Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Must have to do with the fancy lemons

It might be difficult to imagine, but working in Akron, Ohio, has its perks. One of them is the relatively low cost of living. Another is my office's proximity to West Point Market: a mere 1.5 miles of road separates me from a riot of gourmet, fresh, hard-to-find ingredients. The wine and cheese departments alone make my eyes cross as I gaze upon their bounty, my tongue wagging out of the side of my mouth in extreme anticipation. The best and most frightening part of this geography: I can go there nearly any time. It almost feels dangerous, spending 40 hours each week sitting only moments away from a 4-oz. chocolate bar that costs $8 or a $16-per-pound Spanish sheep's-milk cheese. It is a cross I bear.

Of course, I know that there are many gourmet food emporia in many locales around Northeast Ohio; indeed, the State; indeed, the nation. But this one is so good and so close, and thus particularly inspiring to me as I seek the best ingredients I can afford in the service of my daily cooking adventures. I have made many an unreasonably expensive purchase there -- $14 for Marcona almonds; $11.99 for vanilla extract; $14.99 for white tea. But each time I walk back through the parking lot to my car, lugging one single paper grocery bag that's not even filled to the top yet still cost me $63.74, I brim with excitement over the meals to come, the culinary treasures contained within.

Sometimes I go to West Point Market for the cheese. The area that holds their incredible international selection is the perfect place to dream up an astounding cheese course for your guests, which might include, oh, I don't know, a Sardinian Pecorino, a Murray River cheddar, the King Island Dairy Roaring Forties Blue and some Istara Ossau-Iraty. Plus, for every $60 you spend on cheese (and, trust me, it doesn't take long to get there), you get a free half-pound of your choice. So you know I wait until I'm at the $60 mark to get a taste of the really expensive stuff!

Sometimes I go to West Point Market for the wine, though I must admit that I rarely stray from the Australian reds, particularly the Peter Lehmann selections. (Husband and I visited Peter Lehmann's Barossa Valley winery on our honeymoon, so his reds not only taste delightful, but remind us of the amazing time we spent in his cellar door sipping the Black Queen.) If you were so inclined, however, your head could be spinning with wine possibilities -- and that's before you have anything to drink.

Sometimes I go to West Point Market for the international candy aisle and the international candy aisle alone. Can you imagine? Cadbury Crunchie, Haribo Gummy Bears and Choco Liebniz all in one place. If they were somehow able to import Tim Tams, my head would explode.

Sometimes I go to West Point Market just to browse and look for inspiration. There's no better place to do it; walking through the aisles is like walking through the pages of a beautifully illustrated or photographed cookbook. Come across some black bean flour? Put it in the cart. I'm sure there's something magnificent I can do with that. Annatto seeds? Clearly I need these for some to-be-determined yet sure-to-be-delicious application. Tiny, perfect, tightly furled heads of radicchio? I have never seen purple look so pretty, and I have never been so excited about a bitter vegetable. Ring it up for me, please, trendy Akron teenager.

And sometimes I go to West Point Market when I've come across a new recipe that calls for a specialty ingredient that I might not be able to locate in my regular grocery store. These are the trips that are most satisfying of all -- if only because I have a "reason" to be there (as opposed to dropping hard-earned cash on Australian candy).

Take Meyer lemons.

Meyer lemons are a lovely mix of lemon and orange: tart but not too tart, sweet but not too sweet. The Goldilocks of citrus. The peel leans toward orange, but the flesh inside is a bright, summery burst of yellow. Just the thing to enliven a January night in Ohio, when the wind gusts reach 50 miles per hour and the five-day forecast includes a lot of little cartoon snowflakes.

Though not the rarest of fruits, sometimes Meyer lemons are a bit difficult to find. However, West Point always has them. Thus, when I found a recipe for whole wheat pasta with Meyer lemons and pistachios, I knew just where to go for the signature ingredient. The citrus in this dish does a wonderful job of waking up the spaghetti, which, as you know, can be quite the hearty and heavy carbohydrate when laden with a rich tomato or cream sauce. In addition to the Meyer lemons and pistachios, this recipe includes no small measure of lush, peppery arugula, as well as a handful of almonds -- both of which add pleasant contrast to the sprightly saltiness of the dish.

Though I excel at tomato sauce, when I'm not in the mood for tomato sauce, this, more often than not, is the pasta recipe for which I reach. It feels lighter; it feels healthier; it feels, exotic, even. Must have to do with the fancy lemons.


Adapted from "Martha Stewart Living"

1/2 t. sea salt

1/2 c. shelled unsalted pistachios

1/4 c. whole unsalted raw almonds

1 shallot, cut into a few pieces

1-2 Meyer lemons (about 5-6 oz., if you go over a few ounces it's no big deal), cut into 6-8 pieces and seeded

3 T. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

14.5 oz. whole-wheat spaghetti (I like Barilla Plus)

2 c. packed baby arugula

1/2 t. freshly-ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spread pistachios and almonds on a dry baking sheet. Toast in the oven until fragrant, about 7 minutes. Keep an eye on them -- they will burn very quickly. Transfer the nuts to a plate and let them cool completely.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. In the meantime, pulse the pistachios, almonds and shallot in a food processor until finely chopped, but not a paste. Transfer this mixture to a large bowl. Without cleaning the food processor, finely chop the Meyer lemon -- it will resemble a pulp when it's finished. (Yes, you are using the entire lemon, but for the seeds. Rind and all; trust me, it works.) Add the lemons to the pistachio, almond and shallot mixture and stir to combine. Stir in 2 T. of the olive oil.

Add the pasta to the boiling water; cook until al dente, according to the package instructions. Drain the pasta and reserve about 1 c. of the cooking liquid. I do this by placing a mesh strainer over a Pyrex liquid measuring cup; I find it easiest for measuring and pouring the cooking liquid, as needed. Toss the pasta with the pistachio mixture until coated; add about 1/2 c. of the cooking liquid and stir until the sauce coats the pasta. If the sauce doesn't feel "loose" enough, feel free to add more of the cooking water. You might very well need to do this, so the sauce isn't too thick.

Stir in arugula, allowing the heat of the pasta to wilt it slightly. Add sea salt, the remaining 1 T. olive oil and black pepper. Drizzle with just a little bit of extra olive oil and serve while hot.

Serves 4. This is another one of those dishes that is even better the next day. Note: if, for any reason, you use salted shelled pistachios in this recipe, omit the 1/2 t. sea salt. Unless you are like my sister and require a salt lick near you 24 hours a day.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Chessie at my feet, waiting for the treats to cool

Life is never boring when you live with a special-needs dog. And, boy, is our dog special.

Now, let me be clear. Even if my dog was a normal, average, healthy, run-of-the-mill pup, my (and Husband's) personality is such that she would still be The Most Amazing and Unique Dog on the Planet, With the Most Amazing and Unique Needs. We are dog people. We spare no expense. We elevate canines.

We got our Chesapeake Bay Retriever, a magnificent girl we named Jet, in June 2006 when she was about eight weeks old. She was a normal little pup in every way, growing and learning, simultaneously adorable and a large hairy whirlwind of mischief. We treated her like a child, she wanted for nothing. We even had her portrait painted in October, a gorgeous 30" x 30" oil-on-canvas work that hangs in our living room.

But then, in early January 2007, at the young age of nine months old, she started having seizures. If you've ever seen a dog (or a person) have a seizure, you know that it is a heartbreaking thing to witness. Especially that first one she had, when I didn't understand what was happening and thought for sure she was dying. Fortunately, she was not. Unfortunately, the seizures continued at an unacceptable pace so we shifted into high veterinary gear, taking her to specialist after specialist to try to determine the cause of her malaise.

A very respected vet in the area suggested that the problem could be rooted in a food allergy, so we began an intensive allergy trial. Like hawks, we watched every morsel of sustenance that found its way into Jet's mouth. She had one type of food and one type only, and for some time she couldn't even have treats. To make a long and at times heart-wrenching story short, it turns out food allergy was not the culprit of the seizures; she either has idiopathic epilepsy or is suffering the effects of low thyroid. While we continue her epilepsy medication and thyroid treatment, we are grateful for her otherwise robust health. We are so lucky that she's had an awful lot of healthy days lately!

At the risk of this post being too depressing -- food should never be depressing! -- I am compelled to share this dog treat recipe with you because, through all of Jet's health travails, we have learned the importance and goodness of homemade and otherwise high-quality pup snacks. When I was growing up, our dogs always enjoyed Milk Bones between meals. Now, I can't imagine giving Jet a Milk Bone. Not that there's anything wrong with them; it's just that after months of acute awareness of every potential health issue from which she might suffer, it just doesn't make sense to feed Jet a treat made of anything less than the best of ingredients. My food is homemade and high-quality, why would I not extend that consideration to my dog -- a pup I very well might love more than life itself?

It is out of such logical concern that these treats remind me of Jet. They remind me that I am taking good care of her; I am doing right by her. We are lucky that she is our dog, because we are completely committed to helping her. And so it is that these treats have a happy association for me, not a sad one related to her seizures. They recall many happy evenings in a peanut-perfumed kitchen, Chessie at my feet, waiting for the treats to cool. They help me remember that it is loads of fun catering to our girl's every need (necessary and totally extraneous!). These treats are what is good about dog ownership -- well, these treats, the backyard games of Frisbee and those dreadfully cold nights when she curls up next to me in the bed and keeps me warmer than any furnace ever could.

Jet loves the following recipe (but then again, she loves pine cones). I would love to be able to describe its taste and texture to you in great detail, but, you know, it's a dog biscuit. I have tried them. They are crunchy and peanutty. But they're not sweet and therefore don't comply with human "cookie" conventions. The recipe comes from Paula Moran, who is the woman who introduced me to Jet's breeder and to the unadulterated joys of sharing your life with a Chessie. Coincidentally, she is also married to my boss and owns Jet's sister, Lili. The girls love to get together, and always recognize each other right away. Must be a bond forged in the womb. These treats are very easy to make, and yield quite a few biscuits, especially if you use a small cookie cutter.

Take an hour or so some night to bake a batch of these for the beloved pup in your life. Even if you haven't resorted to the homemade treat as a reaction to a winding, treacherous health road (and I hope that you haven't), your best friend will thank you nonetheless.

Arf! Or, as Jet would say, Har.


Adapted from Paula Moran's recipe

3 c. whole wheat flour

1/2 c. rolled oats

2 t. baking powder

1 1/2 c. soy or dairy milk

1 1/4 c. chunky peanut butter

2 T. honey

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the whole wheat flour, rolled oats and baking powder in a large bowl; whisk to combine. Using a food processor or blender, mix the milk, peanut butter and honey until smooth, and add to dry ingredients. Stir to begin to combine the dry and wet ingredients.

Using your hands, knead the dough while it's still in the bowl, to more fully incorporate the dry ingredients with the wet. Turn out the dough out onto a floured surface (use the same whole wheat flour you used in the recipe). Knead the dough further, until it's smooth. The dough will be stiff and a little sticky.

Cut the dough in half; set one half aside. Roll the first half out to about 1/4" thick and cut with the cookie cutter of your choice. Roll out remaining dough scraps a second, third or even fourth time, cutting out more treats until all the dough is gone. Repeat with the second half of the dough that you set aside earlier.

Place treats on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes. Turn off the oven and leave treats inside the oven until they're cool. This recipe makes more treats than fit in the oven at one time, so I generally let the first batch completely cool, remove them from the oven, then fire it back up to 350 degrees to bake the second batch. Feed them to your grateful pup just as soon as they're cool!

This recipe makes a varying amount of treats, depending wholly on the size and shape of cookie cutter you use. Sometimes I use a traditional dog bone shape, though on Valentine's Day I use hearts. Today I used dog and duck shapes, since my dog is a dog that was originally bred to retrieve ducks in the icy Chesapeake Bay. Today the recipe made 75 treats. Which should last Jet about 2.4 days.

Store in airtight containers.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

On second thought, maybe pancakes are pretty remarkable

There was a time when I thought pancakes were pretty unremarkable. They were the first "dish" we learned to cook in 7th grade home ec. They are a breakfast standby, a weekend kitchen classic, a simple thing to do with flour and eggs and sugar and buttermilk. Or, an even simpler thing to do with a box of Bisquick or one of those new shake-and-pour pancake mix thingies.

But you know I would never go for a ready-made box of anything.

I prefer to elevate the everyday pancake to the sublime by (1) using a great from-scratch recipe and (2) infusing each morning that I make pancakes with happy and joyful memories. Which is to say, one of my favorite things to do these days is invite my little nephews over on a Saturday morning for some of genius David Rosengarten's pancakes.

My older nephew is about to turn 6, the younger will be 3 next month. They are super-cute and I think they enjoy spending time at their Aunt Di's house, even if they are a little intimidated by the 95-pound Chesapeake Bay Retriever who also lives there. We have a great time when they come to visit. They play with their Lincoln Logs, and give treats to the dog, and ask me if I have any candy and/or milk and/or cranberry juice, and color or paint and eat pancakes. We all eat pancakes.

Saturday morning is full of bright, sunny promise -- even if it is cold and dreary outside. The weekend opens up in front of you with all the potential in the world, even as you laze about your cozy kitchen in a robe, gripping a mug of hot coffee. You are just about as far from the work week as you can get, and your mind (well, mine, at least) reels with all the exciting projects to be done, or places to be visited, or rest to be enjoyed. Add homemade pancakes to this mix, and delightful children eager to help measure the flour, and you have yourself a marvelous template for happy weekends and treasured memories -- the kind of memories that are forged in the beauty and simplicity of everyday life.

I like this pancake recipe because it looks and tastes and smells like a laid-back Saturday morning. I love this pancake recipe because it comes from David Rosengarten, the King Midas of culinary endeavors. He has been my Own Personal Cooking Hero since I began watching his excellent show, "Taste," on the Food Network back in the late '90s. (Why the Food Network does not release this show on DVD is beyond me. Come on, Food Network! There is a powerful legion of Rosengarten fans who would give their eye teeth -- and their dollars -- to see those episodes again. Please. Please!!) I was lucky enough to meet David several times, and was part of a very small audience that got to participate in a cooking class with him at our local independent kitchenware store and cooking school. His vast knowledge of dishes, ingredients, techniques, world history and literature is topped only by his extensive travels and compelling storytelling that brings his journeys home to you, the viewer or reader. He's the original Alton Brown -- half epicurean genius, half theater major, all teacher and unadulterated food enthusiast. And as much as I love Alton and daily thank the cable powers that be for his show's inclusion in the Food Network line-up, he and "Good Eats" walk in a long shadow cast by Mr. Rosengarten.

A few years ago, David published a book called It's All American Food, a collection of varying dishes that make up the genuine American food experience. In the introduction he writes that "...the real subject of this book is not the usual cookbook fare, nor is it the idealized fantasy food of a photostylist's imagination. Rather, it is the vital, almost invisible American food that is eaten every day from the bayous to Boston, from east Texas to the shore of Lake Michigan....Most important, this book focuses on what Americans really like to eat -- which isn't often celebrated." Its recipes range from the exotic (sumac onions and saag paneer) to the expected (tuna melt with avocado and, well, apple pie).

These pancakes are just one of the many recipes from this book that have earned an elevated status in my cooking repertoire. They are very cake-y and, if you're not afraid of butter -- and I maintain that you shouldn't be, because it's not like you're making these every day or even every week -- they are mouth-wateringly crisp and sweet. They are almost fried, but not greasy, and have a nice, soft crumb. I didn't know it was possible to have such texture variation within the mere half-inch height of an individual pancake.

When my nephews are here with me, as they invariably are when I make pancakes, they are great kitchen helpers. Most exciting of all: since my stove has a griddle, they delight in watching the pancakes sizzle away on several square feet of cooking surface. Sometimes my dad stops by, and when he asks what they're doing, the boys always respond, "Grandpa, we're making pancakes!" There was a time when my older nephew nicknamed me "Pancake Di." And just a few moments ago, that same nephew asked me, "You know who makes the best pancakes?" I answered, "Is it me?" He said, "Yeah, because all of the food that we eat here is very good." Words that warm my heart as sure as these pancakes warm my belly.


Adapted from It's All American Food, by David Rosengarten

2 1/2 c. cake flour

2 heaping t. baking powder

2 t. baking soda

Big pinch of kosher salt

2 large eggs, beaten

2 1/2 c. buttermilk

1/2 c. sugar

1/4 t. vanilla extract

1/2 c. melted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the griddle

Melt the butter in the microwave; set aside.

Sift together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a medium-sized mixing bowl. Whisk together the flour mixture, beaten eggs, buttermilk, sugar, vanilla and melted butter until they are very smooth. Let the batter sit for 5 minutes; it will start to bubble and "rise" right in the bowl.

Heat a large non-stick frying pan or griddle over medium-low heat (or heat an electric griddle to 375 degrees). Just before cooking the pancakes, add a liberal 2 T. of butter -- or more if that's what it takes to coat the pan -- and distribute across the cooking surface with a silicone pastry brush or a turn of the wrist, if you're using a frying pan. Don't be moderate with the butter; it's what gives these pancakes their amazing crunch and nutty bite.

Using a 1/2 c. measure, scoop up batter and pour it into the hot pan/griddle, letting it spread by itself into a circle. Repeat with the remaining batter. Work in batches if necessary -- and I always find it necessary for ease of flipping. If you do work in batches, be sure to add more butter to the pan before adding more batter.

Flip the pancakes when their edges begin to set and you see many small holes on the surface of the pancakes, which should take about 2-3 minutes. Make sure you give them adequate time to cook on the first side before attempting the flip. This is the best way to guarantee an easy flip and a non-messy pancake. I find a wide, flexible spatula works very well for flipping. Cook the pancakes on the other side for 2 more minutes, or until they are golden, brown and delicious. Don't become disgruntled if the first pancake doesn't "take." Sometimes the griddle just needs to find its groove. Like Stella.

Serve immediately with butter and maple syrup. Lately, I've been serving them with maple butter, which is a decadent and rich addition to the whole scenario that I highly recommend. Alternatively, you can keep the cooked pancakes warm by covering them with a damp cloth and placing them in a low oven (about 250 degrees). However, I find that they get eaten long before the oven even comes up to temperature.

Makes about 12 pancakes. This recipe divides in half quite easily, if you're just making pancakes for yourself and one nephew. The batter also freezes well, and trust me, it is tremendously exciting to wake up on a random Saturday morning and realize that there is homemade pancake batter in the freezer. You will think you are dreaming but, no, you are awake.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Really, isn't that the point?

I am an ethnic foods girl. If you ask me what I want for dinner, I will most likely answer, "Thai." Or, "Italian." Or, "Mexican." And, often, "Middle Eastern."

Not that there's anything wrong with a simply cooked chicken breast or a salad, but there's something about "non-ethnic" food that, for me, doesn't hit the spot as often or as accurately. Maybe I prefer the foods of far-flung nations because of the herbs and spices -- which range from everyday (basil and cumin) to exotic (zatar and galangal) -- all of which I love in a very democratic and equal-opportunity way. Perhaps it's the knowledge in the back of my head that this food has traveled, metaphorically, many miles to get to my modest plate. Or it could be that these dishes remind me of places I've been, or inspire me to imagine those places I haven't. I don't allow my life to be boring; why would I permit that of my food?

So it is that I seek out the best of ethnic restaurants in whatever town I'm living or visiting. And so it was that I began to frequent a magical land called Pita Inn in the mid-1990s. Located northwest of Chicago in a town called Skokie, Pita Inn first came to my attention when Sister attended Northwestern the previous decade (Northwestern is in Evanston, just east of Skokie). I was still in middle school at the time, so, other than its name and location, it was otherwise unremarkable to me. I knew how Sister raved about it, though, so when I got to Northwestern on my own in 1993, I made it my business to do business with Pita Inn.

Trips to the Inn hit their zenith in 1995-1996, my junior year, because my awesome friend Crispin had a car and loved Middle Eastern food. A damn fine fellow to know. We'd load up his Saturn several times a week, head west to Dempster St. to the Inn. Though they've since overhauled the edifice and tripled the seating capacity, in 1995 the establishment was not much to see from the outside; in fact, if you didn't know any better, you'd probably think better of stopping and drive right on by. That would be a grave error. The restaurant's employees are frenetic but friendly -- think Soup Nazi, but a shade more pleasant. You walk up to the counter, place your order and wait for your number to be called. Meanwhile, the shawarma spins on its spit, the falafels are pulled rapidly from their oil baths and the scent of cumin is everywhere. When I was in college, there were fewer than 10 tables in the whole place, but since my friends and I were always occupying at least two of them, good luck ever finding a seat, other Chicagoland residents.

I always ordered a falafel sandwich, and it remains atop my list of Best Falafel. I am big on taste and texture, and Pita Inn's falafel had both: just spicy enough, pleasantly soft (but not mushy!) on the inside and browned to a tantalizing crisp on the outside. The cool tahini dressing was the falafel's perfect foil, and nestled in a pita with lettuce and tomato...well, it was enough to make me skip reading those last cantos in Spenser's The Faerie Queen just to make yet another trip to Skokie. (I was an English major.)

Then there was Pita Inn's hummus. I've had hummus in many places in my life, but nothing (not even my own recipe) beats Pita Inn's. I can't for the life of me understand how they get it so smooth and flavorful. I'm certain that it's a very simple recipe but, man alive, it goes to show you that perfection is often expressed in the most humble ways.

Since I developed this ravenous desire for hummus at such a formative stage in my life, it was a logical next step for me to start making it at home -- or, more accurately, in my first apartment, which I got the following school year. Mom, of course, had her go-to hummus recipe. I gave it a shot; friends loved it and it has been my go-to hummus ever since. It is easy and quick to make, and pairs as deliciously with standard pita chips as it does with kalamata olives, thinly sliced cucumbers and fat, juicy, summery tomato wedges.

Though it might not beat the Pita Inn (really, what could?), this hummus is a damn fine approximation. Eating it reminds me of all the good times and divine food I enjoyed at the Inn -- and really, isn't that the point?



2 20-oz. cans of chickpeas

1/2 c. reserved liquid from chickpeas (I normally rinse all legumes, but the reserved liquid works in this dish)

4 T. olive oil, plus more for drizzling

3 T. freshly-squeezed lemon juice

3 T. soy sauce

4 T. tahini

1/2 t. cumin, plus a pinch extra for garnish

1/2 t. coriander

1/4 t. cayenne pepper

1/2 c. sesame seeds, lightly toasted

1 small clove garlic

Pinch paprika, for garnish

Any number of dipping mechanisms, such as toasted pita triangles, sliced vegetables or kalamata olives

Toast the sesame seeds in a dry frying pan over low heat until they throw off a nutty aroma and a hint of lovely brown color. Drain both cans of chickpeas, reserving 1/2 c. of the liquid. Then, rinse the chickpeas.

Combine chickpeas, reserved liquid, 4 T. olive oil, lemon juice, soy sauce, tahini, 1/2 t. cumin, coriander, cayenne, sesame seeds and garlic in a food processor. Give it a whirl until the mixture is relatively smooth, keeping in mind it will never be completely smooth because the sesame seeds will offer a bit of crunchy, seedy texture.

Spread the hummus on a large serving plate; drizzle liberally with olive oil to finish. I stole Pita Inn's garnishing method, and always sprinkle my hummus with a little paprika and extra cumin for a beautiful presentation and even greater taste. Serve with an abundance of pita chips, vegetables (I like cucumber, carrots and tomato) and kalamata olives.

Serves 6. Or just 1, if you choose to eat it off a spatula right out of the Cuisinart.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

So you have to know I was sold

One day in 2001, Donna Hay appeared on Martha Stewart's TV show (the old one, pre-prison -- the one without the live studio audience). She prepared a recipe from her cookbook, Flavours. I don't remember what the recipe was, but the book looked so cool I just had to get my hands on it. With entire chapters devoted to simple culinary elements such as "salt + pepper," "cinnamon + spice," "chocolate," "basil + mint" and "lemon + lime," the book was beautifully and creatively organized and, as far as I could tell through my TV screen, included some of the most luscious food photography I'd seen in quite some time.

Then there is small the matter of Ms. Hay's being Australian. So you have to know I was sold.

For whatever reason, however, I didn't make any actual effort to buy the book. I placed it on my Amazon wish list and there it sat, a virtual pile of 1s and 0s. It wasn't until I was in Australia in April 2004 that I actually held a copy of Flavours in my hand and was able to peruse its recipes and photography. I was visiting Sydney for a friend's wedding, and had made a several-week vacation out of it. (I maintain that it is nearly useless to travel to Australia for less than two -- maybe even three -- weeks. Too much distance, too much jet lag to overcome. Plus, it is such an amazing place that a lifetime there isn't enough, really. That said, if you told me I could go tomorrow but could only spend four days there, you know I'd be on board the next overnight Qantas flight out of LAX.)

After the wedding, after my friend and his bride had jetted off to their honeymoon destination, I spent a few days wandering through Sydney. Those of you who have been there already know that Sydney is a sparkling city. I had spent enough time and was well-enough acquainted with her to wander aimlessly and happily, looking for experiences and adventure.

Though The Rocks is hardly off Sydney's beaten path, I had Flavours in mind when I darkened Ariel Booksellers' doorstep. I spent a lot of time in that small shop that day, looking to supplement my growing cookbook library with publications representing Australia's burgeoning food scene. In addition to Ms. Hay's book -- which I was delighted to purchase within Australia because it means the title on my edition includes the "u" in "flavours," versus ordering a "u"-less version off Amazon -- I picked up a copy of Sydney Food, by Bill Granger, and several issues of the magnificent "Delicious" magazine. Hey, if traveling half-way around the world is what it takes to get your hands on a good cookbook, and maybe a few back issues of a phenomenal culinary magazine, so be it. Who am I to judge?

I fiercely guarded my paperback babies through their journey back across the Pacific and east to Ohio. As anyone who knows me knows, I hate it when my books get dog-eared, or damaged, or wet, or otherwise marred -- ESPECIALLY if I haven't read them yet. (Very old cookbooks are the exception: the more scarred, the better, as use and wear are manifestations of food and love and happy times.) Flavours made it home in pristine condition, and I dove right in.

One of my favourites from the book is found in the "cinnamon + spice" chapter: Crispy five-spice chicken. I started making the recipe for Husband on Hanukkah, as fried foods are customary to celebrate and commemorate the miracle of oil. However, the dish quickly departed the realm of Foods Only Prepared During Holidays and arrived an everyday standby, based on its supremely satisfying texture and magnificent spice combination. Cooked to the precise temperature, crispy five-spice chicken has the most perfect ratio of juicy inside to crunchy outside that I've ever experienced with poultry: not even Colonel Sanders can compete. That delicious dichotomy on its own would be enough to elevate this dish to extraordinary, but then you throw in the five-spice and, well, get ready, friends.

You are going to need your spreadin'-out clothes for this one.


Adapted from Flavours, by Donna Hay

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast fillets

1/2 c. plain flour lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, for coating

2 eggs, lightly beaten and seasoned with salt and pepper

Vegetable oil, to shallow-fry (enough to fill whatever frying pan you're using about 1/2")

Coating mixture:

1 1/2 c. panko breadcrumbs (Panko is definitely the way to go, as its texture is amazingly light and crispy. You could use regular breadcrumbs if you can't find panko -- though panko is sold in all the grocery stores I frequent. We've used matzo meal as well. It's a great choice: better than regular ol' breadcrumbs, but still not as good as panko.)

2 1/2 t. Chinese five-spice

2 t. ground cumin

2 t. ground coriander

1 t. sea salt

Cracked black pepper, to taste

1 T. fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Cut the chicken breasts in half length-wise; set aside.

Make the coating mixture. Combine the panko, Chinese five-spice powder, cumin, coriander, salt, pepper and parsley. Dust the chicken in flour, shake off some of the excess, then dip in the beaten eggs. Press chicken firmly in the coating mixture; set aside on a plate to await frying.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is at 350 degrees (I use a handy infrared thermometer to determine oil temperature, and find it works like a dream), add the chicken to the pan and cook for 2-3 minutes per side. You might need to knock back the heat to make sure the coating doesn't burn before the chicken is cooked through. Keep in mind that the spice mixture makes this coating appear rather dark brown and lovely, so while you need to make sure it doesn't burn, don't be alarmed when you see the color.

After you have flipped the chicken to the second side, start taking its temperature. When its internal temp reaches 161 degrees, pull it. Any longer, and you'll begin losing the juiciness that works so nicely with the coating in this recipe. I use an internal probe thermometer for this task. Drain the chicken on a plate lined with paper towel; serve while hot and crispy.

Makes 4 servings. Donna Hay suggests serving this dish with steamed Asian greens. I'm sure that would be tasty, but I like to serve it with potatoes of some sort -- mashed, latkes, whatever the season inspires.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

One state over, a whitish/grayish cow is winking

This is a story about a cow in Squirrel Hill.

Though I grew up a meat eater, I was never a gigantic fan of the stuff. When I cooked and ordered and ate meat, especially red meat and pork, I always tried to transform it into something else. I required it burnt to a crisp before it could pass my lips, thereby breaking the cardinal rule of red-meat eating, specifically, that It Shall Be Rare And You Are Wrong, Just Wrong, If You Like I Any Other Way. I was perpetually squeamish about sausage, frightened of the squeaky little nuggets of gristly fat lurking throughout. But I did love that cured-meat nitrate flavor, so when I dug into links and patties I made sure that it, too, was burned beyond recognition. Kielbasas got split in half, length-wise, to increase burning surface area. Pepperoni was sliced into discs and made to sizzle away into blackness in a frying pan. Bacon was not permitted have one iota of non-crisped fat left on its poor, scalded self. I was the overcooking masochist of meat. Weird, I know.

Yes, I was a finicky carnivore, but in no way could I imagine being one of those strange, impolite, difficult, demanding vegetarians. I had met those before. Can't they get over themselves? Would it kill them to eat a piece of chicken?

Well, it might not kill them, but it will definitely kill the chicken. I realized this one day in 1994 when I visited Sister while she was in graduate school in Pittsburgh and living in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. One day, undoubtedly after a coffee at the 61C, we were walking back to her apartment down Murray Ave. when we came across an inexplicable urban petting zoo. We took a little detour into the "zoo" and surveyed the usual fauna: sheep, a tiny pony, the odd goat. Then there was this whitish/grayish cow. She looked at me with her big, soft, wise eyes and regarded me with a sort of gentle disdain: "I know you ate my friend the other day, but it would still be nice if you gave me a pet on the nose." So I did. I gave her a pet on the nose.

I turned to Sister and stated, simply but definitively, "You know, I don't think I can eat these guys anymore." Sister had been a vegetarian for quite some time, so you can imagine her joy. And you already know how much Sister's approval means to me.

From that moment, it was a steep and slippery slope to complete vegetarianism and, eventually, veganism. Since it started with a look in a cow's eye -- and not, say, high cholesterol -- my diet became political. I read every book on animal rights and vegetarianism that I could get my hands on. I sent money to Farm Sanctuary and sponsored a turkey whose photo, like a starving child in Africa, I placed on our dinner table at Thanksgiving. I started volunteering at a local animal shelter. Thankfully, I never threw red paint on anyone's fur (not because I like fur; rather, because I dislike any criminal activity, especially perpetuated by me).

It was natural, then, that I subscribed to Vegetarian Times. I loved reading each issue and poring over its pages every month. VT was the perfect publication for a new vegetarian who loved to cook and was hungry for new things to do with fruits, vegetables, grains and non-animal protein sources. I was particularly grateful when an issue devoted to chili arrived in my mailbox. Chili always has been and always will be a favorite of mine. My mom's hearty, meaty and beany version was omnipresent in the kitchen of my childhood. As a vegetarian, I hated that I couldn't have it anymore on account of all the beef -- and every veg recipe for chili that I'd ever found was a weak and tasteless facsimile.

Not this recipe.

Finally, a veggie chili that sticks to your ribs!

I have since mellowed quite a bit with regards to vegetarianism (indeed, I now eat chicken, turkey and fish, but I don't think I can ever go back to the cow and pig). This is not to say that I no longer believe in the rights of sentient beings; rather, it's just to say that my militant youth has passed me by. Moreover, as I have expanded my culinary knowledge, my list of allowable foods has expanded, too. Even so, the following veggie chili recipe has been an integral part of my kitchen repertoire since I first clipped the page from Vegetarian Times more than a decade ago. I still go for this version above all other would-be chilis. The original recipe doesn't include the meatless crumbles, but since Morningstar Farms has made such astounding advances in meatless technology over the past 10 years or so, I always include ground "meat" in this chili when I make it now. I then serve it to carnivores who don't have any idea what's going on.

Somewhere, one state over, a whitish/grayish cow is winking.



Adapted from Vegetarian Times

3 T. canola or olive oil

1 large yellow onion, diced

1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced

1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced

1 cup celery, sliced (include some of the tasty leafy tops, if you can)

2 large cloves garlic, minced

8 oz. meatless crumbles, like Morningstar Farms (you can use them straight from the freezer)

28-oz. can crushed tomatoes

14.5-oz. can stewed tomatoes, diced, or, if you're a hands-on cook like me, squished between your impeccably clean hands

15.5-oz. can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 c. red wine (I use shiraz, because that's what's perennially on hand in my household)

4 t. chili powder

1 T. dried oregano

2 1/2 t. ground cumin

1 t. paprika

1 t. kosher salt

2 t. bottled hot sauce

1/2 t. freshly-ground black pepper

Extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated (optional, to taste)

Fresh cilantro, chopped (optional, to taste)

Heat oil in a large saucepan or dutch oven. Add onion, bell peppers, celery and garlic. Saute until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Add the meatless crumbles, and saute for 2-3 more minutes, just to thaw them.

Reduce heat to low. Stir in crushed tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, beans, wine, seasonings and hot sauce; bring to a simmer. Cover most of the way and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 25-30 minutes. Don't skimp on time here -- everything they say on the cooking shows about "flavors melding" is true. This chili tastes markedly better if it's allowed to simmer and bubble away until its disparate elements are holding hands and ready to join Up With People.

Remove from heat; let stand 5-10 minutes before serving. Ladle chili into bowls and top with the shredded extra-sharp cheddar and cilantro, if you are so inclined. You can also choose any number of additional toppings, such as chopped scallions or red onion, fresh salsa, sour cream, guacamole, Monterey Jack, cooked elbow macaroni, cornbread....Knock yourself out; the possibilities are endless.

This recipe makes 4-6 servings. Great for Superbowl Sunday! Also great for days that, like today, are 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Friday, January 18, 2008

It feels good to return the favor

It is hard to believe, but today my sister turns 41. 41! Even though I know I am not far behind her, I am still required by law to point and laugh at her advanced age. Ha! You are old, Sister.

But, even given your extreme decrepitude, I still love you.

One of the benefits of the eight-year age difference between the two of us is that we never really fought. While growing up, she was older than me to a degree that made her way cool. She was my role model, and I aspired to like and do the things she liked and did, such as Pink Floyd and driving foolish high school friends home from Randall Park Mall even though she wasn't supposed to have other kids in the car. She was an exchange student, so I made it my goal to get myself involved in an international program, too. She went to Northwestern, so when the time came for me to apply to colleges, I applied only to Northwestern without any sort of back-up plan. She became a vegetarian, I became a vegetarian. She stopped being a vegetarian, I stopped being a vegetarian. She loved "The Man With Two Brains" and so did I, even though some of the jokes were over my head. ("Those aren't assholes, honey, they're azaleas.") Everything that I knew at an age before I should have known it is because of Sister's influence.

Even now, our combined jackasserie continues:

You might imagine, then, my thrill upon growing up and learning that the road goes both ways: there are areas of my expertise -- if you can call any of our foolishness "expertise" -- that Sister covets as well. I love it when she calls on me for something, or stops at my house when she's on her way somewhere and gets a migraine and needs to rest because she knows it is cozy and I'll take care of her, or craves a dish that I like to cook. I love that sometimes she needs me, or looks up to something I'm doing. Because after a life of being inspired by her -- attempting to be as smart, as funny, as accomplished -- it feels good to return the favor.

Which brings us to cumin-dusted pasta. I'm not sure when or how I developed this recipe -- just that it was during the time I lived in Chicago in the late '90s -- but it quickly became one of Sister's favorites. The dish's formal name is Cumin-Dusted Pasta with Curried Black Beans; Freshly Chopped Parsley, Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Finish. The lengthy title comes from the menu standards of my family's former favorite restaurant, The Inn at Turner's Mill, which, sadly, went out of business last August. Their food was quite fine, and the verbiage used to describe it even finer. Each item would follow the same formulation: Main Component of Dish with Primary Flavor (semicolon); Secondary Flavor, Sauce or Garnish. One particularly cosmopolitan-fueled night, we decided it would be fun to name my (at the time) signature dish following this code.

Hence, cumin-dusted pasta with blah blah blah....What it really should be called is, simply, delicious.

In addition to reminding me of Sister, this dish also recalls many of the nights spent in my diminutive Chicago kitchen. It was there that I really began cutting my culinary teeth, if you will. Trying out new things, watching a lot of Food Network (R.I.P., David Rosengarten's "Taste," most excellent show ever), exploring recipes, forcing friends to eat the results and sing my praises. But when it was just me, alone in that kitchen, this was the dish to which I always turned. (Well, this and baked ziti, but that's another post.) I can still see myself cleaning turmeric-colored droplets of olive oil off the wall that was RightNextToTheTinyStove. I can still hear my mind wondering if the neighboring apartment dwellers minded the wafting curry smells. I can still feel my inexperienced hands trying to flip the T-Fal frying pan full of sizzling black beans, you know, like chefs do, without utensils.

Even though I haven't made cumin-dusted pasta for Sister in quite some time, the mere mention of its name still elicits a Pavlovian chorus of "yummmm......cumin-dusted pasta....." from her lips. I guarantee, if I called her right now and said I was thinking of making it, that is what she would say. With good reason. The black beans, fried with the spices until their edges turn crispy, receive an extra hit of salty texture at the last moment, when they're tossed with sharp Pecorino cheese while still in the pan -- resulting in a crunchy, curry-y, gooey, cheesy concoction that just begs for some angel hair pasta with which to party. I could eat the entire dish myself, but since it is Sister's birthday, I guess I'll share.

Here's to you, Sister. Though subject to the inexorable and unforgiving march of time, may your tastebuds never be dulled to the excellence that is cumin-dusted pasta.

Happy birthday.



3 T. olive oil

1 15.5-oz. can of black beans

1 1/2 t. ground cumin

1 1/2 t. ground coriander

1 t. ground turmeric

1/4 t. kosher salt

Pinch freshly-ground black pepper

1 lb. angel hair pasta or spaghetti

1/3 c. Pecorino cheese, shredded

3 T. flat-leaf parsley, chopped

For a spice-heavy dish like this, I prefer to toast and grind my own spices (well, except for the turmeric). Actually, I should say: where possible, I always prefer to toast and grind my own spices. So, if you haven't already done this step and don't have home-toasted and -ground spices in your cabinet at the ready, take the time to toast up a few tablespoons each of cumin and coriander in a dry frying pan until they are fragrant but not burnt. Grind in a spice grinder, and store tightly covered in a dark cupboard.

Drain and thoroughly rinse the black beans. Heat the olive oil over medium-low heat in a large skillet. Put a large pot of thoroughly salted water on to boil.

Place black beans in skillet, along with cumin, coriander, turmeric, salt and black pepper. Turn up the heat to medium. Fry the beans until they start to get crispy on their little legume edges and the spices are cooked and aromatic.

When the water is boiling, cook the pasta according to package directions. If using angel hair, keep a close eye on it, as it cooks very quickly. When the pasta is al dente, drain into a strainer set over a large liquid measuring cup or bowl, to reserve some of the starch-rich pasta water. Deglaze the frying pan with about 1/4 c. of the reserved pasta water to release the yummy crunchy bits into the mixture. Add the Pecorino to the beans, stirring to combine and melt. Add the cooked pasta to the beans, tossing to mix thoroughly. (You will probably need to add a little more reserved pasta water to "loosen" the mixture.)

Garnish with the chopped parsley and serve, topped with a generous drizzle of olive oil and extra Pecorino to taste.

Serves 2. Note: Though, technically, you could use any shape of pasta you like in this dish, I have learned through years of experimentation that long pasta works and tastes much better than shorter varieties like penne or rigatoni. Also, if you are so inclined, you might want to stir in 1/8 t. cayenne pepper with the black bean mixture. (Sometimes I'm just not in the mood to have it this way.) Finally, this recipe is even yummier the second day, after the flavors have had some time to get to know each other.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Standing at the stove together

Some people are lucky enough to have been raised in multi-generational households, or at least with grandparents, aunts and uncles close by. While I have been very blessed with the latter relatives (phenomenal aunts and uncles who, to this day, are the finest kind of people with which to make mischief), I never really knew the joy of my grandparents.

My mother's parents, Ma Bernie and Pa George, passed away before I was born. My father's parents were around a little longer, but not very much: we lost my paternal grandmother, Ma Chris, when I was four. The most time I had with any of them was with my dad's dad, a man we simply called "Pa," who lived until I was nine years old. Even though I have friends at age 33 who still have their grandparents with them, everything is relative. To me, it seems like I had a lot of time with Pa. I cherish the time I got to spend with him because in many ways he was representative of all my grandparents.

In reality, I spent the majority of my formative years without my grandparents in my life. In the absence of their physical presence, however, I have learned to keep in touch with all of them through the delicious food they passed down to me. The dishes Ma Bernie and Ma Chris would prepare for my parents -- which they in turn cooked for me -- have special places in my recipe box and heart. They remind me of where I came from (Ma Chris) and help me understand a woman whose blood courses through my veins but who I was never fortunate enough to meet (Ma Bernie).

All four of my grandparents were ethnic and relatively poor, doing the best they could for their families in the western Pennsylvanian city of New Castle. Mom's parents were Polish and struggled to put food on the table, taking in boarders when necessary and even allowing illegal games of dice in the kitchen (about which my mother was warned to remain quiet). Pa George worked in a bronze factory and a radiator foundry, which put little money in his pocket but much soot in his lungs. Dad's dad was German and his mom was from a large Italian family with so many siblings that attempting to list them confounds my limited mental capacity. (There's even a second wife in there somewhere, and stepchildren and a sister who went to live with an aunt and uncle. Really, not possible to keep it straight. Each time we go back to New Castle for a visit, Dad explains it all to me again, but I promptly forget it once we're on the road back home.) Pa worked in a furniture store warehouse, and Ma Chris worked at Shenango China. I credit and give thanks to her for my pervasive and obsessive love of china and dishware.

It's fun to imagine the kitchens of my grandmothers. Ma Bernie's Polish kitchen, filled with what mom calls "white food:" potatoes, pierogies, cabbage. The only color in there is the crimson of the beets and the language of the illegal gamblers. I imagine Ma Chris' Italian kitchen as red with tomatoes and homemade meat balls, with sauce cooking for days on end and raisin-filled cookies in the oven. Both kitchens are little havens which I'd give anything to visit for a little while, just to spend some time with my grandmothers and watch them make, firsthand, those foods that have become so iconic to me. But life and health and fate can be cruel, so this is never to be.

What I do have are their recipes: notes jotted in the margins of old cookbooks, methods seared into the minds of my parents. I even reach for their sturdy cookware, which has been passed down to me, far more often than I choose any of the expensive All-Clad or colorful Le Creuset pieces currently beautifying my kitchen. My grandmothers' recipes are my connection to a generation otherwise lost to me. I can take sustenance and pleasure from the same ingredients they did and, in a way, it's like we're all standing at the stove together.

The following recipe is from Ma Chris. I am inspired to post it today because my mom made it for the family just this past New Year's Eve. (See what I mean about the longevity of these recipes?) As with all good dishes, this recipe doesn't have a title, per se. It's a wilted-iceberg salad with onions, hard-boiled eggs and brown-butter dressing. As with all good dishes that originated from my grandparents, this recipe has, over the years, come to bear its author's name: "Ma Chris Salad." There aren't many photographs of me and Ma Chris, but the following one of me, Ma, Pa and my older sister taken at Christmas 1975 makes me very happy:

Ma Chris Salad is a delightful exploration of tastes and textures. Its flavor and feel are as complex as the preparation method is simple. The iceberg lettuce, though wilted, has not totally succumbed to the heat of the brown-butter dressing and stubbornly retains just a hint of its watery crunch. The hard-boiled eggs add a softness and richness, the yolks nearly emulsifying themselves to bolster and round out the vinegar's tang. The onions add just a twinge of spice, which plays nicely with the sugar in the dressing. This salad is a wonderful addition to any meal, and given its brief and common ingredient list, can be made very quickly with items you most likely have in your kitchen.

Even if you don't have an emotional connection to my grandmother, I'm guessing that after this salad hits your plate and your palate, you'll wish you did.



1/2 head of iceberg lettuce, sliced

1/4 medium white or yellow onion, sliced thinly

4 hard-boiled eggs, sliced

4 T. unsalted butter

1/4 c. white or apple cider vinegar

1 t. sugar

1/2 t. kosher salt

Pinch freshly-ground black pepper

1 T. water

Slice the lettuce, onion and hard-boiled eggs and put into a large bowl; set aside.

Melt and brown the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat -- make sure not to burn it. When it's brown and nutty, add the vinegar. Ma Chris used white or apple cider vinegar, but sometimes my mom uses champagne vinegar. Red wine vinegar would be yummy, too, but I'd steer clear of balsamic. Whisk the butter and vinegar together. Add the sugar, salt, pepper and water, and whisk to combine.

Pour the warm dressing over the salad ingredients; toss to combine. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings. This salad keeps well in the fridge, since it's wilted and benefits from additional time for the flavors to meld.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Instead of shoes, I bought kitchenware

When some people get their first jobs out of college, and it feels like they are making a whole lot of money, sometimes they buy extravagant things. One of my best friends bought a $400 pair of shoes. In reality, though starting salaries for college graduates are often more than what many people earn, a 22-year-old in Chicago at an entry-level job perhaps shouldn't be focusing on designer shoes.

But who am I to judge? I did the same thing, only instead of shoes, I bought kitchenware.

Picture it: Chicago, February 1998. Valentine's Day was approaching. I had met a young fellow in 1996, not long before he graduated from college. Though he seemed reluctant to be pinned down into any sort of "relationship," as many men of that age are, I had a sneaking feeling that, eventually, he was going to be around for the long haul. This fellow did become my husband -- in freaking 2005 -- so I was right, even if it did take several eons to get him under the huppa. But in February 1998, our relationship was anything but stable. We gave the phrase, "on again, off again" new meaning and poignancy.

My being a woman who loves to cook, and his being a man who loves to eat, I figured that some home-baked goodness would make him slap his forehead and proclaim, "Of course! I need this female around me!" I was just beginning to build my repertoire of favorite dishes and baked goods; I had spent my childhood watching and learning from Mom and Dad, but was just starting to translate those lessons into my own teeny tiny kitchen in Wrigleyville. Though heavy on desire and medium-weight in experience, I was very light on culinary equipment. I found a recipe that looked tasty -- a chocolate chip cake -- and headed to a gourmet kitchenware store.

The recipe called for egg whites whipped to stiff peaks. Even though I owned a hand mixer, I decided that this step had to be performed manually, in a copper bowl, so the whites could cling to the bowl and rise up the side as I incorporated air with each cardio-like whip of my right arm. An aspiring gourmand could do no less. The recipe also stated that the cake should be baked in a bundt pan, another piece of cookware I did not own. Not only did I not have the money for such purchases, but also I didn't have the space in my apartment to store non-essential cooking supplies such as copper bowls and, oh, dinner plates. Undeterred, I spent about $100 of my pathetic, desperate salary on the tools I needed. My storage solutions involved a nail in the wall next to the kitchen for the copper bowl, which, once hung, I attempted to pass off as "art." I have no idea what I did with the bundt pan; I probably kept it in the coat closet, next to the hot water heater and my luggage. (The microwave was located across the room, between my computer and the forced-air heating unit, so Lord knows where a bundt cake pan would find itself.) Financial and spatial resources be damned; I did it all happily because I was going to make a man fall in love with me based on a cake. It would all be worth it.

My aforementioned wee kitchen, which, I'm not kidding, didn't even have a drawer, was the site of my pre-meditated chocolate seduction. I do believe I injured my rotator cuff whipping the egg whites. Who cares, the result was delicious: a moist and crumbly cake that ambled down the path to Angel Food Cake-ville. Being of the semi-sweet variety, the chocolate laced throughout offered just the right levels of sweetness and bitterness. Though it took seven more years for the object of my cake plan to propose to me, I like to think that this dessert had something to do with it. At the very least, I can confirm the confection was memorable: I just asked Husband if he recalled the time I made him a chocolate chip cake and he replied with a wide-eyed, enthusiastic grin, "Absolutely I do, that was delicious! I don't remember what it was, or the circumstances around it, but I remember it was fucking great." And I quote.

Worth the effort, I would say, and worth whatever bill I skipped that month so I could own a copper bowl and cultivate a husband.


Adapted from a recipe that originally appeared in either The Chicago Tribune or The New York Times, which are the two newspapers to which I subscribed in 1998.

For the cake:

4 large egg whites

1/4 t. cream of tartar

1 1/2 c. sugar

2 1/2 c. flour

2 t. baking powder

1 1/2 t. baking soda

1 t. salt

1 1/2 c. buttermilk

1/4 c. vegetable oil

1 T. vanilla extract

1/2 c. semi-sweet mini chocolate chips, or finely-chopped chocolate chunks from a bar of your very favorite semi-sweet chocolate (I prefer the latter, as the irregular shards of chocolate make for a more surprising and interesting texture)

For the chocolate drizzle:

1/3 c. semi-sweet mini chocolate chips, or tiny chunks from your favorite semi-sweet chocolate bar (see above)

3 T. milk (I use whole, but you could probably get away with 2% -- or heavy whipping cream)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 12-cup bundt pan. With the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed until foamy. Add cream of tartar. Increase speed to medium-high; beat until soft peaks form, about 3 minutes. Gradually add 1/2 cup of the sugar, beating until stiff but not dry, about 4-5 minutes. If you are a masochist, or you are really trying to impress someone who is watching you prepare this cake, feel free to whip out your copper bowl and whisk away. But I'd advocate for the motorized option over that painful method any day of the week. That way, you can enjoy a glass of wine while the KitchenAid does all the work. If you don't own both an electric mixer and a hand-held mixer, transfer the egg whites to a bowl and clean your mixer prior to the next step.

Combine the remaining 1 cup of sugar, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a separate bowl. Rather than sifting, I stir these dry ingredients with a small whisk to mix them and demolish any lurking lumps. Using a hand mixer, beat buttermilk, oil, vanilla and 1 tablespoon of the whipped egg whites into the flour mixture on medium-high speed. Mix in the chocolate bits with a spatula, then fold in the remaining egg whites in three batches. You don't have to incorporate the eggs whites completely; it's OK -- even desirable -- to leave a few ribbons of whites streaming throughout the batter. Scrape batter into the prepared pan; smooth the top.

Bake the cake until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Do not over bake! You will be rewarded with a light and fluffy texture, almost like an angel food cake. Let cool in pan on wire rack for 10 minutes. Invert onto rack; cool completely.

For the topping, melt 1/3 cup chocolate chips and milk together in small saucepan over low heat, stirring often. Have extra milk on hand; sometimes it takes a little more than 3 tablespoons to bring the melted chocolate to a nice, pourable consistency. Drizzle the topping over the cooled cake. The topping is not meant to cloak the entire cake, just provide a little extra goodness on top.

Yields 16 servings. Just enough for a hungry husband-to-be.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The new day always brought dukkah

Australia is my second home. In fact, I think in some previous life I inhabited Australia. Nothing else could explain the powerful hold a large landmass on the other side of the planet has on me. It's always calling me, beckoning me to come back soon, maybe even sell my worldly possessions (OK, the ones that don't ship easily) and move to its shores ASAP. I have recurring dreams about being on Qantas flights over the Pacific. I would sell my soul for a Tim Tam.

This all began in 1990, when I was 15 years old. I had wanted to be an exchange student since my older sister went to Sardinia in 1985, and I had been a voracious INXS fan since Kick. (What teen aged girl wasn't? I mean, had you seen Michael Hutchence?) My love of this Australian rock and roll band inspired me to want to visit their homeland, and I figured the only way I was going to be able to do it was if I made Australia the destination of my exchange-student goal. I was wait listed in an international program, then finally placed with a family for a summer exchange. I was on a marathon flight to the opposite side of the Earth before I knew it.

I had no idea that the experience awaiting me in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney would change my life forever. I fell in love with the place, and the people that inhabit it. My host family was (is!) perfect in every sense of the word: they made me a part of their family in such a way that today -- 17 years later -- I still often forget that there are no genetics involved in our relationship. I returned the next year, in 1991, for a visit (I had gotten a job at the local paint and wallpaper store to save enough money for my plane ticket). Then in 2004, when my older host brother got married, I took a long vacation from work to attend the ceremony. When I got married in 2005, Husband suggested the only honeymoon destination that made any sense: Australia. He is a good man.

Two days (three if you count the day we skipped passing over the International Date Line) after our vows and our cake and the Hora and my gorgeous dress that I love and still wish I could wear every single day, we touched down in Sydney for my fourth visit, Husband's first. It was the kind of honeymoon that people dream about -- nearly three weeks of enjoying each other's company, forgetting about everything else, not knowing what day it was and diving into experiences that were far from run-of-the-mill.

We only made a few reservations: the first four nights at what I would argue is the finest hotel in all the world (see the above photo, taken from our room, if you don't believe me); our cabin aboard the Spirit of Tasmania from Sydney to Devonport; a car rental in Tasmania; our ferry trip back across the Bass Strait to Melbourne; a one-way car rental from Melbourne to Adelaide and a plane trip from Adelaide back to Sydney. The rest of the time we drove around with our guide books and eyes open, stopping wherever we wanted to, finding singular and marvelous experiences (and food!) along the way. When we woke up each morning we didn't know what the day would bring -- we just knew for certain that it would bring adventure and joy.

And dukkah.

The new day always brought dukkah.

Prior to this trip, I had never heard of dukkah. Australians, apparently, were not so clueless. Though the dish didn't originate in Australia, everywhere we went there was dukkah on the menu. It's the perfect appetizer: a mixture of toasted and coarsely ground nuts and spices that one sops up with an olive oil-soaked piece of rustic bread. The crunch of the bread crust and the dukkah itself marries so nicely with the soft goodness of the olive oil, creating a textural sensation that we couldn't get enough of. That's not even to mention the taste. Dukkah is a nutty, spicy (but not hot), downright inspired concoction that represents the best of what a well-stocked spice cupboard has to offer. We would all do well to begin each meal with it; like with so many other things, the Australians have gotten it right.

Naturally, when we arrived home I started making it. I was driven to replicate those flavors and experiences -- create a honeymoon-in-a-bowl, if you will. And isn't that the best part about traveling, anyway? Everything tastes better on the road, whether its coffee or bread or yellowfin tuna straight out of the Pacific or meat pies. The challenge is to bring those flavors home with us, make them parts of our everyday lives, bring the exotic and far-flung right to our kitchens. Of course, it never tastes as good as it did when you were away, but food (like music) provides an innate and instinctive connection to experiences, times and places. It almost doesn't matter how it tastes -- as long as you're trying -- because nostalgia is a force with which to be reckoned and I can't think of any powers greater than the five senses to awaken memories both recent and long-past.

But no worries: this dukkah tastes great. Since it's less of a recipe and more of an amalgamation of crunchy bits, I spent many of our meals in Australia dissecting the dukkah -- separating grain from tasty grain, making mental notes, smelling and nibbling. It seems that there are probably as many ways to make dukkah as there are individual pistachios in my freezer, but what you read here is a pretty darn good approximation of the culinary joy that was our honeymoon.

In addition to its bread-sopping application, dukkah makes a phenomenal breading for chicken and fish. It adds more complexity and flavor than any breadcrumb -- even nicely seasoned panko -- ever could. But since we experienced it on our honeymoon in dippable form, that is the iteration I'm advocating here. As always, let your mouth and your imagination guide you; but in the immediate, please do yourself a favor and toast up some dukkah tonight. Trust me, from this day forth, without a dish of dukkah waiting for them, bread and olive oil will seem like little orphans.



1 c. shelled pistachios

1 c. whole almonds

1 T. whole coriander seeds

1 T. whole cumin seeds

1/2 t. dried thyme

1/4 c. whole sesame seeds

1/4 t. kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Toast the pistachios and almonds on a dry cookie sheet for about 12 minutes, watching and smelling carefully to avoid burning. Remove and cool on the cookie sheet.

In the meantime, toast the coriander, cumin and sesame seeds on a separate dry cookie sheet for about 8 minutes. Keep a very close eye on them as they will toast more quickly and become burnt little worthless nuggets before you know it. Please use your nose as your guide as oven temps can vary. Cool the spice and sesame seed mixture on the cookie sheet.

Combine all toasted ingredients in a food processor. Add thyme and salt; grind the mixture until it resembles small breadcrumbs. It should be dry and crumbly, not a paste (over processing can turn your beloved dukkah into some sort of pistachio-almond paste which, while I'm sure would be delicious, is not the dish we're going for here).

Transfer dukkah to a small bowl, and serve with bite-sized pieces of crusty bread and a shallow dish of your very favorite olive oil. A word to the wise: don't dump all the dukkah in the serving bowl at once. Just serve a little at a time, refilling the bowl when the supply runs low. Failure to do so will result in the entire batch becoming very oily, as it sits in the olive oil that dripped off previous chunks of bread that were dipped into it. The trick is to preserve the dry textural integrity of the dukkah as much as you can, considering that family and friends -- and perhaps strangers who just caught a whiff of your kitchen as they passed by your house -- are dragging oil-dipped bread through it.

Serves about 4 people as an appetizer, and you'll probably have a little left over. Store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature before serving it again.