Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Not Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood
What’s cooking? Pasta in Cream Sauce with Smoked Salmon and Peas

I have a new neighbor this summer. Meet Mr. Crane.

By day, he’s fairly active at the construction site a block away from our apartment. Guys in hard hats go up and down the stairs that dangle inside each segment of the tower frame; then from the tiny cab at the top, they direct the hook to deliver piles of steel beams, concrete slabs, and heavy tools from the ground to the upper floors where more men in hard hats and neon safety vests move around the construction site like ants on an anthill.

At night, the construction site is empty, and the grid of the column holding Mr. Crane up disappears into the dark. But the long white arm remains, hovering eerily like a giant insect outside my window.

It’s fascinating to watch, really. In the beginning, I wondered why the movement of the working arm (the “jib”) was so slow, until I realized that if it went any faster, the stuff hanging from the hook would gain momentum and start to swing in a sort of high-stakes game of crack the whip.

I think knowing your neighbors is a good thing, so in my endless search for useless knowledge, I reached out to one of my darling nephews – a civil engineer whose projects frequently involve high-rise buildings in New York. He obliged me with a treasure trove of crane arcana, and even though you didn’t tune in here to learn about cranes, this stuff is too good not to share.

In addition to sending this diagram, he said, “The type of crane you are talking about is a Tower Crane. We use them here in NYC on nearly all of our jobs. The counterweights are usually steel plates, not concrete as in the label in this image.”

And then he threw in a few other fun facts about Tower Cranes:

■ Tower Crane Operators are almost always the highest paid workers on a construction site.
■ Nobody really buys the cranes. They rent them – at incredible prices – from crane companies. Tall, powerful cranes can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, so they are removed as soon as they are no longer absolutely necessary.
■ Tower cranes are on site to bring the structure of the building right to the top, then “pick” (the term for lifting something on the hook) the roof-top mechanical units to the roof.  After that, they usually get taken down.
■ On really tall buildings, a crane needs to “jump” (to be jacked up to raise its height) as the height of the building goes up. (The crane always needs to stay above the height of the building.) Jumping involves adding sections of mast; the cab and jib climb up the sections one by one as the height of the crane increases during the jump. The initial section of the crane can be up to about 200 feet; any building higher than that will have to jump, often in many stages. This also requires the tower of the crane to be braced back to the structure of the building for stability (again, many times at multiple elevations).

■ For the really tall buildings, rather than climb the stairs inside the mast, the operators go up to the level of the highest brace (within the building) and walk along the brace (or bridge) to the mast of the crane and climb from there.
■ The biggest and best cranes are nearly all made in Germany.
■ The New York Wheel project – a giant Ferris wheel now being built on Staten Island – will bring in the second most powerful crane in the world, from Dubai, on a barge. It will make a total of five “picks” before it’s disassembled and shipped back. The rest of the Ferris wheel will be built with smaller, cheaper cranes.
■ On windy days, construction crews are not allowed to use cranes in NYC.

Here endeth the lesson. But it’s good to learn something every day, don’t you think?

So while I’ve been spending my days watching Mr. Crane, I haven’t wanted to spend a lot of time working on dinner. Luckily for me and the hubby, one of the things I brought up from Texas was a package of smoked salmon. It was a Christmas gift from my sweet brother-in-law and his wife, and I hadn’t gotten around to using it in Texas, so I tossed it into my suitcase for our migration north. (And I would like to take just a moment here to say that I believe I hit the lottery in the in-laws category, and not just because they send us smoked salmon.)

Smoked salmon is one of those wonderful foods that keep forever. I once called a company that sells the stuff and asked how long I could hang onto some, and the guy said, “Oh, about 10 years.” Which makes it one of those foods you should always have around.

What can you do with smoked salmon, you ask? Consider:

1. Stir some into your scrambled eggs for breakfast. Top with a little sour cream or creme fraiche, and maybe some chives or fresh dill.
2. Put it in a food processor with some shallots, creme fraiche/sour cream, lemon juice and lemon zest, then stir in chives and serve on rye toasts/crackers or bagels.
3. Eat it as is on crackers or crostini, with a dab of cream cheese or creme fraiche/sour cream, a squirt of lemon juice, and capers.
4. Serve as canapes: toasted pumpernickel rounds with mashed avocado (add some lemon juice) and topped with a piece of the salmon and a sprinkling of fresh dill. Or spread some soft cream cheese on crostini, add a sliver of avocado, a piece of salmon, and a few drops of lemon.
5. Or serve it, as the Kitchen Goddess did, in a cream sauce with pasta. Here you go...

Pasta in Cream Sauce with Smoked Salmon and Peas

Serves 2-3.

8 ounces pasta, such as penne or fettuccini or farfalle (bow-tie)
1½-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped (about ½ cup)
1 cup heavy cream
6 ounces smoked salmon, chopped
juice of ½ lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
3 tablespoons capers, drained
1 tablespoon fresh dill or 1 teaspoon dried dill
1 cup fresh peas (can use frozen peas, thawed, or fresh asparagus, cut in 2-inch lengths and parboiled for 1 minute)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Kitchen Goddess note: Smoked salmon is salty, so go easy on the salt in the pasta water, and be sure to taste the sauce before adding more salt. Black pepper adds a nice flavor to this dish; use freshly ground. And if you are tempted to sprinkle a little Parmigiano-Reggiano on the finished dish, resist that temptation, as there’s even more salt in that cheese.

Start cooking the pasta before you start the sauce, as the sauce takes almost no time at all. Reserve ¼ cup of the pasta water in case the sauce is too thick. Cook pasta only until al dente.

In a large skillet with sides, heat the oil and add the onion. Sauté on medium-low until the onion is good and soft, about 5 minutes. Add the cream and heat to a simmer. Add the salmon, the lemon juice, dill, and capers, and return the mix to a bare simmer.

Stir in the pasta, and when the mixture is well combined, stir in the peas and continue to heat until the peas are as done as you’d like them to be. (This won’t take but a couple of minutes – that’s 1-2 – especially if, like the Kitchen Goddess, you like your peas also a bit al dente.) If the sauce seems too thick, add some pasta water, a little at a time, to get to the consistency you want. Stir in a couple of good grinds of black pepper.

Taste the sauce and adjust salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

And if you come across a tower crane in your neighborhood, be sure to say hello!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Happy Anniversary!
What’s cooking? You tell me...

Well, folks, it’s been SEVEN YEARS since I began intruding on your food thoughts. Seven years and almost 300 postings. Ye gods and little fishes!

When I started this blog, I thought it would just be a fun thing to do, a way to keep my writing “chops” up to speed. I’d been writing personal essays for various magazines and newspapers, and moving from New Jersey to Texas made me think I should try something new. My most recent essays in The New York Times (click here: Essays to read them) had been food related, and I’d heard about blogs, so I figured, “What the heck? I’ll start a food blog.” It wasn’t until too late that I realized how hard I’d have to work to find and test recipes, stage and take the photographs, and then make a story of it all.

But it turns out that I really like this gig. I’ve learned an incredible amount – not all of it useful, mind you, but most of it interesting. I’ve enjoyed learning about the staging and photography bits, and I’ve met a lot of really nice people who, as it happens, are also food bloggers. And I’ve connected with many of you even when I didn’t know you before.

So here I am, 298 posts later, and still going. The energizer bunny of the over-50 (let’s be kind) blogging community. I’ve covered everything from allspice to za’atar (oh, wait – that’s an upcoming post), and from asparagus to zeppole. When I wasn’t talking about food, I’ve elaborated on napkin folding and candles and table decorations, on cast iron and rasps and glasses for dessert wine. And while I try not to get stuck on any one style of cuisine – ok, I’ll admit to an extraordinary fondness for Italian cooking – it’s hard to know if I’ve overserved you on desserts or soups or... whatever.

So here’s your chance. Tell me if there’s something you’d like to hear about. More desserts? More veggies? Some odd substance – kombu? pumpkin seed oil? miso? dried lemons? – that you discovered in your pantry and have no idea what to do with it? My grandmother’s apricot tart recipe?

Food has long been a way I connect with family and friends. Now it turns out that writing about food is equally important in connecting with you, my readers. I’m truly thrilled when I hear that someone reads what I write or makes a dish I feature. So if there’s something you want to see here, jump in. You can comment below, or on the Spoon & Ink Facebook page. And on we go...

P.S. I do have a post with a recipe coming this weekend. So stay tuned...

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Celebrate the 4th with Fireworks and Bubbles
What’s cooking? Bubble Tea

2015 Fireworks in Jersey City, with NYC Freedom Tower at far left

What’s as much fun as fireworks? Bubbles. In fact, it feels like a natural sort of pairing: sparkles and bubbles. So let me introduce you to bubble tea.

Also known as pearl milk tea, boba milk tea, or just boba – bubble tea is a mixture of tea with milk, fruit flavoring and tapioca “bubbles.” It’s become increasingly popular among the under-30 crowd, with bubble tea cafes popping up in cities from Miami to Anchorage. And I read in the Huffington Post that McDonald’s now sells bubble tea, in Germany of all places. This is a global phenomenon, folks.

I first discovered bubble tea through a darling young Filipino friend who is wild for the stuff. She got some at a small shop in New Jersey, and gave me a taste. I liked it, and filed it away in my mental food encyclopedia as an interesting gimmick but not likely to take the place of Starbucks as my drink du jour. It didn’t occur to me that I might be able to make it myself.

Then I was asked to bring the dessert for an Asian-inspired dinner party. You may remember that I wrote about serving those molten chocolate cakes with a hit of Chinese five-spice powder and green tea ice cream. But I wanted to have fun with the dessert, and on my shelves, I discovered a book called The Sweet Spot: Asian-Inspired Desserts. Amazing what you can find in your own house. The writer, Pichet Ong, has been the pastry chef for a number of world-class restaurants, so I wandered into the index, where I found... three recipes for bubble tea.

So in a fit of pushing the envelope to complicate my life just a bit more, I added a small serving of bubble tea to each of the plates. And even though the guests were all over-30, they liked it!

It was a lot easier than I thought it would be, which is why you’re reading about it here. Okay, I’d have written about it even if it had been ridiculously hard. But now you have to try it.

What is tapioca? Like the Kitchen Goddess, you may have warm memories of tapioca pudding from your childhood. Frankly, I’d have happily eaten it warm, cold, or room temp. And I’m pretty sure mine was Minute Tapioca, in keeping with my mother’s fascination with all things instant. So maybe it’s those chewy little tapioca balls that took me down the bubble tea path.

According to Wikipedia (and where would I be without thee?), tapioca is a starch, extracted from the root of the cassava plant. It’s ground and dried into a powder resembling corn starch, and from there processed into sticks, flakes, and pearls.

The bubble tea concept originated as a Taiwanese drink in the 1980s: a combination of hot Taiwanese dark tea, small tapioca pearls, condensed milk, and various types of sweetener. Over the years, it has morphed into a mostly cold drink, with variations using green tea, whole milk or coconut milk, large black tapioca pearls, fruit flavors, and some presentations that eschew tea altogether.

Coconut milk (lite) and small tapioca pearls
Kitchen Goddess note: As simple as it is to make, the only challenge is in finding the tapioca beads. I got the small (about ⅛-inch diameter) tapioca pearls in the bulk foods aisle of my local semi-gourmet grocery in Texas, but I’m pretty sure you can find them at any Asian grocery. Same with the large black tapioca pearls, the other type most commonly used in bubble tea. Large pearls are easier to find pre-packaged in the Asian foods aisle.

It may be that the texture is the best part of the drink. The bubbles are mildly chewy – harder than a marshmallow, softer than a gummy bear – with a neutral taste that can swing toward a fruit flavor if you cook them in juice instead of water. If that sounds unattractive to you, I say try it before you decide. And it’s really fun to drink. You must use a fat straw for the full experience: hoovering up the bubbles through the straw one by one is fun and tickles your mouth just slightly.

For the types of bubble tea here, it’s a three-step process: (1) make the fruit slushie (and the tea, if you’re using tea); (2) cook the boba (tapioca pearls – but I’m just going to call them boba because it’s less typing); and (3) combine the ingredients. The variations below should give you a start on concocting your own bubble teas, in a sort of Chinese menu style – one from column A, etc. You can play with proportions to your heart’s content. Just make sure to serve it well chilled. In fact, it’s a great idea to freeze the fruit before puréeing, to get a really good chill. And slurping with the straw at the bottom of the glass is absolutely acceptable.

Kitchen Goddess note on storing boba: They say that cooked boba should be used within 24 hours, but I’ve had some in my fridge for 4 days now and they’re still delicious. Sometimes I store mine in the coconut milk/sugar combo. But if you don’t plan to use coconut milk, you can store the cooked boba in simple syrup (½ cup sugar dissolved in ½ cup water and heated to a boil). Cool the simple syrup to room temp before adding it to the boba. Definitely hang onto any boba you don’t use, in case you get a late-night need for bubble tea.

Teas (optional): Taiwanese black tea, green tea, red zinger tea, or any other tea you like
Puréed Fruit (optional): strawberries, any kind of melon (honeydew is one of the most popular), kiwi, peach, mango, papaya (You can use grapes, blueberries, raspberries if you take the time to strain out the skins/seeds from the purée, but that’s way more trouble than the KG is up for.)
Milk: coconut milk (light), almond milk, non-dairy creamer, cow’s milk (whole, low-fat, fat-free), soy milk, or ice cream (!)
Boba (cooked): small white pearls, large black pearls

Melon Bubble Tea

Adapted from The Sweet Spot: Asian-Inspired Desserts, by Pichet Ong

Makes 8 medium-sized servings.

4 cups chopped, ripe melon (cantaloupe, honeydew, or other)
⅛ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
juice of ½ lime
1 cup small tapioca pearls
9 ounces unsweetened coconut milk

In a blender, place the melon, the salt, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and the lime juice. Purée well – 1-2 minutes. Chill.

Bring 8 cups of water to a rolling boil. Add the tapioca pearls and stir well. When the water returns to a rolling boil, reduce the heat just enough to maintain a good simmer. Stir every 1-2 minutes so the boba don’t clump or stick to the bottom of the pan. Continue to simmer and stir the boba for 18-20 minutes, until the white centers are reduced to tiny dots. (They will continue to cook even after draining, eventually becoming clear globules.)

Boba after 2 minutes simmering.
Boba after 15 minutes simmering. Almost there.
Drain the boba. Rinse well in cold water and drain again. Combine the boba in a bowl with the coconut milk and remaining tablespoon of sugar and stir well to keep boba from clumping. Refrigerate the boba until ready to use. (They say boba are best used within 24 hours, but I’m still enjoying some I made four days ago.)

Pour the melon purée into eight glasses and top each with 2 tablespoons of the boba mix. Add fat straws and tell your guests to stir well before drinking.

Boba ready to use... or store in the fridge.

And now that you have a stash of prepared boba, try this one:

Strawberry-Red Zinger Bubble Tea

The quantities here (Quantities? What quantities?!) are pretty loosey-goosey, depending on the number of servings you want and your tastes. Use the recipe above as a guide, and experiment. I like any recipe that asks me to taste frequently!

lemon juice (freshly squeezed)
pinch of salt
Red Zinger tea, chilled
boba in coconut milk (lite)

Purée strawberries with a pinch of salt, and sugar and lemon juice to taste. Chill well. Combine equal parts strawberry purée with the tea, and divide into glasses. Add 2 tablespoons coconut milk boba to each glass and stir. Don’t forget the fat straws!

* * *

You know, I said to myself, “Don’t start down this road,” but apparently, I can’t be stopped. I made another bubble tea for you, from blueberries, which I already warned you against because you need to strain the seeds out. So did I listen to my own advice? No. And a good thing, too, because it’s delicious, and the boba sit right on top for this one, looking like a bit of modern art.

Blueberry-Black Tea Bubble Tea

Makes four 5-ounce servings, or one big one if you decide to drink it all yourself, which you may be tempted to do. This one is just thick enough to serve as bubble tea with a straw, or as a cold soup, with spoons.

1½ cups blueberries, frozen
juice of ½ lemon
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup tea, made from Asian black tea, chilled
8 tablespoons boba in coconut milk (lite)

Purée the blueberries with the lemon juice, salt, and sugar. Pour the mix through a medium-grade sieve to remove most of the seeds/skin. (You’ll need to scrape it through the sieve; but don’t kill yourself on that part – just enough to separate out the really pulpy part. I ended up with just under a full cup of purée.)

Combine the purée with an equal amount of tea, and divide the mix into 4 small glasses or bowls (in case you want to try it as a cold soup). Spoon 2 tablespoons of the boba/coconut milk mix on top of each, and serve with fat straws or spoons. Encourage your guests to stir well before drinking.

And have a fun 4th of July!