Friday, August 31, 2007

Never Say Die

Swayed by popular demand--largely in the form of protests by Fork and my hungry co-workers--I have decided to extend the Summer '07 Ice Cream Challenge one more week. But this time I'm opening up the flavor choice to you, readers. I have set up an online survey for you to vote for the final flavor of the summer. Let your voice be heard!

Power to the people!-S

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Out with a Bang

It seems like only yesterday that I was plotting my ridiculous project of making a different ice cream flavor every week of the summer. And now--after adhering to the plan through June, July and August--I've nearly reached the end. This week I made my final flavor before Labor Day. And it was really, really good.

I went down a new path, calling on a recipe from a forthcoming book I just received, Dolce Italiano: Desserts From the Babbo Kitchen. I also tried a frozen dessert I'd never attempted before: gelato. Call it beginner's luck, but the Toasted Almond Gelato was a mega-hit. Definitely one of the summer's home runs.

I started by toasting almonds until they were nicely golden brown, since, as the recipe says, the toastier they are, the more intensely flavored your gelato will be. Then I put them in a saucepan with cream, milk, sugar and honey. The recipe calls for fancy millifiori honey, which is made from "a thousand flowers" and has subtle floral notes that are apparently sublime with almond. But I didn't have that kind of honey, nor was it for sale at the greenmarket. So I bought a jar of Berkshire Berries Roof-top Magic Honey. The man selling it said it was very flavorful--and it was made right here in NYC. Next, I let the almonds infuse in the liquid for awhile, until it was room temperature. I strained the almonds out and stirred in salt, Disaronno amaretto and almond extract. I put this in the fridge until chilled, and then churned it in the ice cream maker.

How to describe this gelato? It was so good my coworkers nearly wiped it out this afternoon. I had to snatch the container away from them so I could have a scoop left for Fork and I. We ate it on a chocolate cookie cone--so rich and delicious. It was so good I dripped it on my computer but I didn't care. It was so good that I have another batch on the stove right this very moment.--S

Toasted Almond Gelato

Makes 2 cups

1 c sliced blanched almonds
1 c heavy cream
1 1/2 c whole milk
1/4 c plus 1 T granulated sugar
1 heaping T flavorful honey, such as clover or millifiori
Pinch of kosher salt
2 t amaretto
1/4 t pure almond extract

1. Preheat the oven to 375. Spread the almonds in a single layer on a clean baking sheet and toast them for 12 to 14 minutes, or until they are golden brown and aromatic (I only toasted them for 8 or 9 minutes and they were nicely brown).

2. Remove the almonds from the oven and place them in a medium saucepan. Add the heavy cream, milk, sugar and honey and place over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

3. When the mixture comes to a boil, remove the saucepan from the heat and set aside to infuse the liquid with the flavor of the almonds.

4. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature, then strain it through a chinois or fine-meshed sieve and discard the almonds. stir in the salt, amaretto, and almond extract.

5. Chill the gelato thoroughly in a covered container, at least 3 to 4 hours. Freeze it in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Recipe courtesy of Dolce Italiano: Desserts From the Babbo Kitchen

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

August Tomato

Fork's just back from winning a semi-final game with his softball team. The Yankees are about to beat the Red Sox. Ice cream's churning in the kitchen. And the tomatoes are fine. It's a lovely August night if ever there was one.

So those tomatoes: fabulous. I picked some up from the market after work and put together a simple meal for myself. Inspired by "So Many Tomatoes to Stuff in a Week" from last week's New York Times--and still in a Spanish mood--I made Pan Con Tomate. I toasted slices of a baguette (my first purchase at Borough Food & Drink) and smeared them with garlic. A little olive oil and some kosher salt, and then the piece de resistance: squished tomato. Appetizing, right? Actually, yes. You rub a tomato that's been cut in half, cut side down, on the bread, squeezing the insides out as you go. It's so delicious.

The apartment's quiet, and I can hear the hum of traffic outside. I leaf through a magazine, munch on some parmigiano-reggiano and lick my fingers as tomato dribbles down my chin. Not a bad way to wrap up August.--S

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Peachy Keen

The Laura festivities continued into this past weekend, with a cocktail party at Spoon Manor, aka my parents' house, in Franklin Lakes. My mom's ambitious menu included pulled BBQ chicken sandwiches, gazpacho, lime-marinated shrimp kebabs and popovers with onion confit. My contribution? Ice cream, of course.

I decided to go retro and made peach ice cream. It was a simple recipe from Luchetti and did not disappoint. I stewed ripe greenmarket peaches in a pot with a little sugar and lemon juice until they resembled peach jam. Next, I prepared the custard that I've become quite familiar with this summer, as it forms the basis for some of the creamiest ice creams. And finally, I churned it into a delightful, frozen swirl of peaches and cream. We used a cookie scoop to serve the ice cream in tiny pastry cups my mom found at a gourmet store. Considering the mega-dessert display--which included berry shortcake, blueberry pie, coffee cake, marcona almond-dark chocolate-toffee bark, mousse and sweet little sticks of pastry you dipped in a peanut butter-chocolate sauce--the little peach ice cream balls were just perfect. Pictures coming...-S

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Real Deal, Part 2

The Madrileñas whipped up another yummy meal for us Americanos on Monday night, one of Fork's favorites: Spanish omelet, aka tortilla espanola or tortilla de patata. When he and I visited Laura in Madrid a few years ago, we ate tortilla almost once a day. It's on the menu at most tapas restaurants there, and is delicious warm, cold or at room temperature. I tried to make one when we got home, but failed. Too much potato; not enough egg. Fork, naturally, says it was still tasty. But I needed a lesson.

On Tuesday night I learned how it's done. Not for the faint-hearted, tortilla espanola requires lots of oil. Florence Henderson would be proud: Laura and Laura used an entire 24-ounce bottle of Wesson canola oil to make two tortillas (one potato, one onion and potato). First, they cut potatoes into rather small pieces, at varying angles, so no slice was the same shape as another. Next, they fried the potatoes, mashing them slightly with a wooden spoon as they cooked:In a separate bowl, they beat eggs very well, incorporating lots of air. With a slotted spoon, they removed the potatoes from the oil and added them to the eggs, stirring all the while:The eggs began to cook slightly, from the hot potatoes, and then the mixture--which was by then like wet scrambled eggs with potatoes--went into a lightly-oiled frying pan:It cooked on one side, then Spanish Laura expertly flipped it onto a plate and slid it back into the frying pan so the other side could cook:That's really all there is to it.

The tortilla was fluffy, savory and brought us right back to El Mesón de la Tortilla. With a salad on the side, we were muy feliz. --S

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Real Deal

My sister's home for a visit! I'm thrilled to see her and spend time with her, and in our family, spending time together almost always entails eating. For Laura and I, it's Mom's tomato sauce, Dad's grilled sausage and a guilty pleasure or two. Last night's dinner brought a new dimension to our familiar feasts: Laura's friend Laura--let's call her Spanish Laura for clarity's sake--made my family seafood paella. It was delicious. We were all so excited to be eating paella made by a real Spaniard! And it reminded us all that though we may not be able to converse with Spanish Laura, who doesn't speak much English, it doesn't really matter when we all sit down to the table before a massive bowl of steaming rice and shellfish and raise our glasses of wine to the chef, smiling and oohing over the feast.

As Spanish Laura explained, paella should be either exclusively meat or exclusively seafood. None of this mix-and-match you see in many Spanish restaurants. She says this is because the rice absorbs the flavor of the other ingredients, and you want your rice to be one or the other flavor--not some melange of both. The Lauras made a seafood stock by boiling shrimp, calamari and mussels. In a separate pot, the clams steamed open in their shells, and the chefs reserved that juice, too. Into a big paella pan borrowed from my mom's cooking school went onions and green and red bell peppers that they had sauteed. Little by little, Spanish Laura added the stock, until the vegetables were simmering, then slowly--"like feeding chickens," Spanish Laura said--my sister Laura tossed in the rice. Unfortunately, the Spanish rice they'd packed in their luggage is somewhere between Madrid and New Jersey, wherever their suitcases are currently hanging out. So long-grain white rice from Whole Foods stood in, and I think it did a fine job. A little saffron went a long way, and the rice was a delightfully deep yellow color. Finally, they added the cooked seafood.

We were all salivating when the beautiful platter hit the table. Spanish Laura served, suggesting a squirt of lemon to bring out the flavors. Wow. This was some seriously tasty paella. The rice was perfect, neither mushy nor hard, and the seafood was tender. The peppers flecked the rice with color and slight crunch, and each mouthful was just a little different, depending on whether your fork had found a sweet little ring of calamari or a plump mussel. No translation was necessary to understand we were all quite happy. They promise the recipe's coming...--S

Friday, August 17, 2007

Icy Hot

With three weeks of summer left, and a number of classic and a little out-there ice cream flavors under my belt, I decided it was time to enter the realm of weird ice cream flavors. You know, like soy sauce ice cream, or foie gras ice cream, or... Orange Szechuan Peppercorn Ice Cream.

I went to Garden of Eden and bought a jar of Szechuan Pepper. The jar read, "THIS IS NOT A PEPPER CORN WE GROWN TO KNOW. IT IS A CHINESE SPICE KNOWN AS RED PEPPER CORN." Hmmm. Once home, I opened it up and took a tentative whiff. It was surprisingly mild, with an almost floral aroma. I tasted a peppercorn. It wasn't terribly hot. It was even a little sweet. Wikipedia confirmed my impressions:

"Sichuan pepper has a unique aroma and flavour that is not hot or pungent like black or white pepper, or chili peppers, but has slight lemony overtones and creates in the mouth a kind of tingly numbness (caused by its 3% of hydroxy-alpha-sanshool) that sets the stage for these hot spices."

Following a recipe from The Perfect Scoop, I crushed three tablespoons of the peppercorns, and let them steep in a pot with warm milk, cream, sugar and the zest of four oranges for an hour. Halfway through the steeping, my curiosity got the better of me, and I peeked in to see how things were going. What a mistake! I was assaulted with the most intense vapor I've ever encountered in my kitchen. I gulped for air. I pictured Fork coming home and finding me passed out on the kitchen floor, clutching the jar bearing the weird description. After a few seconds I was fine, but I definitely do not recommend sniffing this stuff while it's steeping. Unless perhaps you have a severe headcold. But even then...

Anyway, after an hour I drained out the peppercorns, and mixed in six egg yolks. I stirred this over low heat until a custard formed, then combined this with the remaining cream, and set it over an ice bath until it was cold. Finally, I churned it. The result? One of the most interesting, delightful ice creams I've ever tasted. It's creamy and citrus-y, with just a hint of heat that you feel on the roof of your mouth after you've swallowed the ice cream. My office pals swooned over this ice cream, lapping it up despite their initial raised eyebrows when I told them the ingredients.

Szechuan pepper: coming to a Baskin Robbins near you.--S

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

My Very Own Crackberry

Last week my parents and I went to a great little farmer's market in Ridgewood, NJ. We picked up tomatoes, eggplant, peaches and blackberries; plus some breads and cookies from a baker who was at the market, too. We didn't have the patience to wait on the long line in front of the truck selling fresh mozzarella, but I'll be back in the area next week and might have to return. A whole line of people can't be wrong.

My mom used the tomatoes and eggplant for a marvelous eggplant parmesan. The peaches topped our breakfast cereal the next day. And the blackberries? Blackberry Sorbet, of course. I made the version from A Passion for Ice Cream and it came out wonderfully. It had that perfect sweet-tart combination that I love in frozen desserts. And I am in love with the color, especially against these awesome blue ice cream bowls Kathy gave me. In fact, I'd love to sit here talking to you more about how great this sorbet is, but, um, I think my blackberry's calling.--S

Monday, August 13, 2007

Home Sweet Home

After days of pre-made sandwiches; packaged and processed cheese and cracker sandwiches; and disappointing local fare on my trip to Indiana and Illinois, I was dying to get into my kitchen and make some real food. So I picked up where I left off: with Food & Wine's September "Italy" issue. Tonight: Bread Salad with Tomatoes and Olives. The salad--also known as panzanella--is best made with day-old bread, but I made do (vast understatement) with a whole wheat sourdough boule from Le Pain Quotidien. I also added cherry tomatoes and fresh mint from the greenmarket; basil from my personal supplier; and celery, black olives, a shallot and dried oregano. Dressed with red wine vinegar and olive oil, the salad was complete.

Fork and I chowed down with some more of that delicious bread, which we spread with salted chevre from Patches of Star Dairy in Nazareth, Penn., by way of the Union Square Greenmarket. It's good to be home.--S

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Home Cooking To Hold Me

I'm flying to Indianapolis tomorrow. I'll spend Thursday and Friday visiting Wal-Mart stores in northern Indiana and arrive in Chicago Friday night. While I'm sure this will be an eye-opening trip, my dining options may be limited. Airports are largely culinary wastelands. Indianapolis and its environs appear to be overrun by chain restaurants, and apparently the food at Wal-Mart's "Deli Cafe" restaurants leaves something to be desired.

So tonight, I sent myself off with a tasty homemade meal. The September issue of Food & Wine landed in my mailbox today, and the whole thing concerns the foods of Italy (a risky choice, Fork deadpanned). Tonight I made the Spaghettini with Eggplant and Fried Capers, an excellent choice. The recipe is part of a story on canned, jarred, bagged and boxed foods from Italy, including chocolate-hazelnut paste, oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, tuna in olive oil and... capers! When you fry the salty buds, they puff up into crispy little blossoms and add intense flavor and crunch to the pasta. The other ingredients in the dish are eggplant, garlic, crushed red pepper, Italian bread and pecorino--all great, classic Italian flavors, unadulterated.

Here's hoping the suburbs of Indianapolis surprise me.--S

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Parachute In for Some Tuna

As I was running laps around a track in Riverside Park tonight, parachute strapped to my waist, sun setting over the Hudson River, I was thinking about tuna.

Sushi-grade ahi tuna. It was pink and fatty. Fork brought it home before I set out on my run, and as I released the parachute for a final lap, feeling its weight disappear as I tore around the track feeling newly lightweight, my stomach started to rumble. TUNA!

I busted into the kitchen, and Fork and I set to frantic work. Within 15 minutes, dinner was on the table and we dug in. The tuna steaks were phenomenal; we lightly coated them in olive oil, salt and pepper, and seared them in a hot frying pan for less than two minutes per side, serving them rare. Fork also picked up more littleneck clams, his latest obsession, which were just as tasty as last week's. And what goes better with tuna than ginger? Instead of masking the tuna's fine flavor, though, we used ginger on the salad, in an emulsified ginger dressing recipe my cousin Kathy gave me years ago.

And for dessert, the ice cream flavor du semaine: Coconut. I prefer this name to the one Mark Bittman gives it in yesterday's Times--Cornstarch Ice Cream. Despite the unappetizing name, this ice cream is one of my favorites yet. It's not as smooth as other ice creams I've made (especially the French-style ones, with eggs), though it lacked the graininess present in many ice creams. Turns out that cornstarch prevents crystal formation--which results in that grainy texture--by soaking up water, so there's less water present to make big crystals. The addition of some toasted coconut at the end of the churning did lend a little texture, though: a pleasant crunch.--S