Shore Break

IMG_2652We rode the train about 50 miles south of Hoboken to spend a couple of days in a pair of New Jersey’s shore towns: Ocean Grove, a quaint, quiet Victorian town founded and owned by the Methodist Church as a permanent camp meeting location, and its neighbor across Wesley Lake, Asbury Park with its mixture of mid century, Beaux Arts, and Victorian buildings, its famous music scene, and its year-round culture.

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We sat on the beach and read during the day, walked up the boardwalk in the evening to dinner, sat on the porch watching the ocean and the stars at night. I had to be reminded to slow my pace when I walked. The boardwalk is for leisurely promenading, not for barreling down like a mack truck. I appreciate the contrast between the pretty towns along the shore and the energetic urban life a short drive north. It’s good to get out and slow the heart rate occasionally.

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There was damage on the boardwalk and in Ocean Grove and some of the ocean front buildings on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, but both towns were relatively unscathed by Sandy.

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One of my regular customers had stopped in the store last week on her way home from the shore and recommended several places for us to have dinner in Asbury Park. Tuesday, we walked over to Brickwall Tavern and Dining Room on Cookman Avenue. They had a huge wall of chalk boards behind the bar with the current “On Tap” list, as good a list as I’ve seen anywhere in NJ. Our waitress was also especially knowledgable about their craft beer menu and when I commented, she told us she was working to become a certified cicerone ( the craft beer equivalent of a sommelier). We tried a few tastes before getting a couple West Coast beers: Bear Republic Crazy Ivan and Stone Cali-Belgique. The food was tavern comfort food with a Southern influence, biscuit of the day, fried catfish, deviled eggs and their parmesan grits were surprisingly good!

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Porta Pizza is in what looks like an old garage with glass garage doors beside the bar that are rolled up in the summer weather to open to an outdoor garden and bocce court. The interior is industrial in it’s structure but very warm in its decor and atmosphere- large communal tables, mismatched chairs, really beautiful bronzed pendant lights around the bar, a white and turquoise tiled bank of pizza ovens along the back wall. Their Wednesday night special is a fresh stretched mozzarella first course, and there was a young man behind a counter by the door making fresh ovelini.

We got a carafe of house red and the octopus and fennel salad and a hot sopresatta pizza (the “14 1/2”). The octopus was one of the best things I’ve eaten in a while, crisp and tender with a lemony buttery sauce, subtle capers and a fresh parsley, chervil, and fennel salad. The pizza was topped really well with enough  heat from the Calabrian peppers to satisfy my hot tooth. There were a couple of other pizzas I would love to try, like the “Cecelia” with artichokes, fried lemon, and crescenza cheese, or the “Lardo”, and there was an intriguing salad called “Three Trees” that looked like it would be sharp and balanced and interesting.

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As we were getting ready to bay our bill, a couple was seated across from us at our end of the table. When I looked up, who should be sitting across from me but Dan, the owner of a really great pizza restaurant in Jersey City, Razza on Grove Street, who we had just been talking about while analyzing the pizza crust. His pizza crust, by the way, is exceptional. He and I have talked bread baking on Twitter for a long time and it was fun to run into him.

We’re back in Hoboken. It was a nice little catch-your-breath break, a chance to see the stars, relax, walk slowly, and eat nice food. Over too soon. But not so far away that we can’t get back down there again soon.

PS: I took all the pictures with my phone; they aren’t at my usual standard. and yes, that is my finger in that picture…

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Color Inspiration: Squash Blossom and Wax Pepper Frittata

It’s funny how a meal can kind of form itself in my mind through a spectrum of memories, visual inspiration, and serendipity at the farmers market.

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I brought home a bag full of produce from the farmers market and was so excited about the beauty of the pile of eggplants, squash, beans, peppers. I spread it out on the table at home like a vegetal color wheel. It was a pastel summer collection with the exception of the tomatoes, a watercolor wash of violet, gold, ivory and green. I loved the tonal spectrum of squash blossoms and wax peppers and decided to play with an old favorite  by adding squash blossoms to a cheese filled pepper frittata.

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This is a gentle dish, subtly  flavored, the mildest hint of heat from the ivory chartreuse peppers softened and mellowed by the creamy eggs and cheese. Squash blossoms infuse their delicate herbal flavor into the eggs as they bake. And if you prefer an even mellower flavor, go with banana wax peppers rather than its younger, slightly hotter cousin the Hungarian wax. The difference between Hungarian and banana wax peppers is maturity and heat level. Hungarian wax peppers are younger, a little thicker fleshed, and mildly spicy. Banana wax peppers are a little larger, mild and sweet with thin flesh.

This dish is easy-going in another way: do you like gooey strings of melted cheese oozing out with each bite or do you prefer the creamy tanginess of fresh goat cheese? Different cheeses produce different results, both lovely depending on your mood.

For a buttery gooey melting cheese, I like a Fontina Fontal or Monterrey Jack. They melt beautifully but have a bit more flavor than Mozzarella. Goat cheese doesn’t melt but since it’s already soft and creamy, you may find its flavor makes up for that. An herb-flavored goat cheese is also a good way to add some extra flavor if you like.

I’ve written this recipe to serve 2 but the proportions of 2 eggs, blossoms, and peppers per person are easy to double. You’ll just need to increase the cooking time by about 10 minutes per additional serving.

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Squash Blossom and Wax Pepper Frittata 

4 squash blossoms

4 Hungarian wax peppers or banana wax peppers

4 eggs

2 ounces cheese

salt

Cheese to grate over the top

Preheat the oven to 350

Trim the stem ends of the blossoms to leave about an inch of stem. Gently open the blossom a bit and use your finger to pop the stamen off and remove it. The petals may tear a bit but that isn’t a problem since you’ll be twisting them closed around the cheese.

Make a slit down the length of the peppers with a paring knife and rinse out the seeds.

Cut the cheese into strips and chunks that will fit inside the squash blossoms and peppers, and slip the cheese inside. Twist the tips of the petals to close the cheese inside.  If you are using soft goat cheese, spoon the cheese into the cavity in the blossoms and peppers.

Lightly butter or oil a baking dish. Arrange the peppers and blossoms (I alternated them to make them fit AND make them look prettier.)

Beat the eggs and salt and pour them over the peppers and blossoms in the baking dish.

Grate or sprinkle a little cheese over the top. Bake until the eggs have just puffed and set in the center of the dish, about—— and the cheese is lightly golden on top.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool and set for 5 minutes or so before cutting.

Sweet Corn Poblano Soup

It doesn’t really feel like summer to me until I’ve had my first ear of sweet corn on the cob. I can eat an outrageous number of buttered, hot, crisp, sweet ears, shearing the kernels off the cob like Mickey and Donald eating it typewriter style.

Fortunately, July hasn’t only brought us a super humid heat wave (hello window AC unit!), it also brought us summer corn season, just in time for the long July 4th weekend.

This light summery soup is a lovely way to enjoy the good fresh flavor of sweet corn. It’s lighter than some creamy chowder style soups,  finished with just a little bit of milk, but the trick of using a corn cob broth that I picked up from David Walbert’s delicious corn chowder post infuses the soup with the flavor of corn without muddling the bright vegetable flavors.

I also use a little bit of corn flour, cooked into the broth like a very thin porridge to thicken the soup without making it too rich and heavy. Soup eaten in summer should be light and fresh, satisfying without weighing down.

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Sweet Corn and Poblano Soup

4 ears sweet corn on the cob, husked and flossed

1 red onion (or other sweet onion)

2 cloves garlic

1 poblano chile

olive oil

1/3 cup corn flour

1/4-1/2 teaspoon chipotle chile powder

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

4 cups water

salt

1 cup milk

Stand each ear of corn stalk-side down on a cutting board and cut the kernels from the cob. Break the cleaned cobs in pieces and put them in a medium pot. Once all of the corn kernels are cut off the cobs and the cobs are put into the pot, cover the cobs with about 4 cups of water, a generous pinch of salt, and cover the pot with a heavy lid. Simmer the cobs in water for about 30 minutes. Remove and throw the cobs away.

Meanwhile, dice the onion and poblano and mince the garlic.

Heat a generous glug of olive oil in a large skillet or saute pan over medium/low heat. Add the onion, garlic and poblano to the oil and cook until the onion begins to soften and become translucent. Add the corn and stir, then add a pinch of salt. The sugar in the corn will begin to stick and caramelize on the bottom of the pan, so watch the heat to prevent that sugar from burning. Once the corn begins to soften, scrape the vegetables to the side of the pan and pour in a little more oil, maybe a teaspoon, to cook the spices. Pour the chipotle, coriander, and cumin into the oil and stir. Once the spices become fragrant, stir them into the vegetables. Scrape any sticky browned bits off the bottom of the pan.

Once the corn is softened and beginning to caramelize  but still a little bit crisp, stir about 1/3 cup of corn flour (finely ground corn meal) into the vegetables. Stir everything over medium heat just for a minute until the corn flour is slightly toasted.

Carefully pour the corn cob stock into the pan with the vegetables and stir to prevent lumps. Bring to a simmer and stir until the corn flour thickens the broth. Add the milk and simmer for 10 minutes or so to combine the flavors.

Salt to taste.

As with most soups, this one improves after a night in the fridge, so feel free to make it ahead. It will be even better that way.

A note on corn flour:

Corn flour is just a finely ground corn meal. In the UK, corn flour is the term used for what I call corn starch which is often used to thicken clear sauces. American corn flour is a little more substantial but finer than the grittier texture of corn meal. I typically use Bob’s Red Mill Corn Flour

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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.”

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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.

Okra: the Prologue

Have you ever had a friend visit one of your favorite places – say, San Francisco or New York City – and spend all of their time in the worst areas – say Fisherman’s Wharf or Times Square – and leave with a terrible impression of that place – crowded, over-priced terrible food, kitschy and touristy? It’s frustrating. While you know that there is so much more to San Francisco than Madame Tussaud’s and t-shirt shops, it can be hard to overcome that negative first impression, however unjustified.

That sums up my feelings about okra. One of my favorite vegetables, it has a terrible reputation based largely on misunderstanding and poor preparation. Is okra slimy? Well, yes and no. Depending on how it is handled and prepared, it can either look like a creature from Alien or it can be as silky and soothing as good stock. Can it be prickly and stringy? Yes, if you get mature, past-their-prime pods. But all of these are easily avoidable disasters.

So, if you’ll let me be your tour guide, I’ll try to give you a better second impression of okra.

Let’s start with choosing the best okra:

I remember when I was little, my mom handed me a tiny tender okra pod to taste straight from the garden; it was still warm, easy to bite and chew, tender and velvety. It was a perfect little ripe okra pod, bright green and pliable, probably about the size of my thumb now. I prefer cooked okra, but they should be edible when raw, not tough and sharply ridged.

As with most fruits and vegetables, there is a tremendous difference between “ripe” and “mature” okra. Ripeness is the peak of flavor and tenderness before the plant begins putting all of its energy into producing and protecting viable seeds.  Think about the difference between an English pea pod and a flat snow pea. The English pea shell has matured into a case to protect the peas (or seeds) inside while the snow pea is still juicy and tender, immature but ripe. Since okra is not eaten mainly for its seeds, I want the outside to be tender like the snow pea rather than the English pea.

Okra is a sensitive little thing, easily bruised by over-handling, so a good indication of freshness is whether the tips and ridges are blackened by much squeezing and tossing. If you buy okra in a farmers market or grocery store that serves an enthusiastic okra-eating demographic like Indians, West Africans, or East Asians, you will probably see shoppers standing beside the bin rifling through the pile feeling each individual pod in order to get only the best. If an okra pod has been passed over often enough so that it gets bruised like that, walk away. The experts have spoken.

If you come across a pristine pile, go ahead and start feeling up the produce. Gently pick up each bright green pod that looks to be about the right size (think a ladies thumb) and give a little squeeze to see if it feels spiny and rigid or tender and pliable. There will be a light fuzz on the outside and they shouldn’t feel dry or brittle. The tips should be intact and not black and battered looking, and a little bit of stem on the other end keeps them from drying out too quickly. As long as they are not damp, they will store for a few days in a bag in your crisper drawer.

There are two exceptions to the size and color rules: First, there is an okra variety called “cow horn” that is much larger than other varieties while still being ripe rather than mature. If a seller can assure you that the large variety you are looking at is indeed the cow horn type, go ahead and try it, but if they are uncertain, don’t bother buying their okra. There is too much risk that you’ll end up with something that tastes like balsa wood. And then there are some gorgeous bronze and burgundy varieties of okra (like the ones in the first picture)that I like to try when I find them. They are less common though, so I would stick with green until you get comfortable and then branch out to more exotic types.

Now, before I get into any discussion on preparation, let’s talk about slime. Like I said, okra can be really slimy, depending on how it is cooked and handled. But why?  What is it that turns a velvety little pod into something that looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon? In a word, fiber. Okra contains a soluble fiber charmingly known as “mucilage.” Some other foods that contain mucilage are aloe vera, nopal (or prickly pear cactus), kelp (or kombu), chia seeds, flax seeds, and oatmeal. And just like aloe vera gel is soothing and healing to the skin, this type of fiber is very soothing on the inside. During his recovery from orthognathic surgery a few years ago, Scott had a reaction to anti-swelling steroids he was given that caused a lot of stomach pain. One of the few foods that he could swallow that soothed his stomach were homemade miso soup (made with kelp) and stewed okra. This soluble fiber is also helpful in controlling cholesterol, regulating blood sugar, and keeping the digestive system healthy as a probiotic.

While I may not be able to convince anyone to love okra based purely on its health benefits,  these benefits are information worth knowing. I do however think that I’ll be able to convince you to give it a second change based on it’s deliciousness and versatility, beginning in my next post. See you soon in Okra: Part I

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 –

After the after-after party-

I’ve had quite the busy and momentous few weeks since last I posted! My sister and her lovely new husband threw a sweet and wonderful wedding weekend at a fabulous cabin in the Appalachian mountains, complete with beautiful sunsets, velvety-black skies perfect for lying under on the driveway while watching the meteor shower above us, wonderful time spent with both families, great company, food, and music that we danced all night to. It was a perfect and intimate wedding, exactly them.


We’ve also settled on our new digs in the meantime after an exhausting whirlwind apartment search. Just when I thought we were going to have to settle on a tiny dark shoebox, the clouds lifted and I found a place that has (wait for it ) a KITCHEN WINDOW! I know! I can hardly believe it myself! As with all urban apartments, there are trade-offs, which we are making in the form of multiple flights of stairs, but did I mention the windows? We’ll be moving in mid September and I can’t wait to get my saucepans and skillets unpacked.

Hot on the heels of that exciting turn of events, Grace visited on her way through town, our first visitor since the move. It was especially sweet since she is moving to Vietnam for a year’s adventure with the aforementioned lovely new husband and we won’t get to see her for a while. We had a wander ’round my new neighborhood and then Scott took us out for an Indian dinner in Greenwich Village. We caught up on what we didn’t have time to at the wedding and I introduced her to Italian ice and a cannoli. Seeing her off in the train station was bittersweet- although a tiny  and slightly acerbic portion of my brain was telling the weepy me that it was being made all the more poignant  by the drama of waving goodbye to a loved one in a choo-choo train station; goodbyes don’t come grander than that. I will miss her ridiculously. I’m sure we will be putting skype through its paces.

One really nice thing about the wedding was that we all cooked together, chicken and vegetable skewers, salads, corn on the cob, boiled peanuts and watermelon, sangria and my mom’s cheesecake. I made a favorite salad of mine that was really good. Here is the recipe.

Black Eyed Pea and Rice Salad

1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

2 cups cooked short grain brown rice, still warm

2 cups black-eyed peas (if canned, rinsed and drained; or fresh, cooked until tender; frozen, cooked until tender)

1 medium cucumber, peeled and diced

1 mango, diced small

1 avocado, diced

1 red onion, diced small

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 can diced green chiles or a hot pepper (jalapeno or serrano perhaps)of your choice, minced

large handful of cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

In a bowl large enough to toss all of your ingredients, mix the salt, cumin and rice vinegar until the salt has dissolved. Tumble the still-warm rice into the bowl and gently toss the rice in the vinegar until the rice has soaked up all of the liquid. Taste the rice and add a bit more vinegar at a time if needed until there is a distinct but subtle twang throughout the rice. Gently toss in the black-eyed peas.If you have flame proof hands like mine, use your fingers to lightly mix everything so the rice and peas don’t turn to mush; otherwise, a pair of forks, if wielded gingerly, should work very well. Set the bowl aside and allow the mixture to come down to room temperature.

Meanwhile, all of the other vegetables can be cut up; I like to dice everything to roughly the same size as the black-eyed peas so that no one flavor overwhelms the forkful. While a ripe and juicy mango and guacamole-ready avocado are usually preferable, in this case it is better to err  toward a slightly firmer fruit in order to keep them from dissolving into the salad. While the cucumber and onion provide the pleasant contrast of crunch and the mango and red pepper are bright notes of sweetness, the avocado should be buttery nuggets of richness in lieu of oil in the dressing.

When the rice and peas are cool, add all of the vegetables, chilis and cilantro into the mixing bowl and, again, gently incorporate until thoroughly combined. I prefer to allow the flavors to mingle for at least an hour before eating, but it will keep well for several days. Since it is most flavorful at just cooler than room temperature, it is ideal for picnics or a one-dish lunch at work.

Something to remember about the type of rice you choose: long grain rice like Basmati or Jasmine has a different type of starch than shorter and stickier rice. One characteristic of long grain rice is that it is very firm when it is chilled- almost crunchy. For this reason, I usually use short grain rice for this recipe, since it is usually eaten when at least slightly chilled. The sciencey version of why this happens is explained here.

Happy Cinco de Mayo, y’all!- Huevos Rancheros

When it comes to celebrating Cinco de Mayo, there are a few directions you can take. First, you could ignore it, because it’s just a Wednesday and you don’t even know what it’s about. Second, you could consume far too many margaritas at your local cantina, after which you still have to get up and go to work on Thursday. Third, and I’ll allow that this is an unconventional idea, you could really mess up a French recipe in honor of the French’s defeat by the Mexican army in 1862. Or fourth, and this is the method I recommend, you can make some great Americanized Mexican food, because doesn’t that really capture the spirit of the holiday?

Huevos Rancheros

Serves 2

4 corn tortillas, as fresh as you can find them. I get some that still have steam in the bag from a tortilla factory near me.

4 eggs

1 cup chunky fresh salsa- I like Salsa Especial from Trader Joe’s if you don’t make homemade

2/3 cup cooked pinto or pink beans or refried beans –   Rancho Gordo beans are my favorite

Monterey Jack cheese

Oil of butter to cook the eggs

Cilantro, stems removed and leaves coarsely chopped

Scallion, sliced

Avocado, about 1/2 sliced for 2 people

Nopal, briefly cooked in boiling water, drained and salted

Warm your oven at it’s lowest setting to keep the plates and tortillas warm while everything else is prepared.

Wrap the tortillas in foil or put them in a cast iron skillet and cover with foil in the oven to warm.

Warm the beans.

Have the cilantro, scallions, avocado, nopal, and cheese ready.

Heat a drop of oil or butter in a small nonstick skillet, and crack 2 of the eggs into it. After the whites have begun to turn opaque, pour a little of  the salsa and a teaspoon or so of water into the pan and cover. Cook until the whites are firm, and the yolks are still a little runny. If you have two skillets and the skills of a short order cook, try cooking all the eggs at the same time; otherwise repeat with the other eggs.

To assemble, place two tortillas on a dinner plate. Spread half of the beans onto the tortillas and top with the eggs. Pour half of the salsa over the eggs, grate a little cheese over the top and sprinkle with the cilantro, scallions, avocado, and nopal.