Tuesday, May 29, 2007

An asparagus sandwich and a new attitude

The small Texas town where I went to college had a surprising bounty of good restaurants despite its size. While I ate the majority of my meals either in Slater’s (what we called the cafeteria) or at home, once a week my friends and I would treat ourselves and go out to eat. Most of the time, we’d frequent joints that served those favorites that we hadn’t quite mastered in the kitchen yet—dishes such as chicken-fried steak, cheese enchiladas or fried catfish. But even though it was a small Texas town, contrary to the state’s beef-loving stereotype there was also a vegetarian café called The Tiffin Shop, which was housed in the back of the local health-food store. And in spite of my notions about health-food stores, I grew to love this little place, especially its asparagus sandwiches.

When I left home to go to college at 18, after a childhood filled with carob milk, gnarly sprouts and wheat germ, I had had my fill of health-food-store fare and vowed to never step foot in one again. But in the spring semester of my freshman year, some fellow classmates and myself decided to take our English professor to lunch so we could get to know her better. And being benevolent, we let her choose the spot. So what did she choose? But of course—the dreaded Tiffin Shop. I groaned to myself about the prospect of eating a meal at a health-food store, but I also knew that to make a fuss or, even worse, to not attend the luncheon would be bad form. So I went, but was convinced I would hate the food.

I wish I had a better memory of how I ended up ordering the asparagus sandwich, but it’s been, ahem, a few years since that fateful meal. I reckon it was either the cheapest thing on the menu (I was a poor college student, after all) or it was a choice between either asparagus or sautéed seitan slapped between two slices of bread, and at least I’d heard of asparagus. But no matter why I ordered it, I’m just thankful that I did.

It was a simple sandwich—just cream cheese, herbs and lightly cooked asparagus all nestled between Parmesan-coated toasted bread. But while there wasn’t much to it, somehow the combination of these ingredients made for a rich and flavorful experience. And for me, this crunchy, creamy, oh-so dreamy sandwich was a revelation: after a lifetime of being down on health-food stores, I decided the food on offer wasn’t all that bad. (Of course, all that cheese didn’t hurt either!)

Throughout the next three years, my friends and I often included the Tiffin Shop on our regular going-out rotation. The café offered a spectacular Indian menu as well, but I always opted for my beloved asparagus sandwich, as it was so superb. And after I graduated and first moved away from Texas, besides green sauce and flour tortillas, that special sandwich was one of the things I missed the most and was eager to recreate.

Making the filling was a cinch, but the crispy Parmesan crust eluded me. Because I didn’t know squat about cooking back then, the first time I tried to make it I sprinkled the cheese on the bread sans any fat, but the cheese just fell off when I took a bite. So I tried spreading olive oil on the bread before adding the cheese, which was fine, but not quite the creamy crunch I was aiming for. There were also some attempts using eggs and milk to create the cheesy crust, which lead to disastrous and disgusting results. Finally, I decided to dip the bread in melted butter before doing my cheese dredge and hurrah! At long last I had the asparagus sandwich of my dreams!

So, yes, this isn’t the lowest-calorie meal (which is probably why it was my favorite dish at the health-food store) but it is decidedly delicious. And during those few weeks when the local asparagus make their appearance at the market, I always whip up a batch or two. It’s been quite a few years since I had the original inspiration for the sandwich and, well, I can’t recall if the one I make tastes like The Tiffin Shop’s or not. But no matter, I’ve made it my own and even if it’s not quite what I ate all those years ago, it’s no less amazing. Plus each beautiful bite still takes me back to the moment when I realized not all health-food-store fare is something to shun and, instead, is something to embrace. Just don't make me go near the alfalfa sprouts!

Asparagus and cream cheese sandwich
Ingredients:
1 pound of fresh asparagus, chopped in 1-inch pieces
1 pound of cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon of tarragon
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup of finely grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup of butter, melted
8 slices of bread

Method:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Boil or steam the chopped asparagus for three minutes and then submerge in cold water.
Mix the cooked asparagus with the softened cream cheese, tarragon, salt and pepper.
Melt the butter in a saucepan.
Take each slice of bread and dip it into the melted butter and then sprinkle Parmesan cheese on one side of each piece.
Spread about 1/2 cup of the cream-cheese/asparagus filling on a slice of bread on the non-coated side, and top with another slice, leaving the Parmesan-coated sides on the outside.
Place assembled sandwiches on a greased sheet and bake in oven for 15-20 minutes, turning over once so both sides are browned.
Makes four sandwiches.

Note: I use tarragon because I have that lovely herb growing in my kitchen and I enjoy it freshly snipped, but the sandwich is also good with lemon thyme, chives, rosemary or whatever other herbs you fancy with your asparagus. But please be aware—the real stars of this sandwich are the crisp, cooked asparagus and Parmesan-coated bread—everything else is secondary.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Ramping up some gnudi

I don’t have Italian blood flowing through my veins and I have to admit when I was little, my knowledge of that country’s vast cuisine ended (and began) with pizza, lasagna, ravioli (usually canned) and spaghetti. But when I was in my teens and started venturing beyond my limited culinary sphere, I discovered the joy of many new Italian flavors, including butter-and-cream sauce, which I became obsessed with creating at home. My mom has called this my white phase since most of what I ate was, of course, white. And one of my favorite snacks was baked ricotta cheese smothered in the cream sauce, garlic and freshly chopped rosemary, no pasta necessary (though it’s also sort of white and wouldn’t have been completely unwelcome). It was so rich, creamy and delicious, it could make me weep. And heck, I was still a kid so I had no concern about either my heart or my waistline and could indulge guilt free in such a decadent dish.

I’ve since moved beyond the white-food phase, and fortunately am now an equal-opportunity eater of foods of all colors. And while nobody would have predicted this 20 years ago when thoughts of fruits and vegetables were anathema to my diet, I now not only frequently shop at the farmer’s market but also am even (gasp!) toying with the idea of committing to a CSA share for the summer and fall. I’m excited about the prospect of getting a ton of fresh vegetables every week while also helping out a local farm, but I hesitate to sign on the dotted line because I’m afraid I’ll miss shopping at the market, which I’d be less inclined to do if I already have a fridge full of vegetables at home.

There’s just something about seeing the vendors selling the fruits, vegetables, grass-fed meat, cheese and seafood that fills me with such joy. And it’s become my favorite way to spend a lunch hour. My options would probably be better if I was one of those early risers (I keep missing the scallops and bacon, for instance) but I take what I can get, which is part of the fun. And while there are more vendors at the Union Square Greenmarket, the market I frequent by my office has a tenth of the crowds and much cheaper prices. Plus, most of my fellow shoppers are United Nations employees so, for instance, when two people are reaching for that last basket of strawberries, an air of diplomacy hangs over what could have turned into an ugly interaction.

This week they finally had ramps. My heart skipped a little when I saw them in all their muddy, leafy, white, green and aromatic glory. I have never cooked with ramps, which are also known as wild leeks, and have only eaten them on rare occasions. In college we had wild onions growing in our yard that would stink up the joint something fierce after a rain (a good stink, mind you, if you like the smell of onions). We’d pull them out of the ground and eat them raw, in ramen noodles or with beans and rice. But I don’t know if those were technically ramps or not, so this bundle marked my first official foray into the world of working with these lovely lilies.

As I tried to decide what to cook with my ramps, I petitioned friends and scoured the Internet for ideas. I saw many recipes that scrambled them with bacon and eggs or added them to biscuits, which sounded tasty but a bit uninspired. And one friend said her brother makes a zesty ramp and potato salad, but there were no young potatoes to be found at the market when I shopped.

But lately I’ve been slightly obsessed with gnudi (yes, it’s pronounced nudie) that pillowy Italian dish made up of creamy poached ricotta cheese. If you’re not familiar with it, think ravioli filling without the pasta (hence the name, which means naked in Italian) or gnocchi without the potatoes. Tender yet firm on the outside but oozing on the inside, it’s slightly naughty but oh so heavenly. And since ramps taste like the marriage between onions and garlic, I thought they’d be the perfect addition to this luscious, rich dish.

My hunch did not disappoint. The ramps were a spectacular match for the cheese and since I sautéed them before adding them to the ricotta mixture, they were pungent but not overpowering. As I ate the gnudi, I realized that I probably love it so much because it reminds me of that baked ricotta dish I made back in my teens; it took me back to a time when the culinary horizon was vast and filled with much uncharted and delicious territory. Yet even though back then my baked ricotta was a vehicle for cream sauce, I decided for this recipe that such a heavy garnish would be gilding the lily (and the arteries) so I opted instead to top my gnudi with just a simple brown-butter drizzle mixed with more ramps.

Unfortunately, ramps have a very short season. But I know I’ll be back at the market this week to grab some more as they are my newfound taste of spring. Plus, I’m eager to try that salad my friend mentioned and I bet the fingerling potatoes should be arriving soon. But more than that, cooking with ramps has reminded me that the culinary horizon remains vast, despite my years, and it’s always a joy to discover new flavors.

Are you a fan of ramps? What do you like to make with them? And help me make a decision—do you participate in a CSA and what do you find to be the pros and cons?

Gnudi with ramps and brown-butter sauce (adapted from a Bon Appetit recipe for gnudi)
Ingredients:
1 bunch of ramps (12 ramps)
1 pound of ricotta cheese
1 egg
3/4 cups of flour plus more for a dredge
1/2 cup of grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 stick of butter (113.4 grams)

Method:
Clean the ramps and remove the roots.
Finely dice the bulbs and julienne the leaves.
On medium heat, sauté the diced bulbs in one tablespoon of olive oil until soft, about three minutes. Add the julienned leaves and sauté another minute or so until soft but still green. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix together the ricotta cheese, egg, 3/4 cup of flour, Parmesan, salt, pepper, nutmeg and half the sautéed ramps (about 1/4 cup).
Bring a pot of salted water or stock to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer.
Meanwhile, form gnudis by taking a tablespoon of the cheese mixture in floured hands, roll it into a ball, flatten it, and then dredge in flour to coat.
Gently place gnudis four at a time in simmering water, and when they float to the top (about three minutes), gently remove with a slotted spoon and place on a plate. They will be very delicate, so handle with care and keep cooked gnudis separate. Repeat until all are cooked.
Melt a stick of butter in saucepan on medium until nutty brown.
Place gnudis on a plate, drizzle with brown butter and garnish with remaining sautéed ramps.
Feeds four to six.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mom's ginger scones for Mother's Day

Dear Mom,

It’s Mother’s Day and unfortunately I couldn’t spend the day with you. But that doesn’t mean you’re not in my thoughts! Of course, as always, I’m a bit tardy with your card and gift. We could chalk that up to my working at weekly magazines and always being a bit out of sync with the calendar. Though I’m usually thinking ahead, and by using that logic I should have thought last Sunday was Mother’s Day. No matter, it’s a bad excuse.

In any case, I just wanted to thank you for being such a generous, thoughtful and patient mom—I know that growing up I could be quite the handful. And while I didn’t appreciate eating healthy when I was a kid, I’m now very grateful for the education you gave me on organic and local foods. You’ve provided me with a solid foundation for making the right decisions with what I eat. Plus, I have fond memories of getting ladybugs for our organic garden and learning to savor the nuances of carob.

I enjoyed our visit last month and I’m pleased we spent some time together in the kitchen. And while everything you bake is always delectable, I think the latest addition to your repertoire—ginger scones—is near the top of my list. When I woke up to a house filled with such a divine smell, I swooned. And as with all your baked goods, it was love at first bite. The pastry was so flavorful with such a delicate, tender crumb. But what made those scones rise above the rest was the spiciness of the ginger coupled with the crunch of raw sugar sprinkled on top.

So since I can’t spend the day with you, I thought the second-best way to honor you would be to share this treat—thanks for sending me the recipe! And in the meantime, here are some lilacs for you to enjoy…

…And yes, your card and gift are in the mail. I love you! Happy Mother’s Day!

Mom’s Ginger Scones
Ingredients:
1 stick of butter (113.4 grams)
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups oats
1/4 cup unpacked brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 egg
1/3 cup milk
1/2 cup crystallized ginger chips
Turbinado sugar for sprinkling

Method:
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Melt the butter.
Mix together all the dry ingredients.
Beat egg and add it to milk.
Make a well in dry mixture and stir in egg, milk and melted butter.
Stir until blended.
Spoon hand-sized balls of dough on greased cookie sheet and sprinkle tops with raw sugar.
Bake 10-15 minutes.
Makes between 8-12 scones.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Chess pie recipe: a taste of yellow

chess pieBaking has never been my strength. Perhaps it’s because I’m impatient or perhaps it’s because I have a hard time following directions, but when it comes to pastries, where precision is key, I leave those culinary tasks to the experts, namely my mom and my grandmother.

I’ve mentioned before my grandmother’s skill with pies. For as long as I can remember, I’ve stood by her side and watched her effortlessly roll out crusts and whip up fabulous fillings with seldom a measuring cup or spoon in sight. I’d like to have her ability as pies are one of my favorite desserts. But even when I use her recipes for guidance, mine always fall a bit short. Of course, with practice comes perfection. And if I had been baking pies for as long and as often as she has, I would probably be more proud of my efforts. But since I attempt one only a couple of times a year, I still have far to go in my pie-baking development.

chess pieYet despite my inability to bake the prettiest pie, I was inspired by the amazing Barbara from Winos and Foodies to at least endeavor to make a delicious one. Barbara is compiling a roundup of yellow foods for the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s Livestrong Day on May 16. And if you’re not already familiar with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, it’s a ten-year-old Texas-based organization created by the seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Armstrong. Its mission is to inspire and empower people with cancer towards surviving the disease through education, advocacy, public health initiatives and research.

But even though the foundation is American, as New Zealander Barbara noted, its work extends worldwide since, sadly, cancer has no boundaries. Armstrong’s cycling jersey is bright yellow, and that color has come to represent his foundation’s philosophy of living strong and putting up an aggressive fight against the disease, hence the yellow foods. Barbara herself is fighting cancer yet when you read her blog, you find a witty, positive, energetic and creative woman, not daunted by her adversity. She’s living strong and so the least I could do was try and make a yellow pie.

One of my favorite pies is chess pie, a lemony, custardy delight. It’s an old dish that is made with the simplest ingredients. Yet its humble origins belie the sweet and rich results. This is a pastry that harks back to my ancestors, and while the birth of its name is enshrouded in mystery, it doesn’t have anything to do with the game of kings. Instead, some say that it may be named after the town of Chester, England as its lineage goes back to classic English tarts, like the one Sam baked also for this event. Southern food historian John T. Edge has said, however, that the name could either hail from the word “chest” as in pie chest or that it’s a rendition of how a Southerner would sound if saying, “It’s jes pie.”

chess pieBut even if its name is a puzzle, there's nothing enigmatic about this pie's flavor: simply put, it tastes divine. And since half the ingredients—eggs, lemon juice and corn meal—are yellow, not to mention, there’s such comfort and warmth in a homemade slice of pie, I thought it would make a fine contribution to Barbara’s roundup of yellow treats. Now this isn’t diet food, but it is pure in its simplicity as it’s made with whole, fresh ingredients. And as my ancestors lived long lives eating dishes such as these, I could do worse than emulating some of their dining habits.

As you can see from the photos, the pie I baked won’t take the prize for looks. But what it lacks in beauty it more than makes up for in flavor. And after one creamy and bright bite, you’ll realize that this pie isn’t made for beholding, it’s made for devouring. So I tip my fork to the amazing women who came before me, and thank them for such a fantastic food heritage. And I also thank Barbara, whose great strength inspired me to tackle the minute challenge of baking a yellow chess pie.

Chess Pie
Ingredients:
For the crust (makes enough for two):
2 cups of flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup milk

For the filling:
3 eggs
1 stick of butter (113.4 grams)
1 cup of sugar
1 tablespoon of yellow corn meal
1 teaspoon of vanilla
The juice from 1 and 1/2 lemons (about 1/2 cup)
1 teaspoon of lemon zest

Method:
For the crust:
Mix flour and salt. Mix oil and milk. Pour oil and milk into flour and salt and stir until combined into a dough. Can add more milk if dry. Separate into two balls (save one ball for another pie). Roll crust out between two sheets of wax paper, line a pie pan with crust.

For the filling:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Melt the butter.
Mix the sugar in with the butter.
Beat the eggs and add vanilla, corn meal, lemon juice and zest.
Add egg mixture to butter and sugar, and mix well.
Pour filling into an unbaked pie shell and bake at 350 for 50 minutes.
Let cool for 20 minutes (so filling can set).

Filling makes enough for one pie.

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