Asparagus Gratinee

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Matzah is a well recognized symbol of Passover. That flat oversized cracker that tastes like nothing so much as cardboard. It’s often a little stale, doesn’t digest easily, and in a cruel twist it always seems to appear just as Easter candy hits store shelves. But matzah isn’t the only iconic Passover food. There’s brisket, the generally adored centerpiece of the traditional holiday meal, an unnecessary variety of packaged kosher-for-Passover desserts, most of which aren’t worth eating, and then there’s asparagus. As far back as I can remember there has been asparagus on Passover and I’ve had a troubled relationship with it.

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The asparagus I remember eating as a kid at Passover seders was always steamed till it was almost grey and served without salt. Both are major faux pas in cooking this particular vegetable – overcooking and underseasoning make asparagus’s bitterness more pronounced – and as a result I avoided it in all forms. At best I’d eat one or two tips and then only after they’d soaked up the sauce from my serving of brisket. But the stalks? Forget it. Even now I’ll still probably pass on steamed asparagus. But at some point I was introduced to roasted spears and then I fell for shavings of raw asparagus on salads and pasta and pizza. I’m hooked.

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When asparagus season rolls around in the spring I spend a few months gorging myself on it. At the beginning of the season I stick with plain roasted spears and then start adding it to everything I can until by the time it’s going out of the markets I’m glad to see it go so I can move onto something else. I can’t say whether this preparation would tempt my asparagus-hating self – who knows if the cheesy topping would outweigh the earthy vegetal flavor that I then disliked and now enjoy. But if someone brought this for Passover these days, well, I’d be sure to clean my plate.

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Asparagus Gratinee

Makes 3-4 servings

About the title of this dish – gratinee is just a fancy way to say “with cheese baked on top”. And while it’s not perhaps the healthiest way to eat your vegetables, it’s certainly delicious.

1 lb asparagus, bottom 2-3 inches removed
1 tbs olive oil
1 tsp salt
1/3 – 1/2 mayo
1/4 – 1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

PREHEAT the oven to 400 F. Line a sheet pan with foil and arrange the asparagus spears on the pan, tossing them with the olive oil and salt.

ROAST the asparagus for 10 minutes and then remove it from the oven. Turn on the broiler (and turn off the oven if your broiler control is separate from the oven control).

ARRANGE the asapargus spears on the sheet pan so that all the spears are touching. Then, using a spatula or off-set knife, spread the mayo over the spears. You can coat them entirely or leave the tips uncoated (which I prefer). Sprinkle the parmesan over the mayo and slide the asparagus under the broiler.

BROIL for 3-5 minutes or until the top is browned and bubbly. Keep an eye on its since the cheese can burn quickly.

SERVE immediately, this dish is best hot and fresh. To serve, it helps to separate the asparagus into 3 or 4 spear bunches – if you just pull on a spears individually the cheesy topping sometimes gets left behind. For better or worse this dish doesn’t reheat well and the leftovers just aren’t as tasty so only make as much as you need.

One Pot Coconut Curry Noodles

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Every once in a while the Internet collectively goes crazy for a recipe. Have you noticed this too? The same recipe pops up all over the place and everyone’s talking about it or trying it excitedly. Almost invariably it’s something simple with big results. A few years ago it was the New York Times chocolate chip cookies and a few years later Marcella Hazan’s butter and onion tomato sauce. Of course I tried both and loved them enough to put them into this blog in one way or another. And when Martha Stewart’s one pot pasta recipe started making the rounds I jumped on it.

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Have you tried this recipe yet? Because if the answer is no give yourself a pat on the back. You have saved yourself and your dinner guests from a mediocre pasta dinner. It sounded like a good idea. It looks pretty in the photos. But when I used water to cook the ingredients, it mostly tasted like water. When I used stock, it mostly tasted like stock. The tomatoes, onions, basil, all the elements of a great light tomato sauce – they ended up tasting flat and watered down, like they’d lost something in the boiling.

Here’s the thing: the idea of a one pot noodle dish is pretty enticing. It was something I couldn’t just put aside. Some recipes are like that, the ones that seem to good and end up so blah. They get under my skin, not because they’re bad per se but because they’re just … lacking. This dish suffered from a poorly chosen foundational flavor, it was too bland and didn’t fit with the dish. The iea of swapping out the water led me to coconut milk and from there the recipe veered away from Italy and more towards Thailand. But the base idea – a noodle dish all made in one pot in about a half hour remained the same. Only now it’s worth making more than once.

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One Pot Coconut Curry Noodles
Inspired by this recipe which I would not recommend to anyone

Makes about 4 servings

1 can coconut milk (13.5 ounces)
1 cup water
2 tbs fish sauce
2 tsp thai red curry paste (I like the Thai Kitchen brand)
1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
6 oz rice noodles
1/2 pound chicken, sliced into ¼ inch thick pieces (optional)
2-3 cups mixed vegetables, thinly sliced if thicker than 1/4 inch (I’ve enjoyed sweet and/or hot peppers, red and white onions, canned bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, baby spinach leaves, and cabbage)
2-3 sprigs each of basil, cilantro, and/or mint, stems removed, plus extra for serving
2-3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 2-inch long piece of ginger, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch matchsticks

COMBINE coconut milk, water, fish sauce, curry paste, and salt in a small bowl and stir until curry paste is dissolved. Taste the sauce – it should be a bit more salty than you would want since it is going to flavor all the vegetables and protein. Set the liquids aside.

COMBINE rice noodles, chicken, vegetables, garlic, and ginger in a large pot. The noodles should be on the bottom (so they can absorb the liquid) and everything else should be in one big layer. Pour the liquids into the pot and place it on the stove over medium heat.

HEAT the pot until the liquids begin to boil, giving it a stir every few minutes to make sure nothing is sticking. Once it boils, turn the heat down so the pot remains at a simmer and cook for 3-4 minutes or until the noodles are cooked through and the liquid has thickened into something akin to gravy. After cooking there should be some liquid left in the pot that has thickened into more of a sauce than a soup.

SERVE immediately, with some extra herbs for garnish. You can also save any leftovers for up to a week in the fridge. The noodles get a little softer each time you reheat them so only heat up as much as you want to keep them from disintigrating.

Celery Apple and Fennel Salad

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Spring is the hardest thing to wait for. Not that patience in anything is really my strong suit, but I remember waiting out the last few weeks of winter as an excruciting exercise. No matter how much you love snow, and I’m not one who loves it very much at all, by March it’s not very fun any more. Too many cold mornings spent scraping the car and cold afternoons trying desperatedly to keep noses and ears warm as the wind whips down the street. New spring clothes are languishing in your closet and Mother Nature just does not give a damn. And then those first few glimpses of new green were enough to throw a party about.

What I had forgotten, until recently, is that early spring is something of a let down when you look at your plate. The temperatures are rising, bulbs are starting to bloom, but the only thing at the market is root vegetables; the same root vegetables you’ve been eating all winter. It gets to the point that you’ll try anything to get away from food that is roasted or braised or stewed. My mom reminded me of this while we chatting last week. I had just written about asparagus while she’s still stuck in a never ending winter. And while there’s nothing I can do to make winter end sooner I can at least offer something we both can enjoy. Spring has truly arrived in San Francisco full of strawberries and asparagus, but if it hasn’t yet gotten to where you live, this salad will make it feel a little bit closer.

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Celery Apple and Fennel Salad

Makes about 4 servings or 2 dinner sized portions if you add some protein

4-5 stalks of celery, thinly sliced on a diagonal for longer slices (about 1.5 cups)
1 bulb fennel, halved, core removed, and thinly sliced (about 1 cup) plus fennel fronds, finely chopped (2-3 tbs)
1 apple, cored removed and thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
1 tsp kosher salt
Juice of 1 lemon
About ¼ cup olive oil
Celery leaves (optional)

COMBINE celery, fennel, apple, and salt in a large bowl.
DRESS the salad with lemon juice and olive oil. Add a little at a time, then toss and taste until you have it the way you like it.
GARNISH with fennel fronds and celery leaves. Serve it immediately.

You could store it in the fridge for up to a few days but depending on the apples you use, they may go brown and mushy too quickly for you to save leftovers.

Spring Farro Salad

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Most of the blogs I read are food blogs or at least touch on food in some way. A lot of them end with a recipe for some dish or other so I can recreate the dish at home. I rarely do it. Often I’ll make a note of an interesting flavor combination and take a quick peek at it before making a variation on it, but I can probably count on my hands the number of times I’ve looked up a recipe online and followed it all the way through. I’m just not in it for the recipes. Often times it’s a recipe I already know, made with a slight twist and sometimes not even that. I read the post greedily and then glance over the recipe. They’re about life, the real stuff – the small, every day, drives you crazy, makes you laugh, raison d’etre stuff. The important things. Food is just the vehicle.

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That’s sort of the case here. This grain salad isn’t unique, I’m not the first person to throw grains and vegetables with a vinaigrette and serve it cold. I didn’t have to test it to know it would work out well. But it became more than the sum of its parts. I made it this weekend for a baby shower where we sat on the grass in the sunshine and ate it with quiche and soup and the first strawberries of spring. We sat around and talked about families and busy lives and small details that are less weighty but no less important. I made it a second time for dinner with friends and we ate it with roast chicken while talking about jobs and playing boardgames and drinking fancy beer. The salad was good but it’s flavor is all wrapped up in early spring sunshine and new beginnings and laughter. It’s the story that makes it worth sharing.

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Spring Farro Salad
Serves 6-8 as a side

Maybe you’ll make this recipe, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll just be inspired by all the spring produce now available. I know I was.

1.5 cups semi-pearled farro, uncooked
1 lb asparagus spears, with the tough ends trimmed off
1 tbs oil
Salt
1 small bunch radishes, thinly sliced (about 1 cup of radish)
2-3 scallions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 – 1/2 cup crumbled feta
Basic Vinaigrette (or your favorite salad dressing)
2-3 handfuls of mixed baby greens or other lettuce mix of your choice

BOIL a gallon of salted water and add the farro. Let it cook at a simmer for 30 minutes or until tender. Drain it and set it aside to cool.
GRILL the asparagus after tossing it with the oil and a half teaspoon of salt. Cook it for about 5 minutes, turning the spears every few minutes so that they don’t burn. Alternatively, you could broil them for about the same amount of time.
TOSS farro, grilled aspargus, radishes, scallions, parsley, and feta together with another half teaspoon or salt and as much dressing as you’d like (I use 2-3 tablespoons). The grains will soak up a lot of flavor and you may need more than you would expect. Set the salad aside until you’re ready to serve.
JUST BEFORE SERVING toss in the greens and taste to see if it needs extra dressing or salt. Adding the greens at the last minute means they won’t wilt from the dressing. Any lefovers can be kept in the fridge for a few days but the greens will end up a little slimy if left in the dressing for more than a day or two.

Tomato Tarte Tatin

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Jeff and I agree on a lot of things food related but the one thing we don’t see eye to eye on is out of season tomatoes. During the nine months of the year when fresh, sun-ripened tomatoes aren’t available without an air shipment he won’t eat them. Picks around them in salads, takes them off his sandwiches on the rare occasion he forgets to say “no tomatoes”. Me on the other hand, I still pick up cherry tomatoes in December. I don’t worry about eating light pink tomatoes in March (hello March!)

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For the most part, out of season tomatoes aren’t anything to get excited about. They aren’t particularly sweet or juicy like their summer counterparts. But it’s winter tomatoes that are made for cooking. Their charm takes a bit more coaxing – it requires slow heat and caramelization – but the payoff is sweet. The tomato flavor concentrates, it becomes something else entirely from its unripe beginnings. What started out as a pile of hard pink tomatoes ended in an unusual tart tatin.

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The funny thing is, I’ve never made the traditional tart tatin, with apples and a thick caramel sauce. It’s been on my to-bake list for years but it wasn’t the apples that ended up tempting me. It was the tomatoes.They emerged from the pan with deeply browned tops and a rich flavor, caramel-like on top and soft and melty inside. I’m sure there’s a lesson here about every tomato being delicious in its own way. But whatever, I’m too busy enjoying my March tomatoes.

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Tomato Tart Tatin

2 tbs olive oil
1-2 onions, halved and finely sliced
6-8 tomatoes, halved
2 tbs fresh thyme
½ cup stock or water
1 tbs soy sauce
Salt to taste
1 sheet of puff pastry, thawed

SAUTE onions and olive oil in an 8-10 inch nonreactive skillet (i.e. not nonstick or cast iron) over medium heat until lightly caramelized, about 25 minutes. Season with up to a teaspoon of salt. Don’t increase the heat too much or the onions may burn before they caramelize.
ADD the tomatoes to the pan, face down along with the thyme, stock, soy sauce, and another 1-2 teaspoons of salt, depending on if your stock is low sodium or no salt.
PREHEAT oven to 375F.
SIMMER tomatoes without stirring for about 20 minutes or until the liquid has mostly disappeared. If the liquid all bubbles off before the 20 minutes are up, reduce the heat to low and keep cooking.
UNFOLD your fully-defrosted puff pastry and trim the corners to make an (approximately) 10-inch round.
COVER the tomatoes with the puff pastry when they’ve finished simmering. Then slip the whole pan in the oven.
BAKE for 20-25 minutes, until the pastry is puffed up and golden brown.
INVERT the tart onto a clean plate. Start this by running a spatula under the tomatoes in the pan to loosen them a little (don’t worry if the pastry cracks a little). Then put a clean plate upside down on the tart and using oven mitts or pot holders, flip the pan upside down so that the tart is tomato side up on the plate.

The best course of action is to serve the tart as soon as possible – the puff pastry will get soggier the longer the juicy tomatoes sit on it. If you want to make this ahead, invert the tart onto a plate. Put a buttered piece of parchment paper into the pan (or into a 10-inch pie dish that you plan to use to transport the tart) and replace the tart, tomato side down, into the pan now lined with parchment. Let it cool completely and then cover it. When you’re ready to eat it, reheat it in a 400 degree oven for 10-15 minutes until it’s hot and crispy and then follow the steps to invert it onto serving plate.

Links Worth Reading

  • Army ration packs from around the world. The Singaporean MREs look so sad.
  • The Kitchn has a kitchen decluttering challenge each year but this year they’re introducing a cooking refresh challenge. If you weekly dinners and meal planning could use an update (and who’s couldn’t), go sign up now (it’s free!).
  • Nowness is my favorite Internet find of the week with it’s interesting and well-executed shorts about gastronomy worldwide (and it doesn’t stop at food).
  • Protip: The bigger pizza is always a better deal.
  • The Easy Bake Oven is 50 (technically 51 now). I didn’t have one but my best friend did and I loved it. It’s so cool to see how it’s changed over the years.

Cravings: Popcorn

I have grand plans every year of watchng the movies nominated for Oscars. This year it’s been a dismal failure. Out of all the movies nominated across every category, I’ve seen exactly three – Gravity, Star Trek, and Despicable Me 2 – and the last one I saw on a plane long after it came and went from the theaters. It’s just not the same on a plane. I mean, there isn’t even any popcorn.

Popcorn is a vital part of the movie experience, or at least it is for me, and I have a specific rule about it, particularly movie theater popcorn. No eating the popcorn before the movie starts. It’s key to ensuring that I don’t run out of popcorn halfway through the movie. Not one kernel gets eaten until the opening credits start, not by me or anyone else. It drives Jeff crazy.

There isn’t a lot of “recipe” for popcorn but I love trying new flavor combinations so I’ve rounded up some great versions and organized them all on Pinterest. Awards season comes and goes, but popcorn is forever. And if you need a recipe, check out this post from a few years ago that has my favorite way to make it at home.

Pictured above:
Parmesan Thyme Popcorn with Browned Butter from Annie Eats
Cacio e Pepe Popcorn from Clara Persis
Sriracha Caramel Corn from Noms for the Poor

Links Worth Reading

The list of links is short and sweet today but it provides a lot of reading. Let’s get to it:
  • Brilliant instructions on tempering chocolate using the microwave.
  • I love the idea that Mary Todd Lincoln declined to fancy up her “courtin’ cake” even when she became the First Lady.
  • Kitchen prep can be easier (although the garlic thing – how often do you need to peel a whole head of garlic?)
  • I’ve got 99 problems but a missing corkscrew ain’t one. (Yes, I really do think this joke is still funny. No, I was not drunk when I wrote this.)
  • Food52 is having a tournament of cookbooks and forget about winners, I kind of want to check out all of them.
  • I’m not vegan but I really enjoy this series by Serious Eats’s Kenji Lopez Alt. For the last few years he’s spent a month being vegan and his cooking tips are really interesting and helpful (and the vegan chili recipe is amazing).

Shakshouka

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I don’t know when I first discovered shakshouka but I know when I first fell in love with it. It was in Israel, in Tel Aviv, in a weird ramshakle restaurant that everyone knew about. If you ask someone who has eaten shakshouka in Tel Aviv where they had it, most likely the answer will be “Dr Shakshouka.” It’s not a fancy place, more what you would call a dive with mismatched decorations and cheap dishware. And it’s not like shakshouka is a unique dish; it’s very common in Israel and in other countries in the region as well. It’s just that Dr Shakshouka is the best.

Shakshouka, literally meaning “mixture”, is just eggs poached in tomato sauce. Italins call it eggs in purgatory but the idea is the same. At Dr. Shakshouka you can have your shakshouka plain or spicy and with a variety of vegetables, mushrooms, eggplant, spinach, or just on its own. A few scoops of sauce are thrown into a hot pan placed over an intense gas flame until the sauce bubbles violently and then when things are really hot, the eggs are added. When I sat at the table, watching the chef juggle the hot pans on the stove, I was sure it wouldn’t come out right. But when the hot pan was placed in front of me and I broke into an egg the yolk was still soft. It pooled into the tomato sauce, enriching it, just right to sop up with some bread.

I can’t recreate the Doctor’s shakshouka in my own kitchen – my stove just doesn’t have the BTUs to get the sauce that hot and poach the eggs that quickly. I’ve tried to recreate the heat and speed of the original but mostly I just overcook the eggs and scorch the tomato sauce on the edges of the pan. I’ve switched to a lower heat with the tomatoes barely at a simmer so the eggs cook gently. Less fire and intensity but still rich tomato sauce, poached eggs, and bread.

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Shakshouka

Makes one serving but it’s easy to scale up

1/2 – 3/4 cup tomato sauce, depending on how much you want (like this one, perhaps)
2 eggs
Up to ½ cup extra chopped vegetables (optional – I love using mushrooms or spinach)
Bread, for serving

HEAT the sauce over medium-high heat in a pan with a wide enough bottom that it forms a layer no more than an inch deep. For ¾ cup of sauce I use an 8-inch nonstick pan and it works well. Heat the sauce until it’s steaming slightly and there are a few little bubbles just around the edges.
ADD the eggs to the warmed sauce, making a little well for each one with a spatula or wooden spoon so that they stay separate. Or don’t bother if the presentation isn’t so important to you.
COVER the pan with a lid or create a makeshift lid but putting a piece of foil over the top of the pan so the eggs will cook evenly.
COOK for 3-5 minutes, depending on how runny you like your yolks and how hot your stove is. You want the whites to be almost set when you take the pan off the heat. They’ll keep cooking in the hot sauce while you plate it up.
SERVE by spooning the eggs and sauce on top of the bread or by putting it in a bowl and serving the bread on the side for dipping. It’s not a make ahead dish by any means so serve it hot and don’t leave any leftovers.

Links Worth Reading: Valentines Edition

If you’re a Valentines Day hater you might want to just click away now and come back next week. But if you also love this Hallmark holiday, step right this way:

  • Valentines for someone who loves food and puns. (That’s me!)
  • I love a good linzer cookie.
  • This studio has beautiful food photography. And now I want a donut.
  • I’m pro-Valentine’s Day (could you tell?) but I’d lie and say I wasn’t if it meant someone made me this dinner.
  • This post about apologies and red velvet cake is one of the most romantic I’ve seen, even though it’s pretty anti Valentines Day.
  • San Francisco made Food and Wine’s list of world’s most romantic cities. I absolutely agree.
  • And if you just like gawking and pink and red themed recipes, you and I can both get lost right here.