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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Mysterious Pairings

 Oh, the mysteries of chemistry.
Wait, that sounds like my high school self moaning about one of my most dreaded classes:  Sophomore Chemistry, and that's not what I'm talking about here.  
Don't we all know couples that cause us to wonder, “how on earth did those two ever get together?!”
          Exhibit A:  Ross and Rachel.  
          Exhibit B:   A former college roommate and her straight-from-the-50s,  a-woman's-place-is-in-the-home husband.
As I say...a mystery!  Well for me, this doesn’t just apply to people, but to ingredients as well.

Who hasn’t read a modern restaurant menu lately and wondered how “persimmon, amaranth, candied pecan, vin cotto and brown butter” ended up on the same plate together?  I kid you not.  This is a real life example pulled from a local menu.  And what is amaranth anyway?  
Had to look that one up, and I give you, straight from Wikipedia:
Amaranthus, collectively known as amaranth, is a cosmopolitan genus of annual or short-lived perennial plants.  Some amaranth species are cultivated as leaf, vegetables, cereals, and ornamental plants. 
There are definitely times when I see odd combinations of ingredients in a recipe and like many people, I hesitate.   But I’m here to tell you it’s worth going forth boldly in cases like this, at least in the world of cooking and eating.  Whether you should go on a second date with the guitar-playing lawyer, well, let's leave that up to you.
When it comes to unconventional ingredient lists, I would suggest if even one element seems intriguing to you, GO FOR IT!  What’s the worst that can happen, really? 

Last night I made a salad that falls into this category.  Although they may not sound radical, the components were interesting:  spinach, dates, pickled red onions, pita bread and almonds.  Not ordinarily something I’d jump on but what caught my eye was the addition of sumac.  This comes from Ottolenghi’s book, Jerusalem and since I started cooking from Jerusalem, I’ve found I really love the taste of sumac.  It gives things a smoky, tangy depth that's indescribably alluring.  And, wouldn't you know it...with this salad, it's a stroke of brilliance.  
Here's how it goes:   
You do a quick (20 minutes or so ought to do it) pickle of thinly sliced red onion with slivers of dried dates (dates!  I know!  How often do you cook with dates?!)  in some champagne or white wine vinegar. While that's happening, you saute a couple handfuls of torn  pita bread with some coarsely chopped almonds in a combination of olive oil and butter.  The smell of the pita bits and almonds getting toasty and golden brown is intoxicating here.  You've been warned.  Once you've achieved golden toasty pita bit nirvana, sprinkle the combo with salt, some chili flakes and the aforementioned sumac and you're in the home stretch.  Wash your fresh spinach leaves and then toss with the pickled onion/ date mixture and combine with the toasted pita/almond goodness.  The sumac envelopes it all in that unique, smoky, tangy embrace that is indescribably delicious while the variety of textures provide a chewy crunchy symphony of tastiness that somehow all just works.  Don't ask me to explain's just, chemistry.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Less is More

 You might call me an over-doer.
When I cook, “more is more” seems to be my style.
Is this a general personality trait, you ask? I've thought about that, and I suppose there's a strong “maybe”, when it comes to shoes...and, well, okay, perhaps handbags, but otherwise, no.

It only seems to be related to my adventures in the kitchen. It is not with shame, but with wonder, that I can point to Asian-themed dinner parties with not one, but five-too-many dishes. Weekend breakfasts that find me simultaneously trying to keep an eye on the stove, the toaster and the oven while squeezing fresh orange juice by hand. Overly ambitious holiday baking lists that can only be accomplished by late night baking sessions where I nap on the sofa with a timer between batches of cookies.

On one of our early dates, Steve invited me over for dinner at his place. I stood at his door, knocking, bottle of wine in hand, for at least five minutes with no response. Maybe I'd been stood up? But no, there was too much clanging of pots and pans coming from inside. The door swung open to reveal him standing there, wearing an oil spattered rain coat (what??) and clutching a bloody paper towel to his hand before motioning me to come in. He sent me into the living room to wait and then disappeared into the kitchen. More banging of pots and pans, some loud cursing and then a crash. I had to investigate. Turns out he was trying to cook a mult-course meal from a chinese cookbook and things were not going well. I was in love.
So, maybe I'm some kind of kitchen adrenaline junkie.

But, here's the thing...every so often, I experience a kind of epiphany when serving up a single dish that deeply satisfies, and yet doesn't involve a dozen ingredients, six different pots and pans or a kitchen blowtorch. It feels like a new realization every time it happens. I'll make something super simple, and it's delicious and everyone is happy eating it. In this age of countless food shows, food blogs and catalogues with a million different cooking tools and gadgets, it's easy to forget that yes, less can be more.

Thanksgiving last week was a simple affair for us and cliched as it maybe, it reminded me how the meaning of sharing a meal with people you love can get lost in the frenzied preparations for the big gatherings we typically host.

Some of my best memories are of humble meals with people who are very dear to me. So, now that we're in this crazy rush through the December holidays, I thought I'd share a simple dish I made last Christmas for brunch.

It's called strata and I promise you will be glad I introduced you. Strata has a lot going for it. It's kind of like a savory, cheesy bread pudding and it can be tailored to your tastes. Vegetarian? Sure! Just use cheese and spinach. Prefer cheddar over swiss? Go right ahead! You assemble the whole thing the night before, so its true beauty is apparent as you relax in a comfy chair the next morning, sipping coffee in your pj's and sniffing the delicious aromas wafting through your home as it bakes. Simple is good.

I've made it a number of times this past year, and each time I marvel...easy, no stress cooking that's delicious and makes people happy. How novel!

I'll make it again this Christmas...but you know, I was kind of thinking to whip up a little roasted pear compote, on the serve with the smoked salmon blini and blood orange mimosas...


NOTES: I adapted this from Cooks Illustrated and adding the sausage was a stroke of brilliance if I do say so.
This doubles really easily so you can bump up from serving 6 to 12 by going from an 8-inch pan to a larger rectangular baking dish.

12 slices supermarket french bread or italian bread (leave it out overnight, or toast in a low—225 degree—oven)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
4 medium shallots, minced (about ½ cup)
1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
½ lb. Bulk breakfast sausage
salt and ground black pepper
½ cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc, OR vermouth is also delicious here
6 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated (about 1 ½ cups)
6 large eggs
1 ¾ cups half-and-half

1. Butter the sliced bread on one side with 2-3 tablespoons of butter and set aside.

2. Brown the sausage in a medium nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and set aside in a medium bowl.

3. Heat 2 tablespoons butter in same skillet over medium heat and saute shallots until translucent; add spinach and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to the bowl with the sausage.

4. Add the wine to the skillet and reduce to ¼ cup over high heat.

5. Butter 8-inch square baking dish with remaining 1 tablespoon butter; arrange half the buttered bread slices, buttered side up in a singler layer in the dish.

6. Sprinkle half the spinach/sausage mixture, then ½ cup grated cheese evenly over bread slices.

7. Arrange remaining bread slices in single layer over the cheese; sprinkle remaining spinach/sausage mixture and another ½ cup cheese evenly over bread.

8. Whisk eggs in medium bowl until combined; whisk in reduced wine/vermouth, half-and-half, 1 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Pour this egg mixture evenly over bread layers; cover surface flush with plastic wrap and weigh down. (I've used a heavy plate, or a small box of brown or regular sugar.)

Refrigerate overnight.

9. Remove dish from refrigerator and let stand for 20 minutes at room temp. Heat oven to 325 degrees and adjust oven rack to middle position. Remove plastic wrap and sprinkle remaining ½ cup cheese evenly over the surface; bake until edges and center are puffed up, 50-55 minutes (more like an hour if you're doubling and using the bigger baking dish). Cool on wire rack 5 minutes and serve.