Tuesday, August 31, 2010

This Little Piggy Went to Market...

Last Sunday, I woke up at an earlier hour than usually warranted on the laziest day of the week, and headed a few towns down to graze along the fresh local offerings of a farmers market. Believe it or not, I had never shopped at one before and was especially looking forward to checking out all that was in store.

Summer to fall, there are quite a few farmers markets spread across Long Island. At least once a week, residents get the chance to have their pick of the freshest offerings around as vacant parking lots are transformed into an open-air display of locally grown produce and homemade goods. Many of these markets happen to conveniently situate themselves only a short drive from where I live.


Live on Long Island too? Find a Farmers Market near you: http://www.lifb.com/.

Set up beside a train trestle and a main highway, the farmers market consisted of a modest row of tents filled with anxious patrons squeezing fruit and reaching across crates of brightly colored vegetables. The crowd was an eclectic bunch, among which were mothers with their children, couples walking their dogs, grandmas searching for their Sunday dinner’s best, the freak-flag-waver wheeling around her squawking parrot in a bird stroller, and probably chefs.

Besides the local farm-raised produce stands, this particular famers market also had fish, cheese, garlic, pickle, cupcake, jam, and Italian specialty purveyors. I left with a nice chunk of gouda, a fresh ball of mozzarella, corn, a few Italian baby eggplants, two homemade jams that are perfect for this weekend’s upcoming tea party, a box of cupcakes, and of course, heirloom tomatoes. If you put me in a farmers market at the end of August, you can rest assured that I’m going for the heirlooms; you’ve got to get them while you still can.

Heirlooms and tomatoes in general, are truly exclusive to summer. The genetically-modified, tasteless, pesticide-ridden tomatoes you see in grocery stores year-round are barely tomatoes at all. There are many, chefs in particular, that actually refuse to eat or serve tomatoes out of season fresh for this very reason. I’ve been eating a lot of tomatoes as a late, trying to preserve the height of their freshness in my memory until next summer.

First way:
Sliced tomatoes layered Napoleon-style with mozzarella, and topped it with a simple vinaigrette of extra virgin olive oil, the juice and zest of one lemon, chopped basil, salt and pepper.
Second way:
 Chopped tomatoes tossed with the same lemon-olive oil vinaigrette, on top of a grilled crostini with melted mozzarella.
When you have such fresh ingredients, it is best to let them shine. Using the mozzarella that I bought at the famers market, I prepared my beautiful purple, red, orange, and green tomatoes in a simple Caprese salad, two ways. Mozzarella, tomato, and basil are the only three elements that define Caprese. It is nothing fancy but everything good. Using the best of what’s available for each of its parts constitutes the epitome of simply delicious.

P.S. Gwen, over at the blog Simply Healthy Family, tried out the recipe for tahini cookies recently featured on Cook’s Book with a few better-for-you modifications. Check out her healthy spin on them!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Garden FAIL

RIP Yellow GrapeTomato
Woe is my garden.

If that’s what you want to call it. What I have is not a garden, nor was it ever much of one to begin with. Despite my persistence, year and after year, the vigilant attempt to sow seeds and tend to them in the hopes of someday harvesting a tasty reward has sprouted nothing but terrible failure, weeds, and death.

By now, I had hoped to be sharing with you recipes that reflected the overflowing abundance of my garden’s bounty. But instead, as always, I’m staring at a scant patch of dirt, left only to imagine what might have been and wondering what I did wrong.

For their often short-lived lifespan, my plants reside in what I call the “pot garden.” No, it’s not because that is where I cultivate my marijuana, but because due to aesthetic conflicts and the lack of adequately sun-lit patches in my yard, I’m forced to plant everything in pots and shove them as far in the back as possible. I hate them. They frustrate me, and often get stuck with the blame of killing my barely-budded blossoms. Forget a pot garden; it’s more like a terra cotta graveyard.

Given my ill-fated history in horticulture, this year I only planted two pots: one for a few herbs, and the other for yellow grape tomatoes. I think the herbs were parsley, chives, basil, and maybe cilantro. I don’t even remember, and trust me; it doesn’t even matter at this point. I always start with seeds because when they actually do grow, it is very rewarding. I begin planting around the end of May when the threat of frost is no longer looming. Sometimes, I start the seeds a little earlier in the windowsill and repot them once their green stems are poking a few inches above the soil.

I try my hardest to provide my plants with everything they need--sunlight, water; I’ve even resorted to conversation, trying to coax them into growing. It works for Grandma; “You have to be nice to them,” she says. Apparently, the herbs weren’t having it. Maybe they were afraid to come out because of the crazy girl talking to them, or more rationally, were choked to death by the underlying abundance of weeds about to take over their humble abode.

I’d often trek all the way to the very back of the yard to check on the garden, when within just a few weeks of planting, I spotted a bunch of tiny green blades started to break the soil in the herb pot. Where those my herbs growing so quickly and abundantly? Could it really be? A few weeks more and still not an herb in sight, but there was an entire bush of clovers! Clover salad, anyone? Maybe for my rabbit, Spumoni.

So much for an herb garden this year—all I have to show for it is a pot of weeds, and even they’re dead! Either I am severely lacking a green thumb, or I live on a death yard filled with murderous soil. Pitiful. I had to at least have a basil plant, so we bought one. I’d love to be complaining about how my basil is just taking over the yard right now, but it’s doing merely OK in its little pot. Although it has yielded a decent amount of leaves after each picking, it’s slowly rotting away with drowning roots.

While the herb pot was being taken over by clovers, the yellow tomato pot was full of promise, growing taller every day. Soon, it began to flower. I was so proud! I visualized popping juicy yellow tomatoes into my mouth like candy, and could already see them on top of bruschetta, and in salads. I watched as little green tomatoes gradually made their way out into the sunlight and got bigger and bigger from week to week. And then, they just stopped.

About the size that a grape tomato should be, they never completely matured and remained green. I don’t know what happened. The slightest touch and the fruit fall from the branch. I am now sure that they aren’t going to turn yellow, and it just breaks my heart. They were almost there! Damn pots. Oh well, there’s always next year.

Woe is my lack of a garden.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mediterranean Chicken

I started this blog for the writing just as much as I have the food. I grew into my love of cooking and eagerly nourished that love until it sprouted into a passion. But writing? She’s always been there, riding my coattails and pulling on my shirt strings, refusing to be ignored. Like the annoying little sister I never had, I can’t help but to love her; she is a major part of who I am. I went to school for each of these loves, and plan to make a career out of one or both of them-- preferably both. It’s a combination that takes me a breathless five minutes to properly explain when someone asks me what I want to do with myself, and it always gets an interesting reaction. The point is, over the past three months I’ve really grown to enjoy how this blog has become a practice of sharing both.

What I’ve found to be truly astounding about food blogging is that no matter what I sit down to write about, be it plain as a pickle or a tiny chickpea, there is always something to say. In fact, the ingredients often do the talking and I am just the translator. In every bite there is an experience to be had--good, bad, blasé, or life changing, each contains a puzzle of words that somehow, naturally float into composition. What begins as mise en place, is incorporated into a patient braise, where it develops into the deep and delicious sum of its parts. That is why I love writing about food more than anything else, and why reading about it never gets old. Whether it tells a tale all its own or conjures up reminiscence of another, every dish has a story.

And now, for today’s story--Mediterranean Chicken:

I try to avoid the standard “chicken cutlet,” as in, breaded and fried chicken cutlet, whenever I can. It’s not that I don’t like chicken cutlets; I enjoy them just as much as you do. But as the Mad Hatter said to Alice in the recent Tim Burton recreation of Alice in Wonderland, for me, they’ve simply “lost their muchness.” There’s no better way to explain it, they just used to be much more…muchier. In tomato sauce and cheese, with lemon, or topped with bruschetta topping, it’s all great, but after my millionth chicken cutlet, I just can’t get too excited over them.

For dinner the other night, the ever-present chicken cutlets were defrosting on the counter, and I--as always, was looking for something different to do with them. For dinner on the fly, I took the quicker and healthier route, skipping the breading, and sauéting them with a little olive oil. The Mediterranean influence came from using what we had in the refrigerator: a cucumber, feta cheese, and not much else. I had an idea to mix up a cucumber "salsa" with feta cheese crumbles, mint, and red onion to put on top of the chicken. The final product ended up being very similar, except in place of the crumbles, I made a feta cheese sauce.

The sauce was a variation on a basic béchamel. A quick culinary school 101 lesson: béchamel, a milk sauce thickened with a light roux, is one of the five mother sauces that serve as the foundation for all other sauces. This smooth and creamy sauce, lends itself perfectly to cheese. Mornay sauce, one of the most classic variations of béchamel, adds gruyere and parmesan. If you’ve never made homemade macaroni and cheese from scratch, the béchamel is where you start. I actually think that this feta sauce would be really tasty in mac and cheese.

The cool and crunchy cucumber salsa was a nice compliment to the sauce which was like creamy, liquid feta. Sticking with the Mediterranean theme, I served it with toasted pita chips brushed with olive oil, and seasoned with salt, pepper, and cumin. My only complaint was that my chicken cutlets were way too thin; the butcher pounded them into paper and so they were kind of dry. I can only imagine how much better this recipe would be with thick, juicy breasts (Hey! Get your mind out of the gutter).

P.S. I'm so excited to have been selected by Foodbuzz and Electrolux to participate in the September 24 x 24, a monthly event where 24 Foodbuzz Featured Publishers from around the globe create a unique meal in the same 24 hours and blog about it. This month’s 24 x 24 is special as it will be helping to raise money and awareness in support of Ovarian Cancer Research. As a participant, Foodbuzz and Electrolux will be donating $250 in my name to the Ovarian Cancer Research fund! Next Saturday, September 4th, I will be holding a high tea party with all of the females in my family. I have a lot of great things planned for the menu which I’ll blog all about, and will be posting on Wednesday, September 8th, so stay tuned!

If you would like to become a fan of Cook’s Book on Facebook, please click the “like” button on my sidebar. I hope to see you there!

Mediterranean Chicken with Cucumber Salsa and Feta Cheese Sauce:

Yield: 6 chicken breasts

- 6 chicken breasts, seasoned with salt & pepper
- Regular olive oil to cook
- 1 Tbs whole butter
- 1Tbs flour
- 1 cup whole milk
- ¼ cup feta cheese crumbles
- 1 tsp dry oregano
- Garlic powder, and salt & pepper to taste
- 1 cucumber, seeded and diced
- 1 Tbs red onion, small dice
- Juice of ½ lemon
- 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

• Heat oil in the pan and sauté chicken breasts until nicely browned and cooked throughout. Depending on thickness, you may need to finish the breasts in the oven for a few minutes.
• For the sauce: in a small sauce pot, melt butter and whisk in flour until you develop a wet sand consistency—a roux. Whisk in whole milk, bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer; make sure to keep stirring so that the flour will not burn on the bottom of the pan. Add Feta cheese, oregano, garlic powder, and seasoning. Cook, while continuing to stir frequently, until the sauce is smooth and thickened to the point where it lightly coats the back of a spoon.
• Mix all of the salsa ingredients together in a bowl and serve with the sauce on top of chicken breasts.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Not Harriet Homemaker's Pork Chops

A pack of pork chops: an easy weeknight protein, “the other white meat,” a dinner that’s Harriet Homemaker approved. You know Harriet, the illustrious image of perfection pulled from the pages of Better Homes and Gardens circa 1950s; an idyllic hallucination of a woman at work in the home. When Rosie was done riveting, they told her to stop flexing her muscles and start acting like a lady. They dressed her in a housedress, put an apron around her waist, and tied it in a bow. With her makeup just right and her hair just so, she cooks and cleans and looks good doing it too; even while washing dishes, that one’s always with a smile.

Harriet loves pork chops because, just like chicken, she can whip them up into a delicious meal in no time—just leave under the broiler or something, and it’s pure succulence! For many, that is much easier said than done. Just like the plasticity of her image, Harriet makes everything seem better than it is. Let’s face it; her friendly and adorable looks are for the most part, a farce. I’m sure if Harriet were real, she’d suffer from extreme exhaustion just from trying to try so hard. Her cheeks would probably tremble right off from excessive smiling. While I imagine woman of that era to be dressed similarly to their 1950’s pop culture depiction when doing housework, I do not see them flashing Colgate pearlies nice and wide over a stack of pots in the sink. At some point, Harriet must surely clinch her teeth in frustration, wishing that everyone would just eff off. Today we call these domestic marvels, Martha Stewart.

No matter how quick and flawless cooking pork chops appear to be or how happy the person making them looks, they can be tricky. A lot of home cooks get turned off by pork chops when their efforts constantly yield dry, tasteless results. They try valiantly to execute a preparation like the ones that Harriet or Martha’s pose beside, but to no avail and certainly no tireless smiles. People are often so afraid of undercooking pork that they overcook it, “just to be safe.” And overcooked pork chops, in a word--suck. I’m sorry Harriet, but pork chops, even your pork chops--pineapple rings, maraschino cherries, and all, are not always as simply heavenly as you make them seem. But, they can be.

General rule: be careful not to overcook. Depending on thickness, pork chops shouldn’t take longer than 6-10 minutes total. Do not be afraid of a little pink in the middle. Trichinosis, the parasite to be blamed for the fear of underdone pork, dies at 137 degrees Fahrenheit. If your meat is at an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit, you’re good. Now that you have the back pocket knowledge to cook a pork chop without reducing it to a desiccated mass, you can have fun figuring out tasty ways to build upon the all-American weeknight standby. I bet you can create something even better than Harriet could ever shake her wooden spoon at.

This week, I prepared my pork chops breaded with panko breadcrumbs and Parmigiano Reggiano. I fried them and finished in the oven for a crispy outside, and a fully cooked but juicy inside. To add a little more excitement to the dish, I prepared a pizzaiola sauce to spoon over the top. Pizzaiola begins with “pizza” for a reason; it basically means any sauce that you can put on a pizza. I like my pizza with peppers, so I put some in my sauce, which was a bit thinner than the kind you would normally get on a pizza. You can also add mushrooms or nothing at all. It was an Italian restaurant-inspired pork chop dish sure to knock the ruffles right out of Harriet Homemaker’s apron.

Parm and Panko-Crusted Pork Chop Pizzaiola
Yield: 5 Boneless Pork Chops

Breading & Frying:
- 1 cup panko breadcrumb
- 1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
- 1 Tbs chopped fresh parsley
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- Olive oil for frying

• Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
• Set up three separate vessels. In one, put the flour; in the second, the egg; and in the third, combine breadcrumb with cheese, parsley, salt and pepper. To bread: first, dredge each pork chop in the flour; next, dip into the egg; and finally, cover with seasoned breadcrumb mixture.
• In a deep skillet, heat olive oil. When the oil is hot enough, add the pork chops and brown on each side. Put on an oven safe tray or plate and finish in the oven for 25-30 minutes. While the pork chops are finishing in the oven, prepare the sauce.

Pizzaiola Sauce:
- Olive oil for sautéing
- ½ medium onion
- 1 green bell pepper, thinly sliced
- 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
- 1-2 thinly sliced cloves of garlic
- 1, 14 oz can diced tomato, with sauce
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 Tbs tomato paste
- Handful of fresh basil, chopped or torn
- ¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped or torn

• Heat olive oil in a deep skillet and sauté onion until translucent. Add peppers and cook until soft; about 10-15 minutes. Once the peppers are cooked, add in garlic. Once the garlic is fragrant, add tomatoes and white wine; bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and let the sauce cook down and thicken a little. Finish with fresh basil and parsley just before serving. Serve sauce over pork chops.
Pork Chop on Foodista

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Open Sesame: Using Tahini Paste

I recently bought tahini, a paste or butter made from ground sesame seeds, to make the red pepper hummus I shared with you a few weeks ago. Glaring at the 15 ounce cans lined up along the the grocery store shelf, my first thought was that they must have got a deal on gargantuan cans of tahini; apparently, that was all they had in stock. I’d never dipped into tahini for more than few tablespoons, so almost a pound seemed like a huge amount to go through. Walking away with what then felt like a jug of sesame paste in tow, I sensed that there was going to be a lot of hummus in my future.

Writing the hummus post, I thought of how unversed I was in tahini and the possibilties for what was basically still an entire can of sesame paste sitting in my fridge. Looking to my readers for ideas and inspiration, I learned that although it is most famous for adding flavor to hummus, tahini has a lot of unrecognized potential. Suggestions included incorporating it into soups, salad dressings, and desserts. A great piece of advice that I found to be particularly helpful was a comment from Adelina from the blog, My Tasty Handbook. “Just think of it as peanut butter with sesames,” she said. If you’re not familiar with tahini, this is a really unintimidating way to look at it since with its creamy nuttiness it is essentially, peanut butter with sesames. Thanks to everyone who commented with an idea. I really appreciate your feedback!

The tahini Gods must have been watching. Thursday, when I signed onto my AOL account, what coincidently (or miraculously), shows up right on the home page? Tahini cookies! In an episode of AOL KitchenDaily’s the Pantry Project, a series of short cooking videos hosted by Top Chef Judge Gail Simmons, Gail demonstrates her own hummus and provides two other recipes that specifically showoff other ways to use tahini: Tahini Cookies and Roasted Eggplant with Tahini Dressing. Before you could say “tahini” I was in the kitchen measuring out ingredients for the cookies.

Much like peanut butter, the tahini worked great as the main profile in a sweet cookie, and tasted very similar too. I substituted light brown sugar for dark, and sprinkled granulated sugar on top instead of the Demerara sugar (a natural, crystallized brown sugar made from sugar cane), that the recipe calls for. The cookies came out nutty and delicious. Right out of the oven, they were heavenly, but even after being cooled, they retain a little bit of a soft chewiness which is always a nice quality to have in a cookie. I’m not a certified cookie connoisseur, but I’ve eaten enough in my day to be considered a legitimate cookie monster. You can take it from me when I say that they were really good! Don't you love when the house smells like fresh baked cookies? It reminds me of Christmas.

Turns out, tahini is often sold by the pound or more, and its enormity was apparently all in my head; I now see how useful it can be and just how fast it can go. I have a bit more left, and while I still sense more hummus in my future, I’m also seeing it in soups, sauces, dressings, and sweet dishes too. With so many newly discovered options, who knows what it might end up in next!

Tahini Cookies:
Recipe by Gail Simmons, AOL KitchenDaily

Yield: about 42 cookies

- 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup well-stirred tahini
- 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup (loosely packed dark brown sugar)
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 large egg
- Demerara sugar for sprinkling

• Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
• In a bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle, beat butter, tahini and vanilla on medium speed until no streaks of butter are visible, about 3 minutes. Add both sugars and beat to combine. Reduce speed to low and beat in half of flour mixture. Add egg and beat to combine, then beat in remaining flour mixture.
• With lightly floured palms, roll dough into balls about 1 1/4 inches in diameter. Place them about 1 1/2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. With two fingers, gently but firmly press each dough ball to flatten slightly and create indentions. Sprinkle liberally with Demerara sugar.
• Bake, rotating the sheets halfway through, until cookies are golden on bottom, about 14 minutes. Transfer the baking sheets to wire racks and let cookies cool completely.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Heard it through the Grapevine: Long Island's got some Good Wine

Take a trip with me through the heart of Long Island’s North Fork. Flanked on each side by rich farms and green pastures, the slender roads lead you past small businesses, produce stands, and charming provincial homes dotted along the way. At every minute’s break, grapevines intertwine endlessly, uniformly lined up for miles. Welcome to wine country.

Being from the opposite direction of the island where there is barely a working farm in operation, it is always amazing to realize where an hour’s drive can land you. Among other farms, the North Fork is home to dozens of vineyards and award-winning wineries, most of which have tasting rooms and tours. It was my first stop when I turned 21 and I’ve been returning in the fall and summer seasons to discover new wineries each time. It is always a relaxing day filled with great wine and memories. This visit, I stopped at Martha Clara and Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard: two wineries that have particularly interesting stories.

Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard and Horse Rescue:

Wine grapes aren’t the only ones being cared for at Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard. Since 2007, Baiting Hollow has provided a sanctuary for horses rescued from execution. The healthy and beautiful horses that so graciously greet the winery’s visitors by the fences of their corrals, once stood neglected, scared and helpless inside of slaughter pens. Destined to be killed for human consumption, racehorses who have outrun their careers and babies found on feedlots are among Baiting Hollow’s rescues. For some, days or only hours remained before being saved from their grim fate. Read their miraculous stories.

Over the years, Baiting Hollow has built up a strong and content family of horses that are evidently well-cared-for and loved. Overlooking rows of grapevines, the horses eat, play, curiously approach guests, and can even be spotted plopping down for a nice roll in the dirt. As boasted by the winery on their website, the horses are spoiled rotten. You can see it in their eyes and in the way they have learned to trust: they are grateful.

Meeting the winery's lastest addition!

Although Baiting Hollow’s horse rescue is now a large and important part of their operation, it all started with the wine; from their sprawling, picturesque vineyards, delicious fine reds, whites, dessert wines, and three memorable rosés are created. This was my second visit to the Baiting Hollow winery and other than the horses and the atmosphere, the rosé is what brought me back. Ranging from dry to sweet (Cabernet Franc Rosé, Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé, and Merlot Rosé), each is better than the next.

Baiting Hollow’s newest Chardonnay, Angel, is inspired and named after their first rescue. Described as “rich,” proceeds from purchases of the oak-blended white, go toward helping the horses. Mirage, a soon-to-be-released red blend, will be the winery’s second in their line of wines dedicated to the horse rescue. You can buy Baiting Hollow wines online here.

Inside of a quaint country house, the Baiting Hollow tasting room is a relaxing place to hang out and sip on their many varietals and blends. Surrounded by black and white photos of the rescued horses, it is just the right atmosphere to sit back and reflect, not only on the good wine, but on the sweet souls you’ve encountered at the corrals and the decency of the people who have provided them with a much warranted second chance.

Martha Clara Vineyards

Martha Clara is one of the livelier, more family-friendly vineyards to visit. They’ve got animals, a scenic patio and picnic area, pick your own sunflowers and peaches, horse-drawn tours of the grounds, entertainment on the weekends, and of course, a great tasting room to check out their wine selection.

Named after his mother, the vineyard grows on the estate of Robert Entenmann of the Entenmann’s Bakery franchise. Originally a potato farm, Robert transformed the grounds into a thoroughbred horse farm, and eventually put all that fertile land to use and turned it into a vineyard. The grounds are covered in healthy vegetation sprouting everywhere; after rows and rows of grapevines, there is a long stretch of peach trees, followed by a seemingly endless field of sunflowers.

 Since I happen to like my bubbles, I ordered a glass of the Brut Rosé at the tasting room. While the berry-noted sparkler was good, it was overshadowed by the 2009 Riesling. The hit of the day and said to be the latest favorite among customers, Martha Clara’s 2009 Riesling has a great balance of flavors that goes perfectly with a nice summer day.

I did not take notes about the wine but I did spend a lot of time drinking and taking bad pictures of it. Just so you get a better idea, the website describes the Riesling as having, “enticing aromas of white tea leaves, citrus zest, and fresh apricots…that lead to tantalizing flavors of orange blossom, honey, kaffir lime leaf, with hints of passion fruit.” I couldn’t have said it better! What I can say, is that while it doesn’t fail to deliver the crisp sweetness you expect from a Riesling, it does so in a subtle way; it is not overly sweet as some Rieslings can be. It has just enough acid to offset the sugar.

Martha Clara wines are sold all over Long Island and in Manhattan, as well as in other parts of New York and in Florida. If you are interested, you can also buy wine at their online store.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Oreo Truffles

My Aunt Jo, who is also one of the best bakers I know, gave me this recipe for Oreo truffles from allrecipes.com. The three ingredient recipe is an eccentric, more domesticated take on the chocolate truffle, with an Oreo cookie and cream cheese filling in place of the traditional ganache.

I’m all for taking the easy way out when it comes to baking. Ganache, an emulsion of chocolate and (usually) cream, isn’t difficult to make, but there is always the stress of separation or collapse if you happen to make a wrong move. Then, you have to wait for it to set before you can make the truffles. You know what’s really not difficult? Pulverizing a bag of Oreos in the food processor and mixing it all together with a softened pack of cream cheese. Rolled up into little chocolaty orbs and covered in melted chocolate, they are delicious in a way that only America’s favorite cookie could make possible. I never claimed to be Jacques Torres.

This weekend, we had a surprise celebration for Aunt Jo’s 60th birthday so I made the Oreo truffles and decked them out for the occasion. Other than just the suggested Oreo crumbs, I garnished the chocolate spheres with colorful little sprinkles, and big 60’s written in pink and white chocolate. The vivid mound of truffles went fast. The taste is chocolaty enough to make you roll your eyes back into your head, with a subdued richness that dangerously impels the urge to keep going back for more. I can attest to this, since I had more than my fair share throughout the day. And the birthday girl loved them! The verdict: an easy and customizable go-to recipe that won’t fail to satisfy a large crowd, or any right-minded chocolate lover.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Sweet Little Grilled Pizzas

Upon closing the cover of my latest food magazine I felt inspired to create. All those shiny close-ups and recipes get me every time. Skimming through each page, I gawk at the photos of perfectly assembled meals and lavish desserts and think, “oh, I want to make that, that, and that!” Of course, that’s the point--and I love that point. I wasn’t prepared to do anything too crazy or intricate; I just wanted to get into the kitchen, be in my Zen place, and make something.

Craving peaches, they were the number one ingredient I imagined for my yet-to-be-constructed recipe. Sadly, I found them to have already met their fate, secretly being consumed by mold in the dark underbelly of the fruit bowl. Sticking with the fruit idea, I fixed my gaze on the bowl of cherries sitting on the counter. Having tasted these cherries the night before, I was pretty unimpressed, but figured it was nothing a simmer in sugar water couldn’t help.

Grilled pizza was one of the images from the magazine that failed to escape me. And suddenly, I had it: sweet and savory mini pizzas or “pizzette.” I threw the pizza dough together from the top of my head. I call it “no-rise” because well, you know, it didn’t. It was a really nice dough though that ended up tasting good and working well for this dish. My boss always says, “There are no mistakes in the kitchen, only new recipes.” I provided the recipe just in case you’d like to try. Feel free to use your own, or even easier, just buy it. Not only is grilling the pizza dough fast, it also makes it crispy while imparting the flavor from the open flame.

Just like a regular pizza, I wanted to add a tasty topping. I mixed toasted walnuts with light brown sugar and melted butter for a cobbler-like blend. The syrupy cherries on top of the crust in addition to the sugary, toasted walnut crumble make up a sweet little toasty tart. It’s all topped off with goat cheese and honey—perfect, since apparently, August is national goat cheese month. So happy goat cheese to you! Enjoy.

Cherry Pizzette topped with Walnut Crumble, Goat Cheese, and Honey:
Yield: about 6 pizzette
Walnut Crumble:
- ¼ cup walnuts, toasted
- 1 Tbs brown sugar
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 1 tsp butter, melted
• Chop toasted walnuts and mix with brown sugar, salt and butter.

No-Rise Quick Pizza Dough: (or substitute your own/store bought)
Yield: about ½ pound ball of dough
- ½ cup flour
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 Tbs/ 1 packet active dry yeast
- 4 Tbs warm water
- ½ tsp sugar
- 1 Tbs olive oil
• Combine flour and salt in a stand mixer. In a small bowl, whisk together yeast and warm water and let stand for a few minutes; mix in sugar and olive oil.
• Add the wet mixture to the dry and mix on low speed until the dough forms and ball and no longer sticks to the sides of the bowl. Add extra flour if needed.
• On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough ball out into a log with your hands and cut into 6 portions; flatten and shape into small rounds.

Cherry Topping: (sliced peaches or plums also make great toppings)
- ½ cup fresh cherries, pitted
- ¼ cup sugar
- ½ cup water
• In a small sauce pot, simmer all ingredients together until thick and syrupy.

- Crumbled goat cheese
- Honey

Grilling and Assembling Pizzas:
• Place the mini pizza dough rounds directly onto a medium-high grill; when the uncooked side begins to bubble, turn the dough over and cook on the other side until nicely browned, crispy, and cooked throughout.
• Spoon cherry mixture on top of pizza dough and top cherries with walnut crumble. Garnish with goat cheese and a drizzle of honey.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Best Pizza Grows In Brooklyn

I've always been a big fan of L & B!
In New York, there is the constant debate over who’s got the best pizza. Everyone has their own opinions and reasoning behind where you need to go to get the best slice in town. For me, there is no contest; without hesitation my answer is, and will always be, L & B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn.

Although born and raised on Long Island, I inherited a piece of my accent and the love of great pizza from my dad, who for as long as I can remember took me back to his hometown of Brooklyn several times a year for L & B Spumoni Gardens. To this day, it just doesn’t feel like summer until we sit outside at one of the pizzeria’s red picnic tables beside double parked cars and echoes of “how you doin?," over a few oven-fresh square slices and homemade spumoni.

For all you non-New Yorkers, I’ve recently come to realize that not everyone orders pizza like we do. The Big Apple has its own pizza culture, and according to this spot-on roundup from Serious Eats, that culture includes very particular pizza jargon. For instance, what might be known as a “piece of cheese pizza” in your neck of the woods is a “slice of regular” in ours. So before I continue talking about “slices” and “pies” maybe you should quickly reference that amusing little language lesson.

Known by most locals as simply “L & B,” L & B Spumoni Gardens is notorious for their Sicilian pie or legendary “square.” You don’t come to Spumoni Gardens and get a regular slice. I mean, you can, but why would you really want to? The often imitated, never duplicated square can be spotted by its rather unconventional assembly. L & B lays mozzarella down over their thick, doughy crust first, and then slathers bright red tomato sauce on top of the cheese. To finish it all off, the pizza is generously sprinkled with pecorino romano. In the oven, the crust becomes blackened around the edges, while remaining bouncy and bready on the inside. It is no wonder why every time you pass by this place, there is usually a line.

In the Brooklyn episode of Man v. Food, host and Brooklyn boy Adam Richman pays a visit to L & B. If I remember correctly, after this segment he takes one bite, closes his eyes, looks in the camera and says something along the lines of, “I’m home.” I think that sums it up best. In all of Brooklyn--in the entire state--in this entire world, nothing comes close to L & B pizza. I have heard that some people are actually underwhelmed by the pizza of this celebrated institution. To this, I am only forced to believe that such individuals know little to nothing about good New York/Brooklyn pizza and/or pizza in general and should perhaps stick to Pizza Hut (sorry, Pizza Hut)—and yes, that was sarcasm (kind of).

As boasted on their sign, L & B has been family owned and operated for over 70 years—and it all started with scooping spumoni. As chronicled on the pizzeria's website, owner Ludovico Barbati came to the United States in 1917, from Torella Di Lombardi, Italy, and began selling homemade spumoni and ices from a horse-drawn wagon. He had his store built in Brooklyn when the business started to boom, and began making pizza as well. Today his family continues to carry on the tradition. The homemade spumoni at L & B is a creamy, scoop-able blend of almond-speckled cremolata, pistachio, and chocolate flavors.
Spumoni! Meet my
triple-toned bunny, named after the Italian frozen dessert.

Every weekend in the summer, Coney Island has fireworks. Being just a few minutes away from L & B, it is often the next stop after pizza. The fireworks are set off right on the beach, putting on a great show that draws a pretty big crowd. Here are some photos of the place best known for its hot dog eating contests, landmark amusements, and freak shows:

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Beep Beep! Gourmet Food Trucks Hit the Streets

Among the vintage trinkets and treasures found within the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market, some of the best gourmet food trucks from in and around the New York City area gathered today for the New York Gourmet Food Truck Bazaar.

New-age food trucks are like restaurants on wheels. These aren’t the meal trucks you find on the side of the road or in the back lot of your job. These trucks are more steak and pommes frites than dirty water hot dogs and chips, more crème brulee than ding dongs and yodels. Behind the wheel are innovative, culinary-minded entrepreneurs, and restaurants looking for mobile expansion. Cooking their way through the streets, gourmet food trucks are serving up quality and specialty food items all across the country. To spot one is enough to make a fully grown adult want to run along the sidewalk waving dollars in their hands, as if they were a child who just heard the ice cream man.

Those looking to get their gourmet food truck fix in Manhattan have to keep their eyes peeled as they often park at different locations. But for one day (although the lines are a bit longer), hungry customers could get their fill from several of the trucks in one place. Here’s a rundown of all the vehicles featured at the Gourmet Food Truck Bazaar:

BLT Go Burger:

BLT Go Burger is an extension of Chef Laurent Tourondel’s BLT restaurants, with locations across the country. The menu consists of hot dogs, shakes, fries, and juicy burgers made from top-notch ingredients. The burgers range from classic with all the fixings, to the “Lamb Merquez” with Colorado lamb and Mint-Cilantro Yogurt Sauce and the Salmon burger with Atlantic salmon, avocado, baby arugula, and zesty-cayenne tartar sauce. You would never expect to get such a great burger off of a truck. Since May, BLT Go Burger has been primarily stationed at the South Street Seaport but still travels to other neighborhoods four times a month.

Big Gay Ice Cream Truck: 

I first read about the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck in a Delta Sky magazine article written by Andrew Zimmern. I never forgot his mention of the so popular, can’t even put on the menu because they can’t meet the demand, ingenious creation, dubbed “The Choinkwich”: chocolate soft-serve ice cream sandwiched in between two chocolate cookies with caramelized bacon--OMG.

Owner Douglas Quint, a classically trained bassoonist, got his Big Gay Ice Cream Truck on the road in June of 2009. Starting with a base of fluffy soft-serve ice cream, Douglas has earned many accolades for his smart, tasty, and sometimes unconventional toppings. Some of the menu’s stranger offerings include sriracha, olive oil and sea salt, ginger snap with curry power, cayenne, and ground cardamom toppings. “The Salty Pimp” is a popular choice, with vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche and sea salt, all dipped in chocolate. I got the “Bea Arthur”: Vanilla ice cream with dulce de leche, covered in crushed vanilla wafers. Check out all of the other good stuff they have.

The Rickshaw Dumpling Truck allows Rickshaw Dumpling Bar located in the Flatiron District to spread their dumpling love all over town. Like most of the gourmet trucks, the menu is limited. You have a choice of three types of dumplings along with a few soups, salads, and sides. The watermelon lemonade was perfect for fighting off the heat. The pork and chicken and Thai basil dumplings were also  satisfying.

Stated best on their website, The Krave Korean BBQ truck has “One simple mission: Korean BBQ for all.” The truck, which normally resides in Jersey City, had one of the longest lines at the Gourmet Food Truck Bazaar. They actually closed down early. It was so busy, that they easily could have run out of food. I did not get to taste any but I sure wanted to. Listen to this: Korean tacos with a choice of short rib, sesame chicken, or tangy pork, served with sour cream, shredded kimchi, and onion-cilantro relish. My mouth is watering--I don’t know about yours! They also have “kimchidillas,” like a quesadilla but with kimchi, and “kravers” sandwiches with meat, kimichi, and onion-cilantro relish on a brioche bun.

Kelvin Natural Slush Co.:

One of the newest gourmet trucks to hit the streets, Kelvin Natural Slush Co. truck just made its debut in June. It is owned and operated by former lawyer and flavorful frozen slushy lover, Alex Rein. As explained on their blog, the truck is named “Kelvin” after the Kelvin temperature scale; it is a nod to “absolute zero.”

The concept behind the truck takes all-natural slush flavors like spicy ginger and tangy citrus, and combines them with your choice of fruit puree. The truck was so busy that the slushy machines could barely slush in time for the crowd. I got the tangy citrus with strawberry puree, and it was delicious. On a hot day, it is just completely irresistible. It was a food experience that I won’t soon forget.

The gourmet food truck trend is really taking off. In fact, the trucks that were at Gourmet Food Truck Bazaar all range from fairly new to brand spanking new; none are much older than a year. And you know Food Network had to get in on it. The Great Food Truck Race, a competition between gourmet trucks from all over the country, will be running on Sunday nights starting August 15th. Although the show was advertised on a few of the trucks at the Bazaar, none will be competing.