Tag Archives: recipes

MONTREAL GAZETTE: PURITY IN A DISH

I recently wrote about our epic and magical trip to Provence for the Montreal Gazette. I loved reminiscing about all of our gorgeous adventures in the countryside. I also came to the worthwhile realization that the best part of the trip wasn’t our time at fancy restaurants or hotels, but the handful of days when we rented a tiny apartment overlooking the ocean and cooked all of our own meals from vegetables I bought at the market. (I not-so-secretly want to live in Sanary-sur-mer forever).

You can read the full story here. And I’ll be posting photos from our trip to France for the rest of the week!

HOW TO COOK MUSSELS LIKE A PRO

[An excerpt from my latest column for Offerings, on our trip to Provence and eating mussels with Alain Pascal, and making them, again, at home...]

The French have mastered what has taken me years to accept: the most wonderful food has actually been manipulated very little. (Think steamed snow crab, or a radish tartine). The ingredients are already the best they’re ever going to be, and all a smart chef does is nudge it into its final stages of bliss.

An example: My first night in Provence, I attended a dinner at the home of a winemaker living in the Bandol region. As the night went on, we were plied with more and more Mediterranean treasures: cool glasses of copper-colored rosé, half-stale baguettes smeared with almond-mint pesto and tapenade, slow-roasted tomatoes infused with parsley and garlic, grilled fluke drowning in local olive oil. It was extremely simple — country food, the winemaker would have insisted — but executed with the kind of passion and elegance I have only found in people truly in love with eating.

That evening, I ate my first Provencal mussel, plucked from a wide, shallow iron pan which rested directly on an outdoor fire.  They were the most complex, rich-tasting mussels I’ve ever had, but the ingredient list was surprisingly short: the freshly-harvested bivalves, scrubbed clean, a thick paste of garlic, a generous amount of olive oil, and a few branches of rosemary. As the mussels heated over the fire, they released their briny liquid within, flooding the pan with greyish ocean water. We lifted mussels out of the pan with our fingers, pinching out the orange flesh, and tossing the black shell onto the glowing embers of the fire as if it were our personal trash can.

Of course, you don’t need to have an outdoor fireplace to revel in a properly cooked, plump mussel. Unlike most seafood, mussels are crazy cheap and extremely plentiful when in season, so you can serve gigantic amounts of them for an impressive effect. They’re also one of the most environmentally sound types of fish or shellfish around, and they’re super easy to cook. So yeah, this cheap bivalve is pretty amazing.

French cooks like to layer mussels into tarts, bake them into omelets, or cream them into soups. But when I’m cooking for a big group of friends, the easiest way to get maximum impact is to steam mussels gently into submission, and serve them alongside a no-frills starch, like garlic bread, roasted potato wedges, or pasta (either go tiny, like orzo or fregola, or go long and skinny, like spaghetti). Piled high into individual bowls, steamed mussels are spectacular main course, and cost a fraction of its pricier ocean pals.

[Recipe notes: As with most shellfish, mussels must be alive up until the moment of cooking; they become quite unpalatable once dead. Always cook them the same day you buy them. When going through the shells, discard any that are not shut tightly. And after cooking mussels, be sure to toss any mussels which haven’t opened completely during the steaming process.]

Provençal Steamed Mussels

(Serves 4)

5 pounds of mussels

2-3 tablespoons good olive oil

2-3 tablespoons salted butter

10-12 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

2 shallots, minced finely

3-4 branches rosemary, left intact

½ cup rosé wine (only buy something as good as you would drink in a glass)

¼ cup mixed fresh herbs (use a combination of basil, tarragon, flat-leaf parsley, chives, or whatever is in season)

Salt and pepper, to taste

Lemon wedges, to serve

1-2 tablespoons Pastis, optional

—Rinse and thoroughly scrub mussels in three changes of water to remove “the beard,” barnacles, and all sand and grit. Set aside.

—In a a deep, stainless steel pot, heat olive oil and butter over medium-low heat. Once shimmering, add shallots and garlic, and turn the heat down to low. Stir until lightly golden, about five minutes. (If using Pastis, add to the aromatics and cook until reduced, about 30 seconds.)

—Add the mussels (depending on the size of your pot, you may have to do this in two batches). Add rosemary branches, a few hefty glugs of wine, and shake pot vigorously.

—Place lid tightly on pot and let mussels steam. As soon as they have opened (about five minutes), they are finished cooking.

—Finish with a few pinches of salt, a grind of pepper, and a dramatic toss of fresh herbs.

—Ladle mussels and its attendant liquid into shallow bowls. Serve immediately with crusty, fresh bread and lemon wedges.

A FOND FAREWELL

[Photo by Marie-France Coallier]

After 10 days of blogging, a week’s worth of recipe testing, and a million interviews later, my Montréal en lumière coverage for the Montreal Gazette is finally over!

My frenzy of reporting ended with this nice article featuring chef-contributed recipes. I have always been a little intimidated by chef-written recipes (so many steps! so many small parts! so many coulis!), and these are no joke. With the exception of Seattle chef Ethan Stowell’s kale and pancetta-stuffed roast quail (which I made for a dinner party the other night — huge hit!), these recipes are pretty advanced. (The last recipe, contributed by Belgian chef Alex Malaise requires egg scissors, gelatin leaf, whipped-cream dispenser, and nitrous oxide cartridges! Hahahahaah-no). But still, it’s really amazing to see how a chef’s mind works, how they conceive of “steps” in a recipe, how a dish goes from empty plate to a work of art. Even if you wouldn’t make these recipes for yourself, they’re fascinating to read — a peek into the mind of some of the world’s most interesting chefs.

Read the full story here.

Richard Olney’s Fresh Peas + Lettuce

Most people recoil at the thought of cooking lettuce, but I happen to love the mild flavor and slippery texture of lettuce wilted into soups, stews, or into rice. So you can imagine that we were particularly pleased to come upon this recipe of fresh spring peas with lettuce from Richard Olney’s inestimable volume The French Menu Cookbook.

Freshly shelled peas are massaged with soft butter, salt, and pepper, and spooned gently into a pot lined with slips of torn Bibb lettuce. The peas steam in the water droplets still clinging to the lettuce, and are bathed in a buttery, thyme-scented broth. What’s presented here is my casual adaptation of Olney’s creation, and what I love most is that this simple recipe produces the most unique results - tender summer peas infused with the flavors of butter, thyme, and Bibb lettuce.

Isn’t shelling peas strangely soothing? I actually love it.

The sensation of plucking out those tiny peas is similar to popping zits. So, so satisfying.

Line your pot with lettuce leaves. See those water droplets? Essential for steaming, so don’t be too fastidious about drying the lettuce.

Stuff that bundle of thyme into the lettuce core.

The core gets placed into the middle of the pot, and the butter-rubbed peas are spooned on top of the lettuce. Don’t you already want to eat it?

The rest of the lettuce leaves are layered over the peas, nice and cozy.

After 45 minutes, this is what you get. A bowl of silky, buttery peas, steamed in the essence of lettuce and thyme.

We savored every bite. Make this immediately!

Fresh spring peas in lettuce

(Note: Because this recipe is so simple, ingredients of the highest quality are of paramount importance. Don’t even think about replacing freshly shelled peas with its frozen brethren! Also, Olney recommends using an enameled cast-iron pot with a very snug lid. We used our beloved Le Creuset number. And finally, don’t discard the cooked lettuce afterward! We used ours to flavor a basic vegetable stock. I also snuck a couple of cold bites of lettuce with some steak the next night.)

2 cups freshly shelled peas

1/2 head Bibb lettuce, washed and torn into big pieces

small bundle of fresh twine, tied together with string

1/2 stick butter, room temperature

salt + pepper

1. In a cast-iron pot, line the bottom and sides of pan with torn sheets of Bibb lettuce, overlapping the pieces in a fan. 

2. Gently pry open the core of the lettuce head and place the bundle of thyme within.

3. Shell peas and set aside. (Olney here is particularly fussy about finding small peas of identical size and shape, insisting that the larger specimens are too starchy for this delicate dish. I say, screw it. It was still delicious.)

4. In a small dish, mash butter with generous amounts of salt and pepper, forming a smooth paste.

5. Gently rub salted butter into the peas, and spoon into the lettuce-lined pot.

6. Place final layer of lettuce leaves snugly over the peas, as if tucking them into bed. Really lay them on!

7. Over high heat, saute lettuce and peas for one minute, just to get the pot warm.

8. Turn the burn to the lowest possible setting and gently simmer for 45 minutes. That’s right, forty-five minutes. I realize that this sounds like a ludicrous amount of time, but I promise that it’s just the right length to unleash some serious magic.

9. 20 minutes into the steam, gently open pan to check on peas, and give a nice shake. There should be plenty of liquid in there.

10. After another 20 minutes, open and carefully spoon peas into bowl, and discard (or save for future use) the lettuce and thyme. Serve immediately with a glass of white Burgundy.

MORE EQUATIONS

Scallops + coral + parsley oil + garlic // heaven

Farfalle + brown lentils + minced carrot, red onion, garlic, parsley, bell pepper + lemon + splash of pasta water // (Big) 20 minute lunch

Beef tenderloin + peppers + onions + avocado + refried beans + lime over all + crackling pita // 20 minute TV dinner (hockey of course)

Beef stock + tomato paste + lentils + chipotles in adobo + potatoes + zucchini + cilantro // A very spicy, smoky soup

Fregola + fresh favas + mint + anchovy + capers (they are the same size exactly as fregola! Such a satisfying mouthfeel) + hot peppers + crispy artichokes + scallions // Sticky, chewy pasta (the best ever)

Cubed potatoes + shallot + lard + rosemary + smoked paprika // A quick snack that turned into lunch. (I always fry parboiled potatoes in a cast-iron skillet; the  crust is unbeatable, and the bits of shallot get super-crispy and charred).

DRIVING BY INSTINCT

A lot of people ask me what recipes I use, or how I decide what to make, before I post it here on Popcorn Plays. The truth is, I don’t use recipes anymore.

I used to cook exclusively using recipes, slavishly following every step, down to the amount of oil or time spent in the pan. Most of the time, what I cooked tasted pretty amazing. I was still in college, and it was pretty unusual for broke students to be hosting elaborate dinner parties with sundried tomato bruschetta and homemade walnut pesto and cold peanut noodles, even though all of that stuff seems painfully easy to me now. People seemed to admire it then, and I thought I was pretty good at what I did. I tried “grown-up meals” like seared Filet Mignon and lime-soaked Pad Thai. I baked cookies, grilled pizza, and sauteed salmon. I felt like a chef. I felt pretty great.

[Penne with diced tomatoes, red onion, parsley, garlic and red pepper flakes; cold lentil salad with mint, beets, lemon juice and honey]

Back when I had cable television, I was hooked on the Food Network. I LOVED cooking shows (I kind of still do), and my mom would buy me cookbooks by all of the famous ‘celebrity chefs’: Nigella Lawson, Ina Garten (still adore her), Giada De Laurentiis, Ellie Krieger (woo, Cornell alum!), even Rachael Ray. I would google things on Chowhound or Epicurious like “roasted potatoes” because I wanted to be sure to do it “the right way.” I could barely make couscous without double checking the water-to-grain ratios like a complete OCD-addled freak. It had to be perfect. I would copy recipes from the books onto tiny yellow post-its, and keep them stashed in a drawer in my kitchen and refer to them when I was ready to cook. This was especially important for things that really intimidated me, like soups and braises and weird sauces.

But after a while, I used recipes less and less, until I stopped entirely. I can’t even remember the last time I replicated a recipe exactly. (Actually — I can! It was for Ina’s indescribably perfect roast chicken. But then again, she’s perfect). It’s just not satisfying to me anymore. Even though a blogger’s recipe or a memorable meal at a restaurant often will serve as valuable inspiration, copying one is almost like plagiarism: It feels stilted and wrong and not me.

[Local greens with half moons of carrots and manchego and pickled beets, dressed with my homemade champagne vinaigrette; Moroccan chickpea and lamb stew with carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, golden raisins and a million spices and golden pats of butter; couscous with lemon zest, toasted pinenuts, cilantro and shaved parmesan]

Don’t get me wrong — I’m still addicted to reading recipes. (And if I had a television, in a perfect world, it would always be tuned to the serene vibes of Barefoot Contessa). I spend far too many hours every week poring over my favorite food blogs (of which there are many) or drooling at the food porn on Tastespotting or Foodgawker. The only magazines I still subscribe to are food magazines (RIP Gourmet). I impulsively buy esoteric used cookbooks at thrift stores and Powell’s and spend mornings and evenings reading them like some people enjoy novels or tabloids. I remember once trying to explain to a friend how soothing it was to read lists of things — ingredients, amounts, steps, process — and got a couple of blank stares and condescending pats on the back. I like to think that all of that information seeps into my brain like osmosis, just waiting patiently until I need to activate it. POW! Perfect bechamel sauce.

But at this point, for me, it’s just information. The only thing that dictates what I cook? Whatever it is that I happen to be craving in my brain, and whatever it is that’s available when I happen to be at the grocery store (or Farmer’s Market, or vegetable stand, or you get the idea). That kind of freedom? Exhilarating.

[Tragic potato 'latke' disaster; leftover lentils with chopped spinach and nutmeg; hearts of romaine salad with cubed beets and rice vinegar with oil]

I feel inspiration soaking into my soul from absolutely everywhere — from the blushed silk of the roses on the sidewalk to the medallions of raw radishes at a restaurant to the tang of harissa from a soup to the mention of wild mushrooms by a friend during a phone conversation. Often, what I envision myself to make before I set out to cook is very different from the final product. Sometimes, what I end up with on my plate is surprisingly, happily better than what I thought was going to happen (usually butter is involved). And occasionally, there are epic dinner disasters (the most notable instances of the last two weeks involve the gummy latkes pictured above and undercooked falafel. They were, to put it kindly, not pretty. But maybe I needed some friendly guidance for what were, I realize now, both deep-frying recipes — something with which I am a true novice. Oh well). But that kind of uncertainty — the mystery, the ambiguity, the guesswork, and the infinite unknowability — is also a kind of intoxication.

Over the last 5 years, I realized that the best cooks — like Sasha has mentioned many times, and has herself, in spades — have the finest instincts, the most sharply honed intuition. What to throw in the pot at the last second. Chopping without measuring. Salting without tasting. Intuitively matching ingredients without knowing the outcome. Peering into the skillet, and understanding the bubbling language below. Someone I know recently paired fresh white trout with a sauce of butter, bone marrow, and Bordeaux. He said it was astonishingly good. But I’m also not surprised.

That same person also helped me figure something else out: that sometimes the best cooking is also the most minimalist, and that the key to a memorable dish is sourcing the very best ingredients you can find. We’ve all had good buerre blanc, for example — the best fish, the freshest lemons, expensive white wine, shallots and salted butter — at a restaurant, but it’s just as easy at home. It’s basic assembly. It really was a breakthrough moment for me, the idea that a hands-off approach would do the most honor to the final dish.

I love cooking — and its potential for freewheeling, decadent creation — more than almost anything else in the world. The act of preparation, the ritual of consumption, the gesture of sharing something precious and beautiful with people you care about, are powerful feelings. Cooking is something with which I happen to take a great deal of pride and thought. Not to toot my own horn, but feeling like my instincts — perhaps my culinary intuition — have coalesced to a point where I can imagine something in my head (mint-spiked purple fingerling potatoes, braised pork shank in red wine, smoked paprika and cinnamon) and then somehow, without a recipe, without any other guidance than my hands and my nose, result in something unquestionably delicious is something that I feel very proud about. I think my food is very humble (see also: beet addiction), but I also think it tastes really good.

I have miles to go, still — eggs terrify me, for one; I hate baking with very few exceptions, for deuce — but that’s equally exciting, also. To imagine the journey, the transformative quality of food, the eternal quest, and the boundless, infinite love.

seven hundred little records, all rock, rhythm and jazz

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ah, summer. there are many things i love about you, but grilling is one of the best. a quick trip to wegman’s resulted in the spontaneous purchase of fresh salmon fillets, a handful of zucchini & heirloom tomatoes, two overripe avocados on sale, and a french whole wheat batard.

after a quick marinade made of limes, garlic, cilantro, red pepper flakes and olive oil, the salmon was ready for the grill (the tempeh got the same marinade treatment, too). i cooked mine about 8 minutes each side on moderate heat. the grill i used was small (and unreliable), and therefore my advice is no good for you. the zucchini was sliced lengthwise and was doused with the juice of a lemon, salt, pepper, cumin and a bit of olive oil. after throwing those on the grill, i mopped up the leftover juices with the bread, and threw that on the grill, too. the lemon gave the bread a nice tang.

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see how small the grill was? i had to cook in batches, which meant that i had eaten nearly half the plate of zucchini before the salmon was done. whoops.

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oh yeah! i made guacamole, too. from scratch, because that’s the ONLY way to enjoy guacamole. despite the slight overripeness of the avocados, this turned out spectacularly. 2 avocados + the juice of 1 lime + 1/2 finely diced red onion + red pepper flakes + 1/2 cup packed finely minced cilantro = pure, unadulterated heaven. i like my guac chunky, so all this really needed was some light mashing & mixed with a regular ol’ fork. if you like a smoother consistency, throw it in the food processor and pulse.

i could eat this stuff with a spoon, straight-up, somewhat like my gluttonous peanut butter jar tactics. the guac was excellent on the salmon, but it’s nice to let it shine on its own with some unsalted blue corn tortilla chips.

have a lovely friday, all! xo

smile around the face

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this simple summer meal had four parts, each of which shone in their own unique way. it is partly cobbled together ingredients from my fridge and partly farmers market purchases, and all of it was extremely fresh, healthy and delicious. each dish was equally easy to make, as the intensity and freshness of the ingredients  necessitated minimal cooking time.

oh, and: eating pork chops fresh off of the grill is my new raison d’être.

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the first stages of grilling (plus shot of  my new beloved rachel comey sandals, natch). you can really see how verdant the (slightly bastardized) chimichurri sauce is. it was so simple to make: 3 cups of cilantro, packed (including stems) + 3 cloves garlic + the juice of 3 limes + salt + black pepper + cayenne pepper. gave that a few pulses and drizzed in about 3 tsp good olive oil until the sauce formed. the milky-green marinade had a consistency of a semi-runny pesto and smelled FANTASTIC. don’t be put off by how acidic the marinade tastes raw. that’s how you know you did it right. the chimichurri flavors really mellow out on the grill, and the pork can stand up to the acids like the trooper it is.

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when the asparagus came off of the grill, the butter and natural sugar in the stalks had caramelized to delicious effect. after only a few minutes, the char from the grill created unspeakably succulent flavor & they weren’t overdone at all. salt and black pepper was all these little guys needed. we chomped on these as an appetizer while the rest of the food finished.

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check out those (haphazardly placed) grill marks! this little grill gets realllllly hot so everything was cooked entirely on the perimeters of the bbq. these were probably on the grill for 15-18 minutes, or until the internal registers at about 160 degrees.

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i remembered to take a photo of my plate when i was halfway done eating, oops. i just have to stress how unbelievably juicy the chops stay. pork chops have a tendency to dry out in the oven or on your skillet, but this created an awesomely juicy center and crispy, charred crust. highly recommended.

as for the swiss chard, i sliced it into supple ribbons and threw it in a very hot iron skillet with 1 red onion, diced. i left the ribs of the chard in – their shockingly magenta color and crunchy texture make them just as appealing as their leafy counterparts. after a few minutes of high heat stirring, i dumped in about 2 heaping tbsps of apple cider vinegar, a generous pinch of red pepper flakes, and lots of freshly cracked salt and pepper. i let it cook down (another 5 minutes or so) and then stirred in 3 cloves of finely chopped garlic. so healthy it hurts.

the pesto was homemade from garden trimmings and frozen over the winter. after a simply dethawing, we threw in 1 lb of rotini pasta and combined when done.

and that’s it! probably the most perfect summer dinner, ever — especially when enjoyed with a chilled, very good bottle of chardonnay from penguin bay from an earlier weekend excursion. eaten on a blanket in the grass outside admist the catepillars and 2 very energetic retrievers made for a pleasant evening indeed.