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Milan, day 1

May 14, 2010

We touched down in Milan this morning at about 10. A dark wooly blanket of clouds hung over the city as we bumbled in a bus through a storm to our hotel, about a 15 minute amble from the Duomo.

Despite 12 hours of travel and the city’s soggy embrace, our stomachs growled and lunch beckoned. We were not to be deterred. On went the rubber shoes and out we marched, heads held high and umbrellas brandished.

A 2.5 mile walk past a medieval castle and through various and sundry scraggly neighborhoods later, we arrived at our first feast on Italian soil, at a tucked away place called Pupurry. My, how well we ate.

To start, the antipasto plate. Craggy rounds of fresh mozzarella. Olive oil. The water balloon of the dairy world: burrata; a sheer skin of cheese swaddling a swollen cream center that burst when prodded. Fried squash blossoms, so light and bright and vegetal. Salami spotted with fat and tinged with anise. (yes, I had a slice. so sue me).

Honestly, this was enough food. But we didn’t know that when we placed our orders, so out came the main dishes. Mine: red wine risotto. Smoky, lush, pungent, powerful. In fact, one of my dining companions decreed it “manly”. If Sean Connery was someday reincarnated as a dish, well, I’ve found his calling.

We pleaded full bellies but somehow still found ourselves staring down a petite plate of cookies. Our waiter returned, a sneaky glint in his eyes. “Do you trust me?” he asked, and without waiting for an answer plunked down three icy shot glasses and an unlabeled, obviously homemade bottle of liqeuer.

Limoncello, from his home town. Sweet bracing puckery perfection.

Italy, I love you already.


The adventure begins

May 14, 2010

So, the soup didn’t happen. My apologies, friends, and I’ll be sure to get to it eventually. Boiled, slumpy watercress is a magical thing. Seriously!

However, I have something more important to share with you. As I type this, I’m scrunched in a plane seat somewhere between Paris and Milan. In approximately 30 minutes I’ll touch down on Italian soil, my home for the next 5 (!) weeks! I’m visiting with a group of interior design students from my school and will be roaming about the country, sketchbook in hand, and, more importantly, eating.

I don’t have my laptop with me, but fortunately just before leaving discovered that there is a wordpress app for iPhone, which means you get to hear all about my meals! So, you won’t see any recipes here for awhile, but hopefully you’ll enjoy the adventure nonetheless. And if you know any places I simply must visit, please, chime in. Don’t be shy!

Be back soon. Ciao!

this is just to say

April 28, 2010

Hi, friends.

I just wanted to pop in for a second and let you all know that I’ll be back soon. I’m still stuck in the deep, sticky black hole that is final exams, and I’ve barely had time to breathe, let alone cook, the past 2 weeks! Rest assured I’ll be back here in fine form just as soon as I can, with a soup recipe that is REALLY worth the wait.

I miss this space.

Enjoy your day!

on charm, black beans, and happy news

April 10, 2010
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I didn’t plan on being gone for quite so long.

But, I think once I tell you what I’ve been up to for the past week or so, you’ll understand why writing about my dinner was a little lower on my list of priorities than normal.

Last Friday afternoon, sticky hot and drained from a long week, Chris and I piled into the car, and a mere (hah!) 7 hours later, arrived road-weary and ready for a drink in the fine borough of Brooklyn, New York. We were on the first leg of our mini-break in the Northeast, and shacking up in Park Slope with my best friend Vani and her boyfriend Sonny, two of my very favorite people.

I’ve been to Brooklyn a couple times prior to this trip, but on this visit, she donned her finery and flounce, laid out her very tastiest treats, and utterly wooed me. She plied me with street-side coconut ice, bracingly sweet and utterly refreshing after a long walk. On the very same day, she sneakily tricked me into downing a chocolate cupcake with a soft, delicate crumb, its insides oozing caramel, wearing a jaunty cap of cocoa butter cream, and dusted with salt, for good measure.  The four of us plunked down on a shabby old sidewalk on a quiet street in Red Hook, and by god, we inhaled those things. Immediately post-cupcake, we rounded a corner near a block of charmingly dilapidated and highly photogenic old factories, and came upon a piano on the side of the road, of all things. This is one reason I love New York. I am firmly convinced one can find just about anything on the side of the road in that city, and the lovely result of a such a find is that you can have an impromptu jam session on a random street in a slightly out of the way neighborhood, and then get on with your now infinitely more awesome day. The evening wound down in a little corner cafe, friends old and new huddled over ancho chili (!!) margaritas, scooping and dribbling the most addictive queso of my life, and swapping tales.

I could continue for pages about the rest of our delightful time in New York, but this tale continues further northward into Connecticut, where several highly important members of my family live, as well as the heart and matter of this particular trip. This was no ordinary visit. No, we were on a mission. As was my father, who flew in from New Mexico. And my brother, up from West Virginia. And my grandmother, three sets of aunts and uncles, a cousin, and a family friend, there for additional moral support. After ten years battling tooth and nail with the U.S. government, the time had finally arrived for my very dear aunt and her equally dear husband to stand up in front of a judge in federal court, and prove his legal right to live and work in this country. A country in which he owns his own business. Where he rescues a kitten from a box in restaurant, and brings him back to live with them. Where he shows up at my grandma’s house on a bitter day when she’s lost power, coffee in hand, cleans out the spoiled food from her fridge, and insists she stay with them until the power comes back. Where he whips up one of the few pasta salads I’ve ever gone back for seconds of, ribboned with Mexican crema, zippy from cilantro and olives. And, most importantly, where he loves my aunt every day, a woman who is as vitally important to me as my mother, her sister, was, and who I couldn’t bear to see forced to move thousands of miles away to Mexico.

Well. As you can probably gather from the title of this post, we emerged from the courthouse in Hartford at 5:30pm last Tuesday, tears streaming down our faces from happiness; giddy, elated, bubbling with joy. Dear friends, we won. My aunt had refused to fill in her calendar past that date, not knowing their fate, not wanting to write something down unless they could commit. Now, she can scrawl in it with reckless abandon, plan trips, block out time for gardening, etc, etc. They can finally, again, live.

Many hugs and much celebrating later, Chris and I rolled back into town in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, still high from the day. After work the next day, too exhausted to put forth much thought or effort into dinner, I grabbed a can opener, garlic, and cumin, and made some beans.

These black beans aren’t glamorous, and they aren’t life altering, and you probably wouldn’t make them for a fancy dinner party. They are, however, just plain tasty, supremely satisfying, and almost too easy. A bowl of these will make you smile when you are already thrilled, and breathe a sigh of contentment over. I’ve made them countless times, and they are just the thing to cobble together when you need something quick and easy, but neither your stomach nor wallet can bear any more takeout. I think we all need more such dishes in our lives, for those highest and lowest of moments, the brain overdrive times.

Thankfully, this day was the highest of highs.

Celebration Beans, or Black Beans with Garlic, Cumin, and Cilantro

adapted from Gourmet

This dish is perfectly delicious by itself, but can serve as the base for a slightly more elaborate spread, should you so desire. This time, we enjoyed it with a few wedges of aged cheddar and slices of avocado, and were quite happy with the combination. I also sprinkled the beans with some toasted pepitas, which made for a nice crunch, but they are totally optional.

a 16-19 ounce can of black beans
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup tomato juice or water (I’ve used both regular or spicy V-8, water, canned fire roasted tomatoes with chilis, etc. All worked well.)
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Rinse the black beans well and drain them. Finely chop the garlic. Add the oil to a nonstick skillet over medium heat, and give it a few moments to warm up. Add the garlic and cumin to the skillet and cook, stirring, until fragrant. Make sure the garlic remains a very light tan color and that it doesn’t brown. Add the black beans, liquid, and salt, and cook, stirring, until the beans are heated through. Take off the heat and stir in the cilantro. Eat.

Serves 2

like a schoolboy on sunday

April 1, 2010

I hate to say this, because I like to remain unbiased and believe each month has it’s merits, but March kind of sucks, and I am not sad to be done with the whole soggy, teasing mess.

After all, we’ve been cloaked under five months of frigid, raw days, so by the time March rolls around we perk up, thinking “Oh yes, finally, we made it. Spring has arrived! We’re saved! Let’s frolic and roast asparagus and picnic! HURRAH!” Except rarely does one get more than a two or three days in March to actually act the Spring-crazed Fool. Case in point: two weekends ago the weather was glorious. Stupendous, even. Bulbous cottony clouds, a bloom-perfumed breeze, luxuriously warm sun. A fine day for a bike ride, which is exactly what we did, all the way over to the National Harbor. But, see, since it was March, and the first truly pleasant day, weather-wise, since November, every other person in the Washington, DC metropolitan area had the same brilliant plan. Whoops. We stumbled off our bikes at 4:00 in the afternoon, dazed and feeling peckish from the ride, and thought that it might be a pleasant thing to sit outside for a while and munch on some chips and salsa.  So, we ambled about, poked our heads curiously in the Peep store (yes, a store devoted entirely to PEEPS. What?), and made our way over the requisite large-ish, entirely too froufy Mexican restaurant, and were sternly informed in no uncertain terms that we could come back in an hour and a half to pick up our pager, at which point, the wait would be another hour. People, it was 4:30. Apparently, on our bike ride, we’d crossed over into the nexus of an incredibly bizarre universe. The afternoon ended unceremoniously in a limp, spongy, vaguely sock-like in flavor veggie burger at the only place in the complex that didn’t have a line. I should have known. I’m looking at you, Elevation Burger! The National Harbor is a frightening place, and I don’t plan on going back.

Now, here’s the rub. After that weekend, spring decided it wasn’t quite ready to come out of hibernation yet, and scurried away, leaving us doused in rain and shivering in our t-shirts, blinking in confusion. Bad weather is so much harder to stomach after you’ve experienced the first fine spring day. I liken it to tasting really fine quality chocolate for the first time. It’s a revelation, and you wonder how you ever managed to survive childhood on Hershey bars and those little cracker and processed cheese snack packs. Remember those? The “knife” for spreading your “cheese” was a little rectangle of red plastic. I loved those things. I wish I could ask my mother why she ever allowed me to eat them.

The point of all this is that really, I’m not ready for truly springlike dishes in March. When I come home at night and my nose is still red, my feet are still blocks of ice, and my hair is wet from being caught in yet another rain shower, I’m not in the mood for a light medley of fresh peas, asparagus, and a delicate tangle of arugula. I need something a bit heartier, comforting, a dish that pats me on my back and reassures me that I can get through just a couple more weeks until the real spring arrives. I need braised potatoes with garlic and bay leaves. And I think you do, too.

These little guys are something special in the tuber world, a world fraught with mystery, folklore, old wives tales and whisperings on how to get the perfect mash, or the crispiest roast, or the slimmest, most addictive frites. No, indeed. I can’t be bothered with that type of fuss and worry all the time. You really have to make an effort to screw these up, and you most likely have everything you need already squirreled away in the pantry, which means you can have a stunningly delicious light dinner in about 25 minutes. The recipe comes from a book I have already gushed over, All About Braising, by Molly Stevens. In the recipe introduction, she mentions the friend from whom she learned the cooking technique, who likes to call this dish “seethed potatoes”. It’s really quite an apt description. Basically, you chuck a bunch of baby potatoes into a pot, bathe them in a stream of olive oil and stock, tuck in some garlic and bay leaves, and just let them burble away for a few minutes while you tidy up and open some wine. Such a few simple flavors permeate and, yes, seethe into the potatoes, rendering them fragrant, velvety and creamy. They have an honest, clear potatoey flavor, just spiffed and polished a bit, like a schoolboy on Sunday, endearlingly charming in his slightly lopsided bow tie and blue blazer. A bowl of these makes a fine light dinner with a crisp, zippy salad and a wedge of cheese (my new love: Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. So. Wonderful.). And just a tip: they are also fantastic cold, straight from the fridge. A fine, refreshing snack for when the weather finally behaves itself.

Seethed Potatoes
adapted from All About Braising by Molly Stevens

1-1/2 lbs small red or white potatoes, scrubbed
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup vegetable stock or water (I prefer homemade, but regularly use Imagine Brand No Chicken Broth)
2 bay leaves, fresh if you can find them
2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and bruised (I used 3. I love garlic)
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

First, inspect your potatoes. If they are larger than a golf ball, cut them in half. If you are leaving them whole, check to see how thick the skins are by scraping your thumbnail across the skin. If the skin does NOT tear, then remove a small strip of skin around the circumference of each potato with a vegetable peeler. This will allow the braising liquid to permeate the potatoes better. If the skins are thin, leave the potatoes be.

Now, chuck your potatoes into a saucepan or dutch oven large enough to hold them in a single layer without crowding. They should be snug, not sitting on top of each other. Drizzle the oil over top the potatoes and then pour in the stock or water. Tear the bay leaves in half, and tuck them in among the potatoes, along with the garlic cloves. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Once the liquid simmers, lower the heat to medium-low so the liquid simmers gently. Braise, covered, turning the potatoes once halfway through with a spoon, until the potatoes are just tender when pierced with a thin skewer or knife, about 20 minutes.

Remove the lid, increase the heat to high, and boil, gently shaking the pan back and forth, until the water evaporates and you can hear the oil sputter and sizzle. This should take about 5 minutes. The braised garlic cloves will break down and coat the potatoes as you shake the pan. Serve hot, remembering to fish out and discard the bay leaves.

on almonds and excess

March 23, 2010
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Almonds are fickle little critters indeed.

During my daily eating routine, they rarely demand any time in the limelight. Of course, coaxed into boldness via the toaster oven, they make a splendidly crunchy cap for my morning bowl of oats or a warm salad of sorts, and I always have some lying around for just such purposes. But as far as snack foods are concerned, I’m much more likely to root around the fridge for a nubbin of something ripe and stinky, or carve into a just-this-side-of-ripe avocado, a flurry of salt scattered atop, rather than munch on a handful of almonds. Something about the concept seems almost too diet-esque for my taste, redolent of counting out twelve specimens and toting them about in a little plastic baggy until a predetermined time for nibble. Also, they squeak unpleasantly in my teeth and leave me flapping about, in desperate need of floss. A pleasant afternoon munch should never leave one pining for a visit to the dentist for a deep clean.

That being said, I am certainly not one to deny that almonds, dressed up with a sugar sash, can be seductive indeed. Exhibit A: the farmer’s market. Chris and I arrived bright-eyed, bushy tailed, and ravenous at just before 9am this past Sunday morning, a day that dawned sweetly spring-like, warm, chirpy, and delightful. Our plan: beeline to my favorite, insanely popular French pastry stand, select one baked good to rationally share as we perused the market, spend a reasonably small sum of money on a modest amount of produce to last us the week, and calmly return home.

Well, as you might imagine, our plan did not proceed as smoothly as hoped, although I can’t say we were disappointed with the outcome. Upon arrival, we discovered that in fact, the market opened at 10am and wouldn’t open earlier until April. Coffee procured, and a lap around the market later, we joined the line, already thirty-deep, at the aforementioned baker extraordinaire, and patiently waited the forty-five more minutes for the bells to chime.

So famished were we, that by the time we squeezed our way through the sun-maddened throngs back to the car, we had acquired the following, in addition to vegetables: one tub each ricotta and smoked mozzarella, one loaf of kalamata olive bread, two chocolate chip cookies, one oatmeal cookie, one peanut butter cookie, one pint of pear gelato, one apple tart, and to end the spectacular mess, one ridiculous, powdered-sugar swathed almond croissant that I ate in the car on the way home, showering the interior with a fine white dust.

It’s quite obvious that we cannot be trusted.

Now, I’m sorry to report that I don’t have the recipe for that fine, fine almond croissant. But I may have something even better, and slightly less sweat-inducingly rich. In fact, it’s what piqued my interest in said croissant and prompted me to pass over my usual apple turnover. The week after the great kitchen drought of 2010, feeling sorry for myself and out of sorts, I decided that what I really wanted was some cake, even though I had run out of both butter and baking chocolate. Flipping through a Marcella Hazan book, I found myself staring at an unassuming sounding recipe for an almond cake, that required neither butter nor chocolate, only a fluffy paste of egg whites, sugar, flour, and ground almonds.

My dear friends, I may have found my new most very favorite cake. It comes together in just a few minutes, retaining all of the pleasing, fragrant qualities of almonds and ditching the odd textural ones. Firm to the fork, light on the tongue, relatively virtuous, and fresh for a week, it was perfectly plain and sweet on its own, but could serve as a base for any number of fancier dessert concoctions, should you so desire. My snacking relationship with almonds has improved immeasurably.

Marcella Hazan’s Almond Cake

Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

10 ounces shelled, unpeeled almonds, about 2 cups
1-1/3 cups granulated sugar
8 egg whites
the peel of one lemon grated without digging into the white pith beneath (now would be the time to break out the microplane. also, I used a meyer lemon, and I don’t think I need to tell you that it was spectacular)
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
An 8-or 9-inch springform pan (I lost my springform pan in a historic kitchen disaster, the story of which I will regale you with later. suffice to say, a standard cake pan works just fine.)
butter for greasing the pan

Preheat the oven to 350.

Place the almonds and sugar in a food processor, and whiz them together until they’ve reached a fine consistency. They shouldn’t turn pasty, however, so keep watch.

Beat the egg whites together with 1/2 teaspoon salt until they form stiff peaks.

Add the ground almond/sugar concoction and the grated lemon peel to the egg whites, a little bit at a time, folding them in gently but thoroughly (I did this in four stages). The whites will probably deflate just a bit, but there shouldn’t be any significant loss of volume.

Add the flour to the mixture, a bit at a time, shaking it through a strainer and again folding it in gently.

Thickly smear the pan with butter (I was generous and the cake still stuck a bit), and dump the batter into the pan, shaking the pan to level the batter. Place the pan in the middle of your preheated oven, and bake for one hour. A toothpick pierced in the center should come out dry.

When done, leave the cake in the pan to cool for about 10 minutes or so on a rack, then place a plate on top of the pan and invert the cake onto it. Return the cake to the cooling rack and allow to cool completely before serving. Wrapped well, it will keep for a week.

Serves 6-8.

a triumphant return, via cauliflower

March 16, 2010

Through careful, scholarly observation in my almost 27 years of existence, I’ve come to realize that just about everyone has some form of food-related fixation. As mentioned previously, my mother’s was anything that involved even a mere whiff of chocolate. My college roommate ate a least one bagel every day for 4 years straight. I know, in no uncertain terms, that any time I visit my father, the fridge will house a little cardboard round filled with neatly foil-wrapped wedges of Laughing Cow cheese.

The stuff of my longing is any and all creamy or cream-related treat, in all its unabashedly fatty glory. If it’s pillowy soft and yielding, chances are I will demolish it before you’ve even had a second taste. The psychology major in me worries this may indicate some type of Freudian regression back to an infant developmental stage, but if so, I never want to grow up. I’d much rather coo contentedly into my risotto, creme brulee, rice pudding, grits, and baba ganoush.

I am completely powerless to resist tiramisu if I see it on a dessert menu, and will scrape my plate, even when said tiramisu is subpar, which it frequently is. The most overwhelmingly delicious dessert I have ever had was last summer in Iceland, at a tiny dairy farm and restaurant where you could contentedly observe cows being milked through a glass wall, and then dine off of the rewards. I ordered the most unassuming-sounding dish: a bowl of homemade yogurt drowning in a healthy pour of homemade heavy cream, sprinkled with a handful of blueberries, picked on site. Friends, it was INSANE. I whisked the bowl out from under Chris’ quivering spoon, shoveled the contents into my mouth, and promptly ordered another, which I also refused to share. The proprietor, seeing that I meant business, dashed out to the barn and squeezed a lashing of milk directly from the source, and presented it to me, almost reverently, as an offering of goodwill and mutual dairy-loving respect.

Perhaps the most disturbing example of my irrational cream-related behavior occurred when I was a small child. I had a nasty, sneaky habit of licking the frosting off of cupcakes, and then leaving the de-robed cakes, naked and slimy, for unsuspecting poor souls to find. I’ve since learned of the great pleasure one can have when eating cupcakes in tandem with frosting, but only after many scoldings and much embarrassment on the part of my mother.

At this point, it should come as no surprise to any of you that while I love my vegetables, I love them even more when pureed into oblivion and sexed up with a little butter and cream. While mashed potatoes are the obvious choice, recently my cravings have ventured in a different direction and zeroed in on the frequently misunderstood knobbly white lump known as cauliflower.

I am sure that many of you are regularly seduced by the hearty chortle and bubbling energy of Lynne Rossetto Kasper, who hosts National Public Radio’s Saturday ode to all things delicious, The Splendid Table. She is a fixture on my ipod and in my kitchen, and boy, does this woman know her stuff. I am continually in awe of her encyclopedic knowledge. At work last week, deep in my Monday morning ritual of slow, methodical sips of coffee and catching up on NPR, I bolted in my chair, not from caffeine, but from Lynne’s in-passing description of her riff on Irish Colcannon, sort of a heartier version of mashed potatoes, laced with greens. She passed on potatoes and cabbage, the usual suspects, instead playing with cauliflower and kale, which she softened in a nice steam bath with rosemary and orange zest and then pureed with a drizzle of olive oil and knob of butter. Enchanted, and remembering a head of cauliflower patiently waiting in the refrigerator, I planned my next creamy conquest for Thursday eve, and oh boy howdy was it ever incredible. We were rendered silent, the only sound the dipping and clinking of spoons in the serving bowl, and the occasional contended sigh. I even learned to share this time.

Cauliflower Colcannon

Adapted from Lynne Rosetto Kasper

Think of this as mashed potato’s bohemian, flower child cousin. Light, fluffy, and fragrant, with a distinctive perfume from the rosemary, filling but not nap-inducing, it’s Spring in a bowl. For those of you who like to tinker, this recipe is infinitely adaptable, and insanely delicious.

1 large head of cauliflower, broken into florets
1 bunch of braising greens, stems removed and leaves coarsely chopped (Lynne used kale, and I used chard. Mustard greens would also work.)
1 onion, roughly chopped
6-7 garlic cloves, smashed, peeled, and roughly chopped
zest from 1 orange
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary, chopped (this quantity gives the dish a decidedly strong hit of rosemary, which I love. You may want to start with slightly less and taste before adding more)
extra virgin olive oil, to taste
unsalted butter, to taste
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Fill a large pot with about 2 inches of water, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to keep a steady simmer, place a steamer basket in the bottom of the pot, and add to the basket the cauliflower, kale, onion, garlic, orange zest, and rosemary. You may think there is too much in the pot, but proceed! Cover the pot, and let the vegetables steam for about 12 minutes, or until the cauliflower is easily pierced with a knife. Carefully remove the steamer basket from the pot, and dump the steamed mess of vegetables into a large bowl.  Add to the bowl about 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of butter, or to taste. Using a masher or, alternatively, an immersion blender, mash or puree the vegetables until light, fluffy, and smooth. Season with salt and pepper, and dive in.