29 April 2010

Fresh Lettuce and Komatsuna

You might remember a while back that the first seedlings that sprouted a month ago were lettuce and komatsuna. Well, today we ate the first things from our garden and they were, you guessed it, lettuce and komatsuna. George picked a few leaves for our lunch, and after I thoroughly washed them we nibbled. I expected the fresh lettuces to taste a little better than farmer's market or supermarket lettuce; I was shocked that they tasted roughly ten times better! I hadn't even realized that plain lettuce could achieve such savory deliciousness. The Bibb lettuce tasted buttery, as if it drank salted butter instead of water. The komatsuna had the most delicious stem ever. If you want gourmet food, apparently our backyard is the place to graze.

George said that people recommend picking leaves early in the morning before they have a chance to get bitter, but we picked them around noon and they were fantastic. Some slight bitterness did round out the flavor, I admit, but not in a bad way. Maybe the sun's kiss made the lettuces taste so amazing. Maybe George chose superior varieties. I don't know. All I can conclude is that you should try growing your own lettuce. And komatsuna.

24 April 2010

How to Choose High-Quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil

For the kind of olive oil you drizzle raw on cold or room temperature food, you need high-quality extra virgin. It is worth spending more money that you would on normal pantry supplies for that extra-fresh, fruity Mediterranean flavor. I am a cheapskate but this year I spent $14 on a tall thin bottle and I do not regret it. Once you've bought the oil, store it in a dark, cool place (not cold, like a refrigerator) and make sure the cap is tightly closed. Definitely keep it far, far away from the stovetop. After a two or three years the oil will lose its flavor and you will need a new one.

But how do you know which oil tastes best? The most direct way is to go to your local farmer's market, if you have one, and taste their oils, if they have them. Should this not be possible, go to the highest quality supermarket or specialty store you can find. Ignore olive oil that is less than $10. Now you have to read the label. The olives used for the very best olive oil will all grow in the same region. Notice I did not say country, and I did not say Italy. If you want a clear, sparkling taste you need the olives to grow in the same soil and climate. My current olive oil is made solely from olives in Tuscany, and you can taste the difference. But even if the olives come from the United States, you know it's going to be decent if they all came from the same farm! Here's the California Olive Oil Council's website, if you're curious. They have a list of certified extra virgin olive oils that are:
  • exceeding strict international standards for True Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • mechanically extracted without chemicals or heat
  • less than 0.5% free oleic acid
  • no taste defects

The International Olive Council gives out awards every year for the best extra virgin olive oils. Go to their website and click on the links to the winners of the Mario Solinas Quality Award.

Also, of course, check the date. You want the freshest oil. Plus, avoid the temptation to get garlic-basil oil, or whatever. That stuff can taste decent in the right situtations, but it loses its flavor faster and in any case you shouldn't use it as your basic go-to extra-virgin. For ultimate versatility, plain is best.

Caprese Salad

Caprese Salad may well be the easiest tasty dish ever invented. I needed something elegant and simple to go with my fancy-pants challah, so I made this. My guests actually demanded that I go back into the kitchen and make more. I did, and now it is swimming happily through their intenstinal tracts.

Tomatoes off the vine, washed, and sliced medium-thin
Fresh or buffalo mozzarella, sliced medium thin
High-quality extra virgin olive oil
fresh ground pepper
good salt

Layer tomatoes and mozzarella as seen in the above picture. Drizzle the olive oil in a tiny stream over the slices. Grate on pepper and sprinkle on salt. Serve fresh.

Challah, slow or fast

I haven't made challah in about 2 years, but we held a big Shabbat dinner last night, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by the craving for my house to smell like fresh-baked bread. George drove to the supermarket in the early afternoon to get ingredients, but hours ticked by and he didn't return. I grew pretty frantic because it usually takes more than four hours to make challah. The only yeast we owned was 1 package of Rapid Rise (bread machine) yeast, and I've always made challah with normal yeast. George was supposed to bring back normal yeast, but I couldn't wait any longer.

So I looked up substituting bread machine yeast for normal yeast. I found out that if I substituted it I would save a lot of time, but the bread would likely lose some flavor. (The challah indeed may have tasted a little blander than usual, but I couldn't remember because it had been two years since my last taste.) I also read that you should add bread machine yeast to the dry ingredients instead of the usual flour-sugar-water combination because liquid slows down the rising action, but by the time I realized this it was too late. I just let the dough rise an extra fifteen minutes at the end; it wasn't a big deal. Those loaves ballooned enough.

I made the challah according to recipe but instead of the first 2 hour rise I simply let the dough "rest" (covered with a damp towel) in the bowl for 10 minutes. Then without punching it down, I tore the dough in half and formed two braided loaves right onto the baking sheet (with parchment paper). I covered those loaves with a damp cloth and put the baking sheet in a warm place for an hour. Finally I brushed the loaves with egg yolk mixed with cold water, sprinkled on sesame seeds, and baked the loaves for 25 minutes. The loaves baked into some of the most beautiful challah I had ever seen. My guests scarfed down the first loaf in a matter of minutes.

I'm going to write down the original recipe, and if you want to save about 2 hours but possibly sacrifice some flavor, you can just do what I described above. I tried 6 challah recipes before I found one that tasted and looked right— I received this widsom from a Jewish friend whose Jewish cousin figured out this recipe. For all those looking for authenticity, rest assured: it's Jewafiable.

If you want to make this vegan—and I've never tried—I looked it up and I think you can substitute 1 Tbsp. ground flaxseed mixed with 3 Tbsp. water (some say 1/4 C. water works better) for each egg, and 1/2 Cup canola or olive oil for the butter. The flaxseed should give it a nuttier texture and flavor. I've also successfully used unsweetened applesauce as a butter substitute in other bread recipes; it makes bread much moister, though.

I don't think this recipe could successfully be altered for people with celiac disease—I researched all the sites and I think you're better off going with an original GF recipe. Apologies!

Amazing Challah


1 1/4 Cups unbleached all purpose flour
4 1/4 - 5 1/4 Cups unbleached bread flour
3 Tbsp. sugar
1 package yeast (2 1/4 tsp.)
1 Cup lukewarm water
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 Cup softened butter (I put thin slices in the microwave for 30 seconds)
1/4 tsp. turmeric, for color
4 eggs, room temperature if possible
1 tsp. cold water
handfuls of poppy or sesame seeds


1. Combine all purpose flour, water, sugar, and yeast in a very large metal or glass bowl. Let it sit for a bit, about 5 minutes, until good and bubbly.
2. Add butter, salt, and turmeric. Beat together with an electric mixer.
3. Separate 1 egg yolk and save it. To the batter add the remaining egg white plus the 3 other eggs. Beat at high speed for 2 minutes. Blend in the bread flour one cup at time (After the first cup don't use the electric mixer—you'll break it). You want the dough to become soft and not sticky.
4. Knead the dough for 10 minutes in the bowl you mixed it in. Form it into a spherical shape. Cover completely with a damp cloth towel. Let it rise about 2 hours until doubled in size. Punch it down! Reform into sphere.
5. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper. At this point you can braid the dough into either 1 or 2 loaves. (I recommend 2). First divide the dough into 2 halves. Then divide each half into three equal lumps. Rolls those lumps between your hands into sausages. Lay the longest sausage between the other two on the parchment paper. Start braiding from the middle, then braid as far as possible to the each of the ends of the sausages. Pinch the remainder of the ends together and fold underneath so that they look respectable.
6. Cover the loaves with the damp towel and place in the warmest place you can find. Let rise again for at least an hour. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
7. Mix the remaining egg yolk with the teaspoon of cold water. Dip a pastry brush into the yolk and brush it evenly over the top surface of the loaves (this will make it shiny). Then sprinkle lots of poppy or sesame seeds evenly over the loaves.
8. Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 25 minutes if you made 2 loaves or about 35 minutes for 1 loaf. Serve warm, and have a Shabbat Shalom!

I found that this tastes much better if:
1) You use the slow method
2) You gently shake the yeast/water/sugar/flour so that it aerates, which makes the yeast really happy and prolific
3) You use as little flour as humanly possible
4) You knead until a little pull of dough has the consistency of a nice ear lobe
5) You let it rise outside in the moist heat.

16 April 2010

Nashi, or Asian Pears

Hi all of you eager readers,

I know I've been bad lately about updating, but I did warn you about the end of the semester. We haven't been cooking much lately, and when we do it's always 1) slowly heat up a jar of pasta sauce (we like Newman's these days) in a fry pan 2) add freshly sautéed vegetables and 3) toss with pasta. Bam. I hope that doesn't inspire you gourmets—you're better than that.

So on my cooking hiatus I thought I'd inform you about an extremely tasty fruit many of you probably don't know: the nashi/ Asian pear. We first had them in Japan where they are considered quite special; our hosts always served them chilled and sliced with toothpicks in them for easy eating. They look like enormous apples with the skin of a freckled Bosc pear. The white crisp flesh tastes like a combination of the best apples and pears. They're best in winter, and you can find them at farmer's markets and even sometimes your local grocery. Don't be put off by the occasional high prices--they are almost always worth it.

We gave three of our neighborhood children some nashi and they loved it, even though it was a new flavor to them. Blackberries last summer inspired so much devotion that those kids are still asking for more. Excellent fruit tastes better than candy any day.

Several kinds of nashi are grown in the U.S. Check out the Wikipedia article for more information.

08 April 2010

Pickapeppa Sauce

Since moving South, George and I have learned to love Pickapeppa sauce. We cottoned on to its vegan flavor-power when it flared all over my Southern vegetarian cookbook, Cookin' Southern: Vegetarian Style. It tastes like A-1 steak sauce but fruitier with a richer, more complex flavor. Ours contains tamarind, mango, raisins, garlic, and onion among other ingredients. There are a few kinds, all with mango. (It doesn't say it's gluten-free but none of the ingredients are gluten-y.)

Want to give your Mac n' cheese extra depth? Add some Pickapeppa. Do your slow-cooked collards need a darker taste? Add some Pickapeppa and a bit of chopped umeboshi. They're even okay for Passover! One of my favorite Passover meals by George was {random vegetable} + boiled whole baby potatoes sautéed in oil, thyme, and Pickapeppa sauce = Positively Elegant. One of my colleagues even envied me my lunch! On Passover!

So, even if you don't rush out and buy yourself a carton of Pickapeppa sauce, consider the lesson learned: slowly sauteed sweet fruits with aromatics like garlic and onion might make a delicious sauce. It sort of reminds me of the ingredients for tzimmes.

05 April 2010

Food Photos

For several weeks I have been planning my post about the cheese pasties I made out of the Sundays at Moosewood cookbook, but I still can't post it. Once my neighbor Sally tried one of my pasties, she borrowed and then sort of kept the cookbook. I can't get it back yet since she's basically making all the recipes she can first. She already made rumbledethumps (I tried one, it was good in a cheese-cabbage-potato kind of way) and some sort of soup with kashkaval cheese in it. Long story short, I still don't have the original recipe, although I seriously had to alter it for common sense's sake. So you will have to wait for cheese pasty, probably a month until finals are over on May 7th (barring any extensions, please God!).

Anyway, to console you for having to wait even longer for Cornish turnip-vegetable-cheese turnovers, I am providing you a link to one of my favorite food blogs, The Girl Who Ate Everything. There are a lot of pictures on there, in comparison to my 4 pictures per 100 posts. Also, they are mostly places to eat in Philly and NYC, as opposed to places I eat in Durham, North Carolina, which most people don't pass through. The blogger is not vegetarian, but she knows how to write and take pictures. So while all 1.2 of you are on holiday from my cheese pasties, please enjoy this blog. It has inspired me to plan on someday posting photos of the three places we eat out at: Guglehupf, Twisted Noodle, and Los Comales. Papa John's doesn't count, does it?

04 April 2010

Garlic Peppercorn Matzoh Ball Soup

The Passover seders disrupted my life in the usual fashion, but this year I tried something new. I made a vegetarian broth for my matzoh ball soup, hoping to rival my mother's homemade chicken soup. As my guide I chose the Moosewood Celebrates cookbook, that same volume that held the key to this Valentine's Day successful hazelnut chocolate truffles. It seemed promising that the base the recipe requests is their garlic peppercorn broth, one of "Moosewood's most often used stocks." And really, it's genius. Obviously garlic and pepper would go super well with matzoh balls.

After peeling all the cloves in three entire heads of garlic, I expected this soup to be the most garlicky foodstuff I had ever put into my body. To my horror, even after letting the flavors marry for two days in the 'fridge, the broth tasted bland, almost like commerical low-sodium chicken broth! It was pretty much the worst homemade broth I had ever made. To add insult to injury, the soup recipe asked for a ton of vegetables: carrots, celery, even fresh asparagus (in a nod to Passover tradition). I hadn't realized how small the ratio of matzoh ball to vegetable would be. In my bowl the vegetables were battling the matzoh ball for dominance every step of the way, which in my opinion is totally inappropriate. This soup isn't Primavera Soup, it's Matzoh Ball soup.

I was quite disappointed that my soup wasn't as good as the vegetarian soup-in-a-box my family buys me every year. I should have saved myself hours of effort and simply written a paper instead.

Garlic Peppercorn Broth:
3 heads garlic, peeled
2 potatoes
2 carrots
3 stalks celery
some black peppercorns
some fresh parsley sprigs
3 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. dried thyme
10 Cups of water

To make the soup: strain the solids from the broth. Saute some vegetables, add the broth plus enough turmeric to turn it yellow, and at the last minute add sliced asparagus and fresh dill. Ladle over each serving of matzoh balls. Serves 4 to 8 unhappy vegetarian Jews.
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