Sunday, March 28, 2010

Cookbook #14: Crêpes

Adapted from Cookbook #14:  Crêpes (2002)

Recipe: Spinach Crêpes with Asparagus

March.  It makes us all feel as if spring is finally here.   It's 50 degrees all over the place.  Trees are in full blossom here in California, and some are even shaking off the tail ends of their bloom.  The Japanese maples have either budded or fully leafed, the daffodils are in their final blush, and it's time to start digging with purpose in the garden.  Funny how spring sprung about three weeks ago, but because of my Midwestern roots, I don't feel as if spring is here until the end of March.  Nonetheless, finally, it feels as if we have turned the calendar year into spring.

Spring is also the time for Paris.  While we're not quite to the requisite month, can't you just hear Ella Fitzgerald crooning it now:  "April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom"?  All those wonderful clichés about Paris in springtime.  Doris Day prancing around with Ray Bolger.  The City of Romance.  Home of bohemians and ex-pats.  There's nothing better than spring in France, oui?

And to boot, crêpes are the national dish of France.  Back in 2000, I spent some time in Cambridge, and a dear friend of mine met me at the conclusion of the program I was doing there.  We took the Chunnel train and found ourselves in sweet, wonderful Paris.  Paris.  We ate stinky cheeses at a sidewalk cafe; we wandered bookstalls along the Seine.  We went to Camille Claudel's house and shook our fists at the injustices of single women who must conform to the demands of their time.  We hiked up to Montmartre at sunset, the city sparkling and turning from white to pink to gray below us.  We stood beneath the Eiffel Tower, climbed to the top of Notre Dame, walked the gardens of Versailles, and took all the requisite photos.  And one sweet afternoon, we wandered around the Place de la Concord eating crêpes with powdered sugar and lemons, before riding the Roué de Paris, the ferris wheel erected for the millennium celebrations.  I can still remember the couples seated on benches, the smell of lemon, and that sweet, hot, flat pancake.

I like to think of my time in Paris as a honeyed, hazy occasion, but when in Paris I also got to argue, and argue with vigor.  When we arrived, I had tucked all the British currency I had into one of the drawers in our hotel room; I was due to fly out of London and I needed it for my last night in England before I returned to the US.  One afternoon, after traipsing around Paris, I discovered that the money was gone.  I went to the front desk to speak to the night manager: all in French.  He was polite, sympathetic, and, let's face it, probably humoring me.  But the next morning, the owner of the hotel came to our room and stood with puffed chest, accusing me of never having the money to begin with and of trying to rob the hotel.

All I can remember is standing my ground--both literally and figuratively.  I wouldn't budge from the doorway, and I said that indeed I was merely pointing out I didn't have the money that I had the day before.  His voice raised.  Mine did, too.  But the best part was that I was doing all of this in French.  All of it.  After the owner stormed off, I remember feeling elated, even though I never saw that 60 pounds ever again.  I had just had a fight in French and I hadn't needed to struggle for the words.  They were just there.

So I love Paris.  All of it.  The sugary clichés and the engorged arguments. So bring on the gritty underbelly of the neighborhood around Montmartre.  Bring on the arrogance of Marie Antoinette with her faux peasant village in Versailles. But also bring on the sentimental songs about April and the clichés about the City of Lights.  Bring on the boulangeries, the patisseries, and the crêperies.  And most of all bring on the spring.

Late this morning, the husband and I went to the farmer's market, where I snapped up the requisite spinach and asparagus (and some flowers and pea shoots and green garlic and onions).  Then we came home to try to unearth the garden.  Once the afternoon rolled around, it was time to get down to the real business of spring.  It was time to cook.  I discovered that I couldn't go to page 210 or even 120 with this little book.  I didn't have rules for a cookbook this small.  So I went to both page 12 (basic crêpe recipe) and page 20 (the spinach addition to the crêpe and the asparagus filling).   This recipe takes a little time because there are many steps.  Mais il vaut le peine. Et voilà, il est temps de manger des crêpes épinards aux asperges.

4 servings

for spinach crêpes
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
a pinch of salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups milk
light olive oil, vegetable oil or butter, for greasing pan
1/2 pound of washed, trimmed spinach

for béchamel sauce
1 1/2 cups milk
1 small onion, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
salt and pepper

24 asparagus spears, trimmed
vegetable oil for greasing baking dish
1/2 cup mild white cheddar cheese, grated

1.    Preheat broiler.  First make infused milk for the béchamel sauce. Put the milk, onion, and bay leaf into a saucepan and heat until just boiling.  Remove from the heat and set aside for 20 minutes to infuse.  Strain the milk and reserve.

2.   Meanwhile make the crêpes:  Put spinach leaves in a heavy-based saucepan. Cover and cook the spinach for 2 minutes or until wilted.  Drain thoroughly, pressing out any excess water.  Chop finely and set aside.

3.  Put the flour and salt in a bowl and make a well in the center.  Pour the egg and some of the milk into the well.  Whisk the liquid, gradually incorporating the flour to make a smooth paste.  Whisk in the remaining milk and the spinach, then pour the batter into a measuring cup with a pouring spout.  Allow to rest 5 minutes, if desired.  If the batter is a little thick, pour a little more milk into it so that it pours.

4.  Pour a little oil or butter into a 7-inch crepe pan or heavy-based skillet and heat until oil starts to smoke.  Pour off the excess oil and pour a little batter into the pan, tilting it until the base is coated with a think layer.  Cook for 1-2 minutes until the underside begins to turn golden.

5.  Flip the crêpe with a spatula and cook a further 30-45 seconds until it is golden on the second side.  Slide the crêpe out of the pan and make the remaining crêpes (should equal 8 crêpes), greasing the pan as necessary and set them aside.

6.  Return to making the béchamel sauce.  Melt the butter in a saucepan, stir in the flour and cook over a low heat for 1 minute.  Remove from the heat and beat in the infused milk, a little at a time, until blended.  Return to a low heat and stir constantly until thickened.  Bring to a gentle boil, stirring, then simmer for 2 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.

7.  Blanch the asparagus spears in a large pan of lightly salted boiled water for 2 minutes.  Drain, refresh under cold running water, and pat dry with a paper towel.

8.  Place 3 asparagus spears on each crêpe and roll them up.  Place crêpes seam-side down in a lightly greased, shallow baking dish.  Pour the béchamel sauce over them and sprinkle with the cheese.

9.  Place the dish under broiler and cook for 8-10 minutes until bubbling and golden.  Serve at once (two crêpes per serving).

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Cookbook #13: Almost Vegetarian

Adapted from Cookbook #13:  Almost Vegetarian  (1994)

Recipe: Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni

Pasta:  the ultimate comfort food, right?  Well, this was a week of failed pasta recipes from this cookbook.  I wanted these pasta dishes to work because I loved this cookbook back in the late 90s (lordy, this cookbook has been around for awhile).  So much so that pages 125 through 156 have broken away from the spine and now form a pull out pamphlet.  Full pages are stained from multiple makings of recipes and I have notes throughout the book: herald and celebrate the the eggplant pancakes (page 82), the cold sweet potato soup (61) (tastes like pumpkin pie but it's good for you!), the potato and leek soup (50) (with yogurt instead of cream!), tandoori-spiced chicken (177) (for all of us without a tandoor)!   However, given the week I just had with pages 120 and 206, I am just not sure I will open this cookbook for a while.

Page 210 is all about how to choose fresh fruit, particularly apples.  (Just so you know, the best apples have a natural sheen and are firm to the touch.)  So I went to page 120, and on Tuesday cooked what I found there--a quick creamy pasta that was grainy and underwhelming.  But then I reviewed my own rules for this blog:  if there is no recipe on page 210, I must choose the next closest recipe.  So page 206 it was, and I was happy to cook again.  Maybe this time the pasta would be better.  However, page 120 or page 206, I think I would have written the same thing.  Meh.  Almost Vegetarian?  Almost Pasta...

So page 206:  The recipe calls for cannelloni--a term that is often substituted for manicotti in the United States. Cannelloni are actually whole sheets of pasta that you roll into tube shapes. Manicotti are already prepared tubes.  Manicotti you can find in your everyday supermarket.  Cannelloni, not so much.  With the pasta bubbling in the stock pot, I made the sauce as directed.  This stuffed pasta recipe calls for Northern African spices (or at least in this combination) for a pretty standard Italian cheese filling.  Allspice, cumin and cinnamon over spinach, ricotta, and Parmesan?   Really?  After making the sauce, I sampled some, threw it down the sink, and subsequently opened a bottle of prepared pasta sauce (thank you, Muir Glen).  Then the dish was pretty good.  So if you want to try this number, skip steps 5 and 6, and use your own favorite pasta sauce (jarred or homemade).  It made us much happier.

Next week, I have big plans for ushering in spring, even though the equinox and the time change happened last week.  Longer days.  Warmer weather.  Not so much need for comfort food.  Tomorrow morning, I am heading to the farmer's market for spinach and asparagus.  I am already looking forward to next week's cookbook...

4 servings

1 pound fresh spinach, washed thoroughly but not dried
1 1/2 cups part skim ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Pinch ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large white or yellow onions, finely chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 cup white wine
1 16-ounce can or box of tomatoes, drained and finely chopped

8 manicotti shells
1/3 cup grated Parmesan Cheese

1.  For the filling: place the spinach in a deep saucepan and cover.  Place the saucepan over low heat, and steam until the spinach is soft and bright green, about 4 minutes.  Transfer spinach to a bowl, dry with paper towels and let cool.

2.  Stir together ricotta, Parmesan, nutmeg, and oregano in a large bowl until thoroughly combined.

3.  When the spinach is cool enough to handle, chop it roughly.  Add the spinach to the cheese mixture, stirring well to distribute it evenly.

4.  For the manicotti:  Heat the oven to 425 degrees.  Boil a large stockpot of water.  Once the water is boiling, cook the manicotti for 5-6 minutes, leaving the manicotti a little hard (not quite yet al dente).  Drain the manicotti and set aside to cool.

5.  For the sauce:  heat olive oil in a large skillet and sauté the onions until soft and translucent, about 7 minutes. Stir in the cumin, cinnamon, and allspice, and continue to cook for 5 minutes.

6.  Add the wine, turn up the heat, and stir until the liquid evaporates.  Turn down the heat, add the tomatoes, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened, about 8 minutes.

7.  To complete the dish:  Stuff the manicotti with even portions of the spinach-ricotta mixture. Pour 1/2 the sauce on the bottom of a large baking dish.  Arrange the stuffed manicotti side by side over the sauce.  Pour the remainder of the sauce evenly over the tops of the manicotti. Sprinkle loosely with Parmesan cheese and cover loosely with foil.

8.  Bake for 15 minutes.  Remove the foil and bake until bubbly, about 5 minutes more.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cookbook #12: The New Irish Table

Adapted from Cookbook # 12:  The New Irish Table  (2003)

Recipe:  Poached Leeks with Pink Peppercorn Dressing

I ran a little behind this week with the post, but Sunday still counts as this week, right?  And in honor of St. Patrick's Day, I bring to you one of my two Irish cookbooks.  You might be thinking that one Irish cookbook is plenty, but I needed two.  Really, I did.  This Irish cookbook has 70 contemporary Irish dishes, while my other cookbook (which will make its appearance here sometime soon) has more traditional country cooking.  And I will have a lot to say about that when the time comes.

But let's focus on this cookbook.  Contemporary Irish cooking is pretty darned delightful.  When I was in college, I studied abroad in Galway,  and about five years ago I spent a summer in Donegal and Sligo. Back in college, I was on a tight budget.  Galway was the place to be:  I remember getting hearty bean soups and Irish soda bread for very little money at a little shop near (appropriately named) Shop Street and near Nora Barnacle's childhood home.  And the pastries.  Oh, sweet Jesus, the pastries: scones, rolls, breads, and little cakes.  When not stuffing my face with carbs, I ate a lot of fish and chips.  With a lot of vinegar.  A lot.  Years later, when I returned to Sligo, I had a little more money, and I was able to eat in better, or at least more expensive, restaurants.  (Many of which overlook the River Garavogue--perfect for both people and swan watching).  This time I traveled completely on my own, so with my journal as my company, I sampled the Indian and Italian influences on Irish cooking, and the almost Californian (fresh, local, and organic) infusion.  Simpler, lighter, and internationally-inspired foods.  The days of beef stew and a pint of Guinness as your only options are long gone by.

Of course, here we are in March.  So the husband and I had the requisite corned beef on the 17th.  Sadly this year, we got too small of a hunk of meat, so we didn't have enough left over for hash.   Truly a travesty.  As is fitting, however, there is no corned beef recipe in this contemporary cookbook, but there are plenty of other interesting recipes:  Loin of Bacon (!) with Cranberry-Cider Jus, Beef Medallions with Port Sauce and Cashel Blue Cheese, and Lamb Cutlets with Honey, Apricot and Tarragon Sauce.  Of course, the cookbook boasts some old, wonderful standbys:  Champ (mashed potatoes with green onions and lots of butter), Boxty (raw and cooked mashed potatoes pressed into patties and fried), and Braised Cabbage.  And all of this comes from Margaret Johnson a rather prolific writer and lover of Irish fare.  She has many more cookbooks, each with a slightly different take on the food of Ireland, but this one has gorgeous pictures, both of the food and of the places.  It's almost like looking through an old photo album, assuming one were a professional photographer.   Which I am not.  So this is better than my old photo album.

Admittedly, I had to go to page 120 with this thin volume, and lucky for me, leeks are in season.  A quick trip to the farmer's market for these beautiful little leeks from Happy Boy Farms, and we had a suitable, superfast, and contemporary Irish sidedish.  Word to the wise, the expensive red peppercorn is not truly pepper but a dried berry from a tree related to the rose bush.  The flavor is similar to black pepper but a little sweeter and milder. I would say that the dressing is a little on the oily side, and for my taste, I cut it down considerably (and the leeks were so yummy coming just out of the poaching stock it seemed almost a crime to put anything but salt and pepper on them).  And our leeks were little, so we used a little more of the green than I would like, but it was all pretty darned tasty.

Finally, in honor of Galway's darling Nora Barnacle, mostly because I think she's a hoot, and because her relationship with James Joyce was, well, undeniably human, I give you this:  "I can't sleep anymore... I go to bed and then that man sits in the next room and continues laughing about his own writing. And then I knock at the door, and I say, now Jim, stop writing or stop laughing!"

Don't you love it?

"That man." 

6 servings

8-10 leeks, white part only, halved lengthwise
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3-6 tablespoons olive oil (depending on taste)
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup pink peppercorn, lightly crushed
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1.   Cut each leek half into a 6-inch length and rinse well under running water.  In a large saucepan, bring the stock to a boil.  Add the leeks and cook for 10 minutes, or until tender.  Transfer to a serving dish.

2.  While the leeks are cooking, make the dressing.  In a jar with a lid, combine the vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, peppercorns, and pepper.  Shake well to blend.  Pour the vinaigrette over the drained leeks while they are still warm.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Cookbook #11: Healthy Gourmet Cookbook

Adapted from Cookbook #11:  Healthy Gourmet Cookbook (1994)

Recipe: German Apple Pancake

This cookbook does not have the most inspired or creative of titles, but it's still a pretty darned good cookbook.  Arranged by seasons and time of day (seriously, each season has a breakfast, dinner, and dessert section), the oversized book boasts that each recipe includes nutritional information, country of origin, and fantastic photographs. Tempted by most of the recipes, I can report that near to page 210 this winter, we also have Irish Brown Soda Bread, Smoked Chicken Hash, Sourdough French Toast with Poached Pear Sauce, and Butternut Squash Blintzes.  Yum. 

While this cookbook does not come from that series of really big coffee table cookbooks in the mid-nineties, I always associate it with them.  I used to work in a bookstore while I was in graduate school, and I was assigned the travel and cooking section, which I loved because it was inspirational.  Against one wall, we had all those big cookbooks displayed (including this one), and I had flights of fancy about visiting all the featured countries: France, Italy (both of which I finally did get to visit) and Thailand (which still remains a fantastic notion only).  While ostensibly I was making money, I admit that most of my paycheck went right back into the store. I bought oodles of healthy or vegetarian cookbooks and tried to find my own cooking style.  Purchased probably around 1997, this cookbook expanded my own international cooking when at first I was somewhat tame:  it inspired me to eventually purchase cookbooks focusing on an individual cuisine. 

This particular recipe, which obviously hails from Germany, is a lovely one.  German pancakes are also called Dutch Babies, a name that comes from the German-American immigrants known as the Pennsylvania Dutch (dutch being an Americanization of deutsch).  My maternal grandfather, whose last name smacked of a German background, insisted that he hailed from the Netherlands because his family was Pennsylvania Dutch.  My mother would try to set him straight, but he wouldn't listen.  Nonetheless, like the pancake, this Dutch baby is clearly German and sides with her mother on the family origin debate.  Anyway, the pancake itself is an Americanized version of the apfelpfannkuchen (where the apples are on top), and when it first comes from the oven, it is a sight to behold.  Puffed up and important, it steams a little like a soufflé until the pancake settles down into something more breakfasty.  This Saturday morning, I ate it with warmed maple syrup, but the husband had just butter and a little lemon on it.  Either way, it was a light but satisfyingly filling breakfast.

Now we have to go work it off with a hike in the Berkeley hills.

4 servings

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 Golden Delicious or Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
2 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 tablespoon vegetable or safflower oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

1.    Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

2.    Melt the butter in a 10-inch ovenproof skillet.  Add the apples and sauté until soft.  Sprinkle with the cinnamon and sugar.  Place in the oven to keep warm while you mix the batter.

3.    In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, milk, eggs, oil, vanilla, and nutmeg.  Using a handheld mixer, mix until blended.  Add the lemon juice and lemon zest. 

4.    Remove the skillet from the oven, and pour the batter over the apple mixture.  Return to the oven and bake for 15 minutes.  Reduce the heat to 375 degrees and bake for 10 minutes longer.

5.    Remove from oven.  Dust with confectioners sugar, cut into wedges and serve at once.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Cookbook #10: Ajanta

Adapted from Cookbook #10:  Ajanta  (2005)

Recipe: Gajar Aur Matar Ka Pulav (Vegetable Pilaf made with Carrots and Peas)

This is the blog entry that celebrates three of my favorite Indian restaurants:  Breads of India, Ajanta, and Bombay House.

Let's begin with Breads of India.  This tiny little restaurant doesn't have the ambiance of a fine dining establishment, but they make some damn fine gourmet Indian food.  They have a myriad of kulcha, chapati, paratha, and naan options (hence the name) that they recommend with each dish, and generally, they don't go wrong.  Sprinkle the naan with dill.  Stuff the kulcha with chickpeas.  Griddle-cook the paratha with ginger.  Yes, yes, please to all of the above.   The menu switches up daily, and they do take out.  Did you see that?  They do take out.  How many times have the husband and I watched movies from our couch while we ate samosas?  Generally our feeling after eating from Breads of India is one of disgust--at ourselves for finishing every last grain of basmati rice out of the take out box.  But it is one of the most gloriously satisfying feelings of revulsion.

For a more elegant experience, we head to Ajanta.  And they come with their own cookbook (Breads of India, please take note).  Two dear Berkeley friends who understand the importance of knowing where to find good Indian in the East Bay gave the Ajanta cookbook to us for our wedding.  Oh, there are many places to choose from, but Ajanta on Solano ranks up there as one of the best.  Ajanta changes its menu every month to accommodate what's in season, and seriously, Tandoori Asparagus?  What's not to love?  Our friends gave us an accompanying spice box along with the cookbook, and hoo-whee, this has been a wonderful wedding gift that has kept on giving, even almost four years into our marriage.  While the spice box is completely empty, as we tried out as many recipes as we could, the box introduced us to a plethora of Indian spices that I have not used much before, including fenugreek, ajwain, black sea salt, and black cumin seeds.  The cookbook is also arranged by region and shows you just what to serve when you want six-course meal from Kashmir, Punjab, Goa, or Rajasthan.

Finally, I want to give some props to Bombay House.  Don't go looking for this one in the Bay Area, my friends, for this restaurant is in Salt Lake City.  Yes.  Salt Lake City.  When I was in graduate school, I spent a lot of time at Bombay House, eating pappadams and saag aloo.  Thank you, Bombay House, for bringing good Indian food to Utah.  And to me.  My belly appreciated it.

Let's bring it back to page 210, shall we?  Black cumin seeds, called for in this recipe, are what make this pilaf much more than just some basmati rice with peas and carrots.  Apparently, Mohammed said that black cumin cures every disease but death itself.  Don't let the name fool you:  black cumin has a taste that is entirely different from the cumin we all know and love in Mexican and other Indian dishes.  Black cumin's scientific name is Bunium persicum. The more common cumin is from the Cuminum cyminum plant. Black cumin seeds are very dark, thin, and crescent shaped when whole.  Quite unlike common cumin's dusty brown ovals.  The resulting pilaf is perfume-y, rich, sweet, and distinctive.  In all the good ways.  You should look for black cumin seeds in Indian groceries.

We served this pilaf with raita and a chicken in a black pepper sauce (and we didn't serve it on a Saturday morning, when I am finally getting around to posting this.  No, we served it on a Thursday night).  Every chicken dish I have made from this cookbook has made me undeniably happy.  You might just think about picking up this cookbook for those alone; from chicken in a green herb sauce to chicken curry from Hyderabad, the cookbook's writer and the restaurant’s owner Lachi Moorjani has not led me astray.  Well, he does always recommend obscene amounts of red pepper in the recipes, but that just might be my wimpy palate.  And if you have never made naan before, this is the cookbook to teach you, with easy step-by-step instructions that keep you in the kitchen by a warm oven all day, which isn't a bad thing when it's foggy and cold outside.  I speak from experience.

6-8 servings

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons black cumin seeds
2 cups basmati rice
4 cups water
2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
5-6 bay leaves
1 cup peas (fresh or frozen)
1 cup grated carrots (about one large carrot)

1.  In a heavy 6- to 8- quart saucepot, heat the oil.  When hot, add the black cumin seeds.  Fry the seeds for about 10 seconds and then add the rice.  Sauté for about 4 to 5 minutes or until rice begins to brown a little.

2.  Add water, salt, and bay leaves.  (If using fresh-shelled peas, add them at this time).  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and cook for about 8 to 10 minutes.

3.  Add peas and grated carrots.  Mix, cover, and cook for another 5 to 7 minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed.  Fluff the rice with a fork.