Sunday, May 30, 2010

Indian-Style Barbecue Chicken: To Ezra and Shelly, With Love

Thirty-five years ago this week, my mother was throwing an elaborate dinner party. Being the height of the Seventies gourmet craze, Mom and her friend had painstakingly created a menu involving Cornish hens and a bounty of French terminology. At 5 am, Mom arose to wax the floors, prep the food, and perform more unnecessary cleaning. By 9 am, she went to the grocery store, where every five minutes she bent over to let a wave of overwhelming cramps pass.

Did I mention she was 8½ months pregnant?

“This baby is sitting on my bladder,” she complained to anyone willing to listen. The baby was not, in fact, sitting on her bladder. Mom was in labor. So intent was she on seeing her dinner party through, she refused to acknowledge this realty. “Jeanne, you are nesting!!” her girlfriend shouted into the phone. “Get to the hospital.” Such urging fell upon deaf ears due to a powerful combination of Jeanne’s iron will and raging hormones. By mid-afternoon, Mom’s body spoke too loudly for her to ignore. My Dad rushed her to the hospital, where she delivered –in the labor room, no less— my brother, Ezra.

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Here’s the part where I pull a “Simpsons” on you. (As any self-respecting Simpsons fan knows, each program begins with one storyline which, without warning, completely switches into another semi-related plot.) Stay with me here, OK? Flash forward to 2002, my brother has grown into a lovely adult with a quiet demeanor and dry sense of humor. He's in a serious relationship with a woman named Shelly Kapoor, who, as the name indicates, is of Indian descent.

While we are clearly not Indian, you may think Mom was Italian, given the plethora of tortellini, mozzarella cheese and olive oil in her cooking. Alas, Mom was not Italian. She simply thought she was because many of her favorite people were. And such love wove its way into her cooking.

Mom’s love for Shelly was poised to reveal itself in her kitchen too. In my recipe box, Mom had included a series of Indian recipes that she must have gotten from a cookbook, including this one –Indian-Style Barbecue Chicken. Mom was prepping herself (and me) for welcoming our beloved Shelly into the family.

Six years ago today, Ezra and Shelly were married in a marvelous Hindi ceremony. My family members embraced the day with their usual zeal–imagine women in Talbot’s silk adorned in Bindis and Henna-decorated hands. Mom beamed from heaven. To celebrate both Ezra’s 35th birthday and the sixth year of his union with Shelly, I decided to spend the morning prepping a little Indian-Style Barbecue. Thankfully, this time no one is pregnant.

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Indian-Style Barbecue Chicken

Be aware that this recipe takes some time. Save this one for a weekend, when you have lots of time and people willing to watch your kids. Luckily, I had both. What I love about this recipe is that Mom didn’t just include details, but actually customized the recipe for me. Read on to see what I mean. My comments are in itals, as usual.

4 Tbsp, lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup plain yogurt, drained for 15 minutes in a fine sieve or cheesecloth (I dug out a bizarre pouch-like cheesecloth from Thanksgiving. This was sort of a bust. Also, don’t bother with Greek-style yogurt. Too thick, and takes too long to strain. You could even skip this whole step)
2 tsp, paprika
2 garlic cloves, diced
½ tsp, ground cardamom
2 Tbsp, chopped fresh ginger root
1 tsp, roasted cumin seeds (just heat dry in a sauce pan for a minute)
¼ tsp red hot pepper flakes
6 skinless, boneless breasts (She means a CHICKEN’S breast, you perverts! Try a quartered chicken with bones –thighs and breasts would be good. At the time that Jeanne gave this to me, I was a bit grossed out by chicken-on-the-bone. I suspect she was trying to spare me)
2 Tbsp, oil for broil

1. Put all ingredients in to container of Cuisinart (The Jeanne LOVED her Cuisinart. I used a cheap blender, and it was fine), except chicken and oil! Blend to a fine texture.
2. Pour marinade over chicken turning and tossing to coat all the pieces. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate for over three hours at room temp or overnight in fridge. I like using a plastic Ziploc bag. Less air in marinade and more room in fridge.
3. Preheat broiler or grill. Place breasts in George Foreman for 17 to 20 minutes.
Isn’t that great!?!? I am a NYC dweller without access to outdoor grilling. Upon request, I’ll be happy to recount the story of how we obtained out George Foreman (Hint: It had something to do with my Mom being incredibly hung over). BTW, a regular grill is preferable, and I had one at my disposal this weekend.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Strawberry Fields

Last week’s experiment with strawberry rhubarb crisp was only the beginning. As it so happens, my daughter and I spent the weekend visiting our cousins at their mountain home in Georgia –where strawberry season is in its full glory.

En route to the house, we hatched a plan to visit a nearby strawberry-picking farm. As my sister-in-law, Jodi, described the life-altering experience of tasting these berries fresh off the vine, our kids alternated between asking “How much longer?” and shouting out ideas for how to devour our pending bounty. “Strawberry shortcake! Milkshakes! Chocolate-covered strawberries!”

We arrived only to discover that while mounds of glorious berries were for sale, the season for picking was over. Disappointed, we bought 8 quarts of the pre-picked stuff, and shifted our attention to other local produce. Meanwhile, the kids sneaked enough free samples of the berries to take those good farmers for a loss. OK, actually, that was me. Point is, as my daughter, the eternal optimist, summed up: “We may not have picked any strawberries, but we sure had fun.”

In a small corner of my mind, I remembered having an affinity for all rituals strawberry. When we were very small, living in Ithaca, Jeanne and her friends would often take us kids picking in the fields scattered around Tompkins County. We would each get a cardboard carton to fill, and –like Blueberry’s For Sal— I would eat one strawberry for each that fell into the carton. Kaplink! We usually wound up living off of strawberries for days. Mom would make shortcakes, pancakes, and even jam (that was one particularly crafty year, I think).

When we moved to Westchester, mom recruited another friend –the mother of my best friend, Lizzy Donius — to throw a bunch of kids in the car to search for strawberry fields. Knowing my Mom, she probably had a vague idea of a field somewhere upstate, but not necessarily a concrete address. As we drove up the Taconic for what felt like an endless period, we took turns whining, “How much longer?” And Mrs. Donius laughed,” “Jeanne, we’re going to Albany!” Mom brushed us all off as mere distractions, insisting the fields were probably at the next stop light.

Eventually, we made it. Though older, we kids threw ourselves into the picking with the same enthusiasm as in the Finger Lakes. Mom marveled at one of my friends, Ilyse, who arrived in pristine white shorts but returned home with pink ones instead.

I don’t think we ever went back to the strawberry fields. Perhaps they really were too damned far. Nevertheless, our strawberry picking adventure embodied the spirit of Jeanne. Be it the mall, a random drive, or a visit to a nearby town, Mom taught us the distinct pleasure of minimally planned fun. She never had any qualms about including a car full of kids on an outing, nor did she count an unexpected outcome as failure. A closed strawberry field or botched recipe could easily be reinvented into something else –or better yet serve as fodder for a good story. So this week, I give to you a recipe for Strawberry Crisp Sauce (or Strawberry Crisp Gone Awry), a recipe borne out of a minimally planned day shared with my sunny, sweet girl and our beloved cousins. Enjoy the fruit of our leisure.

In return, I would love to hear your memories. Did you ever have a day where things didn’t go as planned, but turned out better? What happened?


Strawberry Crisp Sauce

This is a hybrid of Mark Bittman’s fruit compote and a basic crisp. At the last minute, I decided not to boil the strawberries and syrup down, opting to simply bake them with a crisp topping for one hour. The result: A runny, yet delicious, warm topping for ice cream –or perhaps strawberry soup. The crisp adds a whole new element to your ice cream sundae!

1 ½ lb of fresh strawberries, sliced (or enough to create a heaping mound in pie dish)
½ cup sugar, plus more if needed
½ cup water
Pinch salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
A few Tbsp of freshly squeezed lemon
½ tsp, lemon zest
2/3 cup light brown sugar
½ cup flour
5 Tbsp cold butter, cut into cubes


Directions:
Pour Strawberry Daiquiri supplied by Brother-in-Law (Told you we were oozing this stuff)
Mix sugar with water in small sauce pan and bring to a boil, mixing to dissolve, let cool and set aside
Combine strawberries with lemon, zest, vanilla, and sugar syrup in pie dish
Combine brown sugar, flour and butter; Mix with fingers until clumps form
Sprinkle topping on strawberries
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour.
Serve hot over ice cream or with whipped cream.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Flank Steak: The Other Tortellini

In light of Mom's unstructured approach to cooking, I used to think that recipes were for wimps. Not so, Mom explained to me at one point. The only way to cook without a written recipe is to use so many recipes that you build up a base of knowledge. (Note: Mom was, in fact, an avid student of cookbooks, ranging from Elizabeth David to Sheila Lukins.)She was right. Asian Steak Stir Fry is based on a number of Chinese/Asian recipes I have made over the years. I think it would make Mom proud that I have hit the point of adaptation.

Killing the head of cabbage is not this recipe’s only draw. I also use flank steak, my version of tortellini. It’s cheap, lower in fat, and easy to cook. Plus, you can marinate the hell out of it, and everyone thinks you’re a genius. This is a recipe for when you may not have had the foresight to marinate overnight, but did manage to grab a piece of flank steak on the way home from work.

Play with it as you desire, and write me with what you discovered. Jeanne says, “It’s important to leave room for serendipity!”


Asian Steak Stir Fry
Serves 4

Ingredients:
½ head, cabbage
1 lb, flank steak tastes better if bought fresh, but do what you can…
2 scallions (whites and greens separated)
1 tsp, Canola oil
1 tsp, sesame oil
¼ cup, soy sauce
¼ cup, Sake wine
1 Tbsp, Brown sugar
1 tsp, rice vinegar

Optional:
One beer or glass of wine
Cilantro
Lime

Directions:
Open beer or pour glass of wine. Start drinking. (A little vino always makes cooking more fun!)
Whisk together sesame oil, soy sauce, Sake wine, rice vinegar and brown sugar. Set aside.
Turn stove top to medium high, let heat a minute or two. It should be hot enough to elicit a sizzling sound from steak.
Sear flank steak for less than 1 minute on each side. Move it around to avoid major sticking. Set aside on carving board.
In same pan, cook white part of scallion with Canola oil for 5 minutes, until soft
Add cabbage and toss around
Pour in half of sauce
While cabbage cooks down, slice steak in 2-inch long strips
Add to pan, and pour in other half of sauce
Add green part of scallions
Cook 8 minutes, cover for second 4 minutes.
Spoon stir fry over rice and toss with whatever Asian-inspired garnishes you prefer. Tonight, I am on a Thai kick, so am using cilantro, green scallion and lime. Other nights, I have added Hoisin sauce to sauce mixture and sprinkled sesame seeds. It’s your call.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ode to Tortellini

Mom was a master at creating delicious meals at the last minute. During my teenage years, she didn’t really have the luxury of the compulsive planning to which I am prone. Mom was single, working full time, going to college at night, and caring for us kids –Oh, and caring for her ailing mother too— all at once. I want to yawn or genuflect just thinking about it.

After work, Mom would often rummage through the refrigerator and simply produce dinner. (That is when she couldn’t afford to play the Amalfi’s card) On good nights, our dinner had all of the expected working parts –a meat, vegetable, and starch. “Look kids,” she would half jokingly announce. “We have three things on the plate!” However, other nights, she just didn’t have it in her. On those nights, tortellini usually played a starring role at dinner.

Before you discredit Mom’s carb-centric meal plan, remember: This was the 80s. Pasta was considered health food. Remember the Pyramid? Also, tortellini is quick, cheap, and the meat or cheese served as a protein. She initially introduced tortellini to us with red sauce, marketing it as “Mexican hats.” Lord knows where that one came from, but it worked. We were hooked. Over the years, she came up with a series of ad hoc tortellini dishes.

My favorite was Tortellini with Cabbage, a quasi-stir fry with cultural undertones that only an anthropologist could delineate. Like most of Mom’s inventions, she cooked the cabbage in olive oil and garlic, tossing in the tortellini at the last minute. The sharp flavor and crispy texture of the cabbage offsets the squashiness of the tortellini (OK, it’s not an SAT word, but doesn’t squashiness perfectly sum up tortellini?)

Only as an adult did I appreciate the brilliance of cabbage and tortellini. An average head of cabbage yields a ridiculous amount of food. No wonder peasants love it. So, chances are, Mom had some cabbage left over from Cole Slaw or God-knows-what. By adding it to her ever-faithful tortellini, Mom simultaneously got rid of that endless supply of cabbage and fed us a ton of veggies with protein. Well done, Jean.

Considering that cabbage is the veggie that keeps on giving, I decided to provide not one, but two recipes this week. In addition to Mom’s Cabbage and Tortellini, which I made tonight, I have drafted a version of my own updated “dump the cabbage recipe” –Chinese Steak Stir Fry. In the interest of my cooking schedule, I am going to make this one tomorrow, providing a bonus posting then.

As for tonight, I took a friend’s suggestion, and tossed crumbled Gorgonzola cheese into the finished pasta dish. An excellent call because the salty bitterness of the cheese somehow bound the other flavors together.

In honor of spring and the ripe strawberries I found at our neighborhood Farmer’s Market, I also experimented with a Strawberry Rhubarb Double Crisp, from baking guru Dorie Greenspan. (Can be found in her cookbook Baking: From My Home to Yours, or get it for free via NPR at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11238497) It’s a bit heavy on the ginger –two teaspoons of ground and a ¼ cup of crystallized. And while the combination certainly worked, next time I want to go simple, allowing the fruit to speak for itself. Meanwhile, for the main event…

TORTELLINI AND CABBAGE
Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients:
1 lb, tortellini
½ to 1/4 head, cabbage, red or green (I used red because it’s so darn pretty)
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 Tablespoon, olive oil
½ cup, chicken stock
1 large scallion, sliced with whites and greens separated (Optional: I happened to find some enormous scallions at Farmer’s Market; thought I would throw in for a touch of color)
1/8 cup, parsley, finely chopped (Optional: Same as note from above)
4 oz of Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled

Directions:
Boil tortellini as directed on package, drain and set aside
While tortellini cooks, chop cabbage into thin slices, about 2 inches long, be sure to remove the heart (Can also use food processor, but I don’t think it’s worth the clean up)
Heat oil over medium high heat until glistening
Add garlic and scallion whites, cook until softened
Add half of cabbage and let cook for a few minutes
Pour in chicken stock, and allow to boil gently. Cover, lower heat slightly and let cook until volume of cabbage reduces.
Add second half of cabbage, and turn up heat again, letting cook for about 10 to 15 minutes
Mix in green scallions
Remove from heat and pour cabbage mixture into large serving bowl.
Add cooked tortellini, sprinkle on salt, pepper, parsley and Gorgonzola cheese. Toss well.
Serve immediately.

END NOTE: We invited some close friends over for an impromptu dinner, people with whom I feel safe testing out this rather unorthodox meal. As it turned out, half the cabbage mixture and the whole package of tortellini fed four people. A second package of tortellini would have easily been enough for eight. Half a cabbage is still a whole lot! We all loved it. Everyone had seconds, and it felt great to set down a big ol’ steaming bowl of colorful pasta on the table. Apparently, those Italian-Poles-Asian cooks really know what they’re doing.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Playing The Amalfi's Card

I am over cooking. Sick of the planning, the shopping, the chopping, and even the eating that the preparation of a meal requires. It's a bit pathetic, I know, that in just the fourth week of this blog, I have already gotten lazy and whiny. Did Louisa May Alcott give up so easily? Yet, in truth, everyone gets fed up, and I take comfort in the fact that Jeanne got this way too –a lot.

I may have created a cooking blog dedicated to my mother's culinary skills, yet we hardly lived in June Cleaver’s home with nourishing home-cooked meals delivered to the table every night at promptly 6pm. Many nights, Mom would come home and announce, “I just can’t deal.”

That’s when she would play what I have come to call The Amalfi’s Card. Amalfi’s was originally the local Italian restaurant in my hometown, one that served decent pizza and a killer Chicken Parmesan Wedge(that's a hero sandwich to those non-Briarcliff folk). Eventually, Amalfi’s evolved into a rather elegant spot with elaborate pasta dishes and an extensive wine list. But in the early days, it was just a pizza place, and we ate there often. So often, in fact, that Jeanne attended the owner’s wedding. How’s that for loyalty?

Even Gert, my grandmother, had her own version of the Amalfi’s card. At around 5pm – just as the news was coming on— Gert would put down her glass of beer, halt her ongoing game of Solitaire, and say, “Kids, get me my purse.” After determining that the pile of single dollar bills and infrequent tens was more than enough, she would make it official: “Jeanne, we are going out. My treat.” In my memory, her proclamations elicited a round of applause, but that might simply be a dramatic flourish of the mind.

I loved those nights, piling into the car as the fading sun lit our path and the quiet of a regular weeknight settled around us. They are some of my favorite moments.

So, while I normally would feel guilty about this refusal to take part in a basic life chore, this Mother’s Day I have decided to give up on that useless emotion. Let’s celebrate life’s moments of small, spontaneous abandon.

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MOTHER’S DAY RECIPE

Pick up phone.
Dial delivery.
Enjoy.

Play your Amalfi’s card, damnit!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sour Cream Chocolate Chip Cake

Baking wasn’t Mom’s thing. The qualities that made her a wonderful improvisational cook led to her downfall as a baker. She didn’t pay much heed to measurements or timing, and was prone to throwing in new ingredients at the last minute. Unfortunately, baking is none too forgiving. It’s a science that hinges upon the chemistry of exact amounts, temperatures and flavors. As a nurse, Mom knew her biology cold, but the chemistry of baking confounded her.

In her quest to provide me with a well-rounded recipe box, Mom included several desserts. Most of them came from close friends and family, whose wisdom I will impart in future blogs. Within that collection of borrowed desserts, she sneaked in this gem — Sour Cream Chocolate Chip Cake.

Aside from providing me with a go-to cake, Mom jotted down these intriguing words: “This is one of the first cakes I ever baked got the recipe from my roommate’s mother, my nursing school roommate!” It may not sound like much, but to me Mom had pressed the ‘play’ button to show an old, undiscovered movie. Jeanne relished in recounting details of her life; I knew her so well –ranging from her shocking irreverence to the Lucille Ball hilarity. Yet, I hadn’t ever met this young (young!) nursing student, enthusiastic to set up her own home. Mom’s hurried note brought us a little closer.

I don’t remember Mom serving this cake. As you can imagine, desserts weren’t big in our house. Yet, oddly enough, I have a vivid recollection of eating a similar cake at my aunt’s house as an after school snack. My aunt (think Martha Stewart armed with a cigarette and an outrageous sense of humor) served it warm, and I can still taste those melty chocolate chips. Kids love this cake. So, when my children asked to participate in Cooking with Jeanne, Sour Cream Cake seemed the most obvious choice.

Determined to buck the non-baking family history, I started out as an organizational diva. As my six-year old read the ingredients, I methodically took each item out and laid it on the counter. The kids greased the pan, and measured out the flour and sugar, while I taught them about fractions (sort of). A Mensa moment, if I ever saw one. That is until I plugged in the Kitchen-Aid, and it mysteriously began spitting out sour cream and flour all over the kitchen walls.

With our Lucy moment behind us, we followed the rest of the steps with relative ease. In the end, our family baking project turned out much like all of the others: The kids argued over taking turns, ate a ton of raw batter and chocolate chips, and lost interest long before the final product was removed from the oven. What’s more, we did not make a perfect specimen. Certain regions of our cake suffer from an overpopulation of chocolate chips, while others look considerably sparse. But you know what? We had an hour’s worth of laughter and fun, and I am enjoying the cake as I type. So, perhaps, Mom was right. Perfect, chemically-balanced baking is overrated.

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Sour Cream Chocolate Chip Cake

¼ lb of butter
1 cup sugar (plus 1 tsp of sugar, set aside)
½ pint of sour cream
2 eggs
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups pre-sifted flour she means unsifted
1 cup Nestle chocolate chips not sure where the brand loyalty came from here; use what you want
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Cream sugar with butter, sour cream, and vanilla. Mix in beaten eggs. Add flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Mix until smooth. Place half batter into greased 9X9 or 8X8 square pan. Sprinkle most of chocolate chips over batter, then cover with remaining batter. Spread remaining chocolate chips on top. Sprinkle remaining sugar and cinnamon on top. Bake for 45 minutes at 350

NOTE: I did not have a 9X9 or 8X8 inch pan, as the recipe recommended. Instead, I used an 8X12 –a mistake because the cake came out more like dessert bars. Next time, I would err on the side of a smaller pan but thicker cake. Also, once again, Mom never mentioned how long or at what temperature to bake. So I tried it at 350 for 30 minutes. (I would do 45 minutes to an hour with a smaller pan).


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POSTSCRIPT: Artichoke Pie

This morning, Chrissie and family joined us to dine on last week's artichoke quiche. We had a blast, and thoroughly enjoyed watching our kids playing together. The quiche was pretty damned good too! My one mistake: I defrosted a bit too late, and wound up baking it longer than I had planned to get it to the right temperate . As a result, the quiche was a bit too liquidy, while the crust was too crispy --but the flavors were just right. Next time, I vow to defrost the night before. There could be another secret to reheating this properly. If so, bring it on!

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