Sunday, January 31, 2010

Little Red Hammer

I don’t know when or where this conventional hammer -- I assume purchased from a neighborhood hardware store -- became a ubiquitous kitchen tool of my mother’s. It had an expected heavy metallic head, and it probably thought it would end up on a construction site pounding away at penny nails. Instead, I hold fond memories of my mother sitting at the kitchen table and gently tapping away at the concrete exterior of various nuts sandwiched between two kitchen towels. But perhaps it was the hammer’s wooden handle, painted a deep, vibrant red that made it stand out from the rest of its kind - and tempted my mother to rescue it from a life hanging in a cold garage. Over the years, its brilliance faded to a vermillion patina with little nicks and dings at its base, and its head shiny from years of liberating nuts and their oils.

Now, none of this is to imply that my mother was handy when it came to hanging a picture or tapping down the warped edge of a floor board – that simply would not be on my mother’s and her hammer’s honey-do list.

The memory that I hold for that utilitarian instrument is seeing it positioned in my mother’s small hands gently tapping on the shells of nuts. We were a nut-crazy household – no one had a problem with walnuts, pecans or almonds being strewn about. In fact, it seems that almost every one of her pastries contained one or more nuts: sour cream-apple-walnut cake, carrot cake with pecans, chocolate-dipped almond butter cookies. There always could be found clear glass gallon jars, originally filled with sour-garlic pickles, that got recycled into urns for the long-term storage of nuts once they were emancipated from their hard shell casings.

That culinary soldier weathered the trials and tribulations of our home - quietly rapping a room shared by three napping toddlers; indulging enthusiastic little hands anxious to assist with the task; willingly absorbing the changes of a house being vacated one by one; to finally being stored away in a drawer rarely being called to action. I hope that I will stumble upon that trusty kitchen mallet somewhere in storage and offer it a new home.

Spiced Candied Nuts and Popcorn
1/4-cup canola oil
1/4-cup popping corn
1/2- cup cashew nuts
1/4-cup almonds
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2-cup water
1/4-teaspoon fennel seeds
1/8-teaspoon cayenne pepper
1-teaspoon ground coriander seed
1-tablespoon unsalted butter

Heat an 8-quart saucepan over a high heat, and add the oil and popping corn. Place a lid on and move the pan over the flame to fully pop the corn. Once the corn has popped transfer to a large work bowl, which has been lightly oiled, along with the cashews and almonds.

In a 2-quart saucepan add the sugar and water, and over a high heat dissolve the sugar cooking it until it is a dark amber color. Remove from the heat and immediately whisk in the fennel seeds, cayenne pepper and coriander seed and butter. Then carefully pour the sugar over the popped corn, and toss to thoroughly distribute and coat the popped corn mixture.

Transfer the popped corn mixture to a lightly oiled baking tray, and cool completely.

Break into clusters to serve.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A jump on a day

Anyone who knows me will attest that the fervor that is running rampant throughout the New York metro area due to the Jets impending position in the Super Bowl (right, they are still in the game?! ) is completely lost on me. There is a sporting event(s) that does draw my attention. I am a bit of a tennis fiend. The past week from the other side of the globe the Australian Open has been taking place. The unfortunate aspect is that the live play happens in the wee hours of the day, and as I fall off to sleep I know I am going to miss a match. The taped rebroadcast is tough for me to get into – inevitably I see a score on-line and it ruins it for me.

I had a calm, uneventful Saturday night getting to sleep at a reasonable time expecting to wake with the winter sunrise. Well, no. My REM cycle was disturbed by the out calls of the line’s person and the partisan jeers of the crowd in an all too realistic dream. So, at 4am I found myself putting up a pot of coffee and sat down to be part of Super Sunday. Tennis is definitely not a chili cook-off and kegger kind of sporting event.

By 9am the day’s play had concluded, and I was wired from more than a typical day’s quantity of java. By 10.30am I had been to the gym for a frantic workout, showered and ready. My boyfriend was still under the comforter enjoying the luxury of a recuperative sleep on what promises to be a dreary day.

I started to plot dinner. I knew we had some errands that where going to have to be run at some point, so I either had to plan for a quick stir-fry or, something that would take a nice long cook allowing time to dash out and avoid a domestic because I was unavailable to participate in our household duties.

I had started to defrost yellow Tommy tomatoes that I had put up last September, the night before with an original though of a coconut-tomato curry. But as I pondered the entire night’s menu and the hours still ahead of me a slowed roasted pork shoulder began to call. Now, I usually like to marinate this dish for a minimum of 24 hours, and regardless of how early it was that much time I did not have. Though, stashed within the recesses of the freezer is a green garlic pesto that was stowed away in the early summer as well as some cannelloni beans and okra.

Down the drain went the coconut-tomato curry idea, and in its place garlic crusted pork shoulder to be accompanied by tomato, bean and vegetable stew along with spinach with pink grapefruit salad. Perhaps, tonight I should set my DVR and avoid the sports column of the paper for tomorrow.

Vegetable Stew – yields 6 to 8 servings
1-tablespoon olive oil
1-large onion – diced
3-garlic cloves – chopped
1/4-pound crimini mushrooms – cut in quarters
4-celery stalks – chopped
1-teaspoon lemon zest
1/2-cup cooked cannelloni beans
1/2-cup okra – cut in thirds
3-1/2 cups pureed tomato
1-chayote squash – cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 small turnip – peeled and cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1-small zucchini – cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a 3-quart saucepan add the oil, onion, garlic and mushrooms, celery, and cook over a medium heat until the onions are very soft. Mix in the lemon zest, beans, okra and tomato puree. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Season the stew with some salt and pepper. Cook for 30 minutes.

Then add in the chayote, turnip and zucchini and cook the stew for an additional 15 minutes. Correct seasoning and serve.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Far from then

I started my work life like most of us – college and then the search to find my place in corporate America. I landed a position in a company that did sales and marketing for television programs which, was fascinating and I loved when we would brainstorm ideas and plot marketing campaigns. What I did not understand was the face-time you had to put in – I mean, if I was done at 4:20 in the afternoon why push paper around until 5:30? Not to mention, the math I needed to perform in order to calculate an amortization schedule or cost-out a per-minute advertising spot over the term a contract. This did not harness the best of my abilities. It did not take too long for me to choose drop out.

I retreated to the perpetually pleasant environs of southern California. Healing my injured psyche by withdrawing into a cave to contemplate my navel; then there were days sitting, meditating on the beach. I needed to find my voice – my joy.

I would search the help-wanted ads looking for something to jump out at me. I had a stint in a novelty warehouse, moving inventory from here to there. I leveraged my sales experience to represent a badge and signage company making dreadful cold calls, a job I hate the most. Not surprisingly I got fired. Then I saw an ad for a prep-cook. I had no hospitality experience only a love of cooking that had me hosting weekly dinner parties for my friends. So, I put on my blue power suit; slipped into my way-to-expensive Italian loafers; tucked my resume into my otherwise useless attaché case, and walked into the hotel kitchen, hopeful. The executive chef who interviewed me was a good-old-boy type – a bit too large for me and insisted that only country-western music play on the radio – I am a disco baby! I was the type he ate for breakfast after a keg-filled night.

Surprisingly, I got the position and spent my first month charged with washing lettuce. Think the chef was secretly hoping I’d crumble and run from the kitchen bruised and defeated, but I fell in love – I tore, washed, drained, re-washed and spun the day’s lettuce to perfection. I kept my eyes open, volunteered to assist anyone in the kitchen with their tasks– I found home.

This simple, lowly job captured my imagination and catapulted me to culinary school (let’s be serious, being a lettuce washer was not a career). I found a way to harness my creative spirit: employ my business savvy, and even on the most daunting days, hear the song of my soul fill the kitchen.

The lost and terrified young executive morphed into an enthusiastic, fearless chef. These days when I am low, fed-up or looking for motivation I remember those first steps and the bounce they had.

Salt Cod Coquettes - yields approx. 24
1 1/2 -pound salt cod - soaked in a few changes of water over 24 hours
1-pound potato
2 shallots - diced
2 teaspoons thyme - chopped
1-teaspoon celery seed - ground
1 habeñero chili - seeds removed, and diced fine
3 garlic cloves - pasted
3 eggs
Flour for coating
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Bread crumbs for coating

In a 2-quart pot place the salt cod and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook the salt cod for 5 minutes. Drain. Cool the salt cod and then flake the fish.

Peel and cube the potatoes and cook until soft. Mash to smooth, and then cool.

Combine the salt cod, mashed potatoes, 1 egg, shallots, thyme, celery seed, habeñero and garlic together. Form into 1" balls and flatten slightly.

Beat the remaining eggs. Roll the croquette in the flour then egg and finally the bread crumbs. Heat a frying pan with enough oil to cover the croquettes and bring the oil to 360 degrees. Fry the croquettes until golden brown on all sides.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A new day

An escape to rest is vital to not only one’s spirit, but for me it is a rich source of ideas. Changing my location and causing me to encounter the unexpected always make a potent formula.

While on holiday I engage in the typical activities: visiting some awe-inspiring ruins, lazily napping the afternoon away and taking long strolls on the beach just as the sun prepares to set. What is always on my list, regardless of where I might find myself, is a run through the local grocery store as well as a beeline to the farmer’s market. I find there is so much to learn in these common haunts – from fruits and vegetables that pique a curious eye to the international marketing of various products and personalities. I was amazed and appalled when in the Philippines, at prime eye-level, were boxes of Triscuit crackers plastered with Rachel Ray’s toothy smile. A tad jarring for me, crashing me back home, but it was also a clear sign we are a world market.

I am not totally troubled by this globalization, for within the attempted singularity, there are terrific differences and unique opportunities from which to always cull. I a firm believer that no matter how much we are the same we cannot neutralize everyone’s exceptional contribution.

In a recent escape from the north’s onslaught of cold, I traveled to Tulum, Mexico and looked forward to spending time in shorts and T-shirt, eating simply cooked fish and consuming copious qualities of warm, freshly made corn tortillas. I ended up using those tortillas to bring at least two avocadoes a day to my mouth. Luscious - and full of true flavor, they became my obsession for the week. Avocadoes as guacamole; a salad diced with orange and grapefruit segments, or halved and stuffed with baby shrimp excited every meal.

Now, home again in long pants and a sweater I am craving another day on the beach, which will have to wait awhile, but I can have an avocado tonight.

Minted Avocado Mousse - yields 8 to 10 servings
1-1/2 cups cream
3/4-cup sugar
6 mint stems
1 lime - juiced
3 large avocados - ripened
1-1/2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
5 ounces semi-sweet chocolate - chopped up
1-teaspoon canola oil

In a 1-1/2 quart saucepan gently warm the cream, sugar and mint over a low heat for about 5 minutes, or until the sugar is dissolved. Let the cream mixture cool, and strain through a sieve, discarding the mint.

Place the limejuice in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a plastic blade or use a cake mixer with a whip attachment. Add the avocado and process till very smooth. With a whisk stir the cream into the avocado and blend till well incorporated. Dissolve the gelatin in a 1/4-cup of warm water stirring well to avoid it from lumping up. Add the gelatin to the avocado mixture, and incorporate thoroughly.

Using a paper towel moistened with some oil, lightly grease a Charlotte mold or a bundt pan dish, and pour in the mousse mixture. Tap the mold lightly on the counter to dislodge any air bubbles, and refrigerate 6 hours or overnight. To un-mold the mousse place in a pan of warm water for no more than a minute or two. Wipe the mold dry. Place your serving dish on top of the mold, and turn the mold over. Tap on the mold to ensure the entire mousse releases at the same time. Once you have un-molded the mousse place it back in the refrigerator for a half hour to an hour to firm it back up.

To make the chocolate glaze, place the chocolate and remaining oil in a stainless steel bowl, and melt completely over a double boiler. Alternatively, the chocolate can be melted in the microwave oven; just use a non-metallic bowl and heat for approximately 1 minute. Make sure the oil and chocolate are well combined, and let the mixture cool for a few minutes.

Drizzle the chocolate over the mousse. Refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes before serving.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Getting By

Okay, this is no longer fair. A deep-freeze so profound that it is causing the Florida orange to prematurely become frozen concentrate within its peel. This definitely portents higher prices for all our citrus needs moving forward. Damn, and it is just the beginning of the year –at this point March’s lamb may never be born.

I escape to the weather channel and transport myself south of the equator to the welcomed stifling heat of Sydney or Rio. But alas, the air that sweeps in from the not so efficient seams of my weatherproof windows shakes my to frigid realty. Bundled up against the chilly assault of Mother Nature’s annual cycle I do my best to emotionally survive. I am fortunate to have my stash of September corn kernels, August okra and July blueberries to act as a tonic on winter’s cold.

Now, of course if I found myself in certain southern states or California my market would resplendent with a myriad variety of citrus fruits – delicious honey bell oranges; arthritic-looking Buddha’s hand; red grapefruit that never needs an external sweetener -- all excellent distractions during these less then bountiful times. But I don’t, so beyond my personal stores I look for foods to play with.

Ironically during this coldest period of the year I tend to cull from the Caribbean section of the produce bin: yucca, battata, posole and plantains. Perhaps is the hope that they brought more than a nourishing meal with them on their trip north. To end this cold whine I am packing my bags and heading south.

Stuffed Bake Plantains – yields 6 servings
3 yellow plantains
1/4-pound ricotta salata or feta cheese
4-ounces guava paste
3-tablespoons olive oil

Pre-heat the heat to 350-degrees.

Slice the plantain down the middle from stem to end. In the slit divide the cheese and guava paste amongst the three plantains.

Place the plantains on small baking dish, and drizzle a tablespoon of oil over each plantain. Cover with aluminum foil, and place in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes.

Cut in half and serve.

Friday, January 1, 2010


a sip. a kiss.hope.
closing the night with cheer
a new day; New Year

Potato Frittata – yields 6 servings
1/4-pound Yukon gold potato – thinly sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 whole eggs
1/4-cup sour cream
2-tablespoons thyme leaves – chopped
Few dashes of hot sauce
1/2-cup grated Parmesan, asiago or manchego cheese
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

In a work bowl beat the eggs, sour cream, thyme, hot sauce, cheese and salt and pepper to completely combine.

Heat an eight-inch cast iron skillet over a high heat, and add the oil. Lay the potato slices down in a concentric pattern. Allow the potatoes to cook until they just start to brown.

Pour the egg mixture over the potatoes, and let the eggs cook until the edges start to set. Then put the pan in the oven, and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow the frittata rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.