Monday, November 22, 2010

CSA 25: Soup

Potato and leek, week after week. And yet it took me this long to make soup. I confound myself sometimes. I mean, who am I? Do I even know me? I love potato leek soup. And it’s super easy to make. I mean, ridiculously simple. All you really need is potatoes, leeks, some fat and some liquid. Why did I wait so long?

Admittedly I did jazz it up a bit more then that, but really you could make a delicious potato leek soup with just those ingredients.

I used some of my homemade broth as my liquid, and I seasoned my soup with salt. And I finished it with a generous few dollops of hot sauce. Now you might think "oh no hot sauce for me! I don't care for hot." To which I respond - try it, its not hot. The soup is so starchy the 'hot' gets totally lost, the sauce simply gives a depth of flavor. It makes sense really - potato is often cooked with [bell] pepper (think home fries, pot roasts, etc) and served with vinegar (fries with malt vinegar, potato salad, etc) and pepper and vinegar are the main ingredients in hot sauce. So really its no surprise the hot sauce adds that final something.

I also leave the skins on my potato. They add nominal flavor but lots and lots of nutrients. Whenever you can eat a vegetable skin, do it. Just scrub it, cook it if necessary but do try to eat the skins.

I finished my soup off in the blender but it’s an optional step. You could easily just eat it as it ends up. I just tend to like smooth soup and since I have a blender, I figure why not use it?  Pureed potato soup gives the impression of a cream soup without all the fat (or the hassle of cooking dairy).

Of course once you get into a soup mood; its convenience, its healthfulness, its ease to make, store and reheat, well it’s hard to not just form a habit; especially during root vegetable season. Crunchy, starchy roots make such lovely soup ingredients. In recent weeks I’ve been getting potatoes, carrots, turnips, radishes, beets and even daikon.

What was I to do with daikon? I mean daikon? What is it even? It’s a root vegetable, that much I could see.  Its sort of a large white cross between a turnip and a carrot, about the size of a zucchini. 

Being soup season and considering at the time I made this I was trying to use up the last of my broth to make room for a new batch, more soup was inevitable. I hadn't been to the grocery store in a while for staples so I wanted a simple soup. Lentil was an easy choice. I figured daikon was a root vegetable, and most root vegetables, such as turnip and carrot, taste good in lentil soup, so it would too. I was right.

The daikon cooked down to a melt-in-your mouth consistency. It’s got a mild, starchy flavor, which picked up salt deliciously. The lentils gave the soup nice body, thick and meaty, and they are a classic soup base for a reason – lentils only require minimal seasoning to make a great meal.

Much like the potato soup before it, I jazzed it up a bit, using my vegetable broth (and water) as my liquid, but any liquid you like will do. You can use broth (homemade or store bought), plain water, you can throw a bouillon into the pot, or any combination of these ideas. You can even use one of those soup seasoning packets they sell at the grocery store if sodium isn’t a huge concern for you. That’s one of the beauties of soup – most soups are quite forgiving recipes. And of course if you are on a budget, well the old adage "you can always water the soup" still stands true - you almost always can just add more liquid to stretch your soup and therefore your budget.

Potato Leek Soup
1 pound of small gold potatoes
1 leek, trimmed of greens
Butter, olive oil
2 cups vegetable broth
2 cups water
Hot sauce

Melt the butter in some olive oil. Dice the potato and leek and add to the oil. Cook about 2 or 3 minutes stirring often. Add the broth and water, bring to a boil then lower heat and simmer for about half an hour. Transfer to blender and blend until smooth. Return to pot simmer another minute or two and turn off heat. Serve into bowl(s) and sprinkle generously with hot sauce.

Lentil Daikon Soup
1 daikon, chopped into cubes about the size of dice
1 cup dry lentils
6 cups liquid
½ onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, well chopped
Olive oil & butter

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and daikon and cook about 3 minutes, stirring a bit, to soften the veggies. Add the garlic and cook about 1 more minute. Add the lentils and liquid, bring the heat up to get the soup boiling, reduce the heat again, cover and simmer for about 30-40 minutes, occasionally stirring. Season with some Adobo and enjoy.

And FYI – lentil soup freezes well, so don’t feel obligated to eat it all at once… of course its low fat, high fiber and has a reasonable amount of protein from the lentils, so don’t feel guilty if you do eat it all.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Restaurant Club: Oyster Bar

Restaurant Club time again! This session of club was held at the famous Oyster Bar in the even more famous historic Grand Central Station.

The usual crowd joined us and a feast was had by all. Due to the nature of many of our dishes and everyone’s desire to try as much as possible, we decided to do our meal family style instead of individual appetizers or entrees.  I missed most of cocktails as it was a weeknight dinner and I get out of work the latest, but dinner carried on for a full 3 hours after my arrival, so I can't have missed much.

We started with cultivated Maine mussels steamed with white wine and garlic ($12.95), smoked North Atlantic salmon ($12.95), jumbo shrimp and jumbo lump crabmeat over classic Caesar salad ($28.45) and 4 Belon wild raw oysters from Maine ($3.95 each). And a bottle of Diseno Malbec 2009 from Mendoza, Argentina ($36).

Everything was excellent, although the wait staff seemed a bit put off at our plan to eat family style, snapping at us over our request for a set of utensils to serve with.  Things quickly smoothed over though and soon our servers were smiling and cheerful again.

The smoked salmon came garnished with large, juicy capers and a side of bread (this in addition to the bread basket already provided, filled with crumbly biscuits and those seeded rectangular crackers popular in bread baskets). The mussels were also excellent; however I do take exception to being served a closed one. I understand occasionally a shell won't pop but I feel that's a loss the restaurant should eat, so to speak, not one they should pass on to the customer so overtly. None the less the open ones were steamed to perfection, with none of the chewiness one encounters when shellfish is overcooked, as it so often is; the garlic wine sauce was delicate and flavorful and the crumbly biscuits soaked it up perfectly.

Our oysters were good, and pre-loosened from their shells.  They were on the small side, a disappointment only because they are one of the pricier oyster options at over a dollar more per half shell.  They really were an appropriate size for eating.  I garnished mine with some hot sauce and splash of lemon.  We were also served cocktail sauce for garnishing.

The wine was a great choice. Traditionally one would never even think to have a hearty red wine with seafood, but we're a modern crowd following modern trends. A slightly woody, earthy (the label extolled coffee and chocolate flavors) tasting wine, the Malbec went down smoothly with our meal. A second bottle was ordered to enjoy during entrees.

Our entrée selections, also enjoyed family style as mentioned, were the fried calamari with marinara sauce ($9.95/pictured), Cajun fried Florida popcorn shrimp ($13.95/pictured), clams casino ($10.95), smoked Idaho brook trout filet with horseradish cream ($7.25/pictured), and sautéed Peconic Bay scallops with garlic herb butter ($30.95/pictured).

Again, for the most part, wonderful food. The calamari was mostly rings with a few of those small whole body squids adorning the plate.  Because I and at least 2 others at the table prefer the rings, this worked out fine for us.  The marinara sauce was served room temperature and was sweet, I would have preferred it hot, both in temperature and flavor, but I’m not sure what proper protocol is for calamari sauce.  The popcorn shrimp were tiny but not over-breaded – they were light and easy to eat and came served with a spicy roumalade sauce.  The clams casino (pictured) tasted good but lost me on presentation: they were simply clams on the half shelf with a piece of slimy looking bacon unceremoniously folded on top.  Personally I felt like the bacon should have been better crisped (perhaps if they had been cooked under a broiler for top heat? Or perhaps dicing it so as to change its shape, appearance and cook-to-crispy time…) and more attention put towards appearance.  They were tasty though – enough so that after everyone had taken one, I asked around and then took the last for myself.

I had had my doubts over both the smoked trout and the bay scallops when we were deciding on our selections and was very pleasantly surprised by both.  The trout was fat and moist and the generous mound of horseradish sauce had just the right amount of ‘bite’.  The scallops were small, as bay scallops are, and in a very tasty garlic sauce that like the mussel sauce before it was excellent on the biscuits.  The serving was the most generous, although no doubt that had something to do with it being an official “entrée” as opposed to many of our selections which were off the appetizer section of the menu.

While ordering desserts one table member also tried to order some of the old fashioned fish and chips ($21.95) to go to bring home to her husband but was informed the restaurant was sold out.  Despite this disappointment, we soldiered through the rest of our meal… only to discover one of our dessert selections, the pumpkin panna cotta with crystallized ginger ($7.25), was also sold out.  It was only about 9:30 on a Friday night.

For dessert we ordered Florida Key lime pie ($7.25), peach apple clafoute tart with brown sugar crisp ($7.25) and the six layer nougatine chocolate ganache cake ($7.95).  The Key lime pie was smooth, creamy and fresh tasting with the slight sourness one should expect from a Key lime pie and not at all gelatinous as some lime pies are.  The six layer cake got excellent reviews from my table mates (I did not try it as I’m no fan of chocolate cake), but the peach apple tarte was not too popular with a good half left untouched by the end of the meal.  Its not that it was bad persay, it was simply flavorless… perhaps due in part to featuring peaches, a fruit not in season at the moment and therefore no doubt not particularly fresh.  In New York, in November, chef’s should probably stick to just apple in their tartes.

The restaurant is huge with a full dining room, a raw bar section and a salon, but at peak dining hours be sure to call for a reservation – when I arrived at 6:30 to meet my club members the place was packed.  I would not be surprised if the chair my friends had saved for me at our table had literally been the only empty seat in the house.  Also be prepared – the restrooms have attendants, or at least the ladies room did, so either be ready to have to awkwardly ask for a paper towel to dry your hands, or come prepared with a dollar to buy one (because lets face it, that’s what you are doing). 

Despite a few let downs such as the out of stock options, the slight snippiness of our server and the presentation of the clams casino, overall it was a wonderful dining experience and I would whole heartedly recommend the Oyster Bar if you are looking for fresh, well prepared seafood in possibly the easiest to get to location on the planet.  The menu is a bit difficult to read, being tightly packed and written in a font reminiscent of handwriting and in all capital letters, but what it lacks in readability is made up for in selection.  I also appreciated knowing the origins of much of the seafood selection, espcially since almost all of it was domestic (there were several Canadian oysters available as well).  In part because we mostly ordered appetizers our feast was incredibly affordable, clocking in at $83 per person after tax and tip.  Not bad for a 5 person, three course, feast.

Friday, November 5, 2010

CSA 24: Broccoli Rabe

The great thing about the CSA is the most basic fact: seasonal, farm fresh, organic produce is just better. It looks better, it lasts longer and it just tastes so good.

People ask me all the time about produce. They hear I'm studying nutrition, and work in a nutritional store, and belong to a CSA and they ask me all sorts of nutrition questions. Which I don't mind at all, I enjoy talking about the value of food.

One of the most common questions is whether canned or frozen vegetables are "good". It’s a weird question. On the most basic level, yes of course vegetables are good for you. Please always know that: vegetables = good for you. Are canned or frozen vegetables the best? Well that's a different question, and too narrow. So really the question should be: what’s the spectrum of vegetables and where does each type land on that spectrum?

Personally I set the spectrum starting with worst: least nutritious and least delicious, to the best: most nutritious and most delicious. Roughly speaking I'd say in terms of taste and healthfulness, completely dried vegetables, such as one might find in a box of some sort of dinner mix, are the worst - hardly vegetables at all really. And in-season, local, fresh, organic is the very, very best. But there's a whole spectrum between those extremes.

Between frozen and canned, frozen is somewhat better simply because canned usually has added salt and cans might possibly leach cancerous chemicals into your foods through their plastic lining (although frozen veggies come in either plastic bags or plastic lined boxes, so perhaps that danger is spread between both). But still canned vegetables are better then no vegetables or overly processed vegetables. Both sources in many cases are more healthful then their "fresh" grocery store counterparts because frozen and canned vegetables are more likely to be vine ripened, as opposed to picked before their prime and artificially forced to ripen in the backs of darkened trucks.

Lately, it is harvest season after all, I've gotten lots and lots of greens. Chard, kale, collards, dandelion, arugula, mixed lettuces, herbs and of course carrot greens, turnip greens and beet greens: you name it, if it grows in New York, I got it. And this of course in addition to tons of tubers, gobs of gourds and plenty of fruiting veggies, like bell peppers and stuff I don't have a category for (what are leeks and fennel? Stalk vegetables? Whatever they are, I got 'em). Unable to eat everything fresh I have the choice to give them away, throw them out or store them for leaner months. I try to not throw them out (although to be honest I refuse to feel guilt if the carrot greens wilt and get discarded), so I'm left with give or store - I do both.

Several sources all agreed the best way to store greens is to blanche and freeze them. So I boiled a large pot of water and dropped in a huge pile of roughly chopped collards and kale. I let them cook for about 1 minute and then drained them and rinsed with cold water. I let them drain for about an hour and then stuffed them in freezer containers. In a few months I bet I'll be happy I did!

But I can't store all my veggies - a girl's gotta eat dinner today too! And so I come full circle on my point about fresh, seasonal, local produce being the best. Stemming, cleaning, chopping, boiling - I was exhausted from cooking before I even cooked, just from preserving greens. I wanted quick, easy, tasty. Luckily my green loot provided. Is there anything easier and tastier then sautéed broccoli rabe? Its fresh and almost crunchy, but sort of soft, and its got that sweet/bitter taste thing going on, and is just overall quite satisfying.

I garnished my broccoli rabe with a few peels of fresh parmesan cheese. And because the produce itself was so good, and flavorful, the cheese provided ample salt. Normally I do advocate a bit of seasoning (salt, in home cooking is not really a "sodium concern", its processed foods that'll get you with sodium). But the touch of salt in the butter and the salt in the cheese proved to be plenty, because ultimately salt is simply a flavor enhancer, and quite honestly this rabe was flavorful enough to begin with!

Broccoli Rabe
bunch of broccoli rabe
1-2 cloves fresh garlic
olive oil
fresh parmesan cheese

Melt some butter in olive oil in a large pan. Rinse the rabe and shake it dry, but not totally dry. Roughly chop it to remove excess stem (some stem is good though). Add it to the oil along with the garlic. I use a garlic press but you could just chop or slice it if you haven't got a press. Sautée until bright green and tender. Move to serving plate. Use a vegetable peeler to shave some parmesan on top. Done and delicious in just a few minutes.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

CSA 23: Mashed Sweet Potato

I've gotten about 12 cumulative pounds of sweet potato over the last four weeks. And oh how sweet it is. It's some darn tasty tuber.

Sweet potatoes are often interchanged with yams, although they actually are different vegetables.  Yams are larger and not quite as sweet.  But both are excellent sources of fiber, healthy carbohydrates and beta carotene.

I've done a few things with them, such as sweet potato oven fries. Oven fries are super easy: cut one sweet potato into fry shapes, toss in a bit of olive oil, bake about 30 minutes, and toss with some Adobo. Done. Yum.

But mostly I bake it, then skin and mash it. My directions below assume you'll be using shaker top seasoning and are per one medium to large sweet potato; Increase the other ingredients as you increase the number of sweet potatoes. And even though they really are sweet I add brown sugar because it really is just super tasty... and because I'm a grown up and I can eat sugar for dinner if I want to. Same with real butter. My philosophy is use small amounts of the best ingredients instead of more of a substitute ingredient. And they make this nifty granulated brown sugar now that doesn't clump and dry out. So it’s easy, delicious, and really honest ingredients.

Do make sure you put the sweet potatoes on something to bake them.  I have a pizza stone permanently in my oven so it’s not an issue for me, but any baking sheet or even just a piece of aluminum foil would work fine.  They are so sweet they actually will ooze a bit of sweet goop as they bake.  This ooze is actually quite helpful – when the goop puddle is about the size of a quarter, you know the sweet potatoes are done baking.

Sweet Potato
1 sweet potato
1 tsp butter
8-10 shakes of cinnamon
1-3 shakes of clove
1 tsp brown sugar

Preheat your oven and scrub the sweet potato, leaving slightly damp.  You can cut off any stray roots, but leave the skin on.  Bake the sweet potato for about an hour at 350 degrees. Remove from the oven, cut in half and carefully, because its hella hot, pop the insides out of the skins into a bowl. Per 1 sweet potato add 8-10 shakes of cinnamon, 1-3 shakes of clove, 1 teaspoon butter and 1 teaspoon brown sugar. Mash with a potato masher. Enjoy.