Foodie Tuesday: Back on my feet

Weeks of colds and flus, along with lots of travel, had left me feeling out of sorts and in need of sustenance in the early days of February. Food just wasn’t very appealing when I was so under the weather. As for eating while on tour (well, with Duchess, anyway), it’s a seemingly never-ending succession of Bugles eaten by the fistful.*

All this to say, I missed the kitchen. I craved the elemental comfort of preparing a dish that was nourishing to both body and soul, but neither my energy level nor my stomach were up to making—or eating—anything too elaborate or adventurous. I needed to ease back into things.

The dish that put me back on my feet couldn’t be simpler or more delicious. I remembered a recipe in a back issue of Bon Appétit for whole roasted cauliflower with whipped goat cheese (!) that called for relatively few ingredients and was easy to prepare. It did not disappoint.

As New Orleans-based chef Alon Shaya instructed, I poached a whole cauliflower in a fragrant broth** of water, white wine, lemon, and bay leaf, then oven-roasted the cauliflower until burnished and tender. While the cauliflower roasted, I blitzed the goat cheese, feta, and cream cheese in the food processor. Ta-da! Dinner was served, and it couldn’t have been simpler.

Ease of preparation is a plus, but a dish worth its salt, so to speak, has to be delicious as well. Happily, the monochrome palette of the pale cauliflower and the white goat cheese was soothing rather than boring. The whipped feta and goat cheese made a tangy counterpoint to the cauliflower’s mellowness, and a baby spinach salad, dressed with a lightly sweet vinaigrette, was the perfect accompaniment.

This recipe is a perfect in-between-seasons dish: it’s hearty and rib-sticking, but not heavy. The prep and cooking involve enough kitchen puttering to feel festive, but poaching and roasting a whole cauliflower is an utterly stress-free cooking experience.

One can easily feel off-kilter and (at the risk of sounding a bit melodramatic) a bit vulnerable as we tiptoe gingerly into this tentative springtime. As the song goes, “spring can really hang you up the most.”  But take heart! Spiritual ballast awaits us in the kitchen.

Alon Shaya’s Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Whipped Goat Cheese (from Bon Appétit)

Ingredients

Roasted cauliflower

  • 2 1/2 cups dry white wine
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 head of cauliflower, leaves removed

Whipped goat cheese and assembly

  • 4 ounces fresh goat cheese
  • 3 ounces cream cheese
  • 3 ounces feta
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil plus more for serving
  • Coarse sea salt (for serving)

Roasted cauliflower:

Preheat oven to 475°. Bring wine, oil, kosher salt, juice, butter, sugar, bay leaf, and 8 cups water to a boil in a large pot. Add cauliflower, reduce heat, and simmer, turning occasionally, until a knife easily inserts into center, 15-20 minutes.

Using 2 slotted spoons or a mesh spider, transfer cauliflower to a rimmed baking sheet, draining well. Roast, rotating sheet halfway through, until brown all over, 30-40 minutes.

Cauliflower-poaching-liquid-turned-soup. Repurposing leftovers is so satisfying. It’s the little things, right?

Whipped goat cheese and assembly:

While cauliflower is roasting, blend goat cheese, cream cheese, feta, cream, and 2 tablespoons oil in a food processor until smooth; season with sea salt. Transfer whipped goat cheese to a serving bowl and drizzle with oil.

Transfer cauliflower to a plate. Drizzle with oil; sprinkle with sea salt. Serve with whipped goat cheese.

*Not that there’s anything wrong with Bugles eaten by the fistful. Bugles, if you’re reading, we would LOVE a corporate sponsorship. You are the finest snack around.

**As an added bonus, the leftover poaching liquid makes a lovely base for a soup. I opted for a pear/cauliflower soup with a drizzle of brown butter and almonds, an homage to an East Village restaurant I miss.

Foodie Tuesday: Spring Green

IMG_2447After a long, dark winter, the lush unfurling of springtime is a benediction.  The regeneration of the natural world is energizing and inspiring, and despite (or perhaps thanks to) the intense “circle-of-life” reflection that the season can bring, spring finds me wanting to lighten up. Culinarily speaking, I crave brightness and simplicity, which can be easily found in spring produce: baby asparagus, fava beans, and new peas, to be precise, all of which have made appearances on our dinner table in recent weeks.

A couple of months ago, I was browsing the culinary section of a used bookstore in DUMBO when I chanced upon Amarcord, a memoir by Marcella Hazan, the grande dame of Italian cooking.  Hazan’s forthright description of springtime vignarola is proof positive that Italians are unparalleled when it comes to showcasing the intrinsic glories of seasonal produce.

You must be there at just the one moment in the spring when baby fava beans, small rosebud artichokes, and very small peas, all at the same early stage of development, appear in the market at the identical time.  If it should last more than two weeks, it is a lucky year; a month, a prodigy.  You also need some cipollotti, young onions, and a small head of romaine lettuce.  The onion is sliced and cooked in olive oil until it is very soft.  You add the lettuce, the trimmed artichokes, the shelled beans and peas, and cook.  The vegetables are so young that it doesn’t take very long.  When done, it doesn’t look very presentable.  It is a dark, mushy mass that you might think a careless cook had produced.  But when you take a mouthful, it is as though spring itself in all its tenderness has been delivered in edible form.

Fava beans team up with asparagus in another quintessentially springtime preparation, which is so simple that it can scarcely be called a “recipe.”  I’ve prepared this salad as a side dish, but tossed with pieces of gently poached chicken breast or topped with a broiled salmon fillet (in which case I’d omit the cheese), it can easily serve as the main event.

Spring Salad (adapted from Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights, by Sophie Dahl)

  • 1 bunch of young asparagus
  • 1 cup of cooked fresh fava beans (blanch and remove outer skins) 
  • generous handful of chopped mint
  • 1/2 cup of shaved pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • extra virgin olive oil, to taste
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • squeeze of lemon (optional)

Steam or boil the asparagus until the spears are just tender—they should retain a bit of firmness.  Shock the asparagus in an ice bath and chop into 2″ pieces.  Toss the asparagus and the fava beans in a couple of tablespoons of grassy extra virgin olive oil, along with the mint and cheese, then add salt and pepper to taste.  For extra brightness, finish with a squeeze of lemon juice.

Here in New York City, outdoor space can be tough to come by, and few of us are able to eat what we’ve grown ourselves.  Happily, farmer’s markets abound, bringing the verdant freshness of spring vegetables within reach.  This time of year, it is easy bein’ green.

Veg Collage

Foodie Tuesday: A Balm for the Soul

My day.  It has not been stellar.  First of all, I am exhausted.  Last night, my husband’s chest cold-induced snoring, punctuated by bouts of coughing and sneezing, meant we were both deprived of a restful night’s sleep.  At least he had the velvet embrace of NyQuil to take the edge off.  As for me, I tossed and turned, fitful and fretful, finally relocating to the couch where the crick in my neck finally gave way to a few minutes of sleep that were promptly interrupted by a recurring car alarm.

As you can imagine, I wasn’t feeling particularly rosy this morning, and so I made myself a breakfast that felt a little special: scrambled eggs with smoked trout, sautéed leeks, and cream cheese.  Carrying my plate of eggs in one hand and my favorite oversized mug (filled to the brim with tea) in the other, I approached the dining table where I planned to ease into the day by perusing a few blogs over breakfast.  Just as I set my plate on the table beside my computer, the handle broke off the mug I was holding.  The mug crashed onto my plate, shattering it and covering the table, floor, and my breakfast in hot tea, while I shouted an expletive that even I typically reserve for special occasions.  (Thankfully, my computer was spared—no small mercy, considering how much I rely on the damn thing.)11002580_10205236922376233_2586654663424290461_n

Cursing, I went to retrieve a mop from the hall closet.  As I took the mop out of the closet, it knocked a box of Christmas bows and holiday cards from the shelf, scattering them all over the floor of the closet.  More expletives.

For the rest of the day, I couldn’t quite seem to find a rhythm.  My practice session felt futile, and I didn’t make it to the gym.  My mood vacillated between bored and antsy, with an undercurrent of self-loathing, because—let’s face it—I was just engaged in some self-indulgent moping.  Nothing of any real significance had even gone wrong!  I was just off-kilter and terribly out of sorts.

11026013_10205239130471434_545040918442187652_nThis afternoon, I found myself in the kitchen, as I often do, when I’m in a cranky, at-loose-ends kind of mood.  On autopilot, I began peeling and dicing butternut squash, a few Granny Smith apples, and leeks, as I prepared a soup that has been one of my favorite go-to recipes for nearly fifteen years.  I’ve made this soup for special occasions, for winter solace, and for visiting friends.  I’ve written about this soup on this very blog, and whenever I make it, I’m reminded that our most beloved dishes are more than nutritional sustenance: they’re a balm for the soul.

I mean, sure, fancy-schmancy chefs are forever finding ways to reinvent the familiar, and to push the envelope of what “eating well” means.  But for the rest of us, preparing food that is nourishing to the spirit as well as the body is a way of mending the fabric of a tattered day, of soothing frayed nerves and inviting simple pleasures to join us at the table and remind us that tomorrow is another day.

I’m going to ponder the alchemy of food and mood while I eat my soup—far away from my computer, mind you.  And tomorrow will be a better day, I’m sure of it, because tomorrow there will be leftovers waiting in the fridge.

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A big pot of calm-the-hell down and try again tomorrow.

 

Foodie Tuesday: Fast & Festive

June-cleaver

Here we are, smack dab in the middle of the holiday season, and I’ve been whiling away my December afternoons by cooking.  Whether I’m baking cookies and listening to Christmas music or preparing the Sunday roast while serenely sipping a glass of wine, the kitchen is the perfect place for reflecting on the joy of the season.

HA HA, JUST KIDDING.  I’VE HAD THREE COLDS AND HAVE BEEN SO BUSY I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT DAY IT IS RIGHT NOW.  I ONLY KNOW THAT I’M WICKED BEHIND ON EVERYTHING, AND PUTTERING AROUND IN THE KITCHEN LIKE A DERANGED JUNE CLEAVER IS ABOUT THE LAST DAMN THING ON MY MIND.

Ahem.

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Seriously, though, how does this happen?  I remember being a kid and feeling like Christmas would never arrive, and now I look at the calendar and just fucking panic because the time is flying by so quickly.  This particular holiday season feels especially frenetic, as I’ll be singing on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day this year, so our big holiday home cooking extravaganza is likely not going to happen until New Year’s Eve.  What to do in the meantime, then, for some festive (but low-maintenance) holiday treats?  Well, below are some foodstuffs and libations that will spark the holiday spirit but which require little to no effort to throw together and may, in fact, inspire a night out on the town.

1. Appetizers for dinner.  Swing into your corner store and pick up a couple of good cheeses (mix it up: try a cloth-bound cheddar and a soft, creamy blue or a nutty Parmigiano and silken triple-creme), some marinated olives, some sliced prosciutto or store-bought pâté, and a baguette, and voilà: an elegant, no-fuss repast that feels chic and celebratory.   These noshes are perfect for when you’d love to have dinner with a friend but don’t want to spend a bunch of money at a restaurant or slave over a hot stove at home.

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2. Eggnog.  I know, it’s so obvious, so slow-and-over-the-center-of-the-plate, that I’m almost embarrassed to include eggnog on this list.  But this wildly caloric holiday tipple is a classic for a reason. I tend to loathe mornings, but this time of year, I look forward to making an eggnog latte and sitting by the Christmas tree while I wake up and prepare to face the day. And, at the end of a long day battling crowded subways and an ever-expanding to-do list, a glass of eggnog dusted with a whisper of freshly grated nutmeg and bolstered by a shot of bourbon or dark rum (my favorite) is a balm for the spirit.

3. Clementines.  I’ve never been a big fan of oranges, but last year at about this time, I was leaving an evening yoga class (insert “caricature of a Brooklynite” joke here), and the teacher offered me a clementine for the road, which I ate slowly as I walked home.  The night air was still and icy, and each wedge of clementine seemed to contain a bright, intense burst of sunshine. Eating that clementine in that winter night air felt meditative and right; it was one of those food experiences that is memorable for its simplicity and clarity.  I love to end my day with a cup of herbal tea and a clementine.  (The shot of vitamin C feels restorative, too, as cold and flu bugs abound this time of year.)

4. Oysters.  I know that it is now perfectly acceptable to consume oysters in the months without the letter “R” in their name—May, June, July, and August—but just as I only drink rosé in the warm months, I only eat oysters when there’s a chill in the air.  For a decadent treat, I love to spontaneously duck into a charming bistro and enjoy a dozen oysters on the half-shell while I read a good book (it feels vaguely illicit and Parisian).

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5. Bubbles.  I couldn’t write about oysters (or the holidays, for that matter) without mentioning sparkling wine.  Whether it’s champagne, prosecco, or cava, if it has bubbles, I want some.  Just one bracing sip of ice-cold sparkling wine calls to mind the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon’s (likely apocryphal) exclamation upon discovering champagne: “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” The holidays’ hectic pace notwithstanding, there is much to celebrate this time of year, and there’s really nothing more celebratory than a flute of bubbly.

If you’ve  managed to keep your pantry as full as your calendar this holiday season, I salute you.  For my part, though, I’m surrendering the notion that I can keep my sanity intact and spend leisurely hours in the kitchen this time of year.  Until the holiday frenzy is past, I foresee a lot of catch-as-catch can meals and, yes, sparkling wine in my future.  Cin-cin, santé, and happy holiday eating and drinking!

Foodie Tuesday: NOLA Edition

If you’ve been keeping up with the gals of DUCHESS (and, for heaven’s sake, please do!), then you know that we recently spent a whirlwind weekend in New Orleans, fêting the Boswell Sisters and their legacy of close harmony singing.  We performed at Snug Harbor with a panoply of NOLA’s finest musicians, then joined a bunch of other girl groups for a Boswell Revue; you can see photos and read all about our trip over on the DUCHESS blog.

This post, however, is about the bacchanal of eating we did in New Orleans.  We landed midday and were ready for some lunch, so after setting our bags down in our Bywater shotgun shack, we headed over to The Joint for some BBQ.  Because I excel at moderation (ha), I ordered a platter of ribs, pulled pork, and brisket, plus mac & cheese, coleslaw, and a side of pickled jalapeños.  A frosty Abita was, obviously, the only appropriate beverage pairing.

Leaving The Joint, we passed by a neighborhood store that had a sign out front advertising “Wildlife Specials”: rabbit, raccoon, and alligator meat were all for sale.  Next time?

Left: BBQ in the Bywater, Right: a NOLA wildlife menu (live snapper turtles!?)

Left: BBQ in the Bywater, Right: a NOLA wildlife menu (live snapper turtles!?)

Some dear friends of mine had recently vacationed in New Orleans in honor of their ten-year wedding anniversary, and they kindly gave me some pre-trip dining recommendations.  Thanks to their sage counsel, DUCHESS wound up in the French Quarter’s Verti Marte for some pre-gig po’boys.  I opted for a grilled shrimp sandwich.  The picture you are seeing is half—HALF—a sandwich.  There are fully-grown dachshunds who are smaller than this sandwich.  But the shrimp were so tender, and the bread so fresh, that I am proud (and somewhat mortified) to say that I ate the whole thing.  The whole thing.  And then, in a feat that defies all laws of physics, the DUCHESS gals somehow squeezed into our Spanx and tight dresses and sang the gig.  WHERE IS OUR GRAMMY FOR MOST FOOD CONSUMED IN A SINGLE SITTING BEFORE A GIG?

So much goodness.  So much cholesterol.  So worth it.

So much goodness. So much cholesterol. So worth it.

Chicory coffee and beignets: the perfect way to start the day in NOLA.

Chicory coffee and beignets: the perfect way to start the day in NOLA.

One fine morning, we made our way to Morning Call over in City Park.  No trip to New Orleans would be complete without beignets and chicory coffee, after all.  We sipped our cafés au laits and ate the feather-light beignets while a young trio played the Meters’ “Cissy Strut.”  Despite a brief but torrential downpour, it was the perfect way to spend our morning.

We wound down every evening in NOLA by sitting on the front porch of our sweet little house, listening to the crickets chirp and chatting about the day’s adventures.  It was on this porch that I met my new favorite snack of all time: Cajun Dill Gator-Tators.  These spicy, dill pickle-flavored potato chips were crunchy and salty and the perfect accompaniment to our icy cold beers.  And speaking of beer, I’d like to go on record as saying that there is something singularly atmospheric and satisfying about strolling through the French Quarter on a languid, humid afternoon while drinking a beer in broad daylight.

Beer, chips, open-air drinking.  Sweet mystery of life, at last I've found you!

Gator-Tators, our sweet little NOLA porch, and open-air drinking….what’s not to love?

We closed our trip with a fancy-schmancy dinner at Herbsaint, helmed by chef Donald Link.  My entrée, a confit duck leg atop “dirty rice” (rice cooked with chicken liver, bell peppers, and Cajun spices) was a perfect example of how Herbsaint brings quintessentially Southern flavors to traditional French and Italian dishes.  We ate, we drank, and we toasted to the magic of New Orleans.  Les bons temps definitely rouler’ed, and I cannot wait to go back for some more music and food.  Until next time, NOLA!

Top: the DUCHESS team toasting to NOLA at Herbsaint (Amy, Oded, Melissa); Lower left: duck confit atop "dirty rice," Lower right: watermelon gazpacho with lump crabmeat

Top: the DUCHESS team toasting to NOLA at Herbsaint (Amy, Oded, Melissa); Lower left: duck confit atop “dirty rice,” Lower right: watermelon gazpacho with lump crabmeat

Foodie Tuesday: An impromptu jaunt to Italy…er, Eataly

Last Friday was one of those picture-perfect September days in the city.  The skies were clear, the air was crisp, and the foot traffic on 5th Avenue was a beautiful parade of the “glittering crowds…in canyons of steel” that Vernon Duke surely had in mind when he wrote “Autumn in New York.”

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Hallelujah! An unabashed celebration of carbohydrates.

As I left my late-morning voice lesson, I realized that nothing on my to-do list was terribly pressing, and so I could take my time getting back to Brooklyn.  I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to duck into Eataly for a quick lunch and look-around, and was reminded of something that Italians seem to know instinctively: stealing an hour for a delicious meal and a bit of unapologetic leisure is deeply restorative and good for the soul.

Mario Batali’s sprawling, airy monument to all of Italy’s culinary delights can be a little overwhelming, it’s true.  Eataly houses walls of cookbooks and sleek, Italian-designed cookware, bottles of extra virgin olive oil in every imaginable shade of green-gold, a butcher, a fishmonger, a cheese shop, no fewer than seven restaurants plus a Nutella bar (!) and a room dedicated solely to gelato and espresso, so it can be hard to know where to start.

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The essence of Italian cooking: high-quality ingredients, prepared simply so that the flavors sing of themselves.

I strolled slowly, smiling at the innumerable shapes and sizes of pasta that lined Eataly’s shelves.  I marveled, too, at the vast array of honeys from all over Italy (chestnut, acacia, linden, wildflower) and pondered having a lunch of gelato (pistacchio, nocciola, and cioccolato, to be exact) before taking a seat at the bar in Le Verdure, Eataly’s vegetarian restaurant.  I ordered the bruschetta del giorno: toasted country bread topped with goat cheese, fresh figs, and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. Wanting something sophisticated but non-alcoholic to drink, I also ordered a blood orange San Pellegrino soda.

I ate slowly, reading a book and people-watching.  At the end of my lunch, I felt that a metaphorical as well as literal hunger had been satisfied.  It’s easy, in our always-frenetic American lives, to pooh-pooh our need (yes, need) for la dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing).  But the truth is, an hour spent savoring a well-prepared meal and enjoying a favorite corner of the city can reinvigorate one’s spirit and even boost productivity.  I left Eataly with a spring in my step and a smile on my face, newly resolved to find more moments of indulgence and relaxation amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

I miss Italy terribly, and can’t wait to go back for an in situ dose of la dolce vita, but in the meantime, it does my heart good to know that Italy-via-Eataly is just a subway ride away.

 

 

Foodie Tuesday: Songs for Supper

Jazz Musicians & Food

L to R: Duke Ellington, enjoying a sundae; Billie Holiday, cooking; Frank Sinatra, having coffee & a donut in his dressing room.

Musicians tend to be bons vivants, possessing refined palates honed from playing countless gigs at fancy-schmancy shindigs with top-shelf food and drinks.  Lots of musicians are great home cooks, too; maybe there’s a connection between improvising in a band and improvising in the kitchen?  Whatever the explanation may be, I think it’s safe to say that musicians, as a group, love food with a special fervor.  When musicians get together, it’s usually not long before the conversation turns to what we’re eating on the way to the gig, what we’ll be eating at the gig, and where we’ll go to eat after the gig.

Today’s Foodie Tuesday post raises a metaphorical glass to the love affair between musicians and food, although this smattering of food-themed songs doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how many great tunes have been written about eating and drinking.

Sweet Kentucky Ham, written by Dave Frishberg, performed by Rosemary Clooney
Man, did Rosemary Clooney have a way with a lyric or what?  Perhaps more than any other song I can think of, this tune encapsulates what it feels like to be in a lonely hotel, dreaming of the taste of home.  In his signature style, Frishberg has written a wry lyric that is both humorous and heartbreaking.

Eggs and Sausage, written and performed by Tom Waits
I first heard this tune on Waits’ live-in-the-studio recording, Nighthawks at the Diner, when I was about twelve years old.  This tune, in particular, evoked everything that I imagined adulthood held in store for me: late nights, breakfast-for-dinner, and city life.  As it turns out, the adult me does love all of those things.  I also love this clip of a very young Tom Waits on the Mike Douglas show, in which Douglas hilariously introduces Waits as “…a combination poet, jazz singer, and vagrant, with a surprising amount of personal charm.”  For his part, Tom Waits describes himself as “an unemployed service station attendant.”

Frim Fram Sauce, written by Redd Evans & Joe Ricardel, performed by the Nat “King” Cole Trio
I don’t know what “frim fram” sauce is (although autocorrect seems to think it’s “from farm,” so maybe there’s a connection?).  Nor have I ever eaten “ossenfay” or a side of “sha fa fa,” but this is the first song that came to mind when I decided to post about food and music.  Nat Cole was such an incredible musician; he made everything look so effortless, but he was playing a lot of piano and his singing was smooth as silk.   The double-takes between the “two Nats” in this clip are priceless.  For another take on the tune, check out Amy Cervini’s version.

In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening, written by Johnny Mercer & Hoagy Carmichael, performed by Frank Sinatra
This song won an Oscar in 1951; it’s a very silly lyric that is offset by a couple of rather unexpected harmonic shifts.  Only Frank Sinatra could sing about a “weenie bake, steak, and a layer cake” and make it sound swinging and cool.

Hold Tight (Want Some Seafood, Mama), written by Sidney Bechet & Leonard Ware, performed by Fats Waller
The Andrews Sisters had a massive hit with this song, but I’m including Fats Waller’s version here.  His hilarious and playful interpretation makes it clear that this song is, perhaps, not really about food at all.  You be the judge.

Bon appétit, happy listening, and please feel free to share some of your favorite food songs in the comments!