Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dallas Drinks: The Sue Ellen

Dallas Drinks is a co-creation with Dallas Decoder, honoring the characters of the new TNT drama Dallas, which continues the Ewing family saga. See all of the Dallas Drinks here.

There was a time when there was little in former beauty queen Sue Ellen Ewing's life besides her husband J.R. When his philandering finally got to her, she turned to the bottle, becoming a boozy mess, leading to several trips to the "sanitarium" (Dallas's version of rehab).

How times have changed. These days Sue Ellen is an independent woman, in the beginning stages of a Texas gubernatorial campaign, and a devoted mother to John Ross. She hasn't had a drink in years and won't be tempted.

The Sue Ellen cocktail honors her sophistication, femininity and sobriety: a mocktail version of the Cosmopolitan.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Corn Soup

I had some pretty great meals during a recent trip to New York City, but the most satisfying had to be the chilled corn soup I ate at Bouchon Café. Let me tell you why.

If you live on the East Coast, you no doubt experienced the Fourth of July heat wave (and if you lived in one of the states hit by the derecho, you may have been one of the poor souls that experienced it without air conditioning). Weather-wise, it was a brutal week, with mercury in the high 90s and 100s everyday. New York was a bit cooler than D.C., but still pretty hot. As Chris and I finished our morning shopping on Fifth Avenue, I decided Bouchon Café would be a good place to have lunch. It didn't seem that far away: we were at 53rd and Fifth, it's in the Time Warner Center at 59th and 8th. We could enjoy a nice walk across Central Park South to get there.

View from inside the Time Warner Center, New York
Well, when it's that hot outside, even that distance midday is unpleasant. By the time we got to Bouchon, we were hot and spent. The Time Warner Center was the perfect choice to cool our heels: it's an indoor shopping center with a group of restaurants, including Per Se, the New York restaurant from Thomas Keller. Bouchon, the chef's casual restaurant chain, includes a few bakeries and this cafe, which serves soup and sandwiches on a terrace overlooking the mall's dramatic glass entrance (beyond which is a view of Columbus Circle and Central Park South).

As we sat down, the server told us about the soup special: a chilled corn soup with a spicy tomato and pepper-infused oil. It sounded perfect and it was. It really hit the spot on that hot day. When I raved about it, the server told me it was a fairly simple recipe of onion, carrot, shallot, garlic and corn. I thought I could probably figure that out.

I considered adding some sour cream to the pureed soup, but once I ran the immersion blender through it, the texture and flavor were so perfect that I decided it didn't need it.

At Bouchon, the soup with served with a little chili pepper- and tomato-infused olive oil. I infused my oil using sundried tomatoes and red pepper flakes. This step is optional. The soup is good without it. You could garnish it with other things too, like chopped avocado, a drizzle of sour cream, cilantro, fresh chopped tomatoes, etc. Finally, although this recipe calls for chilling the soup, it's also good warm.

Corn Soup with Tomato-Chili Oil
Inspired by Chilled Corn Soup at Bouchon Café, New York City

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 sweet onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large (or 2 small) shallot, minced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
6 ears of corn (I used a sweet white corn)
4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
2 cups water
Seasoned salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
Fresh snipped chives

Tomato-chili oil:
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. chopped sundried tomatoes
1/4 tsp. chili pepper flakes

1. In a large soup pot or dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, carrots, shallots and garlic and sauté until vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes. Cut the corn kernels off the corn cobs and cut the cobs in half, reserving cobs. Add corn kernels to soup pot and stir to combine. Add vegetable broth, water and reserved corn cobs. Raise temperature to boil soup then reduce heat to low and simmer for 25 minutes. Allow soup to cool.

2. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup to a smooth consistency (alternatively, puree the soup in batches using a food processor). If chilling, transfer the soup to an appropriate container to chill in the refrigerator.

3. To make the tomato-chili oil, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a small frying pan or saucepan. Add the sundried tomatoes and chili pepper flakes. Once the oil begins to sizzle, turn the temperature to low and simmer a few minutes. Transfer the mixture to a heatproof container (a Pyrex glass measuring cup works well) and let it steep for 40 minutes. Strain the mixture.

4. Serve the soup warm or chilled with a sprinkle of fresh chives and a teaspoon of the infused oil.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Carnitas Tacos

Time to pull it all together with some slow-cooked pork carnitas finished under the broiler for extra flavor and a bit of crisp. This taco, with homemade corn tortillas and fresh garnishes, really fits the bill.

This is the pork shoulder cut into four large pieces. Strips of fat thicker than 1/8 inch should be trimmed off.

For months, I've been thinking about trying my hand at making such a taco myself. I already knew how to make guacamole and, although I have roasted pork shoulder, I haven't actually attempted carnitas, nor have I ever made tortillas. So this was a dish that required some research and an allotment of time that would allow me to slow-cook the pork and finish it in the oven, while also making the tortillas, garnishes, and refried black beans, all washed down with some cold margaritas.

Everything goes into the slow cooker.

The recipe I turned to for the meat was from America's Test Kitchen, although I adapted the recipe by making the dish in a slow cooker rather than the oven. This lengthens the cooking time significantly; however, it kept my kitchen from getting really hot (and I was making this during the recent 100-degree heat wave) and it gave me extra time to get all those other dishes done.

Because I used the slow cooker, I omitted the orange peels and used orange zest instead. I also upped the amount of oregano and cumin, since I really like those flavors.

As the carnitas cooking liquid reduces, thick solids will form. Be careful not to burn them, as they are full of flavor for coating the meat before broiling it.

I found the meat a bit difficult to shred. Some of it shredded fine, but other pieces were really difficult. I'm not sure if it was because those were sections of leaner meat, I cooked it too long, or I just didn't employ a good shredding technique. Eventually, I got the chunks down to manageable pieces, but it took a great deal of effort.

Out of the broiler on a cooling rack fitted into a half sheet pan.

The special touch to this recipe is the final broil in the oven. The cooking liquid is first reduced down to just a cup, a process that takes awhile since you start with about 3-4 cups of liquid. Once thickened, the sauce is tossed with the cooked, shredded meat and then broiled on a rack in the oven, with the rack positioned at the lowest third toward the bottom of the oven (yes, this is far away for broiling, but you don't want to cook the meat much more, just dry it out a bit to make it a little crispy). The equipment I used for this was a cooling rack sized to fit inside a standard half baking sheet (13 X 18). This allows some of the fat from the reduced sauce to drip off the meat.

Carnitas Tacos
Adapted from Mexican Pulled Pork (Carnitas), America's Test Kitchen

1 4-pound boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 tsp. seasoned salt
1/2 tsp. fresh-ground black pepper
1 tbsp. ground cumin
1 small onion, peeled and halved
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp. dried oregano
Juice from 1 lime
2 cups water
Zest and juice from 1 orange (remove seeds if not seedless)
Corn tortillas (see recipe)
Guacamole (see recipe)
Corn salsa (see recipe)
Crumbled Mexican cheese (I used cotija, but queso fresco would be good too)
Lime wedges

1. Add all ingredients through the orange to the bowl of a slow cooker. Cook on the low setting for about 7 hours until the meat is tender and cooked through (USDA's safe cooking temperature for pork is at least 145 F). Alternatively, combine ingredients in a dutch oven, heat on the stove until they start to simmer, then roast, covered, in a 300 F oven for 1 hour.

2. Transfer the pork to a bowl. Strain the liquid, discarding the large solids. Add liquid to a medium sauce pan and boil until reduced to 1 cup (sauce will be significantly thicker and a bit bubbly). While it is cooking, use two forks to shred the pork, breaking each large piece of pork into 3-4 smaller pieces (or smaller).

3. Position oven rack about a third of the way from the bottom of the oven. Turn on broiler to heat oven. Pour reduced liquid over shredded pork and stir to coat. Position a cooling rack above a half baking sheet (13 X 18). Spread meat evening on top of rack. Broil meat in oven for about 7-8 minutes until well browned. Serve with tortillas, corn salsa, guacamole, crumbled cheese and lime wedges (or other garnishes you like, such as shredded radishes, pico de gallo, sour cream, etc.).

Friday, July 27, 2012

Refried Black Beans

There are a lot of things I love about my local Tex-Mex restaurant, but unfortunately their beans are not one of them. They come rather soupy, while I long for the thick, crusted refried beans common to every Mexican restaurant I've ever had from the west coast. There are good refried beans in D.C., but they seem to be the exception.

For my recent taco night, I knew I had to have a side of refried beans. Rather than using the traditional pinto beans, I opted for black beans, which are generally my favorite type (Rosa Mexicano, by the way, makes decent refried black beans). The recipe I used, adapted from the New York Times, called for frying the beans in olive oil rather than lard. Less traditional, but healthier. I decided to give it a try.

Making the beans is a three-step process: 1) soak the beans, 2) simmer the beans, and 3) fry/mash the beans. Significant time is required for each step, so plan accordingly. I won't lie to you: this is a recipe that takes up a fair amount of your time.

Step one got off to a bad start when I woke up in the middle of the night and realized I'd forgotten to soak the beans (I think it was still enough time).

Step two went fine, except I think the beans would have benefited from simmering for at least another hour. They were quite tasty, but a bit chewier than I wanted, which also made them harder to mash by hand (and I didn't feel like getting out the food processor).

Stopping after step two would yield a flavorful bean side. But to really have "refried" beans, you have to live up to the name and cook them again, this time frying the reduced beans in olive oil for about 20 minutes per batch (and I divided mine into two batches), stirring as their water evaporates and mashing with the spoon. Eventually they will be quite thickened and a little crusty. Reserve some of the cooking water from step two in case they are too thick.

Flavor-wise, these beans were great, and had beautifully inky black color (their dark soaking liquid is used in the recipe, rather than discarded). But for better texture, I still say simmer them a bit more.

Refried Black Beans
Adapted from Refried Black Beans and Simmered Black Beans, The New York Times

1 lb. black beans, rinsed and picked over
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Salt, to taste
1 tbsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. chipotle chili powder
Crumbled Mexican cheese (optional, cotija or queso fresco)

1. After rinsing the beans, place in a large bowl and cover with 2-3 inches of water. Soak overnight in the refrigerator.

2. In a large pot, heat 1 tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook until it starts to soften, about 3 minutes. Add half the garlic and cook until fragrant, about another minute. Add the beans with their soaking water. Add additional water to cover beans with about an inch of water. Increase heat and bring to boil, reduce heat to low, skim off any foam, and simmer for an hour. Add salt, remaining garlic and cilantro and simmer for another 1-2 hours until beans are quite soft and the liquid has thickened.

3. Drain off about a cup of liquid from the beans and save it if needed later. Mash the beans coarsely with a bean or potato masher (or alternatively, but about half the beans in a food processor and pulse them a few times). Stir in the cumin and chili powder.

4. In a large nonstick frying pan, heat 1 tbsp. olive oil over medium-high heat. Add half the beans and fry, stirring frequently and mashing with the back of a wooden spoon, until the beans are very thick and begin to get crusty on the bottom, about 15-20 minutes. Repeat with the remaining olive oil and the rest of the beans. When cooked, if they are too thick, stir in some of the reserved liquid (I added about half of it back). Serve topped with crumbled Mexican cheese.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Basic Guacamole

Earlier this year, I wrote about a Roasted Tomatillo Guacamole. To garnish my tacos, I wanted something simpler.

Chris has been nagging me to make him some guacamole served with blue corn chips, which he finally got to enjoy on taco day (no, I didn't make the blue corn tortilla chips). Guacamole is a really satisfying snack, perfect for summer, especially perfect served with frosty margaritas.

Avocados should be ripe when used for guacamole, otherwise you don't get that nice mashed texture. If they are slightly unripe, they'll still work, although you'll work more to mash them. Unripe avocados will not work and are much harder to peel. If the avocados you get at the market are unripe, just leave them in the produce bag (not refrigerated) for a 2-3 days.

You can mash the avocado with a fork or potato masher, but I prefer to use a pastry blender, as its wide slots produce a chunky guacamole with just the right texture.

To peel the avocados, run a paring knife around the circumference of the avocado the long way, cutting all the way down to the pit (basically cutting the avocado in half the long way, except the pit is in the way). Twist the two halves, one will come off without the pit. Pry the pit out of the other half. Cut the halves in half again. Use your fingers to peel the skin off the back of the avocado quarters.

Basic Guacamole

4 ripe hass avocados
1 lime
1/2 tsp. chipotle chili powder
2 tbsp. minced sweet onion
1 tomato, diced
2 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
Kosher salt, to taste

Peel and remove the pit from the avocados. Add to a large bowl. Cut the lime in half and squeeze its juice over the cut avocado. Mash the avocado and lime juice until it reaches desired consistency (I like mine a bit chunky, but large chunks are hard to deal with). Stir in the remaining ingredients. Serve with chips or as garnish for tacos or other dishes.

Corn Salsa

I'm a big fan of the corn salsa at Chipotle. It's perfect on tacos with carnitas or chicken, some guacamole and a little cheese. For my tacos, I wanted a similar salsa, although with a stronger roasted flavor akin to what I had recently at Mike Isabella's Bandolero.

This recipe from The Bitten Word unites those two aims nicely. It's pretty simple too. For a little heat, a diced jalapeño would be good in this too.

Corn Salsa
Adapted from Improvised Corn Salsa, The Bitten Word

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 red onion, finely diced
1 16 oz. package frozen corn, thawed
Seasoned salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
Juice from 1 lime
1/4 cup chopped cilantro

In a large frying pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until it begins to brown, about 10 minutes. Add corn and increase heat to medium-high, continuing to cook until the onion and corn are well browned. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining ingredients. Serve as a garnish for tacos.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Food (Section) Fight!: Week 29

Food (Section) Fight! is my weekly look at The Washington Post's Food section and The New York Times' Dining section with my verdict on which section had the better content for the week.

New York Times

1) "Wine's Sweet Spot Is a $20 Bill," The Pour column by Eric Asimov. Asimov makes a compelling argument about how wines priced at about $20 reach the value sweet spot between quality and price, including a nice varied list of domestic and foreign wines that fit that bill.

2) "Where It All Comes Home to Roost," article by Patricia Leigh Brown. At times mildly amusing and ridiculous, Brown takes a look at specialty chicken coops and their fans, including those who take the "Tour de Cluck" around Davis, California.

3) "Caprese Antipasto," City Kitchen column and recipe by David Tanis. With seasonal tomatoes just now making their appearance, this dish, which expands on the caprese's traditional combo of tomato, basil, fresh mozzarella, salt and olive oil, is a perfectly timed light summer repast.

4) "Seafood as the Stock Answer," How to Cook Everything column by Mark Bittman. Bittman looks at the fine art of making fish stock for bouillabaisse, the most difficult part of which is acquiring the ingredients.

5) "Pastrami's Strange Dream," review of Mission Chinese Food restaurant by Pete Wells. My experience with dining in New York suggests that at best one generally finds only two of these three things: a wait-free table, low prices and good food. Sounds like Mission Chinese Food will give you #2 and #3, in a dive-y Lower East Side setting.

Washington Post

1) "Expand your field of corn," The Process column by David Hagedorn. I've raved about The Process in the past, and Mr. Hagedorn turned out another winner today with his exploration of cooking with corn. Fresh corn is in season now, and I too have been bitten by the corn bug of late, churning out corn cookies, corn tortillas and corn soup (coming next week, I promise). Hagedorn does some great things with the freeze-dried corn I've used a few times, including a Corn Cocktail inspired by the Momofuku Milk Bar cereal milk I recently used for a dessert (another thing I need to write about soon). It seems David and I are on the same wavelength these days. I can't wait to see what he writes about next.

2) "No shame in letting fruit hit the flame," Smoke Signals column by Jim Shahin. It sounds like Shahin might be a wee bit embarrassed about his desire to make grilled fruit (some Texans apparently made fun of him for it). But I think it sounds like a marvelous idea, and his article celebrates the technique with recipes that include grilled pineapple, peaches and plantains. Yummy!

3) "Balsamic Chicken with Fresh Tomato Sauce," Nourish column and recipe by Stephanie Witt Sedgwick. Another seasonal vegetable you can't go wrong with this time of year is the tomato. Sedgwick's Nourish column presents a simple recipe for using fresh tomato with grilled chicken. Sounds awesome and easy.

4) "Alcohol levels and interest climb in Blue Mountain," Beer column by Greg Kitsock. This week's beer column takes a closer look at the local Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, Va. It's an interesting look at a brewery using an old-school English brewing technique.

The Washington Post. Although it was kind of a light week for both publications, David Hagedorn's awesome corn feature really put me in the mood to get my hands on some golden ears and starting cooking!

The New York Times: 14
The Washington Post: 14

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dallas Drinks: The Elena

Dallas Drinks is a co-creation with Dallas Decoder, honoring the characters of the new TNT drama Dallas, which continues the Ewing family saga. See all of the Dallas Drinks here.

When we first meet Elena Ramos, she's linked to John Ross, both as a partner in striking oil on Southfork and in the bedroom. But then we learn that Elena, the daughter of the Ewings' longtime cook, also has a history with Christopher, whom she almost married.

As such, Elena is a woman torn between two men. The Elena cocktail nods to her Mexican heritage as well as her connection with John Ross and Christopher, featuring common flavors with The John Ross (mezcal and lime) and The Christopher (muddled cucumber).

Cocktail: Classic Margarita

Double dose of cocktails today. In a lucky coincidence, The Elena is perfect with tacos. But what goes better with tacos than a refreshing classic margarita? Whether frozen or on the rocks, a margarita rarely disappoints. If made with premium ingredients like 100 percent de agave reposado tequila and Cointreau, it's a definite step up from your college hangover marg.

Agave nectar is optional. I like my drink a little sweeter, so I add just a touch. If you want it even sweeter, add more.

Classic Margarita

1 1/2 oz. reposado tequila (Jose Cuervo Tradicional)
3/4 oz. Cointreau
2 oz. lime juice (juice from 1 lime)
1/2 oz. agave nectar

Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice. Strain into rocks glass or coupe with ice. Garnish with lime wheel.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Corn Tortillas

Taco lovers, this week's for you. I'm going to showcase making fresh carnitas tacos from scratch. By Saturday, I'll have made slow-cooked carnitas, guacamole and corn salsa garnishes and a side of refried black beans (plus a drink or two to go along with it). Today we're starting with the shell.

Sure you can buy corn tortillas, but they are rarely any good. The name-brand ones on the shelf in the aisle are loaded with preservatives but lacking in flavor. The ones from the refrigerator case are better, although I often find they fall apart easily. If you are blessed with access to a Mexican market that makes them fresh, that's probably a great place to get to them. But otherwise, why not just make them yourself?

The ingredients are really simple. The recipe is really simple. The only thing that's at all complicated is having the right equipment--a tortilla press. If you try to make them without it, I doubt you'll think this is easy. I can see rolling them out becoming a major hassle. But a tortilla press is easily acquired (I got mine from Amazon) and doesn't take up much room in your equipment cupboard. If you like Mexican food, it's worth it.

The dough should be about the consistency of playdough. If it's too crumbly, add a little water or, if too sticky, a little more masa. I found masa harina at Whole Foods and in the Latin foods aisle at Giant. It's ground, dried hominy, which is corn treated with lime (the chemical compound, not the green fruit).

If the first few you make don't try out quite right, keep trying and you'll get the hang of it. I found that making the dough balls a little smaller helped. Also, when placing the dough on the tortilla press, put it off center a little toward the hinge, since the pressing motion will push the dough away from the hinge. If you put it directly in the center, it tends to squeeze out along the opposite edge (the handle side). Lining the tortilla press with two sheets of a cut Ziplock bag makes getting the dough off the press a snap.

Corn Tortillas
Adapted from Fresh Corn Tortillas by Oliver Strand, Bon Appetit

Makes 20-24 tortillas

2 cups masa harina
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 1/2 cups water

1. Combine masa and salt in a large bowl. Stir in the water and knead until dough forms. It should be firm and springy and even slightly dry, but not crumbly (adjust by adding more masa or water as needed).

2. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat (if it's a nonstick skillet, you don't need to brush it with oil). Cut a quart-size Ziplock bag along the edges to make two sheets of plastic big enough to cover both sides of the tortilla press.

3. Roll a heaping tbsp. of dough into a ball (should be just larger than an inch, about the size of a golf ball). Lay a sheet of plastic on the bottom side of the open tortilla press. Place the ball of dough on top, just slightly off center toward the hinge, put the other piece of plastic on top. Close the press and use the handle to press down, flattening the tortilla (don't press too hard or it will be too thin). Carefully remove plastic and set formed tortilla on a piece of parchment lightly dusted with masa. When two or three are formed, place in the warm pan. Cook for about 90 seconds, then turn over, cooking another 15-20 seconds. Remove from pan and cover to keep warm. Repeat process, working in batches until all the dough is used up.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Gnocchi is a wonderful dish, but it can be time-intensive, making it a difficult trick to pull off midweek. Sure, you can buy frozen or pre-made gnocchi, but they just aren't very good. I've bought some from Whole Foods a few times, but compared to what you can make at home, they are as dense as bricks.

A potato ricer makes gnocchi with just-right texture

Gnocchi is pretty hearty no matter. After all, we're talking about a potato dumpling. But made just right,  gnocchi is like little soft pillows. I've made regular gnocchi for this site before, so this time I wanted to try sweet potato gnocchi. The process is basically the same, except that I substituted about half the potato with sweet potato. I think the trick is not using too much flour. The gnocchi should be mostly potato. Not all recipes for gnocchi call for egg, but I find it helps give it good texture. 

For the sauce, I was inspired by our recent trip to Lupa Osteria Romana in Greenwich Village. Their ricotta gnocchi had this sauce with really great texture. Rather than having chunks of sausage and vegetable, it was quite smooth. You wouldn't necessarily know by looking at the sauce what ingredients were in it, but the flavors were definitely there. Because it's basically impossible to break up cooked sausage that small, I used the food processor to smooth out the sauce.

Rather than roasting the potatoes, I used the microwave. This saved an amazing amount of time over having to heat the oven to roast the potatoes (which would take well over an hour) and avoided the possibility of unwanted moisture from steaming. In fact, it cut the total cooking time of this dish down to about 90 minutes. Granted, for many people that's still too much time in the kitchen for a weeknight, but it's a far cry from an all-afternoon project.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Sausage-Fennel Sauce
Inspired by Ricotta Gnocchi with Sausage-Fennel Sauce, Lupa Osteria Romana, and Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Fried Sage and Shaved Chestnuts, Gourmet Magazine

1 lb. sweet potato (1 large sweet potato)
1 lb. russet potato (2 medium potatoes)
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups flour, plus more for rolling
1/2 lb. sweet Italian sausage (chicken or pork), removed from casings
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 fennel bulb, diced
1 yellow onion, diced
10 cherry tomatoes (or 1 tomato)
2 cups chicken broth
8-12 sage leaves, plus more for garnish
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
1 cup fresh ricotta
Grated parmigiano-reggiano (optional)

1. Microwave the sweet potato 5 minutes on high. Turn over and microwave another five minutes until cooked through. Microwave the russet potatoes 5 minutes on high, turn over and microwave another five minutes, until cooked through (you can cook them together, but it will probably take longer. Be sure to cook both types of potatoes until soft). Set aside to cool a bit.

2. In a large sauté pan, cook sausage over medium heat until cooked through, breaking up with a spoon as it cooks. Remove from pan. Add olive oil and sauté fennel and onion until well browned, about 15 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook until they start to soften, a couple minutes. Add 1 cup of chicken broth, stirring to deglaze pan. Add back the cooked sausage and pour contents of pan into food processor. Pulse a few times until sauce is almost smooth (some chunks should remain). Return sauce to pan. Add additional cup of chicken broth, sage leaves and salt and pepper, and simmer on low while gnocchi cooks.

3. Cut the cooked potatoes in half and press through a potato ricer into a large bowl. Combine the egg with the nutmeg and 1 tsp. of salt. Make a well in the mashed potato and add the egg mixture. Stir with the potato to mix, then add the 1 1/2 cups of flour. Use your hands to knead the mixture together until the flour has combined with the potato. Divide the dough into six parts. On a well-floured surface, roll each piece of dough into a long rope about 3/4-inch thick. Using a knife, cut the ropes into 1/2-inch pieces. Set the formed gnocchi on a floured baking sheet until ready to cook. Some people like to use a fork to make ridges on the gnocchi. The first time I ever made it, I did that. It took a lot of extra time, and I decided it was unnecessary.

4. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cook gnocchi in batches, dropping about 1/3 of the formed gnocchi into the water at a time. Cook each batch for about 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon.

5. Stir the fresh ricotta into the meat sauce. Add the cooked gnocchi. Serve topped with fresh sage and, if desired, parmigiano-reggiano.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Lupa Osteria Romana (New York, NY)

When good food and service come together, it's a beautiful thing. So has been my experience at Lupa Osteria Romana, the casual Greenwich Village trattoria that is part of the Mario Batali food empire. In some ways, it remind me of Fiola, the casual Italian trattoria in D.C.'s Penn Quarter.

I've eaten at Lupa twice, and both times I never made it to the "secondi" section of the menu, since the pastas are just too good to pass up. Most recently, we enjoyed tender ricotta gnocchi with a surprisingly light sausage and fennel sauce, and a summer special: pappardelle with chicken-tomato sauce (pictured above). Both dishes were excellent, particularly the perfectly al dente pappardelle with just a hint of chili pepper to give the sauce some zing.

As a starter, prep your palate for pasta with Misticanza alla Romana, a refreshing salad blend of arugula, endive, radish and fennel with a light vinaigrette dressing. The panzanella with heirloom tomatoes, red onion, basil and a vinaigrette is a real star, flecked with a bit of anchovy to give it tang (a trick Fiola employed as well), and bread that is toasted through but just soggy enough to not be hard.

For dessert, the Lupa Tartufo is a star treat with hazelnut ice cream and chocolate. But I thought the simple gelato of the day, a caramel, was pretty bold as well, having burnt the sugar as much as one dares and still call it caramel. 

Both times we went, we had expert service, from both our server and the sommelier, the latter of whom I credit for sparking my interest in Nero d'Avola wines. On a more recent visit, our server steered us toward a crisp and slightly fruity white wine to drink with our starters and a full-bodied Barbera with the pasta. Never a bad choice.

New York is not a cheap place to visit, and one of the things I appreciate most about Lupa is that it's a good value. Our most recent meal there, which included starters, dessert and wines with both courses came to just over $100 for two people, a real deal for a dinner of this caliber and about half the cost of our dinner at Fiola (and it was just as good). 

Lupa Osteria Romana170 Thompson Street (between Bleecker and Houston), New York City (Greenwich Village). (212) 982-5089. Reservations: Open Table.

Lupa on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Equipment: Potato Ricer

A potato ricer is not an essential kitchen tool, but for some jobs, it's pretty darn useful. Sure, you can mash potatoes with the aptly named potato masher (or a food processor, but I wouldn't recommend it), and you can wring moisture from raw shredded potatoes with towels (but it makes a mess). But for certain tasks, a potato ricer will accomplish the job more efficiently with better results.

The key advantage for using a potato ricer to mash potatoes texture. It doesn't over-mash like a food processor and achieves more consistent texture than mashing with a utensil, since the potato is extruded through the device's mesh base. A nice side benefit is that potato skins don't pass through the holes. So you can skip peeling potatoes. Just put half a potato cut-side down in the bowl of the ricer and by applying leverage with the other handle, it squeezes out the potato and the skin stays in the bowl (if this sounds miraculous, I've tried it many times and it works without fail).

The potato ricer produces mashed potato of optimal texture for making gnocchi dough, which is the purpose for which I acquired mine. The other useful purpose is wringing water from raw potato shreds for hash browns. The key to crispy, browned hashbrowns is removing as much water from the raw potato as possible. Blotting and squeezing with towels will do this, but it makes a big mess. Raw potato is too hard to be extruded through the holes, so squeezing small batches of raw potato shreds in a ricer is a great way to remove moisture. 

The ricer looks like an oversize garlic press. Mine is Oxo brand ($24.99 at Amazon). Some models have interchangeable discs for different textures; so far the single texture mine produces has been just fine. America's Test Kitchen has rated several brand.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Food (Section) FIght!: Week 28

Food (Section) Fight! is my weekly look at The Washington Post's Food section and The New York Times' Dining section with my verdict on which section had the better content for the week.

Washington Post

1) "Raising food that wags its tail," part 1 of 3-part feature by Tamar Haspel. Here's my nominee for the best food story I've read so far this year in the Washington Post. Or maybe just in any publication. This deeply personal account begins a series chronicling the author's experience raising--and presumably slaughtering--pigs for her own consumption. Its purpose is to better understand our relationship to the animals we eat. Some people will find this difficult to read, but I think it is essential. Those of us who choose to be omnivorous--I count myself among them--should not be afraid to pull back the veil of ignorance and understand what that decision entails. In fact, I think we have a duty to learn how to best raise the animals we eat and understand what we put them through. Ultimately, it will benefit us. Buying a plastic-wrapped pork chop at the grocery store makes the animal anonymous. This series will help fill in the blanks. I look forward to reading the other parts that will unfold over the next 5 months.

2) "Acid, heat, temperature. Seviche." The Immigrant's Table column by Tim Carman. Seviche isn't something I've tried. Frankly, I'm a little off-put by the idea of a raw fish soup, although I'm sure at some point I'll sample it. As usual, Tim takes a subject I've thought little about and turns it into an interesting feature story, with a focus on Peruvian notions of seviche, since that's where the dish originated.

3) "2 slices of bread, 1 thought," Cooking for One column by Joe Yonan. Always nice to hear from Joe, who is still on sabbatical up north working on his cookbook, and apparently also helping on his brother's farm. This week he talks about how he likes to satisfy the appetite his morning farm work creates with interesting sandwiches. He offers two recipes: Grilled Kimcheese, a clever grilled cheese sandwich made with kimchi (inspired by Southern pimento cheese), and Ricotta, Zucchini and Radicchio Sandwich, which sounds like another good use for homemade ricotta.

4) "Street food gets a little latitude, a lot of attitude," First Bite column by Tom Sietsema. Tom turns his attention towards El Chucho, the new Columbia Heights Mexican restaurant I've been hearing about. The taqueria is the new project from the people behind the too-cute Jackie's in Silver Spring, Md.

5) "Saute of Corn, Rice, Basil and...," Dinner in Minutes recipe by Bonnie S. Benwick. Fresh corn is in season now, so take advantage of it with simple, satisfying dishes like this. This sounds really delicious, easy and versatile.

New York Times

1) "Raw Panic," feature by Julia Moskin. This week's cover story is about tackling fresh vegetable overload: what do you do when your C.S.A. or farmers market trip crowds your kitchen with more produce than you can possibly prepare? I'll admit to suffering from that a bit myself, especially if I go to the market without firm ideas of what I want and just pick out what looks good (invariably, it all does). Some of the advice of how to handle this is a little odd. One expert, a cooking school instructor, advises people to cook all their fresh produce as soon as they get home. While that means it doesn't go bad as fast, it also means you're not enjoying raw vegetables, which is one of the more satisfying reasons for buying local, ripe produce. I do, however, think the accompanying recipe for Burrata with Shredded Sugar Snap Pea and Crispy Shiitake Salad sounds really good.

2) "And for His Next Trick," Atera restaurant review by Pete Wells. Atera, the TriBeCa restaurant from chef Matthew Lightner, sounds like the clearest example of culinary form over function I've read about. Despite his reservations about the flavor of some dishes, Mr. Wells nonetheless awards Atera 3 stars for its creativity and vision, which includes such tricks as tinting baguettes with squid ink to make them look like razor clams. It's not so much molecular gastronomy as it is gastro-art.

3) "Creating a Page Turner With Murder and Mealtime," book review by Glenn Collins. Book reviews are rare in food sections. When you get them, they're usually cookbooks or nonfiction books about food. So to find a murder mystery reviewed in the Dining section is an interesting find. Linda Fairstein's Night Watch, a murder mystery, is set in many real-life Manhattan restaurants (and a fictional re-opened Lutèce, formerly one of the country's greatest restaurants, which closed in 2004).

4) "King Salmon, Swimming with Blueberries," A Good Appetite recipe by Melissa Clark. I like salmon and I like blueberries. If I were home in Oregon, this recipe would be perfect right now, as both are in-season there (and tremendously good and way less expensive than they are in D.C.).

5) "A Wine That Isn't What It Used to Be," Wines of the Times column by Eric Asimov. This week Asimov looks at the state of South African chenin blanc and doesn't like what he sees (or rather sips). Despite that, it moved me to pick up a South African chenin blanc, which I've been sipping while writing this post and rather like (it's like drink a Granny Smith apple--quite crisp).


Washington Post. Hands down win this week, with really great coverage, particularly part one of the pig-raising story, which I'm really looking forward to reading in the upcoming months.


The New York Times: 14
The Washington Post: 13

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dallas Drinks: The Christopher

Dallas Drinks is a co-creation with Dallas Decoder, honoring the characters of the new TNT drama Dallas, which continues the Ewing family saga. See all of the Dallas Drinks here.

Christopher Ewing takes after his father in many ways. To represent their connection, this drink, like The Bobby, features ginger.

Like is cousin John Ross, Christopher wants to be in the energy business, but rather than pursue oil, he's an alternative energies man. Thus his drink also has a fiery kick like The John Ross, but instead of jalapeño, it gets that kick from ginger-peppercorn syrup.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Shaved Salad with Honey-Smoked Almonds and Lemon Vinaigrette

It's been hot as Hades around here lately. Thankfully, the heat wave finally broke the other week into some days with highs in the 80s. Amazing how suddenly 80-degree weather sounds chilly. Seriously.

While dining at Empellón Cocina in the middle of the heat wave, I enjoyed a salad with raw shaved summer squash. Whenever I've served summer squash (a.k.a. yellow zucchini), I've always sautéed it. But it has a pleasant, refreshing flavor raw. The look of the shaved squash is really cool, like pappardelle pasta.

I wanted to pair it with other fresh flavors. I immediately thought of fennel, which also works well shaved, lemon, mint and basil. With those ideas in mind, I came across this recipe in Bon Appétit, which is a similar concept but also included almonds, which I thought was a great idea, not only because it was a contrast to the summer-fresh flavors in the salad but could serve as a vessel for a hint of smoky flavor, another summer staple. With a light coating of smoked paprika, they're also the color of squash blossoms, which is cool.

Shaving the vegetables requires the right equipement. I found a vegetable peeler worked great for the zucchini, but I don't think a mandoline would work well. However, the mandoline was much easier to use in shaving the bell pepper than a vegetable peeler.

Shaved Salad with Honey-Smoked Almonds and Lemon Vinaigrette

1/3 slivered almonds
Dash of smoked paprika
1 tsp. honey
Sprinkle of smoked sea salt
Two handfuls of baby arugula
1 zucchini, yellow or green, peeled, and shaved into long, wide strips with a vegetable peeler
1/4 fennel bulb, shaved with a vegetable peeler or mandoline
1/2 yellow bell pepper, shaved with a mandoline
Small clump of fresh mint, small leaves or large leaves torn in half
5-6 basil leaves, cut into ribbons
Juice from 1/2 a lemon
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Fresh ground black pepper and salt to taste

1. Heat almonds in a small frying pan over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. When they start to brown, sprinkle with smoked paprika, add the teaspoon of honey, and continue cooking another couple minutes, stirring to coat evenly with honey. Season with salt and set aside.

2. Arrange the arugula on a platter. Top with shaved zucchini (I rolled them up for visual appeal), fennel and bell pepper. Sprinkle with mint and basil leaves.

3. Whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, fresh ground pepper and salt. Pour over salad and top with almonds.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Summer Vegetable Lasagna

Some people may find entertaining for a vegetarian challenging, but during the summer with so many fresh vegetables available, I think it's actually really easy and satisfying. If such as guest is on your list, here's a dish that will please him or her and is hearty enough for the meat-eaters too.

With my farmers market chock full now of so many options, I couldn't go wrong putting together a hearty combination of garlic, onions, yellow squash, zucchini, tomatoes, corn and mushrooms. To make it extra special, I went the extra mile and made the ricotta and noodles from scratch (both are worth it, and probably easier than you think).

I've made pasta before, and it gets easier every time. For these noodles, I used Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Fresh Egg Pasta recipe, which couldn't be simpler. For the ricotta, I went with Smitten Kitchen's recipe for Rich Homemade Ricotta (see my post on making ricotta).

Each of the steps in making this is pretty easy. it's just a matter of allotting enough time to get it all done. I served this with an Oregon pinot noir.

Summer Vegetable Lasagna

3 tbsp. olive oil
8 oz. cremini mushrooms, sliced
1 sweet onion, diced
2 yellow summer squash, cut in half and sliced
2 zucchini, cut in half and sliced
2 carrots (I used white carrots), peeled and finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tomatoes, diced
Kernels cut from 1 ear of corn (I used white corn)
1 tbsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. dried thyme
Seasoned salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup dry vermouth
1/4 cup water (if needed, see instructions below)
1 lb. cooked fresh lasagna noodles (recipe below)
2 cups fresh ricotta (see recipe)
1/2 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano

1. Position oven rack to middle and preheat oven to 400 F.

2. Heat a large deep-sided nonstick skillet or frying pan over medium heat. Add 1 tbsp. olive oil. When hot, add mushrooms and cook until browned. Remove from pan.

3. Add 2 tbsp. olive oil to pan. Add onion, yellow squash, zucchini and carrots and sauté until soft and starting to brown, about 10-12 minutes. Add garlic, tomatoes and corn and cook until the tomatoes have softened and given up liquid, about 5-6 minutes. Add dried oregano, thyme, seasoned salt, pepper and vermouth. If the sauce is too thick, add additional water. Let bubble a few minutes then reduce heat to simmer.

3. To assemble the lasagna, spray a 9 X 13 baking dish with olive oil. Lay down a small amount of sauce, then a layer of noodles, about 1/4 of the ricotta, a thick layer of sauce, and then repeat: noodles, ricotta, sauce, etc. After the second layer of ricotta, sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the parmigiano-reggiano. Finish with a layer of noodles and spring that with the other 1/4 cup of parmesan.

4. Bake on the oven until heated through and the top is lightly browned, about 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool for 5-10 minutes before serving.

Homemade Lasagna Noodles
Adapted from Fresh Egg Pasta, How to Cook Everything iPad App by Mark Bittman

2 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
2 eggs
3 egg yolks

1. Combine flour and salt in a food processor. Add eggs all at once and process until the dough comes together in a ball. If the dough is dry and grainy, add a little bit of water. If it sticks to the side of the food processor, add more flour.

2. Turn the dough out on a floured piece of plastic wrap and knead briefly until smooth. Cover with the plastic and allow the dough to rest about 30 minutes.

3. Divide the dough into four pieces. Using a pasta machine, roll each piece out into thin layers (I used setting 5 on the Kitchen Aid mixer pasta machine insert). Cut the dough into long strips about 2 inches wide and 8 inches long. Refrigerate on a floured baking sheet until ready to use, separating single layers of noodles with parchment.

4. To cook, boil in salted water about 2 minutes (boil noodles in batches to prevent sticking and overcrowding).

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Tomato Salad with Honey-Mustard Basil Dressing

This striking tomato dish is a decadent take on the classic Italian Insalata Caprese which, in its simplest form, is tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, salt and olive oil. If serving this as a first course for a dinner party, make the dressing and balsamic reduction in advance and slice the tomatoes, mozzarella and basil before your guests arrive. Then, when you're ready to serve, drizzle on the dressings and sprinkle with basil.

Pig + Fish in Rehoboth Beach, Del., serves this as a starter, and we almost always begin our meals there with it, since it is so good.

The decadence comes from the dressing: rather than just olive oil and salt, this dish has a honey-mustard basil vinaigrette, plus a drizzle of reduced balsamic vinegar and more fresh basil as a topping.

When reducing balsamic vinegar, be sure to use a good one. If it doesn't taste good to you out of the bottle, imagine how unsavory it would be if further concentrated.

Tomato Salad with Honey-Mustard Basil Dressing
Inspired by Pig + Fish's Tomato-Mozzarella Salad

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 large tomato (beefsteak), sliced into 4 thick (almost 1/2-inch) slices
1 large ball of fresh mozzarella, sliced into 4 thick slices
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. honey
1 tbsp. finely chopped fresh basil
Salt and pepper, to taste
8 basil leaves, sliced into ribbons

1. Pour the balsamic vinegar into a small frying pan. Heat over medium heat until it begins to gently boil. Continuing cooking and watch as the vinegar reduces--reduce by about 4 times so there is a little more than a tablespoon. Pour thickened vinegar into a small container and set aside (it will further thicken as it cools).

2. Whisk together the olive oil, white wine vinegar, mustard, honey, chopped basil, salt and pepper.

3. Arrange the slices of tomato on a large plate or platter and place a slice of fresh mozzarella on each tomato slice. Spoon a tablespoon of dressing on each pile. Drizzle with a teaspoon of the reduced balsamic vinegar and top with a sprinkle of fresh basil ribbons.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Food (Section) Fight!: Week 27

Food (Section) Fight! is my weekly look at The Washington Post's Food section and The New York Times' Dining section with my verdict on which section had the better content for the week.

New York Times

1) "After the Cameras Leave the Kitchen," article by David Segal. I don't watch a lot of food-related programming, but I do watch The Food Network's Restaurant Impossible, and really enjoyed Segal's exposé on what happens after the cameras roll. Not surprisingly, it's a mixed bag. One thing's for sure, if I knew a restaurant was serving frozen pasta entrees, I would not eat there.

2) "At Camp, It's Not Grub, It's Cuisine," feature by Jan Hoffman. I went to summer camp for 8 years and then worked at one for another 2, and I don't remember the words "organic," "sustainable" or "local" being uttered anywhere near the dining hall (although the camp I worked at had a nutritionist who invented a tofu chili that turned off the kids but I actually thought was pretty good). But times have changed and so too have camp menus, which apparently feature all kinds of fresh produce and locally sourced ingredients. It's probably not as much fun to feed the scraps to the pig, but it probably tastes better.

3) "Cachaça: Beyond a One-Note Samba," article by Robert Simonson. Admittedly, I rarely open my bottle of cachaça for cocktails, so I appreciated this article about the spirit's growing interest in the United States and how it is useful for more than just caipirinhas.

4) "Zucchini's Flower Power," A Good Appetite column by Melissa Clark. Having recently cooked squash blossoms for the first time, I appreciated this article by Clark. I like that she doesn't think stuffing and frying them is necessarily the best use for the beautiful orange flowers. Serving them raw with burrata is an interesting idea. If my farmers market still has them this weekend, I might try that.

5) "Down to the Last (Raw) Bite of Asparagus," How to Cook Everything column by Mark Bittman. Seems the stove is definitely turned off at NYT this week. In addition to the raw blossoms, Bittman turns in a raw asparagus salad made with asparagus prepared three ways: shaved dark outer parts, chopped stalks and whole tips. I just might have to try this too.

Washington Post

1) "Pie a la McDermott mode," article by Bonnie S. Benwick. Taking a cooking class sounds like a lot of fun, and I enjoyed Bonnie's first-person write up of this pie-making class from Kate McDermott. Using your ear to judge when pie is done may sound a bit corny, but everyone seems to rave about these pies, so maybe it's not so crazy.

2) "My popular, potassium-packed nemesis," essay by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic. As a former picky eater myself, I enjoyed this essay about a writer who has overcome much of her pickiness, but still doesn't like bananas.

3) "Chicken Stir-Fry with Mango and Peanut Sauce," Dinner in Minutes recipe by Bonnie S. Benwick.   A beautiful picture accompanies this recipe, and I'm always up for a simple, good stir-fry.


New York Times. I have to say, it was a pretty slight week for both sections, especially the Post, from which I could find only three articles that really interested me. Its feature story, on upping the game for wedding food, I found a bit annoying. Weddings are expensive. Having a food truck show up to serve doughnuts and cider after the reception sounds too ostentatious, even for me.


The New York Times: 14
The Washington Post: 12

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dallas Drinks: The Bobby

Dallas Drinks is a co-creation with Dallas Decoder, honoring the characters of the new TNT drama Dallas, which continues the Ewing family saga. See all of the Dallas Drinks here.

There are few characters on Dallas with a purer heart than Bobby Ewing. Honest, brave and caring, he's the guy you want on your side. He has the sort of all-American charm that wins over just about everyone.

The Bobby is a dessert cocktail that's a play on the all-American treat--apple pie and ice cream--featuring the familiar pie spices cinnamon and ginger with a touch of vanilla and cream. The drink's bourbon is a nod to the bond he shares with his brother, J.R.