Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Strawberries with Cream and Pistachio Cardamom Crumble

If they say that patience is a virtue, then I must not be among the virtuous most of the time. Though I did once spend 2 straight months knitting a blanket so I guess that’s not necessarily true. I suppose I do have patience when it comes to creative things – cooking, crafting, my job, etc. – and for some reason running long distances, but when it comes to patience for everyday life sorts of scenarios, it’s not always there. I don’t like surprises, many times preferring spoilers (but maybe not for Game of Thrones), will give gifts early because I simply can’t wait for the appropriate date, and drive myself mad during any waiting game; waiting for packages, waiting for events, waiting for answers.

And yet, the waiting game is inevitably hardest when the very thing you’re waiting for sits at the forefront of the mind. Funny how the world works like that.

I usually spend this time each year eagerly (and impatiently) waiting for the warmer days. Days where you run by the house of someone having their first backyard BBQ of the year and wish you could just jump in on the action, grab a burger, and see if anyone notices that nobody knows you. Uhhh maybe that’s a weird example? Ok, then let’s say waiting for the days where you can finally throw on a pair of shorts and head over to the Sunday farmers market for some seasonal produce and good old-fashioned people watching.

So when this past gloomy and chilly weekend arrived at the end of a long stream of general busyness, I forgot that we were already taking our first steps into May. That is until I saw that my nearby farmers market was in full swing and after a closer look realized that several vendors were selling strawberries. Wait, strawberries? Already? But there they were, baskets of red jewels gleaming bright on such a grey day. Somehow in the midst of many rainy days and hectic weeks, my impatience for wonderful things like strawberries faded away, and they appeared before I knew it and when I least expected it.

So what to do with a quart of perfect strawberries all to myself? Well I could eat them simply as they are, of course. And for many of them I did! But the rest deserved some degree of pomp and circumstance. Well cream had to be involved, because cream will never have a bad relationship with strawberries. And something crunchy and buttery, but nothing involving cooking the strawberries since that seems to make them soggy, greyish, and sadly unappealing. I looked to Nigel Slater’s Ripe for inspiration and settled on making a crumble, but without cooking the fruit. This of course means cooking an entire sheet tray of crumble topping and I saw nothing wrong with this at all.

The topping came together really simply. It’s a base of flour, butter and brown sugar and is filled with lots of earthy pistachios. Ground cardamom adds that warming floral note that goes so well with bright fruit flavors. It goes into the oven and what emerges essentially is a tray full of crushed pistachio shortbread cookies that I still can’t stop eating on its own. I cut up the strawberries and mixed them with a little sugar so they became syrupy and after waiting 30 minutes or so topped them with a generous dollop of whipped cream and a hefty sprinkle of crumble topping. It’s a light and refreshing dessert, one that lets the fruit do most of the talking and everything else just backs it up. I actually recommend it as an afternoon snack of sorts with a cup of black tea but I wouldn’t judge if you then had it after dinner too.  I mean, as long as the fruit that we’ve been patiently or impatiently waiting for all year is here, might as well eat dessert twice.

Strawberries with Cream and Pistachio Cardamom Crumble
Adapted from Nigel Slater’s Ripe
Serves 4 with leftover crumble topping

2 quarts strawberries, cleaned, hulled, and quartered
¼ cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup shelled raw pistachios
2/3 cup cold butter, diced
2 1/3 cups flour
¾ cup light brown sugar
½ tsp. ground cardamom

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a food processor, coarsely grind the pistachios until you have a pebbly mix. In a bowl, combine the flour and the butter. Use the tips of your fingers to rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Mix in the pistachios, brown sugar, and cardamom. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and evenly spread the crumble topping onto it. Bake for 35-45 minutes until toasted and golden brown in color, keeping an eye on it so it doesn’t burn. Halfway through the cooking use a spatula to gently break up and redistribute the mixture. Once cooked, set aside to cool.

While the crumble topping cooks, mix the strawberries with the sugar in a bowl and set aside so it becomes syrupy. In a separate bowl beat the heavy cream to soft peaks. To serve, portion out the strawberries and top each dish with desired amount of cream and crumble.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Cuban Sandwiches

Happy almost summer weather! I’ve got a perfect summer picnic recipe for you just in time.

But first! An exciting announcement. I have officially opened up an online store where you can buy my food and travel prints for yourself with the option of paper prints, framed prints, or canvas. I’ve been doing a lot of stalling in setting this up but am so glad it’s finally finished. But onto the subject at hand, Cuban sandwiches.

With the shift to warmer weather I always start craving sandwiches. It’s something that doesn’t take too long to assemble, something packable that can be shared with lots of people. I dunno, sandwiches just sort of feel like summer. They must have been on my mind yesterday when I decided that I wanted to make my own baguettes for Cuban sandwiches. I found Jim Lahey’s recipe for his Stecca (like an Italian style baguette) and decided to put the dough together after my day’s activities so it could slow-rise overnight.

Well I went about my day, running 7 miles, brunching hard in Georgetown, followed by more drinks by the water and ending with an impromptu pirate booze cruise where we drank champagne straight from the bottle like the tyrants that we are. Yet my craving for baguette sandwiches must have been so strong that I got home and drunkenly assembled bread dough like a champ. I didn’t even spill flour anywhere

So today, hangover not nearly as bad as I would have thought, I set about roasting my own citrus and garlic stuffed pork loin, baking bread, and assembling some pretty bomb sandwiches. They need no introduction or explanation but I will say that with a bit of extra effort, the Cuban can really elevate from one level to the next. This double pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickle concoction, pressed between two halves of chewy bread gets a little extra kick from the citrus and garlic added to the roasted pork. And the slow-rising process of making the bread created the slight tang you usually see in sourdough, which actually contrasted the sweetness of the pork really well. It was the exact thing that a beginning-of-summer sort of day called for. Of course, a store-bought baguette and some standard deli ham would have been just fine but per usual, not everything can be quite that simple for me, can it?

Cuban Sandwiches
Makes enough for 6-8

For the Stecca
3 cups bread flour
½ tsp. salt
¾ tsp. sugar
¼ tsp. dry active or instant yeast
1½ cups cool water
olive oil

For the Pork
1 3lb. pork loin roast
the zest from 1 lemon
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper

For each individual Cuban Sandwich
1 stecca, split lengthwise
Spicy brown mustard
4 slices of the Pork roast
3 pieces of prosciutto
2 slices of Swiss cheese
4 sandwich pickles

Begin by making your bread. The night before you want to make your sandwiches, combine the flour, salt, sugar, and yeast in a bowl and stir. Add the water and mix with your hand until no dry flour remains. Cover the bowl and allow to sit for 12-18 hours.

When this is complete, liberally dust a counter with flour and scrape the dough onto the flour. With floured hands, fold the dough over itself a couple times and create a round sort of shape. Transfer to a well-floured kitchen towel, seam side down. Brush the top of the dough with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Fold the ends of the towel over it and let rise for another 1-2 hours.

30 minutes before you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 500 degrees and prepare a sheet pan by brushing it with olive oil. When the dough is ready, cut into quarters. Gently stretch each piece into a long stick-like shape almost as wide as the pan. Place all 4 on the pan and brush the tops with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Bake for 15-25 minutes until golden brown. Let cool completely before cutting open.

Prepare the pork roast (I did this before baking my bread). Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix together the lemon zest, garlic, 1 tsp. of salt, and pepper in a bowl. Butterfly the pork loin by using a sharp knife to cut about ¾ of the way through and then laying it flat. Spread the lemon zest mixture over the pork.  Roll up the pork loin back into a log shape and secure with kitchen twine.

Rub the outside of the pork with oil and sprinkle with the other tsp. of salt on it. Place in a roasting pan and roast for 1 hour to an hour and 15 minutes. Once cooked, transfer the roast to a cutting board to rest for 25 minutes. Slice into thin pieces for the sandwich.

Finally prepare the sandwich. Cut one of the stecca in half lengthwise. Spread a thin layer of mayonnaise on both sides and the spicy brown mustard on one side. Layer on the pork, prosciutto, cheese, and pickles and top with the other half of the baguette.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Bucatini with Lemon Cream Sauce and Roasted Kale

I’ve been thinking about fate a lot recently. Ever since that period in my life where I spent long hours poring over the words of Waiting for Godot and connecting with Beckett’s existential storylines I’ve always felt a certain hesitation to believe in that thing we call destiny. Instead I’ve opted for the viewpoint that the course of my life and the meaning derived from that comes directly from the decisions that I alone make or have made. But now, more than ever before, I find myself thinking that maybe things do just happen because they were meant to happen. I’m wondering if “right place, right time” and “it will happen when you least expect it” is a way to put meaning to a predetermined course.

It is without a doubt that my current readings have been influencing my thoughts. Many who know me are aware that I happen to be quite the Murakami fan and I’ve already quoted him at least once here before. I just finished reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and it has easily become my favorite of his books to date. The book also happens to touch on the subject of fate quite a bit. There is one part where a character remarks, “All these inexplicable events that have occurred in my life so far… it’s as though they were all ingeniously programmed from the start for the very purpose of bringing me here, where I am today… I feel as if my every move is being controlled by some kind of incredibly long arm that’s reaching out from somewhere far away, and that my life has been nothing more than a convenient passageway for all these things moving through it.” Almost throughout the entire novel the characters, deep in thought, observe their current state as the domino-effect outcome of many life events that have been carefully orchestrated by the cosmos.

I’ve by no means convinced myself of one philosophy or another and have for the time being mostly hopped aboard the “screw it, I don’t have time to think about this” train. Unfortunately this gives me no way to explain why I just so happened to have all but one ingredient for the very dish I was just so happening to be craving yesterday. But for now I’m okay with ignoring this question and just being happy that it made my weekend grocery shopping trip that much easier.

This may very well be my favorite pasta dish yet. The first time I made it, the many unconventional steps of the process felt so wrong. Like throwing half of a lemon – peel, seeds, and all – into a blender with a raw egg and heavy cream. Yeah, I could definitely say I’d never done that before. But before I knew it I had the easiest and most luscious and creamy sauce I’d ever seen before me. And wait, all I had to do was pour it over hot pasta and mix it with some roasted kale? It’s comforting without being cloying, great on its own, but also killer with any sort of seafood, and believe me, this is definitely one of those scenarios where “more than the sum of its parts” comes into play. Maybe the world planned for me to make this over the weekend, or maybe I just keep a well-stocked fridge. But once I was eating, I couldn’t have cared less.

Bucatini with Lemon Cream Sauce and Roasted Kale
Served 4-6
From Tara O’Brady’s Seven Spoons Cookbook

2 bunches of kale, cleaned, de-stemmed, and roughly torn into pieces
½ lemon
¼ cup olive oil plus extra for the kale
1 egg
½ cup heavy cream
1 cup shredded parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
1 lb. bucatini pasta (use linguine if you can’t find bucatini)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Divide the kale between 2 sheet trays. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Toss the leaves of kale with the oil until well coated. Roast in the oven for 15 minutes, tossing a few times in the process. Set aside once roasted.

While the kale cooks brings a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the bucatini, stir, and bring back to a boil. Cook until al dente according to package instructions.

Meanwhile, make the sauce. Add the lemon (yes the entire half of the lemon including the peel and seeds), the olive oil, raw egg, cream, and parmesan to a blender. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper each. Blend until thick, creamy, and smooth.

 When the pasta is done, set aside 1 cup of the pasta cooking water and then drain the pasta. Return the noodles to the pot with about a quarter of the pasta water. Pour the lemon sauce over the pasta while using tongs to toss and mix the noodles. Alternate this with splashes of the cooking water to thin out the sauce some , as needed. Add in the kale and mix to combine. Taste and add salt if necessary. Serve with cracked pepper and a generous amount of grated parmesan.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Cast-Iron Pan Pizza

Is there ever really an occasion where pizza is not a solution to life’s problems, not an appropriate answer?  I’m struggling to identify that situation. As a celebratory accompaniment, a medium through which optimum catching up occurs, a means of personal expression, an easily reheated feast for one, or the mender of a broken spirit, pizza really is that one food that seems to captivate the universal cravings of the earth regardless of time, place, or condition. If we had to name a food for the ages, the worldwide culinary common denominator, I’m fairly certain that pizza would be just that.

I’ve made it a point to explore the realm of pizza as much as possible in my travels and my home cooking. At one point it used to be about finding the “best” wherever I went but in time I realized that this is an unachievable goal. With the countless varieties, styles, and cultural differences that surround pizza, it is impossible to place pizza on an arbitrary scale of betterness. Instead, I now focus less on picking apart its various aspects and rating them and more on enjoying what makes it unique as a whole and as a cultural creation and the satisfaction I get from it.

I recently learned about this cast-iron skillet pizza in an email I got from Bon Appetít magazine. The descriptions in the recipe alone like "perfect crispy and chewy texture," and "ooey, gooey, and just the right amount of messy," were enough to sell me on it.

The pizza lived up to all of the hype. Its non-recipe sort of format makes it totally customizable for different tastes and it’s crazy easy too, fitting into the “weeknight pizza” genre. A store-bought round of dough is pressed into a blazing hot cast iron pan, on goes a thick layer of tomato sauce and cheese and any topping you desire, though I would try to limit it to 2 or else things start to get a bit busy. The whole pan goes into an even hotter oven and emerges as an awesome thick-crust creation with this ridiculous ring of crispy and caramelized burnt cheese and sauce combo around the edge. And if you're like me, you probably will overdo it on the cheese so it drips to the bottom of the oven and causes smoke detectors to go crazy. It's normal. Knife and fork are optional, enjoyment is inevitable. After all, it is pizza.

Cast Iron Pan Pizza
Serves 4
Adapted from Bon Appetít Magazine

1 1-lb store-bought pizza dough ball
1 8oz can tomato sauce
1 Tsp. dried parsley flakes
½ tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. garlic powder
olive oil
2-3 cups grated cheese (I used a combo of fontina and swiss)
A dollop of honey mixed with a good pinch of red chili flakes, thinned out with a little water.
A handful of basil leaves and grated parmesan
Toppings of your choice – I used cherry tomatoes and asparagus but any of your favorites would be great.

Preheat your oven to 525 degrees or as hot as it will go. Meanwhile combine your tomato sauce, parsley, oregano, salt, and garlic powder in a small bowl. Heat a 9-12 inch cast iron skillet over medium-high. The bigger the pan, the thinner and crispier your crust will be. Once it’s good and hot, sprinkle a little flour on the bottom of the pan and press in your pizza dough. Using a towel to hold the handle with one hand, carefully use your other hand or a spoon to press the dough up the sides of the pan.

Brush the dough with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. After a few minutes it should start to bubble. Spoon on as much tomato sauce as you would like. Save any extra for more pizza or to heat up with some spaghetti later in the week. Spread the sauce all the way to the edges so it hits the pan a little. Sprinkle on the cheese and add your toppings. Place in the oven for 10-15 minutes.

When the pizza has 1 minute left, brush on the honey-chili flake mixture so that it caramelizes during that last bit of cooking. When finished cooking, top with the basil and parmesan. Slice and enjoy immediately.