June 2006

For The Love of Yogurt (Blueberry Yogurt Cake & Sour Cherry Frozen Yogurt) [PLUS: A Kitchen Travesty]

We food bloggers are creating quite the online ouvre. While some of us are leaving behind breast cupcakes, the rest are leaving behind fabulous recipes. Case in point: Clotilde’s Blueberry Yogurt Cake:

And David’s frozen yogurt recipe which I applied to a recently acquired tub of sour cherries making Sour Cherry Frozen Yogurt:


The primary ingredients for both these recipes came from–yup, you guessed it–the farmer’s market. The blueberries and sour cherries I bought from the same stand. I was really only going to buy blueberries but when the woman there mentioned sour cherries I remembered reading an article that said: “If you see sour cherries at the market, snatch them up. You can put them in the freezer and use them after sour cherry season is over.” So I reluctantly requested the cherries too and I went home with two fruits, unsure of what I would do.

The answer came by way of the third ingredient, an ingredient I acquired two weeks earlier at the Ronnybrook Dairy stand. Yup: yogurt. (Cue Mel Brooks: “Ya hoid of me?”) I knew yogurt would last a long time in my fridge and I figured I could concoct something to do with it–maybe eat it with berries and honey or use it to coat my cat after setting her on fire. I figured yogurt was a good thing to have so I bought it. And I forgot about it. Until the blueberries and the cherries came along.

Easy Living

I’ve been cooking so much lately, it’s hard to keep up with all the pictures I’m taking and stories I’m collecting. Well, not stories really, but spontaneous recipes built around farmer’s market ingredients. I share Meg’s sentiment that the farmer’s market is surprisingly expensive, but I find that there are ways around it. For example, the other night instead of buying expensive tomatoes I bought broccoli and made this for dinner:

That’s penne with broccoli in anchovy garlic sauce, adapted from Marcella Hazan. You boil the broccoli ’til it’s tender, lift it out with a spider and then boil the pasta in the same salted water. Meanwhile, in a saute pan you cook garlic, red pepper flakes and a few anchovies (3 or 4) in hot oil. The anchovies will fall apart at which point you could add white wine, if you had any on hand, or add the pasta cooking water. I added some pasta cooking water, the pan sizzled, and then in went the broccoli followed by the al dente pasta. You finish cooking the pasta in the sauce, then top with cheese and that’s dinner.

Last night, I surprised myself and assembled this beauty:


That’s fennel and onion ragu served over polenta. Clearly, watching Molto Mario every day on Tivo is paying off: this dish is a direct result of my studies. (It does feel like you’re in cooking school when you watch it as regularly as I do.)

The big epiphany with this dish is just how ridiculously easy it is to make polenta. I had instant polenta and even the big Italian gurus on TV (in addition to Mario, Lydia Bastianich, for example) say it’s all right to use instant polenta once in a while. Most recipes I’ve read have you cook the polenta in chicken stock, but last night I only had water. So I filled a pot with water, brought it to a boil, added a big splash of salt, a drop of oil and then I began whisking in the instant polenta. When it became thick (approximately a 1 to 3 ratio of polenta to water) I continued to whisk for three minutes, put the lid on, and got on with my ragu.

For the ragu, I had a leftover fennel bulb from cooking with Kirk earlier in the day for my book. I sliced the fennel into thick chunks, then sliced an onion into thick chunks. I put olive oil in a saute pan, heated it for a minute, then added the onion and fennel without adding any salt: I wanted it to retain its shape, not to break down so quick. Without moving it, I allowed it to brown and after a few minutes I did the flippy pan thing and saw nice brown color. I kept sauteing and when it was brown all over I added salt, pepper, red pepper flakes and then a few canned tomatoes (3 or four from a can). I also, spontaneously, added red wine. That’s a great feeling, when you grab things left and right and add them to the pot.

While that cooked down, I chopped the fennel fronds and added them, along with lots of parmesan cheese, to the polenta. Dinner was ready in 20 minutes–polenta on a plate, ragu on top–and I felt like a guru myself. Garnish with remaining fennel fronds and some parmesan, and not only am I a guru: I’m a hot guru.

And that’s what I call easy living.

Ooh La La, Fancy French Toast

What to do with the leftover peasant bread you bought for the Eggs in Purgatory I championed in a video last week? After all, you had the bread sliced at the store and fresh bread like that goes stale pretty quick. Let’s see there’s eggs in the fridge, vanilla, milk… hmmm… why, could we make french toast? Why, yes we can!

Using this recipe from Epicurious it couldn’t have been easier. And now for a Flickr slide show to explain the rest (I stole this idea from Sam of Becks & Posh: thanks Sam!) Click a picture to read a clever little quip and then curse yourself for wasting your time. Enjoy!

Sadism, Masochism, Food and Television

I don’t like pain, I don’t like inflicting pain. But the question remains: do I like to watch pain inflicted on others?

I was forced to tackle this question tonight sitting through “Hell’s Kitchen” on Fox. It’s not hard to imagine Gordon Ramsay dressed in leather, cracking a real whip as his reality show minions dance around with rubber balls in their mouths. That, in fact, might be tamer than what really transpires: verbal lashings that burst forth with real venom. “Nooo, you donkey! You fat, stupid donkey!” is just the tip of the iceberg.

Why is it so pleasurable to watch Gordon spew such rage at these wanna be chefs? Is it pure schadenfreude? Is it just fun to watch people suffer?

And, more importantly, are these people really suffering? There is that notion, set forth by Anthony Bourdain, Michael Ruhlman, and Bill Buford (to name a few), that restaurant kitchens are raw, emotionally violent places. I remember accounts in books by all three authors of chefs willfully burning other chefs (chefs showing off their scars in “Kitchen Confidential,” Thomas Keller setting a hot plate down on a waiter in “The Soul of a Chef,” and a Babbo chef splashing hot oil on another in “Heat.”) Perhaps what happens on “Hell’s Kitchen” is just par for the course, a window into the real life climate of kitchen culture.

Clearly, to be a chef–to make your bones–you have to be a bit of a masochist. And that makes sense: to be good at it, you can’t really mind pain. The job itself, by its very nature, requires playing with fire and people who play with fire for a living can’t really mind getting burned.

And where does that leave us, the watchers–the voyeurs enjoying it all, putting fat wads of cash in Gordon Ramsay’s pocket? Are we sadists by proxy–do we rub our hands together with grim pleasure when Gordon hurls an apron at a sad sack chef who forgot to fire the meat that printed out an hour ago? Do we pity the fiesty risotto maker who first makes it too firm and then too soupy as Gordon calls her “sweetheart” and screams “no! no! no!” Or do we relish her pain?

It’s probably a little bit of both. And whatever sadistic pleasure we do get is a guilty pleasure, the same way that watching Britney Spears interviewed by Matt Lauer is a guilty pleasure. It’s like watching an old lady pushed down a flight of stairs. If she gets up, we can laugh it off. If she doesn’t, then we start to feel sick. There’s a fine line.

Of course, for those of us who can’t stand anything sadistic–who much prefer to be victimized by television instead of watching television victimize others, there’s always Semi Home-Made with Sandra Lee. Watching that is the greatest exercise in masochism a food-lover could ask for.

Being Philip Roth at Barney Greengrass

I recently finished reading Philip Roth’s “Operation Shylock” (a fun, if challenging, Roth read) and discovered, upon reaching the book’s final chapter, that the last scene occurs at a place I knew lots about but never visited: Barney Greengrass. What follows is a brilliant section that perfectly describes the scene and the role it plays in Jewish lives:

“Smilesburger had chosen as the site for our editorial meeting a Jewish food store on Amsterdam Avenue, specializing in smoked fish, that served breakfast and lunch on a dozen Formica-topped tables in a room adjacent to the bagel and bialy counter and that looked as though, years back, when someone got the bright idea to “modernize,” the attempt at redecoration had been sensibly curtailed halfway through. The place reminded me of the humble street-level living quarters of some of my boyhood friends, whose parents would hurriedly eat their meals in a closet-sized storeroom just behind the shop to keep an eye on the register and the help. In Newark, back in the forties, we used to buy, for our household’s special Sunday breakfasts, silky slices of precious lox, shining fat little chubs, chunks of pale, meaty carp and paprikaed sable, all double-wrapped in heavy wax paper, at a family-run store around the corner that looked and smelled pretty much as this one did–the tiled floor sprinkled with sawdust, the shelves stacked with fish canned in sauces and oils, up by the cash register a prodigious loaf of halvah soon to be sawed into crumbly slabs, and, wafting up from behind the showcase running the length of the serving counter, the bitter fragrance of vinegar, of onions, of whitefish and red herring, of everything pickled, peppered, salted, smoked, soaked, stewed, marinated, and dried, smells with a lineage that, like these stores themselves, more than likely led straight back through the shtetl to the medieval ghetto and the nutrients of those who lived frugally and could not afford to dine a la mode, the diet of sailors and common folk, for whom the flavor of the ancient preservatives was life. And the neighborhood delicatessen restaurants where we extravagantly ate “out” as a treat once a month bore the same stamp of provisional homeliness, that hallmark look of something that hadn’t quite been transformed out of the eyesore it used to be into the eyesore it aspired to become. Nothing distracted the eye, the mind, or the ear from what was sitting on the plate. Satisfying folk cuisine eaten in simple surroundings, on tables, to be sure, and without people spitting in their plates, but otherwise earthy sustenance partaken in an environment just about as unsumptuous as a feasting place can get, gourmandizing at its most commonplace, the other end of the spectrum of Jewish culinary establishments from the commodiously chandeliered dining salon at Miami Beach’s Fountainbleau. Barley, eggs, onions, soups of cabbage, of beets, inexpensive everyday dishes prepared in the old style and devoured happily, without much fuss, off of bargain-basement crockery.


By now, of course, what was once the ordinary fare of the Jewish masses had become an exotic stimulant for Upper West Siders two and three generations removed from the great immigration and just getting by as professionals in Manhattan on annual salaries that, a century earlier, would have provided daily banquets all year long for every last Jew in Galicia. I’d see these people–among them, sometimes, lawyers, journalists, or editors I knew–taking pleasure, mouthful by mouthful, in their kasha varnishkas and their gefilte fish (and riveted, all the while they unstintingly ate, to the pages of one, two, or even three daily papers) on those occasions when I came down to Manhattan from Connecticut and took an hour off from whatever else I was doing to satisfy my own inextinguishable appetite for the chopped-herring salad as it was unceremoniously served up (that was the ceremony) at one of those very same tables, facing onto the trucks, taxis, and fire engines streaming north, where Smilesburger had suggested that we meet for breakfast at ten a.m. to discuss my book.”


Ok, that was a crazy long passage to quote but who would you rather hear on the subject: me or a Pulitzer-Prize winner? (He’d never use the phrase “crazy long,” for starters.)

That passage, though, helps explain why I spend so much time craving bagels and smoked fish and why my brother’s favorite two words are “whitefish salad.” We are generations away from the original culture that required the smoking of fish for survival—there’s plenty of fresh fish to be had here in New York and in Boca Raton. Why do we still crave the smoked stuff? Is it in our genes?

I know non-Jews enjoy their “smoked salmon” but would non-Jews enjoy the sandwich I ordered when I sat down at a table along Barney Greengrass’s back wall and asked for what Philip Roth asks for at the end of his book: “The chopped-cherring salad on a lightly toasted onion bagel. Tomato on the side. And bring me a glass of orange juice.”

Ok, that’s not exactly how I asked for it. I just said “with tomato” but you get the idea. And here it is:


I’ve never had chopped herring salad before. My family was a lox-spread/whitefish salad exclusive family. I saw my dad eat pickled herring once in my childhood: it came in a white cream sauce that made me gag just looking at it.

But as you can see in the sandwich above, chopped herring salad looks, on the surface, just like any other chopped fish salad–it could be tuna, it could be whitefish. But the taste! Wow the taste. How to describe? The shocking thing about it, at first, is that it’s sweet. There’s a real sweetness there and then a tanginess–a mix of sugar and vinegar that’s unusual to encounter with fish. The texture is smooth and the tomato gives a nice tart edge to the experience, all balanced by the softness of the bagel. It’s a cultural experience on a plate: Proust had his madeline, and we Jews have chopped herring. What are you gonna do? [Here I give a Jewish shrug and exit to “Anatevka” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”]

Unkind Donuts

The title of this post is taken from the fun new crossword puzzle documentary “Wordplay” which I saw on Friday and which features the observation that if you move the first letter of the first word in “Dunkin’ Donuts” to the end of the first word you get Unkind Donuts. The reason for this post is that I woke up sick today–a nasty springtime cold–and on my way to Whole Foods to buy ingredients for chicken soup I stopped into my favorite secret anti-gourmet hideaway, Dunkin’ Donuts, to eat a sacreligious bagel and to read the Sunday Times. Ever since my Atlanta years, when Dunkin’ Donuts was a regular habit (now it’s just a twice a year kind of thing) I always ordered the #3: a bagel and coffee for $2.99. In winter I’d get a regular hot coffee and in summer I’d get an iced coffee. That is until today when this exchange happened.

Me: Can I get a #3 with a sesame bagel toasted with cream cheese and an iced coffee.

Employee: No iced coffee, only regular coffee.

Me: I’m sorry?

Employee: It doesn’t come with an iced coffee. Only a regular coffee.

Me: Do you have ice?

Employee: Yes.

Me: Do you have coffee?

Employee: Yes.

Me: So can you give me a cup of ice and a coffee and I’ll pour the coffee on the ice?

Employee: Ok, but I’ll have to charge you.

And she did charge me. Thirty cents. Unkind Donuts indeed.

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