20 minutes. stir the cauliflower once to make sure the bottom isn’t browning to quickly, but otherwise leave it alone.

Meanwhile, begin to bring a pot of salted water for the pasta to a boil.

Get the olives, peppers and feta ready to go; if the olives have pits, smash the olive on a cutting board with the bottom of a glass or the flat side of a knife blade. The pit will be loosened and the olive will be easy to chop.

In a large saute pan, pour about a tablespoon of olive oil over low heat; add the crushed green peppercorns, anchovy paste, and garlic paste and allow the garlic to just cook through. Stir once in a while to keep the garlic from sticking and burning.

Toss the panko crumbs with a little olive oil and toast the crumbs, either in a skillet on the stove or in the oven. Keep and eye on it; the oil makes it brown quickly.

Cook the pasta; since it usually takes about 10 minutes, give or take, start it a little after halfway through the cauliflower’s cooking time.

Remove the cauliflower from the oven and add it to the pan with the garlic. Gently stir to infuse the cauliflower with the garlic mixture, then mix in the peppers, feta, and olives. scoop the very lightly drained pasta into the saute pan with the cauliflower mixture. That splash of starchy water will keep the whole thing moist without watering the flavor down.

Toss the crumbs through the pasta just before serving. Finish with a little drizzle of fragrant olive oil.

*Brined green peppercorns come in a jar and look very similar to capers. They are pungent and have a lemony pepper taste that is great with a wine sauce on fish or chicken or in a creamy vegetable dip. Their flavor is midway between black and white peppercorns. In the brine, they keep indefinitely.

Smoky Spanish Frittata

Just a word of warning: if you tell a butcher that you need  “enough sausage for two people”, the two people he has in mind are not you and your lovely spouse, but two hungry offensive linemen from the Chicago Bears. And by the time you realize his misapprehension, he has already cut, wrapped and bagged your sausage. All that is left is to lug your giant bag of sausage home, use it for its intended purpose and then start figuring out other clever ways to use the rest. Not an unpleasant task, I know.

Spanish chorizo sausage and its cousin Portuguese linguica are, basically, awesome sauce-age. They are typically dried, kind of like a salami, although some are softer than others, and are intensely flavored with delicious things like smoked paprika and garlic and chunks of pork fat that melt out when they are heated, flavoring everything with porky, sausagy deliciousness.

Since I had made this bulk purchase of sausage to make a seafood paella last week, I had a bit of a Spanish theme going on in my mind: what could I do with a jar of fire roasted piquillo peppers, sausage, some onion, and my smoky piquante Spanish paprika? Make one of my favorite quick suppers, a Spanish frittata. All I needed  was some cooked potatoes, eggs, and soft, creamy, tangy chevre.

A frittata is an open-faced omelet with vegetables, cheese, and meat mixed into the eggs rather than being folded in after the eggs are mostly cooked. My frittatas tend to be heavy on the fillings. And while this recipe is one of my favorites, a frittata is just as adaptable to what you have on hand as an omelet is; the important thing to bear in mind is that (and this is especially important if you, like me, like a lot of fillings) you must pre-cook the vegetables before the eggs are added. Raw or undercooked vegetables release a lot of water while they are cooking and that water just makes your eggs awful and soggy. The other benefit to cooking the vegetables ahead of the eggs is that you can add that layer of flavor that a little browning in a bit of flavorful fat provides. The creamy potatoes, sweet peppers and onions, creamy/tangy chevre and smoky sausage give the frittata a full balanced spectrum of flavor.

Smoky Spanish Frittata

serves 2-4

– 1 teaspoon oil (unless you are using a non-stick skillet)

– 2 ounces  chorizo sausage, diced

– 1/3 cup chopped red onion

– 2 small waxy potatoes, peeled, cubed, and roasted or boiled (about 3/4 cup)

– 2-3 jarred roasted piquillo peppers, sliced

– 2 ounces fresh goat cheese/chevre (I used Laura Chanel chevre)

– smoked paprika

– salt

– 1 tablespoon parsley leaves, chopped

– 5 eggs, beaten

Preheat the oven to 350 or your broiler to medium-high.

If you are using a cast iron skillet as I am, use the teaspoon of oil to lightly grease the entire inside of the pan so that the eggs are less likely to stick. I don’t have non-stick, but I understand that if you do, that step is unnecessary.

Over medium heat, heat the diced sausage through until some of the orange fat begins to ooze out; add the potatoes and onions and saute until the onion begins to soften and the potatoes begin to brown. Dust everything with smoked paprika according to your flavor intensity preference. Scatter the pan with the sliced piquillo peppers; crumble the chevre into the vegetable mixture, leaving rough chunks of the soft cheese. Toss in the parsley and sprinkle with a little salt.

Put a pinch of salt into the beaten eggs and pour them over the skillet, evenly distributing it over the vegetables and sausage. let it cook over medium until the edges become opaque and bubbles begin to rise through the eggs in the middle of the pan.

Place either in the oven or under the broiler to finish cooking the top of the eggs. Keep an eye on it; it should only take a few minutes before all of the eggs are opaque and lightly cooked through.

Let the frittata sit to cool and set slightly before slicing in wedges; it’s also good at room temperature.

Dark Chocolate Pots

Let’s just say, hypothetically, that you were invited to dinner at a friend’s house and you say “what can I bring?” and it ends up that you’re bringing dessert. And then let’s just say, for example, that you had bought a bag of lemons and were planning to make a lemon tart, but then the crumb crust that you put in the oven while your dear spouse is taking a nap on a Saturday afternoon starts leaking butter into the bottom of the oven and billowing smoke sending you running into the hallway with a towel to frantically wave under the fire alarm in the direction of the kitchen window that you flung open so that it doesn’t go off and wake everyone up. And then just say you are totally out of ingredients to make the crust again and your totally fed up with crusts anyway and are completely over pastry in general and don’t feel like going to the grocery store but are still on the hook for dessert in a couple of hours. What is one to do? Hypothetically, you know. Ahem.

Chocolate Cream Pots

serves 4

– 1 cup heavy cream

– 6 ounces dark chocolate (I used 72%)

– 2 egg yolks

– 2 tablespoons raw sugar

– 1 tablespoon strong coffee or espresso

– 1 tablespoon rum

– 1 1/2 tablespoons butter

– tiny pinch of cayenne pepper

– sweetened whipped cream*

Chop the chocolate into little bits. Heat the cream in a heavy bottomed pan until it comes to a simmer. Remove the pan from the heat and pour in the chocolate; let the chocolate sit in the cream for a minute or two and then whisk together until dark and smooth. Beat the two egg yolks together with the sugar and then pour a little of the hot cream into the eggs to heat them up. Put the pan back over low heat and whisk the egg mixture back in. Heat until the faintest wisps of steam begin to rise, stirring the whole time; it should only take a couple of minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the coffee, rum, butter, and cayenne, whisking to melt the butter and blend everything into a silky smooth custard.

Pour the hot custard into small bowls, espresso cups, or ramekins (I used little jam jars) and allow it to cool. Because this is such a rich dessert, it only takes a small amount to satisfy; and because of this richness, it’s best not served cold, but at a softer, silkier room temperature.

Top with a generous drift of sweetened whipped cream. *I whipped the cream with sugar and a splash of rum and vanilla extract. The contrast of airy vanilla scented cream and meltingly truffle-like chocolate is heavenly.

Hot and Sour Soup- a Visual Guide

After the last post I wrote about hot and sour soup, I realized that it might be helpful to do a little visual aid. I introduced three relatively unusual ingredients that are usually found in Asian markets, often in packaging that doesn’t have the English names prominently displayed. One of my friends said she hadn’t ever heard of the mushrooms or lily buds before and had no idea what they looked like. I know I have spent plenty of time staring blankly at a shelf full of unidentifiable brown oddly shaped vegetation next to more brown oddly shaped vegetation looking for that one thing I need for a recipe.

So, when stocking your pantry for hot and sour soup, here is the line up:

These dried mushrooms are the earthy flavor base for the soup. They are intensely, flavorful and add richness and depth to whatever you put them in. Rehydrate them in hot water for about twenty minutes to soften the caps. Snip the tough stems off before adding the mushrooms to soup. I always keep a bag of both  dried shiitake and porcini mushrooms; I use them in risotto, meatballs, winter stews and pasta sauces. They are indispensable in my pantry.

Lily buds, or golden needles as they are sometimes called, are the buds of Tiger lilies. They add a floral, musky flavor to the soup. They will need to be soaked in hot water for 20 to 30 minutes. After they have been soaked, check the stem end to see if it is still hard; if so, trim the very tip end off and throw it away.

Finally, there is the attractively named wood ear mushroom, sometimes called Chinese black fungus or cloud ear fungus. It grows in little frills on the trunks of trees. It is used less for its flavor than the crunch it adds to the mostly soft textures in the soup. I usually buy it dried already cut into strips, although I’ve also seen it sold whole.

As with all dried foods and spices, I keep them in an airtight container in a dark cabinet. Stored like this, they will keep for a long time.