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: Ripe and Sweet

I can still remember my first tomatoes.  No, that’s not a euphemism, and okay, they weren’t the first tomatoes I’d ever tasted, but they were definitely the most memorable.  I was seventeen, and newly arrived in Italy that late-August day to begin my year as a foreign exchange student.  At lunchtime, my host mother set a large ceramic bowl of quartered tomatoes on the table.  The tomatoes were freshly picked from the garden behind the house, still warm from the sun, and dressed lightly with extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of salt.

I sat at the table, jet-lagged and bewildered, and savored the sweetness of the tomatoes and the peppery, herbaceous olive oil.  The flavors were at once foreign and familiar, simple and nuanced.  This, I felt sure, was the very taste of summer—no—of happiness itself.

Spanish panzanella

Spanish panzanella

Now that we are careening headlong into prime-time tomato season (seriously, how are we already in the third week of July!?), here are a few incredibly simple and delicious ways to enjoy summer’s tomato bounty:

Spanish Panzanella
With a couple of simple twists (frying the bread in olive oil to fend off sogginess, adding anchovies and capers for a salty kick), my favorite food writer, Diana Henry, lends a touch of the exotic to what is traditionally an Italian bread-and-tomato salad.  Recipe here.

Summer Soup with Pistou
A(nother) Diana Henry recipe, from Plenty.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you only own one cookbook, Henry’s Plenty should be it.  Straightforward, creative, and eminently practical, Plenty contains recipes for every season and every palate.  This vegetable soup is hearty but not heavy, and the last-minute addition of fresh tomatoes imparts just the right amount of brightness.  The recipe can be found at the bottom of this post.

tartines

Summer tartines: tomato and goat cheese and avocado with lime and black pepper

Lunchtime Tartine
I know.  This is decidedly not a recipe.  It’s certainly not cooking, for heaven’s sake.  I’m including this tartine, though, because its simplicity is matched only by its tastiness.  Spread leftover pesto or olive tapenade on a slice of whole wheat country bread, preferably one with a chewy crust, and dot the surface with goat cheese.  Top with cherry tomatoes, then sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt and pepper for a rustic lunch that’s filling but won’t weigh you down on a hot day.  (The last time I made tartines for lunch, I also made one topped with smashed avocado, a squeeze of lime, and lots of black pepper; the mellowness contrasted nicely with the tang of the goat cheese and tomatoes.)

There are so many ways to make the most of tomatoes.  I mean, I haven’t even mentioned caprese yet.   Summer is flying by, though, so however you plan to prepare them, get thee to a farmer’s market and pick up some ripe, sweet summer tomatoes, then mangia!  Mangia!

 

Summer soup with pistou

Summer soup with pistou

Diana Henry’s summer soupe au pistou, from Plenty
Gently cook 1 leek, 1 large potato, and 1 celery stalk, all chopped, in olive oil for 5 minutes, stirring.  Add 4½ cups chicken stock, season, and cook for 10 minutes.  Add 2 zucchini, chopped; 8 oz. green beans, trimmed; 1¼ cups cooked drained navy beans; and 12 cherry tomatoes, quartered.  Cook for 5 minutes, uncovered, then add 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley.  Put 2 bunches basil, 3 garlic cloves, salt, and pepper in a blender, process and add ½ cup extra virgin olive oil. Top the soup with spoonfuls of pistou and grated Parmesan.  Serves 4-6

Foodie Tuesday: Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup!

I’ve been a bit stuck on a theme, lately: it’s cold outside, winter’s here, let’s all eat comfort food, blah blah blah.  So it’s probably not a surprise–and goddess knows I hope it’s not a foray into Dullsville–that today’s Foodie Tuesday post is about soup.

Soup is the very embodiment of “making much from little”: water, vegetables, and a gentle flame join forces on the stove to create a meal far greater than the sum of its parts.  Soup will welcome the odds and ends from your produce bin, exalting lowly root vegetables and leafy greens, however wilted they may be. In our home, soup has soothed frayed nerves and mended wounds.  Ladled hot into a bowl after a long, busy winter’s day, soup can seem like a benediction.

One of my favorite things about soup is its adaptability.  Last night, for example, I made a vegetable soup with leeks, potatoes, kale, fennel, and tomatoes.  To the broth, at the direction of the inimitable Diana Henry, I added a generous pinch of saffron, a ribbon of orange zest, and a few sprigs of thyme…et voilà! Niçoise stew.

Homemade rouille, bolstered and brightened by tomato paste and lemon juice, respectively, added body and nuance to the soup.  And the Gruyère at the bottom of my bowl melted into the hot broth and clung to the vegetables in silky strands.  Was I gilding the lily?  Maybe, but then again, when is cheese ever a bad idea?

As I head out into this New York day filled with appointments and obligations, it does my heart good to know that a pot of leftover soup is waiting in the fridge. As Louis Carroll wisely wrote:

Beautiful Soup! Who cares for fish,
Game, or any other dish?
Who would not give all else for two
pennyworth only of beautiful Soup?
Pennyworth only of beautiful Soup?
Beau – ootiful Soo – oop!
Beau – ootiful Soo – oop!
Soo – oop of the e – e – evening,
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!

Foodie Tuesday: Winter Abundance

I’ve decided that gray skies and chilly winds have gotten an unfair bad rap.  There’s nothing like a blustery winter day to make you appreciate the warmth of flannel pajamas and the hearty comfort of a bowl of soup.

These days, I am most drawn to forthright, sturdy food: roasted chicken, vegetable soup with homemade stock, and sausages with white beans and tomatoes have all graced our table in recent weeks.  All these slow roasts and gentle simmers have helped me embrace winter this year, rather than grumble about the cold, damp weather.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been re-reading the Little House series, but I’ve been reflecting on abundance quite a bit lately.

The attic was a lovely place to play.  The large, round, colored pumpkins made beautiful chairs and tables.  The red peppers and the onions dangled overhead.  The hams and venison hung in their paper wrappings, and all the bunches of dried herbs, the spicy herbs for cooking and the bitter herbs for medicine, gave the place a dusty-spicy smell.

Often the wind howled outside with a cold and lonesome sound.  But in the attic…everything was snug and cosy.

–Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House In The Big Woods

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of pioneer life in the 1800s is an inspiring reminder that a well-stocked pantry and the company of loved ones are the best kind of riches.  As we settle deeper into winter, I wish you many meals that nourish both your spirit and stomach.

Foodie Tuesday: Temporary Vegetarianism (an interview with Alison)

I often remark that I could give up red meat without batting an eye, but I’d be heartbroken if I had to stop eating pork.  Poultry and fish find their way onto my plate far more frequently than pig and cow, but I occasionally (and usually inadvertently) have meat-free days; I’m always struck by how good I feel when I make veggies my mealtime centerpiece.  For reasons pertaining to both my health and conscience, I would like to start bringing more meatless meals to my table.

To that end, today’s post is an interview with my friend Alison, a writer, yogi, and food-lover.  For the duration of four months of intensive yoga training, Alison embraced vegetarianism, and she’s graciously agreed to discuss her experience of living meat-free.  Welcome, Alison!

While in yoga training, you spent four months as a vegetarian. Were dairy and eggs permitted, or did you go vegan?
I ate both dairy and eggs—a LOT of eggs, actually while I was a vegetarian. It was not required by our yoga training to be a vegetarian, but it was recommended and meat was not allowed in the studio, so I decided to go for a full-time vegetarian diet, but I wasn’t ready for veganism.

Was your foray into meat-free living a radical departure from your normal diet, or more of a minor adjustment?
Well, initially I thought it was just going to be a minor adjustment, but that just shows how little I was paying attention to what I was eating! Suddenly, I found myself at a loss as to what to eat besides pasta… that’s when I discovered vegetables. You might wonder how I’ve lived 30 years and am only now discovering vegetables—but I was sadly a “hater.” I associated vegetables with over-steamed broccoli and tasteless salads. But I couldn’t just eat cheese pizza for 4 months—I mean, this yoga thing is about health right? So, I decided to put vegetables front and center on my plate and see what happened.

It turns out I am truly passionate about a few veggies—like kale, collard greens and swiss chard. They have a kind of richness about them that really satisfied me when I was craving meat. I also fell deeply in love with artichokes, ripe avocados and beefsteak tomotoes. I have to limit the avocados, though…they are like the butter of vegetables!

Were there specific cookbooks and/or recipes that you’ve found yourself using again and again?
Yes! Kale chips are a regular in our house—basically roasted kale with olive oil and salt. I can’t remember where that recipe came from, but it’s so simple, I make them every week. Also, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian was a lifesaver. My husband, Randy, really got on board with the veggie thing and he loved cooking out of this book. He made homemade veggie burgers from Bittman, and some really great stir-fries. It turns out the key with stir-fries is to cook the ingredients separately! Who knew?!

Did you eat any prepared meatless products, i.e. veggie burgers, “soysage,” etc.? If so, what were your favorites? Your least favorites?
Randy and I really got hooked on Morningstar Farms Breakfast Links. I almost like them more than regular breakfast sausage—they are so flavorful and you don’t have any of that gristly “what-is-that-weird-texture-oh-my-god-I don’t want to know” bites, like with pork sausage. We ate a lot of tofu, which is fine, but I’m not exactly ecstatic about it. We tried our hand at Seitan, but never got the hang of it. There really is an art to meat-alternative products, and I guess my heart just wasn’t in learning it.

How has your stint as a vegetarian informed and/or affected your current eating habits?
It’s certainly made me more interested in vegetables and recipes that feature them. After yoga school though, I started eating meat again and I feel good about that. The first “yama” or “restraint” in the eight limbs of the yogic path is “Ahimsa,” which means non-harming. Ahimsa is the principle that most people point to in yoga to explain their vegetarianism/veganism, and it’s a wonderful way to practice that principle. But there are other ways to practice ahimsa—and one of them is towards your body if it’s not reacting well to vegetarianism.

I try to only eat meat when I know where it has come from and how it has been treated—and I eat less red meat, though I have such a taste for it. Yoga is about accepting where you are in the present moment, and at this moment, this girl still loves a rare steak. Maybe at some other point in my life, I will transcend my attachement to roast chicken with lemon and shallots, or confit of duck (this seems doubtful) or maybe I will simply grow beyond the need to follow my attachments. I hope so—after all, yoga is about going beyond desire into Samadhi (basically union with divine consciousness).

Learning about my eating habits and paying attention to what I eat and why is an important step on my journey—and I believe, like so much of life, what we learn from experience is different for everyone. So, even if being a vegetarian is not a path you want to take, I would say that you can still practice being enlightened about food just by being fully present with what you eat. In any event, those four months as a vegetarian made me more joyful about eating all sorts of simple, natural foods, and that must be a step in the right direction.

Foodie Tuesday: Nigella Lawson

I have a massive lady-crush on Nigella Lawson.  She is capable, articulate, indulgent and eminently practical.  Oh, yes, and she’s also a stunning beauty, possessing qualities both delicate and earthy.  I watch reruns of her shows whenever I can, and afterward always feel that I’ve learned something substantive about cooking.  Her 2007 tome, How to Eat, has become an indispensable resource in my kitchen.  Nigella’s witty musings on the art and appreciation of eating, not just cooking, hooked me from the first paragraph.

And so today’s Foodie Tuesday post is a virtual raising-of-the-glass to Nigella Lawson, who perpetually reminds us to live voluptuously.

Cooking is not about just joining the dots, following one recipe slavishly and then moving on to the next.  It’s about developing an understanding of food, a sense of assurance in the kitchen, about the simple desire to make yourself something to eat.  And in cooking, as in writing, you must please yourself to please others.  Strangely, it can take enormous confidence to trust your own palate, follow your own instincts.

…I don’t believe you can ever really cook unless you love eating.  Such love, of course, is not something that can be taught, but it can be conveyed–and maybe that’s the point…I have nothing to declare but my greed.  –Nigella Lawson, “How to Eat”

Foodie Tuesday: Locusts & Casserole

I was at home when the earthquake hit last week.  I grew up in Alaska, so the sensation of the earth’s rolling and shaking was at once familiar and frightening.  A couple of major personal upheavals coincided with the earthquake, so all of my foundations were rocked.  “When it rains, it pours,” I thought, then turned on the television to find that I was absolutely correct: Hurricane Irene was headed directly our way.  I phoned my mother-in-law to commiserate. “Earthquakes, hurricanes, all this other mishigas…oy, what’s next?” she asked.  Only half-kidding, I replied, “Locusts.”

As my post-earthquake jitters ebbed, I paced the apartment, trying to think of some way to be useful.  I felt helpless, knowing full well that I could control neither the impending storm nor the knock-the-wind-out-of-us events that were unfolding.  However, I am not descended from Midwestern women for nothing: this week called for a casserole.  No high-tone bechamel or fancy-schmancy cheese would do for this family dinner.  No, these literal and figurative natural disasters called for the big guns of nostalgic comfort food: Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, frozen peas, shredded cheddar, and canned tuna.

Later that evening, we gathered around the table and found a measure of solace in the homey, humble flavors of tuna noodle casserole.  Unsettled by the events of the week and bracing ourselves for what lay ahead, we said little.  Words felt inadequate and small talk was impossible, so instead of talking, we took second helpings.  And third.

A week later, the worst of the storm seems to have passed.  Hurricane Irene largely spared our corner of New York, and the turbulent life events that were so unnerving just a few days ago seem much more manageable now.  Last week’s casserole didn’t solve any of our problems, but the companionship and comfort of a shared meal fortified our bodies and spirits.

No matter how hard we may try to protect ourselves from life’s inevitable earthquakes and hurricanes, the stubborn truth persists: security is an illusion.  That’s just life.  But on this clear, late-summer day, I am happy to report that not a single locust is in sight.

Tuna Noodle Casserole (serves 4 hungry adults in need of comfort)

2 cans Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup
2 cans tuna, drained
12 oz. noodles (macaroni, penne, bow-tie pasta), cooked al dente
1 C frozen peas, cooked
1/2 C mild cheddar (more or less to taste)
1/2 C milk
1 C bread crumbs (panko works great here)

-Pre-heat oven to 350°.
-Combine soup, tuna, noodles, peas, cheddar, & milk in a large bowl and transfer to a large buttered casserole dish.
-Toast the panko with some butter until golden brown.
-Top casserole with the panko and the grated parmesan and bake for half an hour, or until golden & bubbly.
-Share with people you love and be of good courage.