Friday, August 28, 2015

Adventures in the Emerald Isle
What’s cooking? Plum-Blackberry Compote on Broiled Peaches

The Kitchen Goddess has not deserted you. She’s in Ireland, getting her fill of crusty brown bread and Irish soda bread and fresh trout and some fabulous cake with a caramel sauce whose name I can’t remember. So posting has been a bit of a trial, but here I am at last.

One of my responsibilities as a grandmother is to send my granddaughter postcards from my travels. She’s 3½, so she loves getting the mail, which is how I found myself at the post office in Ennis, Ireland, yesterday.

It’s a tiny affair with a prison-cell decor, and barely large enough for the 15 or so people who stood patiently in a line that snaked almost out the door. Only one service window was open, and with nothing else to do while I waited to buy stamps, I checked out the other customers.

Directly in front of me, a young man, maybe in his late 20s, chatted quietly with a slightly older woman, in a language I didn’t recognize. She handed him the pile of post cards she was mailing. As he rifled through them, I noticed they were all addressed to Poland.

He bent affectionately toward her as he talked, and I heard, “[Polish Polish Polish]...six stamps to Poland.” He handed her back the stack of cards and repeated, “Six stamps to Poland.”

She shook her head, obviously embarrassed, and responded, “[Polish Polish Polish],” as she tried to get him to take the cards back.

He refused, and the debate continued. Each time he gently insisted, “Six stamps to Poland,” she shook her head “No.”

As their turn at the window approached, I couldn’t stay silent any longer. I tapped her on the shoulder, and said, “You can do it. Six stamps to Poland.”

She smiled nervously, and he nodded. He turned to me and said, “She comes every year and I try to learn her some English. But no.” Then he added, “She learns Russian, but not English.”

Finally, it was her turn. They walked up to the window, and as she pushed her cards over to the postal clerk, she leaned in and I heard a soft, “Six stamps to Poland.”

They were both grinning as they walked out into the afternoon.

* * *

Cooking and food can present much that same sort of challenge. All too often, when you come across a new technique or a new taste to master, you may have a tendency to say, “I can’t do that.” Phooey. Of course you can – it’s only food. The Kitchen Goddess encourages you to join her as she shouts, “Six stamps to Poland!” and go for it.

Most recently, the challenge I faced was nothing more than an overstuffed fridge and a vacation deadline. “What’ll I do with all this fruit?!” I asked myself. That would be 3½ pounds of sugar plums on the verge of overripening and four small containers of blackberries. Yikes. (Don’t worry, I’ve cut the quantities down to more manageable portions for you.) I could have made jam, but decided instead that what I really wanted was compote.

So first I had to look up “compote” to make sure I had the concept right. Yes, it’s just what I thought – a sort of dessert topping made from whole or chunked fruit in a simple sugar syrup. Very light and fruity without being jammy. Then you put it on ice cream or pound cake for dessert, or stir it into your morning yogurt, or serve it as an appetizer with goat cheese and crackers. Very flexible, and simple as pie – really much simpler than pie.

And just to show you what a swell person the Kitchen Goddess is, I’ve also included a summer fruit dessert – broiled peaches – that uses the compote. What a great way to celebrate summer!

Plum-Blackberry Compote

Makes about 3 cups.

¾ cup sugar
1½ pounds plums (any type of plum should do – I had sugar plums), seeded and cut into quarters if small, eighths if large
zest of ½ lemon
2 cups blackberries
1½ tablespoons lemon balsamic vinegar (or regular balsamic vinegar plus ½ teaspoon lemon juice)

Put the sugar into a large saucepan with 1 cup water, and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring just until the sugar dissolves. Boil 5 minutes then add the plums and lemon zest. Cook the plums at a low boil for 5 minutes, then add blackberries and vinegar and simmer another 5 minutes.

Serve as dessert, warm or chilled, over ice cream or Greek yogurt or pound cake. Also works for breakfast with yogurt, or as an hors d’oeuvre with goat cheese and crackers.

Or serve it as dessert over broiled peaches, like this. (The Kitchen Goddess loved the extra kick of flavor from the sesame oil, but the butter is also terrific, so use whatever pleases you.)

Broiled Peaches with Plum-Blackberry Compote

Step 1: Brush with butter or sesame oil.
To serve 4.

2 large peaches, peeled and seeded, cut in half
1 tablespoon melted butter or toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon brown sugar

Preheat the oven on broil. Lay the peaches cut sides up in a square Pyrex casserole dish lined with crumpled foil. (The foil will keep the peaches from sliding around, and will minimize clean-up.)

Brush the cut sides of the peaches with the butter or sesame oil. Sprinkle the brown sugar on top. Broil 4½-5 minutes, until the sugar caramelizes.
Step 2: Sprinkle on brown sugar.

Serve with fruit compote and a dollop of whipped cream or crème fraîche or plain Greek yogurt.

Step 3: Broil 4-5 minutes.

Then save some as gifts for friends!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Tale of Two Italys
What’s cooking? Clam & Corn Chowder

Most people, when they think of Little Italy in New York City, picture a tiny area in lower Manhattan, nestled next to Chinatown, featured in The Godfather, and the home of the famous Festival of San Gennaro. But the neighborhood population peaked (at 10,000) in 1910, and the physical area has since been under constant pressure, crowded by growth on the west from the artists in SoHo and celebrities in TriBeCa, by new highrises in the creeping gentrification of the Lower East Side and the Bowery, and wrapped on all sides by tentacles of Chinatown. Even NoLIta (North of Little Italy), a section once firmly part of the corpus of Little Italy, now commands its own identity with the yuppies that call the area home.

So where does one go to find the merchants and residents who once occupied that space? Come with me to visit Arthur Avenue, in the Fordham section of The Bronx.

A short aside: If you’re limited to Manhattan and want a great Italian shopping and eating experience, check out Eataly, the emporium opened in 2010 by Mario Batali and Lidia and Joe Bastianich. It’s 50,000 square feet of food courts and shelves of dried pastas, jams, sauces, olives, 100 different kinds of olive oil, and pretty much anything produced in Italy, as well as counters for fresh pasta, salumeria, espresso, and chocolate. According to Wikipedia, “Batali has described the place as a grocery store with tasting rooms.” It’s on Fifth Ave at 23rd Street, and well worth a visit. But it’s expensive, and it’s not Arthur Avenue.

This is Arthur Avenue.

The Kitchen Goddess made her first trip to Arthur Avenue last summer, and was immediately smitten. What you get with a trip to Arthur Avenue is the old world charm, tree-lined streets, and the sense of a neighborhood that’s completely committed to the best of a culture, culinarily speaking, of course. They have bakeries for every kind of Italian cookie, and different bakeries for crusty Italian breads. Open air markets with barrels of olives, and cheese shops with fresh mozzarella. Salumerias with huge displays of Italian cured meats, and butcher shops with fresh hot and sweet sausages as well as rabbit, pheasant, and wild boar. And, of course, shops for fresh pasta.

But my favorite stop was the fishmonger, Consenza's. There are other fishmongers on Arthur Avenue, but Cosenza’s was the only one I saw with a stand-up raw bar out front. The Kitchen Goddess made a little piggie of herself over the fresh clams and oysters, right there in the great outdoors.

And the bins inside had more gorgeous fish and shellfish than I think I’ve ever seen in one place before – all smelling like it just came out of the water.

I succumbed to the need for more clams, and took home a 2-pound bag (about 50 clams) to make a truly excellent clam chowder the next night. There is hardly a better dish in the world.

Kitchen Goddess note about fresh clams: Whole clams in their shells are sold live, usually in porous bags of net or burlap. The smaller clams are the tenderest, and you want to store them in the fridge (but not on ice), in a bowl covered with a damp kitchen towel. DO NOT keep them in a plastic bag, as they’ll die from lack of oxygen. Really fresh clams will last a few days, but if you buy them at a grocery store, you should cook them within 24 hours.

Before you cook them, take them out of their bag and put them in a bowl of fresh cold, unsalted water to cover, for 20-30 minutes. This’ll give the little buggers time to clean themselves of unwanted salt and sand on the inside. Then lift them out of the water (so you leave the sand behind), and scrub them with a soft brush or plastic mesh scrubber, to get rid of any sand on the outside of the shells. Now they’re ready to cook.

Clam and Corn Chowder

Adapted from Shelley Wiseman in Gourmet magazine, August 2007

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

3 slices bacon, cut into pieces about 1 inch long
5-6 small scallions, thinly sliced (white and pale green parts), or ¼ cup shallots, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
corn sliced from 3 ears (about 2 cups)
1 pound small-to-medium boiling potatoes (red or white skins), cut in ½-inch cubes
16 ounces bottled clam juice
½ cup water
¼ cup dry white wine (optional)
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
½ cup red bell pepper, cut into ½-inch dice
2 pounds small hard-shelled clams, well cleaned
1½ cups half-and-half
2 tablespoons fresh chives, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped

In a 4- to 5-quart heavy pot (I use a 5.5-quart Le Creuset French oven) over medium heat, cook the bacon, stirring, until slightly browned but not crisp. Add the scallions or shallots and garlic, along with 1 tablespoon butter. Cook, stirring, another 2 minutes. Add the corn, potatoes, clam juice, water, wine, pepper, and thyme, and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in the bell pepper and bring the mixture to a rolling boil, uncovered. Add the clams and return the mixture to a boil. Cover the pot and cook, checking and stirring occasionally, until the clams are just opened wide, about 7-8 minutes. Discard any clams that haven’t unopened after 8 minutes, as they probably weren’t alive on the way into the pot.

Reduce the heat and add the half-and-half and the chives/parsley, as well as the remaining tablespoon of butter. Cook, stirring, until the chowder is heated through, but don’t let it boil. Adjust chowder seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with toasted French or Italian bread and a green salad.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Winner, Winner, Mushroom Dinner
What’s cooking? A Blender Winner and Pasta with Wild Mushroom Sauce

Before I get into the recipe of the day, I want to announce the winner of the Hamilton Beach Wave~Action Blender. I also want to thank all of you who left comments and stopped by to read about my Cool Green Soup and the wonderful smoothie I made with my own Hamilton Beach blender.

So, without further ado, the winner is...

Congratulations, Rana! I’ll be contacting you separately to get an address for the Hamilton Beach people to send your prize.

* * *

Not everything I find at the farmers’ market is green or red or yellow, though just thinking about what shows up in those colors makes me smile. I recently stopped by one of the organic stands where they stock mushrooms from surrounding farms. These mushrooms were so beautiful – plump, reasonably clean, and mostly unmarred (really, sometimes the ’shrooms you find at the grocery store look like they grew under the log, not on top) – that I could hardly wait to get them home. For a light, healthy summer entrée, you really can’t beat pasta with sautéed mushrooms and a sprinkling of fresh parsley. Add a salad, some toasted crusty bread, a little fruit sorbet for dessert, and a nice bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, and I’ll be right over.

For this dish, I picked a combination of crimini mushrooms and shiitakes. With mushrooms, you can spend a lot of money without trying, but it’s not necessary to do so, especially if you just want to get a decent dinner on the table. Those two varieties I chose aren’t much more expensive than white button mushrooms and they have worlds more flavor – which is important when that’s pretty much all that’s on the plate.

Crimini (also sometimes spelled “cremini”) look like white button mushrooms but have a slightly earthier flavor. Think of them as baby portabella mushrooms, because, well, that’s what they are.

Shiitakes are among the most flavorful mushrooms, with a meaty texture and strong earthy, woodsy flavors. They’re cultivated throughout Asia and found in many Asian recipes. Shiitakes are high-protein mushrooms, rich in potassium, niacin and B vitamins, calcium, magne-sium and phosphorus. They have natural antiviral and immunity-boosting properties and are used nutritionally to fight viruses, lower cholesterol, and regulate blood pressure. They’re even said to be good for your skin. So unless you just don’t like mushrooms, these should be regulars on your table.

Kitchen Goddess notes on buying, storing, and cleaning mushrooms:
1. Buy mushrooms with a plump, smooth but dry skin. No major blemishes or slimy spots. A closed “veil” (that part under the cap) will produce a more delicate flavor; an open “veil” will yield richer flavor.
2. Store mushrooms in the fridge, preferably in a paper bag, where they’ll last a week or more. DO NOT RINSE THEM until you’re ready to cook.
3. To clean mushrooms, set a colander with relatively large perforations into a large bowl of water. Put the mushrooms into the colander and swish them around energetically to loosen the dirt, then lift the colander out of the water, leaving behind the debris. Working quickly, turn the mushrooms out onto tea towels and lightly rub or pat them clean/dry with paper towels or another tea towel. Mushrooms should spend the least possible time in water.

So, now that you’re ready,...

Pasta with Wild Mushroom Sauce

Inspired by a recipe in Gourmet magazine, September, 2006.
(You can choose to use only white or cremini mushrooms; if you do so, just change the name of this dish to “Pasta with Fresh Mushroom Sauce.”)

Please note that the pasta/mushroom quantities for this recipe have been revised since the original posting. I don't know what I was thinking, but you can be sure it is better now.

Serves 6 as first course, 4 as entrée.

8-10 ounces linguine (or spaghetti or fettuccini)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons canola oil (or vegetable oil, or grapeseed oil)
10 ounces large fresh crimini mushrooms, thickly sliced (¼ inch)
8 ounces medium-to-large fresh shiitake mushrooms or a mix of fresh wild mushrooms, thickly sliced (¼ inch)
2 tablespoons dry sherry (or red wine or white wine – lots of flexibility here)
1 large clove garlic, minced
2-3 tablespoons diced shallots (or spring onions)
zest of 1 lemon
½ teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leafed parsley
Finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for topping

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, well salted water until al dente.

In a large skillet, sauté the mushrooms in the oil and butter. Kitchen Goddess note on technique here: It is easy to screw up sautéed mushrooms. Also easy to do it right, as long as you are careful that (1) the mushrooms should be dry; and (2) you get the oil and butter hot enough that the butter foams and then subsides before you add the mushrooms. (Using a mix of oil and butter allows the fat to get even hotter than with butter alone.) Then (3) toss the mushrooms in the hot fat for 4-5 minutes, during which time they’ll absorb all the fat. Continue to cook them, stirring, for another 2-3 minutes, when they’ll release some of that fat and brown.

For this preparation, you may want to sauté the mushrooms in two batches, using half the butter and oil with each batch. If you do, add the first batch back into the skillet once the second batch is browned.

Now, reduce the heat slightly on the skillet. Add the sherry (or wine), the garlic, and the shallots, and stir to combine with the mushrooms. As the sherry boils, scrape up any bits of browned butter and mushroom from the bottom of the skillet, stirring constantly.

Before you drain the pasta, reserve ½ cup of cooking water. Drain the pasta and add it to the mushrooms. Stir to combine. Add the reserved pasta water a little at a time, to bring the mixture to a texture that you like.

Stir in the lemon zest, the lemon juice, and the parsley. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.