By Ann | September 17, 2014
I think people can be divided into two categories: lunch buyers and lunch bringers. I used to be the former but New York City (and paying for childcare) have turned me into the latter. Every Sunday, I make something to eat during the week—sometimes a quiche, but more often a hearty bean salad. I used to find those sorts of recipes soooo time consuming—all that mincing, zesting, and grating, not to mention the herb washing, drying, and plucking—so many elements to prepare—but if I don’t get distracted by shiny things like my iPad, I can finish in ninety minutes, dishes washed and counters wiped. (Honestly, now that I’ve typed that sentence, I’ve realized that ninety minutes is, in fact, a long time—but I listen to NPR at the same time so it’s kind of meditative? Maybe?)
Anyway, making a weekly bean/grain salad means I’m always on the lookout for new bean/grain salad recipes because a girl can only eat so many cumin-dusted chick peas. Last week, I was delighted to scarf down a French lentil salad with feta cheese and pecans from David Lebovitz’s beautiful new cookbook, My Paris Kitchen.
The recipe reads like a tour of my pantry: French green lentils (smuggled from Paris), thyme, red wine vinegar, toasted pecans. I had a bunch of cilantro wilting in the fridge, which I used instead of parsley, and crumbled in a block of feta, as suggested. The result was a satisfying meal—nourrissant, as my French friend, Jérôme, might say—rich with nuts and the salty tang of feta.
I’m guessing David probably doesn’t share my lunch mania, but his new book is a treasure trove of brown bag ideas. I can’t wait to make sandwiches from his beet hummus. There’s poireaux vinaigrette, the leeks scattered with bacon and hard-boiled eggs. A quiche of ham, blue cheese, and pear. Roasted cauliflower dusted with dukkah, an Egyptian spiced nut mix (which I’d combine with quinoa, maybe). Israeli couscous tossed with pistachios and preserved lemon (add a can of chick peas and call it a meal). Wheat berry salad with roasted root vegetables and pomegranate vinaigrette. Many of these recipes come from the section titled “Sides” but all of them have enough star power for a hungry luncher.
The book also has Paris stories, cooking tips, and witty observations sprinkled throughout, not to mention recipes for meatier main dishes. The desserts are spectacular, featuring the sophisticated flavors you’d expect from David’s Chez Panisse pastry chef past, while easy enough for a nervous baker (like me) to tackle. The book echoes David’s food blog (which—in case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard of it—is wildly popular), but with MORE—more photos, more funny stories, more recipes. Indeed, this book an invitation into David’s kitchen… and how wonderful it is to find it as warm and delicious and creative a place as one always hoped.
I’ll leave you with a glimpse of the book’s most decadent side dish, a gratin of potatoes speckled with blue cheese and roasted garlic. We made short work of it for dinner one night, paired with a butcher-roasted chicken. It was heaven; even the baby loved it. My version of the lentil salad recipe is below, but to make the potatoes, you’ll have to buy the book :) You won’t regret it.
Serves four to six
250 grams French green lentils (Puy variety)
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 small red onion, peeled and finely diced
1 celery stalk, finely diced
Large handful cilantro leaves, chopped
1 cup toasted pecans or walnuts, chopped
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup olive oil or walnut oil (or combination of the two)
1 small shallot, peeled and minced
Salt and pepper
Rinse the lentils and place them in a saucepan. Cover with water by 1 inch, add the bay leaf and thyme. Bring to a boil, then decrease to a simmer, cooking for 15 minutes. Add the vegetables and continue to cook until the lentils are tender, splash in a dash of hot water if things look dry. (David’s recipe says 5 to 10 minutes, but mine took 20. Test regularly.)
Make the vinaigrette in a large bowl (use the one you’ll dress the salad in). Stir together the vinegar, mustard, oil, and shallot. Season lightly.
Drain the lentils thoroughly. While they’re still warm, stir them into the vinaigrette— they’ll soak up all the delicious dressing. Add the cilantro, nuts, and feta cheese. Taste and adjust seasonings.
By Ann | September 10, 2014
Driving from the airport through Madison, Wisconsin, I kept saying: “Look, it’s the Midwest! It’s the heartland! It’s Big Sky country!” I wasn’t talking to myself—though that seems to be happening more and more—but rather to my stalwart travel companion: Lucy, age one.
Though I like to think I’m a fairly seasoned traveler, I’m definitely not experienced at traveling with a baby. But when I was invited to present my book at UW Madison’s Maison Française, I decided to bring my daughter on a Mama-Lucy adventure. We stayed with friends who have twins of about the same age and explored Madison in two-hour chunks squeezed in between naps. Here are my suggestions:
Pack appropriate baby toys. Keys, wallet, passport—all suitable for a one year old, n’est-ce pas? :) Seriously, when I posted this photo on Instagram, someone left a comment saying that airports should offer a play area at the gate. I couldn’t agree more!
Be patient at the farmers market. On summer Saturdays, the Dane County Farmers’ Market circles the State Capitol building. Pedestrian traffic flows in one direction (clockwise) and it moves slowly, especially for this impatient New Yorker. This is the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the States and it’s worth a meander (you won’t be able to move much faster than that). My favorite purchases were bratwurst sausages, cheese curds (they squeak against your teeth—Lucy loved ‘em), and Yukon gold potatoes with such a rich, earthy flavor that I felt like I was eating real potatoes for the first time in my life. Runner up: Wisconsin corn, sweet and juicy.
Find a grill. It’s the best way to cook those local brats. The skin gets snappy, crisp and smoky, the interior juicy and succulent, salty with a peppery punch. We enjoyed them on buns, with grilled onions and a dab of mustard.
Play with cheese curds. After we sampled them and fed them to the babies, we still had the better part of a bag. I made a potato gratin with the rest, layering potato slices with grated curds and cream. It was heavenly. (And good for you! ;) Funnily enough, even when grated, melted and combined with starchy potatoes, the curds still squeak against your teeth, a sensation that’s not entirely unpleasant.
Meat up at Metcalfe’s. This family-owned supermarket chain features loads of local products including Neuske’s bacon and an entire aisle of hot dogs (photo above). Lucy’s favorite part was riding in the shopping cart (the very first time for my city girl :)
Find fellow Francophiles. UW Madison’s Maison Française—which hosted my book event—was so cozy and welcoming, I was tempted to curl up on the living room sofa and watch films of the Nouvelle Vague. Students sign a language pledge to live here, and all conversation takes place en français. But here’s the best part: On Wednesdays and Fridays, the dining room is open to the public for French conversation à table over lunch or dinner! (Seriously, if I lived in Madison, I would be a regular.)
Sunday (or any sunny day) is for raspberries. I’d never been berrying before, and found it amazingly satisfying, reaching between the thorny stems to pluck the softest, sweetest, most unblemished raspberries I’d ever seen. Every few minutes, a plump little hand crept into my pint box and helped itself. Sutter’s Ridge Farm also had U-pick apples, a couple of friendly goats, and a rather eclectic kitten shed.
Eat downtown. Madison has so many great restaurants, though I was limited to baby friendly territory. We enjoyed a lunch of grilled cheese and Mexican corn chowder at Graze (very kid friendly, in case you’re wondering :) Next time I want to try Marigold Kitchen. If you’re in the mood for drinks and porky bar snacks, I recommend the spiced nuts and candied bacon at Heritage Tavern.
Shop for cheese. Wisconsin produces so many different types of cheese—during my brief visit, I sampled Alsatian-style Muenster, brebis, chèvre, cheddar, and burrata—all locally made. The variety reminded of France, except it was better because Wisconsin cheesemakers aren’t limited by tradition—the sky’s the limit! Fromagination, in downtown Madison, is a wonderful place to shop for cheese, with knowledgeable staff who are generous with samples. Hook’s twelve-year cheddar was nutty and tangy. I had to buy a wedge to bring home.
(Photo of me and Lucy by Heather Willis Allen.)
By Ann | September 2, 2014
C’est la rentrée et je suis de retour!
This week, I’m so excited to travel to Madison, Wisconsin for a book event at the University of Wisconsin’s Maison Française! The event is free and open to the public (and there will be wine and cheese!). If you’re in Madison, I hope you’ll join us! I would love to meet you.
Here are the details:
When: Friday, September 5, 2014, 3pm
Where: UW-Madison French House (633 N. Frances St., Madison, WI)
What: Book talk and signing
Books will be for sale thanks to the University Book Store.
For more info visit the website of la Maison Française.
Stay tuned for an announcement about more fall events, in honor of the book’s paperback edition—it comes out on October 28!
By Ann | August 22, 2014
In May, I visited Prince Edward Island to research a travel story on Anne of Green Gables (which appears in this Sunday’s New York Times). I know, I say this every time, but this was one of my favorite pieces to report and write. As a lifelong fan of Anne-with-an-e, the entire experience was a joy. The photos that illustrate the article are stunning, but I thought I’d share a few snapshots from my travels with Anne Shirley…
The Dunelands trail (photo above), part of the Prince Edward Island National Park, edges a magnificent rock and sand shore. She doesn’t mention it in Anne of Green Gables, but Maud—as L.M. Montgomery was known—often walked here. “To my left extended the shining curve of the sandshore; on on my right were rugged rocks with little coves, where the waves swished on the pebbles,” she wrote in her journals. “I could have lingered there for hours and watched the sea with the gulls soaring over it.”
Green Gables looked so exactly as I’d pictured it, I almost burst into tears. I went through the house twice and on my second visit I was alone (it was lunchtime), just me and a couple of Parks Canada staff. I felt like I’d actually stepped into the pages of the book.
Here’s the Haunted Wood—and you can see the 18-hole golf course that surrounds it, too.
As I ventured further and further from Cavendish, everywhere I looked I caught glimpses of Maud’s island of “ruby, and emerald, and sapphire.”
My late May visit allowed me to see the island in its spring glory. “The young leaves are such a bright, tender green,” wrote Maud in her journals. “The grass is green and velvety, starred with hundreds of dandelions.”
“I don’t know what lies around the bend, but I’m going to believe that the best does,” said Anne, at the end of Anne of Green Gables. “I wonder how the road beyond goes—what there is of green glory and soft, checkered light and shadows—what new landscapes—what new beauties—what curves and hills and valleys further on.”
More reading about Lucy Maud Montgomery:
Mary Henley Rubio’s Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings, is one of the best biographies of an author I’ve read, meticulously researched, offering insights into Maud’s personality—and a shocking, controversial theory about her death.
Maud’s journal from 1889-1910 was a charming companion to my trip.
Of course, I reread Anne of Green Gables and found her as lovable as ever.
With recipes, crafts, and more, The Anne of Green Gables Treasury is a wonderful way to recreate Anne’s world (for kids—or anyone!). Co-author Carolyn Collins also has a website, Ingleside Impressions, filled with Anne info.
By Ann | August 1, 2014
It’s officially cucumber time and I’m taking the month off from blogging. Instead of fishing for fish, I’ll be fishing for words—I hope to use this time to make some serious progress on my new book.
As I’m not actually going anywhere, I’ll still be doing LOTS of cooking at home. If you’re curious about my kitchen, please stop by on Instagram :)
Enjoy the rest of the summer! See you in September!
(Lighthouse at French River, Prince Edward Island, Canada.)
By Ann | July 29, 2014
If you’re a regular reader, you probably know I’m fascinated by home cooking—not elaborate food, but rather the quick weeknight meals people throw together after a long day at work. Today I’m delighted to welcome Jane Grey Battle, age 10, who shares her fast, healthy—and award-winning!—recipe for Veggie Spaghetti with Alabama Gulf Shrimp.
Grey (as she’s called, despite the info in the links :) recently represented her home state of Alabama at the Kids’ State Dinner at the White House. She was one of 54 young chefs honored as winners of the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, a recipe contest linked to the first lady’s Let’s Move Campaign. Recipes had to include each of the four food groups: vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy—with fruits and vegetables composing about half of the plate. The contest received over 1,500 entries from around the country.
I’m thrilled to talk to Grey about her winning dish and afternoon at the White House!
On entering the contest:
My mom and dad encouraged me, because I love to try different foods. Our family cooks together a lot. We’ll all decide on a meal and get our own part or job. It’s very fun and the competition was sort of like that except I was creating the meal. Honestly, when we first sent the recipe, I didn’t really think I had a chance—it’s just one of those things you do for fun.
On creating her dish:
My dish began with a meal that we cook frequently—an Italian capellini dish with dried red pepper. As a family, we watch cooking shows. One of our favorites is called “Chopped.” I approached the new recipe like that—substituting healthy options for unhealthy, which is the reason we used spaghetti squash instead of pasta.
On the rigors of recipe testing—and tasting:
After cooking [the dish] seven or eight times we realized that we weren’t a hundred percent sure of the cooking times! So, we did it all over again, one last time. I pretended like I was “Rachael Grey” and talked like I was on TV, which helped as I wrote the final recipe down while my mom cooked it. I owe a lot to my family. They were right there beside me. My sister and I pretended we were judges on “Chopped” when we tasted the different versions of the recipe!
On learning the good news:
In May, we found out that the recipe was a finalist. Waiting was very nerve-wracking. I was at camp when my mom got the email about winning the trip to DC. My whole family knew before I did. Just as we were loading my camp gear in the car alongside two of my best friends, my sister showed me the letter. I squealed and hugged my friends. They were so excited with me, which makes for a really good friend. It was probably the best twenty seconds of my life. I jumped up and down and hugged everyone in sight.
On visiting the White House:
It was just so weird to be in the White House and be able to sit on the couch and to be treated as a guest. Michelle Obama spoke and President Obama made a surprise visit and spoke for a few minutes. I got to meet and be interviewed by the White House chef, Sam Kass (photo above). He’s awesome and really smart. We visited the White House garden. I saw Benjamin Franklin’s fig tree! The day went by like a blur.
On meeting the First Lady:
We all walked through a line where we got to meet and take our picture with Michelle Obama. She’s the tallest woman I’ve ever met!
On the best parts of the experience:
I met a girl named Abigail Cornwell from Ohio (photo above). We are pen pals now. Also, when we returned to Birmingham and got off the plane, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Crawford, was standing there. She is one of my favorite teachers and I thought that was the best ending I could ever have to the trip.
Veggie Spaghetti with Alabama Gulf Shrimp
Adapted from Jane Grey Battle
Note from Ann: I loved the bright, warm flavors of Grey’s dish, as well as her lightening-quick method for cooking the spaghetti squash. I have to admit, however, that I substituted fresh oregano because my grocery store was out of fresh basil! In the height of summer! (#foodcrimes) I also used smoked paprika instead of chiles de arbol. I can’t wait to try this again, as written.
1 large (or 2 small) spaghetti squash
1 onion, peeled and chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
4 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon sugar
Handful of fresh basil, cut into a chiffonade (or fresh thyme, or oregano)
24 large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 1/2 cups kale, destemmed and chopped
Pierce the squash with a fork in several spots. Microwave the squash on high for 15 minutes, in bursts of 5 minutes, or until the squash feels soft. Allow to cool for several minutes—it will be hot! Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Using a fork, scrape the strands of squash into a bowl. Season lightly with salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.
In a large sauté pan, warm 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until softened and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and sugar; season with salt. Cover with a lid and cook for 10 minutes. Decrease the heat to low, add the herbs and chiles and continue cooking for 8-10 minutes, until the sauce thickens slightly. Add the kale, increase the heat to medium, cover and cook for 5-7 minutes, until the kale has wilted. Stir in shrimp and cook until the shrimp are firm and pink, about 5-6 minutes.
Divide the spaghetti squash between four plates and spoon over the sauce and shrimp.
(Second photo by Jeff Elkins for Epicurious. Third and fourth photos from Brooke Battle.)
PS Listen to an interview with Grey on NPR!
By Ann | July 22, 2014
If I finish all my weekend cooking projects, I often say: “Hmm, maybe I’ll make a peach pie.” (Or a batch of financiers. A pot of black beans. A pint of ice cream. You get the picture.) To which my husband will say: “Please, NO, you’re doing too MUCH, you need to REST.” It’s become a household joke because while he does not think I’m a delicate flower, he does want to avoid a Sunday evening featuring a sink full of dishes, sticky counters, and an irritable wife with sore feet.
So last Sunday afternoon, when I suggested that I “whip up” a batch of homemade ricotta cheese, he looked at me like I was insane—especially since I had just finished ripping my hair out over a quiche that turned out raw in the middle, which I ended up finishing off in the microwave. (#keepingitreal, guys! :) But then he left unexpectedly for work, and I was left to dabble with my cheesecloth and lemons, bottles of milk from grass-fed cows, and Claudia Lucero’s delightful new book, One-Hour Cheese.
Claudia moved to Portland, Oregon in 2006, with a dream of owning a plot of land and growing her own vegetables. Pickling, preserving, and cheese-making soon followed—as did a business of DIY cheese kits, which she sells via her website, Urban Cheesecraft, and Williams Sonoma. In her wonderful book, she shares tips, recipes, and step-by-step photos for simple cheeses that can be made in one hour or less—fresh varieties like paneer, haloumi, or cottage cheese. “All of the cheesemaking techniques shared in this book are based on traditional methods,” she writes. “You will heat milk, add coagulant, drain, mill, salt, and press curds just like humans have done for thousands and thousands of years.”
Ricotta is one of the easiest cheeses to make. It starts with a pot of milk and cream, and a hit of acid, either lemon juice, or vinegar. (Admittedly, this is not technically ricotta, which is traditionally made with leftover whey, not fresh milk, but let’s not split hairs.) Heat the liquid and acid until coagulation occurs, drain the curds from the whey in fine cheesecloth, salt, and eat. C’est tout. Easy, right?
I did all these things, hovering over the pot as I took the temperature of the milk at regular intervals. I thought I saw curds forming, but when I drained the liquid through the cheesecloth, I found no curds at all. Just lots of expensive milk swirling down the drain.
Gloom. Frustration. Despair. Frantic googling. No real answers. The next day, I called Claudia to see if she could help. Here are her tips:
Don’t dump out the pot:
“You might be frustrated, and I don’t blame you,” she says. “Walk away for a while, but whatever you do, don’t dump out the results. Put the whole pot in the fridge for a day if you have to. Take a breather. Surprise results can almost always be saved and turned into something delicious.” (Too late for me, I had already dumped out the pot.)
Check the milk:
Make sure you’re not using ultra-pasteurized milk. “This form of milk has been heated at a higher temperature than pasteurized milk. All the good bacteria are killed along with the bad, and the milk’s protein and calcium have been weakened,” says Claudia. Though it CAN be used “in a pinch” for “loose, acid-coagulated cheese like Meyer Lemon Ricotta,” she doesn’t recommend it. Instead, “look everywhere on the jug to find UP, UHP, of Ultra-Pasteurized and then steer clear.”
Check your thermometer:
The milk needs to heat to 190ºF so “make sure your thermometer is accurate,” she says. “Fill a cup with ice and pour just enough water in to cover the ice. Dip the thermometer into the icy water for about 30 seconds. The temperature should read very close to freezing temperature (32ºF).” As I live in a magical land without home ice-makers (New York City), I employed a similar method, but in boiling water (212ºF).
Add more acid:
“If you use lemons, one of the things that happens with fresh citrus is that some are more acid than others. Squeeze an extra two tablespoons of lemon juice,” she suggests. “If the milk isn’t coagulating, mix in one tablespoon, very gently. It should take affect within one minute. If not, add another tablespoon.”
Use your cooking smarts:
Even if you’ve triple-checked your thermometer, don’t rely on tools alone—use your eyes and nose. “At 190 degrees, the milk is almost at boiling, so it should be foamy, with steam rising from the pot as well as little bubbles forming around the edge.”
Double up the cheesecloth:
“Why not go ahead and double it?” she says. “The finer the holes, the better! With 90-thread count cheesecloth, it’ll drain really slow, but catch all the curds.”
So. Armed with Claudia’s advice, I went to the grocery store and purchased new dairy products. Double-lined my colander. Checked the thermometer. Squeezed my extra lemons. I was ready to go.
Except, this second batch ALSO didn’t coagulate. I tried adding more acid. I used up all the lemon juice and in sheer desperation threw in a tablespoon of red wine vinegar. I lowered the heat; I raised the heat. I googled. I asked for advice on Facebook. I emailed Claudia. My husband came home to experience the full spectrum of my cooking emotions. I could barely talk to him, I was so wrapped up in the drama on the stove.
Finally, in utter frustration and disappointment, I turned off the heat and walked away. My husband washed the dishes as the pot of milk cooled on the stove. And guess what? Forty-five minutes later, he gave it a gentle stir and said, “It’s coagulating.” And it was! Like magic! It was easy-peasy from that point, folks—just a little draining, squeezing, and salting, and I felt like a cooking genius. Tra la la! This morning I woke up, ate fresh lemon ricotta on toast, and all was right with the world. Tonight I tackle homemade mozzarella! (Ha ha.)
Homemade lemon ricotta
Adapted from One-Hour Cheese by Claudia Lucero
Makes 12 ounces
Claudia uses Meyer lemon juice in her recipe, but I just used the ordinary kind. Even though I added the extra lemon juice and a rogue tablespoon of red wine vinegar, my ricotta tastes lovely, not sharp, but suffused with a fresh, bright flavor.
2 lemons (for 1/4 cup lemon juice + 2 tablespoons extra, if needed)
1 quart (4 cups) whole cow’s milk, not ultra-pasteurized
1 pint (2 cups) heavy cream
Cooking thermometer (I used a candy/frying thermometer)
Squeeze the lemons, strain the pulp, and measure out a 1/4 cup of juice (plus 2 extra tablespoons, if you think you’ll need them).
In a large pot, combine the milk, cream, and lemon juice. Heat over a medium flame. Watch the pot and monitor the heat, stirring every few minutes to prevent a skin from forming on the milk’s surface, and to prevent the milk from sticking on the bottom.
When small curls of steam begin to rise and the milk starts to look foamy, begin checking the milk temperature. Claudia says curds will form rapidly as the milk reaches the target temperature, but this didn’t happen for me. Never mind. When the temperature reaches 190ºF, turn off the heat. Allow the pot of milk to cool undisturbed so that the curds can separate from the whey—they need privacy! Claudia waits 10 minutes, but I’d suggest 30-45 minutes. (I think my lack of patience at this point was the problem on my first attempt.)
Meanwhile, double-line a colander with cheesecloth. Place a bowl under the colander to collect the whey. (Even though I ended up tossing my whey, collecting it first helped me see that it appeared clear and free of milk solids—that it was, in fact, whey.) Use a ladle to pour the curds and whey through the cloth.
Drain away the whey until the curds look like creamy, smooth mashed potatoes, about 15-20 minutes. Gather the four corners of the cheesecloth and gently squeeze the cheese. The ricotta will continue to dry out in the fridge, so I’d suggest leaving it slightly moister than you’d like. Add the salt and stir minimally for creamy ricotta. Enjoy immediately, or chill for a firmer texture.
Here’s some extra advice from my Facebook page, frantic web searches, and Claudia:
“It took a lot longer than my recipe said it would,” says Debbie. “The milk has to get to a certain temp and takes a while. Similar to making paneer,” added Pat.
Switch the order:
“I boil the milk first and then add acid after I turn off the heat. Try that!” says Priyanka. “[It's] so much better than anything you can buy at a store.”
Read up on the science:
Casein proteins, denatured whey, what?! This post from UCLA’s Science and Food blog (go Bruins!) takes each step of the recipe and offers a scientific explanation.
Experiment with different acids:
What’s the difference between lemon juice, vinegar, and buttermilk? What about draining for five minutes, 20 minutes, or two hours (and overnight)? Serious Eats tries all the methods, with great photographs to illustrate.
Enjoy it on everything:
“Try mixing it into risotto,” says Claudia. “Use it as a pizza topping. In lasagna. Experiment with half your batch and add herbs, cracked pepper, seeds, dried fruit…” And if you want a luxurious texture, “add a splash of cream just before serving.”
And for next time…
Reuse your cheesecloth:
“I absolutely wash and save the cloth,” says Claudia. “Rinse it in cold water right away so the curds come off. Let it air dry and then I throw it into the bin with my kitchen towels until I have a full load—I dry it in the dryer, too. You can also wash by hand with hot water and soap and just hang it to dry. If it shrinks up, just wet it before lining your colander and it should stretch beautifully.”
By Ann | July 15, 2014
Last week, I went to Chinatown for the first time in years and when I turned onto Mott Street, I barely recognized it. There were single-source coffee shops and brunch-menu bistros. Nail salons. Vintage clothing boutiques. A few blocks further, I spotted some familiar sights: bins of dried shrimp and mushrooms spilling onto the street, tanks of fresh crabs, a couple of old ladies haggling over a pile of dragon eye fruit. And also tourists snapping photos of the local color? Dear Chinatown, please don’t turn into the next Lower East Side. Xie xie.
I went to Chinatown because I’d decided to cook up some jiachangcai, or homestyle Chinese food. Usually when I crave Chinese food, I eat out because Chinese dinners are multi-dish kinds of meals and lately I’ve been a one-pot kind of cook. But I’d been craving a dish SO simple, SO homestyle I’d never seen it on the menu outside of China: stir-fried tomatoes and scrambled eggs.
This most humble of dishes uses only a few ingredients: tomatoes and eggs. Scallions and ginger. Salt and sugar. Maybe if you’re feeling fancy, minced garlic and a drizzle of sesame oil. It’s tangy, sweet, and savory, with a sticky sauce that sinks into a bowl of rice creating hot, satisfying, delicious mouthfuls. It’s peasant food. Comfort food. Bachelor food. Akin to a plain plate of spaghetti and tomato sauce, most Chinese people can cook it without a recipe—and I’d wager that a large percentage of them have eaten so much of it, they hope to never see it again.
I discovered this dish while living in Beijing and working at an expat magazine. (Curiously, despite a childhood of Chinese food, I never ate this growing up.) My colleagues and I enjoyed daily lunches at cheap neighborhood dives, feasting on an array of salty, spicy dishes. The memory of that food—fresh from the wok, glistening with oil—still makes my mouth water. Xihongzhi chao jidan—as this dish is called in Mandarin—was part of the daily parade, one of my favorites.
But back to my trip to Chinatown. I didn’t need any special ingredients to cook this dish and I certainly didn’t need to make a special trip to the Chinese supermarket. But as I said, Chinese food is at its best a multi-dish affair and if you’re making one dish, you might as well make two. I decided that this Sichuanese celery beef would round out the meal, which meant hunting down a jar of fermented-bean-and-chili-paste called la doubanjiang. I found it at New York Mart, a newish supermarket that’s like a wonderland of Asian food, where I also picked up a five-pound sack of rice, two mangos, and a bottle of Chinkiang vinegar. And now my pantry is so well stocked, I can throw away the take-out menus! (Just kidding.)
Chinese stir-fried tomatoes and scrambled eggs
Serves two as a main dish with rice, or four as part of a meal with other dishes
5 large eggs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
3 scallions, white parts only, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
5 medium tomatoes, cut into a large dice
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
Beat the eggs until smooth. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add half the scallion, stirring until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the eggs and scramble them, forming large curds. Remove the cooked eggs into a bowl. Wipe out the skillet.
Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in the skillet over medium-high heat. Add the remaining scallion, ginger, and garlic, stirring until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and stir to combine. Sprinkle over the sugar and salt. Cook until the tomatoes have softened and started to release their juices—they should be soft, but not completely disintegrated into a sauce. Return the eggs to the skillet and heat through, stirring gently once or twice to combine. Add the sesame oil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve with white rice.
PS Thanks to my lovely friend Lee Ambrozy for help with this recipe.
PPS New York Mart
128 Mott Street
New York, NY 10013
PPPS I’ve finally found a great Chinese restaurant in New York City. It’s called Café China and I’ve eaten there twice and am officially in love with the mapo tofu, shredded pork (yuxiang rousi), and Sichuan spicy fried chicken (Chongqing lazi ji)… I’m hungry just typing this.
13 E. 37th Street
New York, NY 10016
By Ann | July 8, 2014
As I type this, a storm is turning the sky ash grey and wild, with bursts of thunder echoing across the canyons of midtown Manhattan, and flashes of lightening flickering along the East River like a dying fluorescent bulb. Rain is beading on the windows, sheeting across the tiled floor of the neighbor’s roof deck. My husband is at a work event; the baby is asleep in her crib. An hour ago, a mosquito landed on the tender flesh of her upper arm and then flitted away before I could decide whether or not to try to kill it. Black rage filled my heart.
It is summer, folks—summer in the big city—and our early June vacation means we’re here for the steamy duration. It’s the season I dislike the most for its cloying humidity; it’s the season I love with all my heart for its produce. The other day I bought a bunch of kale the size of a small sheep for two dollars. There are melons as sweet as candy, local blueberries in the grocery store, and ears of corn still to anticipate. And then there are the courgettes.
I ate almost everything as a kid, but courgettes (zucchini, squash—call them what you will) were my bête noir. They tasted like earwax to me (not that I have firsthand knowledge of the flavor of earwax), much like cooked carrots taste soapy, and grape jam carries a whiff of the dental office. Even as an adult, I like courgettes only in dishes where I can’t really taste them—soupe au pistou, for example, or this grilled recipe that chars the hell out of ‘em, or zucchini bread with chocolate chips, which is an idea I can really get behind.
This recipe for courgette pancakes comes from The Barefoot Contessa At Home (which I think is my favorite of her books) and it definitely falls into the category of “hidden vegetables.” If you’re experiencing a zucchini glut (though I think that comes later in the season, right?) it’s a great way to use up a stray pound or two. I’ve tried a few zucchini pancake recipes, and this one is the best—there’s no tedious squeezing of excess liquid, just grate and go. The pancakes turn out tender, light, and fluffy, with no weird gumminess in the center.
The other great news about this recipe is that kids like it, too—if my anecdotal evidence of one 10-month-old (!) baby girl bears any weight. When I gave her these savory pancakes, she ate a short stack—the first food I’ve cooked for her that she really, truly loved.
Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa at Home by Ina Garten
3/4 lb zucchini (aka courgette, about 2 medium)
2 tablespoons grated onion
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
6-8 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt (optional, depending on how salty you like your food)
Freshly ground pepper
Olive oil for frying
Grate the courgette into a mixing bowl using the large holes of a box grater. Gently stir in the onion and eggs—I find that the more I work the mixture, the more unwanted liquid is released from the courgettes, so be delicate. Stir in 6 tablespoons of flour, the baking powder, salt (if using), pepper, and cheese. If, at any point, the batter becomes too thin from the liquid released by the courgettes, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time.
Heat a 10- to 12-inch skillet over medium heat and warm 1/2 tablespoon oil. When the oil is hot, lower the heat to medium, and drop spoonfuls of batter into the skillet. Cook the pancakes until golden brown—about 2-3 minutes on each side. Repeat with the remaining batter.
And, just for fun, here’s midtown Manhattan after the storm :)
By Ann | June 30, 2014
When I packed my bags to research an article on Prince Edward Island last month, I had two things on my mind. 1) Anne of Green Gables (more on this soon), and 2) Oysters. Harvested from the deep, moody waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the island’s Malpeque variety has been famous for centuries—even Queen Victoria was a fan, importing barrels to England—prized for its delicate flavor and clean, sweet finish. Interestingly, the island’s oysters have also been fished in the same way for centuries—brought up by long-handled tongs that are powered by human strength alone. I was thrilled to learn more about the island’s native oyster from Phyllis Carr, who owns Carr’s Shellfish, a local seafood purveyor, with her husband, Robert. And the next day, on a bright, clear morning, I visited Carr’s oyster beds with fisherman Philip Buote—and attempted a bit oyster fishing myself.
On the Malpeque oyster:
Though the northwestern end of the island is called Malpeque, “all oysters found on PEI are considered the Malpeque variety,” says Phyllis. Oysters start out as spat, tiny shellfish about the size of a quarter that attach to a solid surface, like a larger oyster. “It’s illegal to bring in spat with mature oysters. They have to be completely cleaned off on the boat and put right back into the sea,” says Philip. It takes four to seven years for an oyster to reach maturity—that’s about three inches long. “Oysters like a hard bottom surface,” says Phyllis. “But the bigger they get, the more room they need to grow. The best oysters grow slowly, without crowding.” Malpeques are sold in three sizes: small choice, large choice, and extra-large choice.
On wild oyster fishery:
The island’s oysters are fished from the wild, using a 15-foot dory and a pair of long-handled oyster tongs that end in rake-like teeth. The fisherman leans over the side of the boat and drops the tongs into the water, closing them at the bottom of the bed to capture a small quantity oysters mixed with mud and seaweed. He then drags the closed tongs up through the water and deposits the cache on the prow of the boat. “Oyster tongs are the only legal way to fish oysters on public water in PEI,” says Phyllis. It’s “very labor intensive,” slow, and painstaking work—each load collects only a few oysters—requiring strength and agility. “A public fisherman spends eight, ten hours out on the water every day, dredging, sorting, dredging.” says Philip.
In case this is all hopelessly confusing, this video explains it better:
On oyster bed politics:
Prince Edward Island’s landscape is defined by the gulf—the water not only surrounds the land, it also reaches into it in narrow inlets and ponds, creating clean, cold pools that oysters love. Many of these areas are considered “public water,” says Phyllis, and fishing them “is strictly governed, requiring a fish-specific license,” which is limited, expensive, and hard to obtain. The island also has oyster beds—called “leases”—which are bodies of water rented from the federal government. Carr’s maintains five leases. They buy oysters from fisherman on the public water, and transfer the shellfish to their beds at Stanley Bridge, where they grow plump and clean.
On working the leases:
During the summer, Philip heads out in the dory once or twice a day to fish the leases, and turn over the beds. “In the warmer months, the leases need to be worked everyday to maintain them,” says Phyllis. Winter brings a dormant period. “We don’t work the leases then,” she says. “Everything freezes over from December to March,and when the water gets very cold, the oysters lock their shells and stay closed.”
On the best time to eat oysters:
Though enjoying shellfish only in months with an “r” is “kind of a myth,” says Phyllis, she thinks the “fattest, best quality oysters” are found in October, November, and December. “Oysters hibernate—like bears,” she says. “They fatten up during the warmer months, and hibernate during the winter.” In March and April, “they’re coming off their winter sleep so they’re getting thin and weak, waiting for the warm water to feed.” By autumn, they’re plump and delicious—just in time for the holiday season.
Just for fun, here’s what happened when I tried oyster fishing:
Did I catch anything?
Me and “my haul.” ;)
Back inside, Philip shucked two fresh oysters for me and I ate them right away, straight from the sea. They were briny and delicate, the ocean-temperature flesh sweeter and warmer than oysters served on a bed of ice. Fishing and eating them was one of the best moments of my life.
(Photos of me snapped by Philip Buote.)