Sunday, July 31, 2011

Small Town Sunday Special
What’s cooking? Zeppole

As far as I can remember, I had only one friend who was actually born and raised in Summit, the small New Jersey town where my husband and I raised our children. Like many New Jersey towns, the population is relatively fluid, with families moving in and out according to the whims of corporate America or the ups and downs of Wall Street.

But it turns out that, in spite of the shape-shifting nature of the populace, these small towns have a remarkable knack for building community. The Memorial Day service on the town green, with high school musicians playing Sousa marches and military tributes; the bicycle parade on July 4th; the Halloween parade, with children of all ages marching along in their costumes down Springfield Avenue; the free outdoor concerts in summer. Even the pristine town dump, where you can recycle almost anything and where everyone who’s anyone can be seen on a Saturday morning, plays a role in bringing the citizenry together to enjoy life on a personal scale.

So it was not a surprise when I showed up for the farmers’ market last Sunday to find that the town had also closed off the streets near the train station for an arts and crafts fair.

The first tent I noticed had an adorable collection of knit hats in a lively range of colors to make any child happy.

Further down the street, I almost squealed with excitement at the chairs and benches produced by a remarkable young artist named Lindsey Shevkun, who refinishes second-hand furniture with paint, photos and tile, then shelacks them to a high-gloss finish. The look reminds me of artists in Mexico – in fact, many of the pieces pay overt homage to Frida Kahlo.

 And here’s the charming artist herself.

There was more to see than I have room to show, and eventually I found myself at the center of attention, which was the zeppole tent. These Italian doughnuts, deep-fried and covered with powdered sugar, are so popular they disappear faster than shooting stars. My feet were begging me to stop, so I grabbed this photo before buying a small sack of the lovelies, and heading for...guess where?

For those of you who'd like to try your hand at zeppoles, here's a recipe I found that seems pretty simple. If you try it, let me know how it goes. The web has a million variations on the ingredients – with or without cinnamon, with or without yeast, with or without ricotta. From what I tasted, this looks like the real deal.

Zeppole (yield 35)

vegetable oil for frying
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 pinch salt
1½ teaspoons sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup ricotta cheese
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup confectioners' sugar for dusting

In a medium saucepan, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Stir in the eggs, ricotta cheese and vanilla. Mix gently over low heat until combined. The batter will be sticky.

Meanwhile, pour enough oil into a large frying pan to reach a depth of 2 inches. Heat the oil over medium heat to 375º F.

Drop by tablespoons into the hot oil a few at a time. Zeppole will turn over by themselves. Fry until golden brown, about 3-4 minutes. Drain in a paper sack and dust with confectioners' sugar. Serve warm.

Kitchen Goddess note: To reuse the oil, let it cool, then strain it into a clean empty glass jar through a sieve lined with cheesecloth. Store in the refrigerator and reuse it (for similar recipes) up to 4 times.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Serendipity – or Maybe Cooking Karma?
What’s cooking? Watercress Soup

Chance or fate? I’ve long believed in karma of various sorts. Shopping karma (finding that just-so item in a tiny, hidden corner of Manhattan) and parking karma (snagging the spot right in front of the restaurant) come to mind most readily. But I’m starting to consider the concept of cooking karma. Can that be what you call it when you come across a recipe that sounds interesting and it turns out you already have ALL of the ingredients, including the leeks?

This line of thought started when my friend Gusty, a children’s book writer, sent me to a site that promised a free cookbook to the first 100 bloggers to try out a recipe from Richard Grausman’s new book, French Classics Made Easy. Never one to turn down such an opportunity, I went to the site and – voilá! – the proposed menu contained a cold soup recipe, another of my weaknesses. In truth, the recipe says you can serve it cold or hot; but with the outside temperatures this week breaking the 100° mark, no one in her right mind would make hot soup.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Today’s Rant... And a Divine Solution
What’s cooking? Divinity Fudge

Not long ago, I received a notice from HP – the people who made my laptop. What they called a Routine Customer Advisory. I’m never really sure if these things come to me because something in my computer is about to blow up or has already blown up or arrived blown up but I haven’t come across the particular circumstances that would ignite the fire. So I read the notice.

It had something to do with experiencing The Blue Screen of Death (my term, not theirs); and as it happens, I did have a recent experience with the BSD. Not a fatal one, but you know how these moments cause a shortness of breath and a sinking feeling as if your heart has just paid a visit to your colon. The description said these BSDs may happen after applying some Microsoft security bulletin. Now I apply every Microsoft security bulletin that comes to me – I figure they know what they’re talking about and if it has to do with security, I’m there. So while I can’t remember which Microsoft bulletin that might have been, I think I should apply this HP fix.

I download the file, and when I go to run it, I get one of those balloons that says “This computer does not meet the minimum requirements for installing the software.” Arrrggghh. How can that be? They know which laptop I have. The notice said it was for my model. I have more memory than Iowa has corn. What could they be talking about?

Looking for help, I scroll further down the page and find a “Content Feedback” section, where apparently I can ask a question, vent a tiny bit of my frustration, and – who knows? – maybe get help. I type in my feedback, hit Enter, and get an immediate response (including the exclamation marks):

“We’re very sorry!
The page you requested cannot be found.
We apologize for the inconvenience!”

And you know what? I agree – they are very sorry, with several more exclamation marks, mine more necessary than theirs.

So now I am energized, and without a technical solution, I fall back on a more comforting one: cooking. I head to the kitchen, where I whip up a batch of my Aunt Marcy’s Divinity Fudge. Nothing else works like sugar to make me feel better.

Kitchen Goddess note: It’s important to be sure you have a dry day for making divinity, as all you’ll get on a humid day is a big, white, gooey mess.

Aunt Marcy’s Divinity Fudge

2 egg whites
2 cups sugar
½ cup white corn syrup
½ cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup chopped nuts

In a metal mixing bowl, with your mixer on high, beat the whites until stiff peaks form. Set aside.

In a saucepan over low heat, combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then cook without stirring to 260°. [Kitchen Goddess note #2: If you don’t have a candy thermometer, this is the point at which a little dropped into cold water forms a hard ball. I am usually racked with anxiety at trying to decide if the ball is hard enough, so I highly recommend investing in a candy thermometer, if you don’t have one.]

Remove the sugar mixture from the heat and pour, again with the mixer on high, in a fine stream into the beaten egg whites.

Continue beating until the mixture holds its shape and loses its gloss, which will take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. Stir in the vanilla and the nuts; then, working quickly (the stuff will stiffen faster than..., well, let’s just say really fast), drop small mounds of the candy onto waxed paper in peaks, or spread in a greased, shallow pan and cut into 1-inch squares when firm. For the mounds, it’s helpful to use two spoons – one spoon pushes the candy off the other.

Makes about 1¼ pounds.

Kitchen Goddess note #3: A few helpful tips regarding eggs. First, eggs separate better when they’re cold. But the whites whip up faster and fuller when they’re at room temperature. So separate your eggs, then let them sit for half an hour before whipping. Finally, fresh eggs don’t whip up as well as eggs that are at least a few days old. Which just goes to say that with eggs as with people, a little age is a good thing.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Who Needs Fireworks?
What’s cooking? Blueberry Syrup

Independence Day always comes as something of a shock to my system. It’s not really the Fourth of July, is it? How can it be that half the summer is already over? Of course, it’s not really half over – it just feels that way.

And here in the New York area, the warm weather has the tall buildings emptying out like someone pulled a plug. People are out after work, eating at sidewalk cafes, sitting on neighborhood stoops, and walking their dogs, children, or spouses. Like them, I want to grab each day and hold it tight, to suck every morsel of flavor out of the season before the leaves turn. it seems like it'll last forever. Then, suddenly, June has slipped past, and now July is racing on.

We thought when we got our place in Jersey City that we’d be able to see the fireworks, but noooo. Almost the minute we arrived, the pyrotechnic powers that be decided to move the whole shebang upriver – too far for viewing from our building. Bummer. But even as I moped around the apartment feeling sorry for what we were missing, I stopped at the window, looked south, and counted 10 separate celebrations off in the distance in NJ and Staten Island that were at least visible from here, and another three in Bklyn. Tiny bursts of color and fire, signalling everyone’s desire to celebrate summer or independence or our country or all three. It’s a very joyful sight.

Moreover, Manhattan has its own light show every night – available only to the folks in NJ. So now I’m pretty sure we’re really very lucky.

 * * *

It must be the height of the blueberry season in NJ, because the farmers’ markets are loaded with them. Which means it’s time for me to make blueberry syrup. I discovered this super-easy recipe last year in Food & Wine magazine, and couldn’t stop making it. I gave it to most of my friends, I froze it, I put it on everything from ice cream to cottage cheese to chicken (as a glaze before baking). What I like most about it – aside from the truly pure blueberry flavor – is that it’s not as sweet as most syrups. And while it’s a bit late for recommending a red, white, and blue dessert, summer isn’t really even half over; this would be the perfect add-on to strawberry shortcake or angelfood cake with strawberries or raspberries. Happy summer, everyone!

Blueberry Syrup

Adapted from Food & Wine magazine

1½ pounds blueberries (5 cups)
4 cups water
2 cups sugar
Six strips of lemon zest (use a vegetable peeler to get strips about ½ inch wide and 1-2 inches long)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

In a pot, combine the blueberries with 1 cup of the water. Using an implement like a potato masher (a large round wisk might also work), crush the berries and bring to a simmer. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Strain the juice into a heatproof measuring cup, pressing hard on the solids. Discard the solids.

Rinse out the pot. Add the sugar, lemon zest and the remaining 3 cups of water and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Boil the syrup over moderate heat until it registers 225° on a candy thermometer (about 20 minutes). Add the blueberry juice and lemon juice and boil over high heat for 1 minute. Let the syrup cool, then discard the lemon zest. Pour the syrup into just-cleaned bottles. Seal and refrigerate for up to 6 months.