Monday, August 23, 2010

CSA 18 - Tomato Sauce

Sometimes when I cook I think about how cooking came to be.  Humans started off as foragers eating what they found, as they found it.  Then with tools and fire basic cooking was brought into the mix.  But recipes, putting certain food combinations together, determining how long to cook things for, all those details, how did they come about?

I cooked for myself such a basic, classic dish the other day.  I was tired, uninspired and had a fridge full of tomatoes.  Tomatoes are the zucchini of August; there are just too darn many.  But I also had onion, pepper and garlic and I always have a few boxes of pasta on hand, so there we go, dinner.

Pictured are almost all the ingredients.  Missing from the photo are only the olive oil, butter and salt… and the basil because I add the basil at the last minute so I forgot to cut it off the plant in time for the picture.

Really this isn’t even a recipe.  It’s just so basic.  But don’t the simplicity fool you, it was delicate and complex and fresh and tasty. It’s the kind of sauce that as you make it, and eat it, you start to understand the history of cooking, of how and why.  I took a bunch of seasonal vegetables that have been seasonal for a few weeks now so I’m bored of their individual flavors, chucked them in a pot together and voila, a new flavor.  Surely this is how and why cooking came about.  As a way to not only stretch food and spread nutrients amongst the tribe – if you mix it all together everyone gets some of everything – but because it makes foods you are bored with fresh and new again.  It’s the kind of sauce that probably would taste just as good had it been cooked in a clay pot over a campfire as it did cooked in my dutch oven over a stove.

Tomato Sauce
2 large tomatoes, diced
Handful of grape tomatoes, quartered
1 bell pepper, diced
½ onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
Olive oil
Fresh basil

Melt the butter in the oil and add the onion.  Cook for a few minutes until soft, and add the pepper.  Cook about 2 minutes and add the garlic.  Cook about 1 minute and add the tomato.  Season with salt.  Simmer for as long as it takes to boil a pot of water and cook pasta.  In the last 2 or 3 minutes of cooking, add the fresh basil, roughly chopped.
Serve over pasta, with fresh grated cheese.

Simple and perfect.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Restaurant Club

not shown: David
What's in a name? I tried to find some famous quotes but all the good "name" quotes I could think of conveyed the wrong sentiment. Sometimes what you call something is as important as the thing itself.

Restaurant Club. Giving our alternate month dinner party plans a title changes everything. Well ok, no it doesn't change everything, but it did change the dynamic for the better, almost instantaneously. In fact giving the group a name, a "restaurant club" changed my perspective on my social life. As we defined the perimeters of our club I came to realize I've been a part of a few restaurant clubs over the course of my life, we just never formalized ourselves.

Last night we went to Half Moon in Dobbs Ferry. It was an excellent choice. There were 6 of us, so we got a great selection of food, and being the bunch of foodies we are, our bread plates saw some serious sharing action... After we'd finished using the bread plates for the awesome artisan bread and homemade chili infused olive oil and fresh Parmesan cheese, that is.

I started off with my typical cocktail, a scotch and soda.  But Johnny could keep walking this time; I went for a smokey, peaty Talisker scotch, since they had it.  And I was not disappointed.  Scotch without smoke is like... Coke without cola.

Jennifer had read somewhere that the duck tacos at Half Moon were a star of the menu so of course we got a few orders for the table.  The duck was moist and flavorful and the freshly fried taco shells were delicate enough to practically melt in your mouth yet strong enough to hold up to the several bites it took to eat the whole thing.  Topped with fresh vegetables and a generous dollop of guacamole, I have to agree with past reviews and claim the duck tacos to be divine, a "must taste" indeed.

The chipolte caesar salad  was generously sized and full of fresh shaved cheese.  I have to admit I was a bit disappointed that for a restaurant with such a seafood-heavy menu, my salad did not come topped with anchovies, but the chipolte dressing was pretty darn flavorful, so I guess I can forgive the transgression.  Its getting harder and harder to find a proper caesar salad these days, but I am happy that salad in general is becoming a more focused course instead of the after thought is has been in the past.

I'd chosen my entree before even arriving at the restaurant.  I think in fact I'd chosen my entree before we'd even crossed the bridge.  Jennifer was on the restaurant's website getting us directions (they have excellent, detailed directions) and got distracted by the menu which she was reading aloud to me as I drove.  Once she said "skate" I interrupted and said "ok you can stop reading out loud now, I know what I'm getting." The only thing that could have derailed that plan would have char, but thankfully I was not put in a position of having choose - I really don't know what I would have done had I been faced with that choice. (Yes I do, I would have chosen the char since its more ethical... but dang I do enjoy skate.)

The skate was pan fried and topped with bacon crumbles and served on a bed of julienned zucchini.  A perfect dome of cilantro seasoned rice accompanied it.  Half of my dinner companions refused to try it upon hearing it was the wing of a sting ray (well a member of the sting ray family, actual sting rays are poisonous).  They were the same people who were more shocked then amused when I declared I wasn't sure if I liked the taste of raw oysters but I do enjoy the god-complex I get from eating something that is still alive.  But Jennifer and Marian tried it and loved it (and they laughed wildly at my oyster declaration).  I had to remind Jen she'd tried it (and enjoyed it) once before, when I'd ordered it at Bar Americain.

Jennifer shared with me some of her seared halibut - it was like butta;  melt in your mouth, perfectly cooked - just golden on the outside, a perfect smooth white inside.  And Annette shared a generous serving of her lobster macaroni and cheese, full of hearty pasta swirls and fresh mushrooms in a delicate cheese sauce.

As per usual I was in charge of the wine list (I'm not sure how I've become the sommelier amongst my friends, but I've gotten pretty good at it) and I was very happy with the selection available, and the prices.  There were several pages of wines, and they were all very affordable.  I chose for us a bottle of Michel Torino “Don David Reserve” `07, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Argentina (my apologies to my Facebook friends, to whom I announced I'd had a Chilean wine).  It delivered on its promise of being robust and it took on a slightly spicy flavor in conjunction to the meal, and at only $32 a bottle, we didn't even blink an eye at ordering a second.

Although full to near capacity, one simply cannot stop such a meal as we were having without a bit of dessert.  In for a penny, in for a pound - if you're going to feast, feast away!  Jennifer and I decided to share the peach and blueberry crumble, topped with vanilla ice cream.  I didn't try any of the flourless chocolate tortes ordered by Marian & Annette, and David, but I will say they looked wonderful.  The fruit in our crumble was obviously fresh and the oatmeal topping was the perfect temperature barrier between the steaming hot fruit and the ice cream.  Between the two of us we ate every last scrap off our dish.

It was a wonderful meal, with wonderful company, and now with a formalized agenda.  Our restaurant club meets every other month, with the restaurant choice being a rotation amongst the group members.  And although we established the guidelines while at this meal, it still very much qualified financially.  I suggested the price gauge be we must be able to order 3 courses, 1 cocktail and split a bottle of wine for under $100 per person (including tax and tip).  Our meal at half moon came to $85 each - not bad for a 4 hour feast paired with great conversation.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Restaurant review: Kum Gang San

Sometimes, usually as I’m commuting or looking for parking, I hate living in downtown Flushing.  But most of the time I love it.  I live in a lovely, mostly quiet neighborhood, that although full of large apartment buildings is a calm vision of well kept lawns and large oak trees.  The area is clean and safe, and my neighbors are friendly.

And we’ve got food.  Sure the usual American fare is available – there are a couple diners, lots of pizza, fast food, a few bakeries, Chinese take-out, all the “normal” stuff. But then there are the Korean BBQ’s.  I haven’t ventured in too many – in my area some of the Korean places are really, really Korean.  Not that they wouldn’t serve me, my money is as good as anyone’s, and as a whole the Korean’s in my neighborhood are a very welcoming and friendly bunch.  No, the problem is more a language barrier – menu’s are written entirely in Korean, and the wait staff as often as not in the smaller places speak only the most basic English, if any.  Which is a real shame because some of those places smell wonderful.

But there is one restaurant that has a great English menu, and very accommodating staff.  Kum Gang Sang on Northern Blvd has never let me down.  It’s my standby restaurant I take people to the first time they come to Flushing (Megan, I know you are reading this, and really poking your husband for a visit now), or even if they’ve been to Flushing, if it’s their first Korean meal.  Although most people enter as skeptics, everyone exits a fan.

They are a primarily Korean restaurant, although they boast several Japanese dishes as well… but even those are Korean style.  The sushi is awesome, but it’s slightly different then what I have come to expect as [American] Japanese sushi.  For example, take my favorite roll ever, the dragon roll (pictured); sure the Koreans still make it with eel, rice, nori and avocado, like the Japanese do.  But at Kum Gang Sang the second fish is generally crab, not salmon, and the eel is twice the size and on the outside of the roll, whereas Japanese style has the eel inside the roll.  Korean dragon roll is a great starter sushi in that all the fish is cooked, so although its eel, which can be intimidating for some people, at least its not raw, which I think for most sushi-virgins is the most frightening part.

Like many Korean BBQ restaurants, Kum Gang Sang has gas grill tables.  There is literally a gas grill built into the center of each table and a vent built into the ceiling.  You can order platters of raw meats, and its grilled right there in front of you, on your table.  Not like a Benihana – it’s not a show, it’s just a grill.  The wait staff starts your meat cooking, and will check on you periodically, but for the most part, you are expected to flip it, remove it when it’s done and add more as you want it.

There is a whole menu of already prepared for you foods as well however and although as often as not, I’m just randomly choosing dishes based on their descriptions or pictures, I have never been served anything I didn’t like.  Some dishes I perhaps won’t order again, but none have ever been terrible.  The seafood & scallion pancake, called pa-jun, is a particular favorite of mine (after the dragon roll of course).  And there are about 20 variations of the traditional bi-bim-bap (pictured), which I’m not overly fond of, but is very popular. 

But the real gem about the place is the sides.  One of my favorite games to play with folks during their first visit is “name a number”.  I make everyone pick a number between 1-8.  That’s the number of sides you have to try. Because no matter what you order, the table is brought 8 small side dishes (pictured).  They vary each time, although kim chi is always one of them.  Sometimes you get a bowl of slivered squid in a sweet and spicy sauce (so good!), sometimes tiny little pickled fish, always all sorts of weird and wonderful vegetable dishes, perhaps some tofu, and I have on occasion been served items that I could not begin to guess about.  The sides are really accessible food – often vegetable based, and rarely in thick or overwhelming sauces, so even though they are totally foreign it’s never anything too intimidating to at least try.

Each meal also comes with a complimentary bowl of miso soup and a dessert.  I’ve always wondered if Korean’s get to choose their dessert (I suspect they do) as there are a few different ones available.  But I’ve never been offered a choice, and it’s never really mattered – for me, the surprise is half the fun.  They just bring a dish for each of us and expect we’ll like it.  And really its dessert – smooth, creamy, sweet – how can you go wrong?  I do prefer the ice bean over the yogurt-like frozen stuff, but ultimately both are tasty.

The only thing I don’t recommend is the jinro, a traditional Korean grain alcohol.  Some people like it, but to me it tastes like what I imagine isopropyl rubbing alcohol tastes like. Not too delicious.

Besides the amazing meal, Kum Gang San is a visually beautiful place with red wood tables, lots of foliage and a koi pond and waterfall by their rear (to the parking lot) entrance.  And it’s quite affordable – most entrees are in the $12-16 range, and considering that includes the soup, the sides and the dessert, it’s a veritable feast for mere pennies.  A true “must eat at” locale when in Flushing.  And bonus – its 24-hour, so if you get a hankering for kim chi for breakfast, no worries, they can serve it to you.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Pork chop with pineapple

Tonight's dinner was decidedly unorganic. I had a grilled pork chop, topped with pineapple-jalepeno sauce, over sauteed greens with onion.  Ok the greens were organic.  But the pork chop?  Just a generic grocery store cut, seasoned with adobo and grilled.  The pineapple was out of a can.  And the jalepeno?  Goya jalepeno sauce, a chunky green concoction I picked up on a whim. I just simmered them together, with some adobo.  And since I was going for shortcuts, I thickened the sauce with corn starch because although the pineapple juice reduced, it didn't thicken .

It wasn't organic, but it was good.  And really I don't have too many organic choices left.  Last week's haul wasn't very big and I've pretty much eaten it all.  Whats left is a bunch of potatoes, an onion, a tomato, one clove of garlic and some beet greens.  And of course my salad for tomorrow. 

Tonight's greens were the last of my kale, from a few weeks ago, and beet greens, cooked in olive oil and butter with some white onion and a clove of garlic. A simple but classic preparation, suitable for all green leaves.

It was a simple quick meal - done in about 15 minutes, and well balanced, and made from what I had on hand, like the half can of pineapple chunks I had to use up.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Fig Dressing

I have a new favorite food. And a new dream for a tree.

A customer gave me 6 figs.  She has a tree and apparently more fruit then she can eat.  Although having tasted these figs I don't see how anyone could ever have too many.

I don't know if I've ever had fresh fig before.  I've had fig stuff, obviously Fig Newtons, and also fig compote.  But I don't know I've ever just had plain fig.  I'd remember. Its like a mild, squishy strawberry.  Its delicious and subtle and sweet and melts in your mouth like custard.

I'm pretty sure fig trees are those trees people wrap in garbage bags and buckets all winter.  I've seen them scattered through Queens and New York my whole life, but I've never known any of the people who owned them.

At first, I didn't know what to do with them.  I hesitated to even try them.  I'm not sure why. But then I just decided to cut one in half and try it.  Wow.  Actually what inspired me to try it was, I needed to make a salad dressing for tomorrows lunch. But I wasn't prepared for it to be quite so perfect a food.  I ate two just as is, cut in half. I didn't eat the skin, but I pretty much scraped all the flesh out of it. Then I made a fig and basil dressing.

Fig & Basil dressing
2 figs, no skin
10 small basil leaves, chopped
rice vinegar
olive oil

Wisk together.

CSA 17: Mashed Potato

Is there any thing more simple and satisfying then mashed potato?

I've gotten a nice selection of potatoes the last few weeks.  Red potatoes, golden potatoes, and tiny little purple potatoes. So far I've eaten roasted potatoes, and boiled potato made into salad.  And I've had mashed potatoes.

I crush in one giant garlic clove, also a spoil of my CSA share, a pat of butter, salt and a generous splash of my vegetable broth and smash away.  I leave the skins on the potato (which I cut before I boil them) since so many of the nutrients are in the skins, and because I like the consistency of mashed potato with chunks of skin.  And to be honest, because I'm cheap and lazy.

Because I used an assortment that included 2 purple potatoes, and because my current stash of broth is red from June's beets, my last batch of mashed potato was pink, which was fun.

Mashed Potato
2 red potatoes
1 golden potato
2 purple potatoes
1 clove garlic, crushed
vegetable broth

Set some water to boil.  Scrub the potatoes and cut into about 1 inch chunks.  Drop in the water (it doesn't matter if its boiling yet or not).  Boil the potatoes several minutes until fork tender.  Turn off the heat, drain the potato, and return to pot.  Add the rest of the ingredients, and mash until as smooth as it will get.  Enjoy.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

CSA 16: Potato Salad with Mayonnaise

Mmmmmm mayo. Mayonnaise is such a wonderful condiment.  Sure its high fat, but at least it pays off with being delicious.

While I prefer the ever popular Hellman's when I'm buying mayo, I rarely do indulge.  Most days you can find a jar of Miracle Whip in my fridge.  Its not mayonnaise, but it is tasty in its own way and its much lower in fat and calories.  But sometimes I just really want mayo, not Miracle Whip.  So when I want to indulge, I go all out, even better then Hellman's: homemade mayonnaise.

Its the perfect dressing for the quintessential summer salad: potato.  I got no greens this week, but I got plenty of potatoes, peppers and onions; the three most popular vegetable ingredients in a classic potato salad. So I had to use the most popular of dressings.

I also got garlic this week and always have fresh basil growing on my window sill, so I decided to herb up my mayo.  I've been reading several articles about the health benefits of eating lots of herbs, so it seemed only logical, since they only makes things more delicious anyway.

Personally I think raw eggs are OK.  I buy organic, free range eggs and I don't keep homemade mayo for more then 3-4 days.  However I should hope it goes without saying, but in case it doesn't let me state clearly: use caution when consuming raw egg.  Its not always safe - just because I eat them doesn't mean you should.  Educate yourself and make an informed choice about whats OK for you and those you are serving. 

3/4 cups olive oil
1 egg
2 tbsp vinegar (I used1 tbsp seasoned rice vinegar, 1 tbsp tarragon vinegar)
1 tsp mustard powder
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 clove garlic, crushed
fresh basil

Use a blender.  Put 1/4 cup of the oil and the rest of the ingredients into the blender and blend on low about 30 seconds.  Switch to high and slowly drizzle in the rest of the oil.  Stop at least once to scrape down the sides. Use or refrigerate immediately.

Potato salad
9 small potatoes (I used purple ones about the size of golf balls), boiled, cooled and sliced
1/3 red onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1 small zucchini, cut in small cubes
1 hard boiled egg, chopped
large dollop mayonnaise (about half of above recipe)
salt, pepper

Mix all the vegetables, egg, salt and pepper with the mayo.  Put it in the fridge and let it sit at least an hour before eating.  Garnish with paprika.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

CSA 15: Tomato Watermelon Salad

This week was one of those rare CSA weeks without any leafy greens.  None.  No lettuces, no chard or kale, no herbs.  Nada.

So what’s a girl to do for lunch?  I mean I don’t particularly like lettuce based salads, but I’m used to them.  But no worries, while I got no greens, I did get one of my most favorite summer treats – a watermelon.

My first instinct was to make one of my old summer staples, watermelon gazpacho.  And I still might.  But for my lunch today I made a tomato-watermelon salad.  And it was super delicious.

The key is to cut everything into approximately the same size chunks and to wait to add the cheese at the last minute right before eating.

Tomato Watermelon Salad
6-8 cherry tomatoes, quartered
½ green long pepper, cut into large bite sized pieces
¼ red onion, diced
¼ small ripe watermelon, cut into small chunks
Gorgonzola cheese crumbles

Cut everything & mix.  It’s that easy and that tasty.

CSA 14: Stuffed pepper with salsa

Since I make my rice and beans with boil in a bag rice and canned beans, I can’t easily control my quantity and always end up with more then one serving.  That’s ok.  I love my rice and beans.

With a fresh shipment of veggies I decided to dress up the rice and beans by stuffing it in a bell pepper and serving some fresh salsa on the side.

The tomatoes were of the golden orange variety and another peppercino ripened on my kitchen plant, each giving the salsa a lovely color.  And the onion and peppers gave it some nice bite.

Stuffed Pepper
An ounce or two of cheese (I used Asiago)
1 bell pepper that can stand up, the top cut off and hollowed out

Preheat oven to 375.  Pack the pepper with rice, beans and cheese.  Bake for about 30-40 minutes.

About 6-8 cherry tomatoes
½ red onions
½ green long pepper
1 red peppercino
Good salt

Put everything in a food chopper and chop until salsa consistency.  Let sit at least 30 minutes before eating so all the flavors meld together.

CSA 13: Rice and Beans

Growing up I was never a particularly picky eater, but I often found food at home to be boring.  My mom still laughs when she tells stories of me going over other people’s houses for dinner and coming home amazed at the wonderful foods other people ate, like Brussels sprouts and sauerkraut.

By the time I was a teenager I was on my own for most meals, and was a rather uninspired cook, settling on rather common, and often processed foods.  But at school I would hear classmates rave about the food in their homes.  Curried goat and rice and beans were two constants that so many of my peers raved about.  At first both sounded gross to me – who eats goat?!?!?  But after years of hearing how great they were I had my dad buy me a box of Goya rice & beans.  It instantly became a staple in my diet.  It was years before I had curried goat – now one of my favorite meals – but rice and beans was an instant classic.  For me, it is the quintessential comfort food. 

It’s also ridiculously good for you.  Rice and beans together form a perfect protein.  Both rice and beans individually are good sources of incomplete protein – each containing 7 & 8 amino acids, respectively.  But together they have all 9 essential amino acids.  And since I use brown rice, there’s a nice serving of whole grains, and of course beans are an excellent source of fiber.  Plus I always cook my beans with a load of vegetables (this was my first time adding chard – I figured I had it, so why not?) so really it becomes a balanced meal.  And even with the addition of cheese, and the butter in cooking, its still very low fat.

The only problem I have with rice and beans is that I no longer find boxed, pre-packaged, processed foods acceptable, so goodbye Goya box ‘o rice and beans.  And I really hate making rice. I know I could just get a rice cooker… or use instant rice (I tend to use the “boil in the bag” brown rice these days…) but then it just puts the focus on cooking the beans. Canned beans are great but there is a question about the safety of canned foods.  Dried beans are best, if you have 8 hours to spare to slow cook them that is.  So as a result rice and beans is not only my favorite food, but it’s a treat I don’t often make for myself.

But every time I do, I can’t help but smile.  I don’t even consider it a side dish as so many people do; I enjoy a big plate of rice and beans as a meal in of itself.  And making one of my favorite dishes seemed like the best way to use my home grown peppercino, a tiny pepper I wanted to highlight.

Rice & Beans
Brown rice
1 can black beans, drained & rinsed
½ red onion, diced
1 green long pepper, diced
1 red peppercino, chopped
1 clove garlic, smashed
2 leaves of chard, chopped
Olive oil & butter
1/3 cup shredded cheese

Make the rice according to directions, being mindful that the beans take about 20 minutes to make, so get your timing right.
Melt the butter in the oil over medium heat.  Add the onion and cook until soft.  Add the green pepper, garlic and chard and cook another few minutes. Season with the Adobo.  Add the beans and the peppercino, cover and just let it cook, stirring occasionally. If you like your beans really squishy, add about ¼ cup of broth and cook for longer.  I like my beans firm so I let them cook about 10 minutes.
Once everything is done layer rice, cheese, then beans and enjoy the perfect meal.