June 8, 2011
If watermelon were a brand, it would be a very successful one. First of all, it has a name that tells you exactly what it is—at more than 90 percent water, it’s the juiciest fruit going. It has attractive packaging. Plus, it’s got impeccable timing. It doesn’t even bother making an appearance until summer really heats up and all anyone wants is something cool, sweet and hydrating. If they could only figure out that seed problem. (Sorry, so-called seedless watermelons are neither truly seedless nor, in my experience, as good as the original.)
The best way to eat watermelon? Straight up, by the wedge, bare feet dangling into a pool, lake or other body of water. But here are five other pretty good ideas:
1. Salads. It’s Greek. It’s salad. But it’s not Greek salad. Toss together some watermelon with feta cheese and olives and you’ve got the basics of a classic Aegean summer dish. For a twist: Grill the watermelon, as Recipe Girl does, to caramelize the sugars. Jacques Pépin adds fresh mint and Tabasco sauce. The Food Section gives equal billing to another quintessential summer fruit, tomatoes. Bobby Flay takes it in a Southwestern direction by swapping in jicama instead of olives and feta and adding lime juice.
2. Drinks. Watermelon is practically a beverage already, but it’s also a natural in cocktails and nonalcoholic drinks. You can mix up a Mexican-style agua fresca with lemon juice and mint. What’s Cooking in America makes the novel suggestion of blending watermelon puree with rosewater and lime juice. Imbibe magazine offers a spicy watermelon margarita recipe for those who like that hot-cold, salty-sweet combination. Or just cut to the chase and spike the whole melon with vodka (recommended only if you have a large group of friends to help finish it off).
3. Soups. The most ubiquitous summer soup isn’t necessarily made with tomatoes; a watermelon-cucumber gazpacho from Salon comes with a Spanish cultural history lesson. I’m intrigued by the addition of buttermilk and rosewater (apparently not as novel an ingredient as I thought) in a Bulgarian chilled watermelon soup. Thai-spiced watermelon soup with crabmeat from Epicurious also sounds delicious.
4. Dessert. Watermelon only needs the slightest nudging to be taken into the dessert category—Wicked Good Dinner explains how to make a watermelon granita by simply freezing the pulp with some salt and sugar and adding fresh basil. “Watermelon” ice cream pie is adorable but it’s made with lime and raspberry sherbet; Emeril Lagasse offers a recipe for real watermelon-flavored ice cream with chocolate chips (they look like seeds).
5. Pickled. You don’t have to be a freegan to want to minimize food waste. Why throw away all that watermelon rind when it only takes a couple of days or so to turn it into pickles? Seriously, according to The Bitten Word, they’re not very complicated to make, and if you’ve never tasted sweet-sour pickled watermelon rind you are missing out on one of the triumphs of southern pickling. Pickled pig’s feet, on the other hand, I’m not so sure about.
March 25, 2011
In spring a Northerner’s fancy turns lightly to… anything other than the same old starchy winter vegetables I’ve been eating for months. I don’t remember if this used to happen to me when I lived in a snow-free climate, but now that I live up north the only things I’m craving more than balmy breezes and flowers at this time of year are bright, sunny flavors to perk up my palate. Lemon fits the bill nicely. Not only does it add zippy flavor to everything it touches, a bowlful of lemons doubles as both cheerful table decor and subtle home fragrance. I’ve never seen anyone use rutabagas as a centerpiece, and I’m pretty sure parsnip-scented dishwashing liquid would be a commercial flop.
Plus, lemons have been curing scurvy since the 1600s—and providing entertaining videos of pucker-face babies since at least the dawn of YouTube.
If life hands you lemons, say, “thank you,” and don’t limit yourself to lemonade. Here are five ideas:
1. Breakfast. The best time to wake up your taste buds is first thing in the morning, no? You could go sweet, topping your favorite morning bread product with lemon marmalade, a sophisticated alternative to orange. (If you’re going to make it yourself, you might want to hold out for Meyer lemons—they’re a little sweeter and have thinner, tenderer rind). Or try fluffy lemon-ricotta pancakes, which use only the zest (squeeze the juice to use later, or mix up some Bloody Marys, if it’s that kind of morning). If you’re more a savory breakfast type, go for the whole classic New York bagel schmear: cream cheese, lox, capers, red onions and thin lemon slices (tomatoes are also a possibility, if you can find good ones at this time of year).
2. Soup. A recent Inviting Writing essay (with recipe) by a reader who tried to perfect her mother-in-law’s avgolemono soup may have sparked my latest round of lemon obsession. The ultra-lemony soup is one of Greek cuisine’s many delicious uses of the citrus fruit. Lemon also brings lentil soup into new and exciting territory (a squirt of lemon juice can even—almost—rescue bland, over-salted canned lentil soup, I find).
3. Main dishes and sides. The possibilities here are endless—chicken or fish piccata (I like this variation using miso paste); lemon pizza; lemon risotto (Giada de Laurentiis serves it in a lemon cup, if cute presentations are your thing); sole meunière, the French dish that Julia Child said changed her life; and Lee Lum’s Lemon Chicken is one of the recipes I’ve been wanting to try from Amanda Hesser’s The Essential New York Times Cookbook (originally published in the paper in 1969), but I haven’t been able to find water chestnut flour.
4. Desserts. For people like me who like their sweets cut with some tartness, this is the category where lemon truly shines. Last year I made a lemon tart from Cook’s Illustrated that came out brilliantly, if I do say so myself (the link is blocked to non-subscribers, so you can sign up for a 14-day trial or try this one with a pine-nut crust, from Epicurious.). Nigella Lawson’s lemon polenta cake sounds good. And for the true lemon lover, Smitten Kitchen offers a recipe for Shaker lemon pie that uses macerated thinly sliced Meyer lemons, peel and all. Those Shakers sure had some interesting ideas for baked goods. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention an American classic, lemon meringue pie.
5. Drinks. Now, I’ve got nothing against lemonade, especially on a hot summer day. But why not at least jazz it up with basil, mint or—though I can’t advocate it—cilantro? It certainly wouldn’t be out of the question to add some vodka to any one of those concoctions. Even better, do as Tyler Florence does, and make icy lemon-ginger vodka cocktails or, if you can wait 80 days, make your own limoncello. And did I mention the Bloody Mary? Well, it bears repeating.
March 14, 2011
This month’s Inviting Writing series focused on food and dating. We got some great contributions: sweet stories, quirky stories, sad (but triumphant!) stories. Today’s entry, sweet but very tangy, comes from Christie Zgourides, who teaches college English, grows her own vegetables, cooks from a range of cuisines and travels to try even more new flavors.
After the jump, see her recipe for Greek soup, interpreted for the novice. “I pulled the battered, hand-written recipe card from my file,” she wrote when we asked for the recipe, “and realized I will have something of a task getting this into a form that someone can actually work from.” She did, though, and it looks like a worthy challenge.
Secret Soup Strategy
By Christie Zgourides
I had been dating a guy, George, for a while and his birthday was coming up. He was living many states away from his parents, and had been lamenting that he hadn’t had his mom’s Greek soup in some time. This was the early 1990s, before the Internet or Facebook, so all I had was directory assistance. As his last name was Zgourides, I thought, how many could there be in a small Texas town? I got his mom on the first call! She secretly sent me the recipes, and I made Avgolemono (Greek) Soup with the eggy foam, chicken served on the side, and a Greek salad. I had never seen Greek soup much less made his family’s rather tricky recipe. When he came over on his birthday, he stepped through the door, and without even saying hello, said, “I smell Greek soup!” He went into the kitchen and said quizzically, “this tastes just like my mom’s!” Then I handed him the envelope with his mom’s handwriting. He was shocked and delighted I had gone to the trouble to contact his mom and surprise him with his favorite soup!
The funny part was the recipe called for three lemons. I had no idea what size, and bought three “Texas-sized” lemons at the store because, well, his family is all from Texas. The soup was so lemony George was the only one who could eat it, and he was delighted because he said he didn’t have to add lemon—for the first time ever! He pronounced it better than his mother’s.
I topped it all off with a lemon and white checker-board cake. The man loves his lemons.
He has since said he should have had the sense that day to get married, and we finally did a few years (ahem) later. We have been married 13 years, and I have made Greek soup many times since—with far less lemon. So everyone else can eat it. :-) He adds lemon, but still says it is better than his mother’s.
When most restaurants serve Greek or Avgolemono Soup, it is without the egg foam on top. There is no way to accomplish that feat in a restaurant setting, however upscale. It simply has to be done at home. The wrong pan or a mistake in temperature ruins it. This is not a recipe for the beginner or faint of heart.
Here is the recipe for Avgolemono (Greek) Soup. Be forewarned: there are
as many “true Greek” recipes for this as there are Yiayias in Greece, and
everyone thinks their family’s version is correct.
March 7, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked people to share their stories about food and dating. Of course, as in Lisa’s starter story, dates don’t always end well, and sometimes, in some way, the food is to blame.
Today’s story comes from Evelyn Kim, who lives in Berlin and writes about food and sustainability issues at the cleverly titled blog Edo Ergo Sum (I eat, therefore I am).
The Matzo Ball Blues
By Evelyn Kim
There is that moment when you are dating someone and you realize that as much as you think the family accepts you…they don’t. I dated this man through college, after college, and for a time I was even engaged to him. But after we split up, I knew that no matter how many brises, weddings, or bar or bat mitzvahs I went to, I was never really part of the family. How did I know? It was the matzo ball.
I made really lousy matzo ball soup. The soup part was fairly easy, but those matzo balls! I could never get them to turn out right. They had the consistency of school paste and the density of doorstops. They were basically rubber balls in kosher clothing.
It was not for lack of trying. I received all sorts of advice. Trust me, I asked around. Moms, aunts, cousins, rabbanim, the Korean deli on 76th and 3rd—they all had their own methods: club soda, finely ground matzo meal, lard (Kosher food rules were clearly not part of the licensing exam for Korean deli owners in New York), whipped schmaltz, The Jewish Book of Why. None of them worked. I suspected that until I married the guy and converted to Judaism, Moses (or my boyfriend’s grandma) wouldn’t divulge the secret to light and fluffy matzo balls.
For years, I thought dumpling dilemma was due to my lack of culinary skills. Maybe I had the wrong matzo meal. Maybe the eggs were too old. Maybe God was punishing me for eating bacon for breakfast. Clearly, I thought, there was something wrong with me. Maybe the matzo ball and I were like Romeo and Juliet–star-crossed lovers that were only to end in tragedy.
After five years of dating, the guy and I split up. There were the usual reasons: arguments ending with “why aren’t you in therapy,” or “I really don’t care about your career.” But then there was his family: “Oh, I forgot. You’re not Jewish,” “This brisket is good, but not as good as fill-in-the blank,” and my favorite, “But you’re Korean.” Needless to say, I never did get the matzo ball recipe.
And I really didn’t think about the matzo ball—until about three months after we split up, when I sat alone at a deli and blubbered into my hot, steaming bowl of matzo ball soup. I really did miss him. I missed the relationship. I missed his neurotic over-analyzed family. I even missed the smelly shedding cat. And I still couldn’t make those stupid matzo balls.
I knew it was time. Time for the matzo ball showdown. With my self-esteem in the gutter, I trudged through the Safeway aisles. I was determined to make the ur-matzo ball, and nothing was going to stop me.
By 2 a.m., I was a hot, sticky mess. I had egg whites floating all over the place. I had almost exhausted my three-box supply of Manischewitz matzo meal. Little bits of chicken fat were clinging in my hair making me the first Asian with dreadlocks. And in my frustration, all I could think about was those stupid quenelles I mistakenly ordered when I first met his parents in college. Why did I order those pretentious, French fluff-balls?
I started crying all over again. What was wrong with me? Maybe I didn’t deserve to know the secret of the matzo ball. Maybe I didn’t deserve to be part of his family. They probably never liked me. That matzo ball was like Proust’s madeleine—but from hell—a constant reminder of a failed past. In my self-pity, I didn’t realize the answer was right in front of me. That stupid quenelle. If I made matzo balls like quenelles, they would be the perfect consistency. I picked up my pathetic puffy-faced self, and went back for more supplies. At 4:30 a.m., I had my soup. I did it myself. I had conquered the matzo ball. I was going to be O.K.
Schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) is the way to go here. You can also use duck or goose fat (it’s delicious). I suppose you could use butter, but the taste and texture might be off. And please, don’t use margarine. I tried cooking the dumplings both in chicken stock and in water. Chicken stock is tasty, but it will color your dumplings yellow. Either way, your tummy will thank you.
4 large eggs, separated
1/4 c. schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), room temperature
2 tbs. Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, minced
1/2 tsp. salt (kosher or sea salt)
freshly ground pepper
2/3 c. unsalted matzo meal
1. In a medium bowl, thoroughly blend egg yolks, schmaltz, parsley and salt. In another medium bowl, with clean beaters, beat egg whites until it holds stiff peaks. Gently fold egg whites into the egg yolk mixture, alternating with matzo meal, in 3 additions, respectively. Cover and chill until firm, about 2 hours (overnight is fine).
2. Bring a large pot of salted water or stock to a boil. Using moistened hands (the mixture WILL stick), form mixture into balls, about 1 1/4 inch in diameter. When all the balls have been formed, drop matzo balls into boiling water. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until cooked through, about 30 minutes, turning balls over once.
3. Drain and serve immediately with chicken soup of your choice.
December 29, 2010
Every December, the Salvation Army deploys bell-ringers to shopping areas to collect donations for the needy, acting as jingling reminders that not everyone has a roof over his head or food in her belly, much less gifts under the tree.
The ringers’ iconic red collection kettles, which represent soup pots, have been a tradition since 1891. That was the year, according to the Salvation Army, that Joseph McFee brainstormed an idea to fund a Christmas dinner for the destitute in San Francisco. Recalling his sailor days, McFee thought of the port in Liverpool, where passersby would toss coins for the poor into a kettle called “Simpson’s Pot.” He put out a similar pot by the Oakland ferry landing on Market Street, along with a sign reading, “Keep the pot boiling,” and soon had enough to feed 1,000 people dinner.
It’s no coincidence that a soup kettle was the symbol for feeding the poor, rather than, say, a roasting pan or a skillet. Soup has always been one of the most economical ways to provide nourishing, filling food to a large quantity of people. Although he was hardly the first person to come up with the idea to feed the poor, an interesting fellow known as Count Rumford is often credited with establishing the first real soup kitchen.
Born Benjamin Thompson in Woburn, Massachusetts, in 1753, he fled to Britain during the American Revolution, having been accused of being loyal to the crown. He went on to have a brilliant career as a scientist, social reformer and inventor. His work for the Bavarian government earned him the title of Count of the Holy Roman Empire, and he chose Rumford, the New Hampshire town where he lived for a time, as the place he was from (the full name was Benjamin Count von Rumford).
His biggest project may have been his plan to rid Munich of its beggar problem by feeding—and, more pointedly, employing—the poor. According to the handbook he wrote for other cities to emulate, “mendicity” was epidemic there—”In short, these detestable vermin swarmed everywhere,” he wrote. He was speaking specifically of those able-bodied cadgers would send out scuffed-up children to prey on public sympathy, and who had developed an elaborate system of mooching food from merchants, which they would then sell to other shopkeepers at a profit.
After sending out troops to roust the beggars, Rumford established workhouses, where poor people, including children, were employed to make military uniforms. Those who were too weak, young or awkward to do more strenuous work were given the easier tasks of carding wool or spooling yarn. The youngest children were to sit in chairs in the workroom, where they would be enticed by boredom to prefer work. Children attended an on-premises school before and after work and, Rumford noted, were also given the opportunity to recreate and play.
“At the hour of dinner,” Rumford wrote, “a large bell was rung in the court, when those at work in the different parts of the building repaired to the dining-hall; where they found a wholesome and nourishing repast.” This consisted of “a very rich soup of peas and barley, mixed with cuttings of fine white bread; and a piece of excellent rye bread, weighing seven ounces, which last they commonly put in their pockets, and carried home for their supper.”
Rumford was also an early proponent of the potato as good, cheap and filling food, though this New World ingredient was still viewed with suspicion by many Europeans.
Although some of his methods (like child labor) wouldn’t necessarily mesh with today’s sensibilities, the basic concept of Rumford’s program set the groundwork for the last century’s soup kitchens. And through his many scientific innovations, he developed tools that improved cooking for everyone, poor or not, including the cast-iron Rumford stove (the first commercially available kitchen range), which kept in heat and allowed temperature to be regulated better than on an open hearth; a pressure cooker (though not necessarily the first one); and a drip coffee maker.
But the item bearing Rumford’s name that is probably most familiar to cooks today wasn’t actually his invention: a brand of baking powder was named in his honor.