Monday, November 30, 2009

Monday: 'Tis the Season

Mung dal on basmati rice.

Yes, 'tis the season...for dal! In the winter months, when fresh local produce is spare, we turn to dal and other dried legumes more often. We've already blogged about the quick-cooking masoor dal and toor dal with green beans, but mung dal is yet another favorite of ours. Mung dal, the split form of green mung beans, takes about an hour to an hour and a half (almost completely unattended), like toor dal.

One of these days we'll post a more comprehensive introduction to dal, so stay tuned...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sunday: The great pumpkin (soup)

Apple-cheese pumpkin soup with cranberry-walnut pumpkin bread.

This soup is possibly the simplest preparation of a soft-type winter squash - butternut, pumpkin, buttercup, etc. (If you're not familiar with the majestic cheese pumpkin in its natural habitat, check out our recent post here.) Any soft winter squash can be cubed, sauteed with a little onion, simmered in stock until soft, pureed, and then reheated with cream or milk if desired. We did the same here, just adding a couple of tart apples, sliced, to saute with the squash.

The bread is an import from Metropolitan Bakery in Philadelphia. (Highly recommended to our Philly readers.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Book Review: American Chestnut

American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree
Susan Freinkel

(Find it in our widget at right under food nonfiction!)

In light of some of the chestnut recipes featured recently on this blog, it only seemed right to read a book about the sad fate of the American chestnut tree and the improbable but exciting efforts to bring it back.

You may not know the story of what happened to the American chestnut tree, especially if you’re in your 20s – because the tree has been for all intents and purposes extinct in the wild for your entire lifetime. How would we know to miss something that has never been there? Well, back in the day chestnut trees used to comprise a huge amount of the deciduous forest from Maine all the way down to Georgia, across the eastern seaboard and west to Ohio. The trees were particularly important in Appalachia, where they provided a free source of animal feed for impoverished farm families. In fact, there used to be an interesting east coast chestnut economy: many poor mountain families would gather chestnuts each fall and winter after big storms and take them to the general stores which used to serve as the centers of Appalachian commerce. There they’d be paid in little metal tokens which would serve as store credit for shoes, sugar, and other things the families could not make on their own – each store used these credits like its own mini-currency. From there, the general store owners would bring the loads of chestnuts to dealers at train stations; even the train conductor on these trips would get a cut, which was often his best pay for the whole year. The huge chestnut haul would finally be shipped to cities like Philadelphia and our very own New York City, and distributed to street vendors – before the blight, street carts roasting chestnuts were a classic scene and aroma on cold early winter New York City nights.

But in 1904, in the park which today has become the Bronx Zoo, a forester first discovered the fungus known as the chestnut blight – Cryphonectria parasitica. C. parasitica, unbeknownst to anyone, had taken advantage of increased international commerce by hitching a ride in from Asia, where it attacks Japanese and Chinese chestnuts. Those related species carry a high degree of immunity to the fungus and therefore usually survive infection. Not so for the American chestnut tree: this fungus creeps under its bark and eventually chokes off the flow of its sap, killing the tree within a couple years. Only some of the root system remains intact, and it sends up new shoots for several years more in an effort to regenerate. However, in a disturbingly Sisyphean manner, every time those shoots start to get big enough to be a viable sapling, the fungus attacks again and suffocates them. If you take a hike in eastern forests you may well see the little shoots of these frustrated American chestnuts, but you are extremely unlikely ever to see an adult tree. By midcentury, the blight had killed about three to four BILLION American chestnut trees, basically eliminating them from the wild but for some miraculous old survivors.

Susan Freinkel’s American Chestnut tells this story, and goes on to chronicle the various 20th-century efforts to save the chestnut from its blight. The first third of this book reads roughly like a disaster movie, with the blight creeping down the coastline despite all efforts of frantic state governments to save this valuable tree. (Ironically, many of them made it worse by chopping down vast swaths of chestnut forest in an effort to quarantine the fungus or to get maximum value out of the chestnut lumber before the trees were attacked.) The next third is more of a detective novel – chronicling how various scientists and enthusiasts, from the start of the pandemic to today, have come up with ideas as to how to save the chestnut.

One idea is called “hypovirulence,” and basically consists of introducing a parasite upon the parasite. Yes, this has a disturbing give-a-mouse-a-cookie quality – but it turns out there actually is a virus that weakens C. parasitica (as Frienkel says, it’s like the fungus catching a cold), which can give an individual American chestnut a fighting chance. Unfortunately, the chestnut as it previously existed almost always isn’t strong enough to ultimately fight off the virus even where hypovirulence is employed.

Freinkel also devotes a chapter to efforts to genetically engineer a blight-resistant American chestnut. The resources haven’t been devoted to this that have been brought to bear on, say, creating Monsanto’s “roundup-ready” crop monstrosities, but a couple researchers have tried to add foreign genes to the chestnut to help it resist the blight. (Research still hasn’t revealed which genes give the Chinese and Japanese chestnuts their immunity.) So far, it hasn’t worked out so well; Freinkel deals with this subject evenhandedly, and expresses justifiable concern about things like adding antimicrobial frog-skin genes to an edible plant. (Believe it or not, that was actually one idea.)

But the majority of this section concerns efforts to breed blight-resistant chestnuts, both by crossing the rare surviving American chestnuts with each other and – the most promising method – by “backcrossing” American chestnuts with their resistant Chinese cousins. Basically, this means making an American x Chinese match, and then crossing the result with other American trees over and over and over, selecting the best offspring that still have good resistance, until you have a tree that is almost entirely genetically American but isn’t susceptible to the blight. The American Chestnut Foundation took this approach. Of course, trees grow slowly, so the timescale for doing a project like this was many decades – far longer than one individual researcher’s career. That’s part of what makes the story of the chestnut a good book and an interesting exploration of environmental tragedy, the power of human nostalgia, and faith in science to ultimately put things right.

But what makes this book stand out to me is not just the compelling story, but the author’s thoughtfulness about the ultimate consequences of releasing a new, blight-resistant “backcrossed” American-ish chestnut tree into the wild once we do have one. What does environmental restoration really mean? After all, we can’t actually recreate the forests that existed back before the blight (which were filled with passenger pigeons – oops – and not yet devastated by coal mining). Is it meaningful to create our best approximation? Are we kidding ourselves to think that’s even possible? Does it just make us feel better about the next time we make a huge environmental mess, because we presume we can just clean it up later? Freinkel comes down on the side of restoration, but you can see why it’s best to be cautious where we have insufficient scientific knowledge to really know the consequences of our environmental tinkering.

This book was written in 2006, so the story ends right at the cusp of developing a truly resistant, mostly-American chestnut tree – and I’m happy to say that since then, the news has been good. Check out this Times article from September on the first efforts to reintroduce a brand new blight-resistant tree:

For what it’s worth, since this IS a food blog: real American chestnuts are apparently a little smaller and therefore harder to peel than Chinese ones, but they are sweeter, with a carroty taste. I like the hybrids we can buy at the market today, but I still hope that someday I can try a real American chestnut.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009: Turkey-free edition

Thanksgiving 2009, clockwise from top: polenta cakes with cranberries, kohlrabi-carrot slaw, prosciutto-wrapped sweet potatoes with sage, pumpkin noodle kugel, garlic-roasted Brussels sprouts in balsamic vinegar, and cranberry-beet sauce.

Welcome to a special traveling edition of D4SA! We cooked this year's Thanksgiving dinner at Lizz's parents' house in Philadelphia. None of us are crazy about turkey, so instead we decided to pick several smaller, mostly-vegetarian dishes that were seasonally appropriate and called on traditional Thanksgiving flavors. For this we relied heavily on this list created by Mark Bittman, author of the standby cookbook How to Cook Everything. It contains tons of ideas for holiday dishes that can be made in advance so that everything isn't competing for the oven at the last minute. Although most of these dishes could be prepared ahead of time, we decided instead to do the traditional Thanksgiving cooking marathon for several hours before dinner. Below are some before-and-after photos of each dish, for your viewing pleasure.

Some beautiful fresh local cranberries:

In a traditional cranberry sauce, the berries are just simmered with water and sugar until they all pop and break down. (Some people add gelatin for a firmer texture.) But Mark Bittman suggested adding sweet and earthy grated beets:

The beet and cranberry are simmered together with a little orange juice, grated orange rind, and maple syrup to taste:

With time the ingredients broke down and combined; the sauce ended up with a naturally and pleasantly thick texture, and a more earthy, complex flavor.

Check out the museum-quality flatware!

For the only meat dish of the meal, we wrapped wedges of pre-boiled sweet potatoes in sheets of prosciutto, enclosing a sage leaf in each one.

The wraps are thrown into the oven to roast briefly, just until they have attained a nice crispy texture.

The pumpkin-noodle kugel required a couple more steps than some of our other dishes, but would have been easy to do if we had started with some frozen pureed pumpkin. Instead we used this beautiful white "moonshine" cooking pumpkin, purchased by Lizz's parents at a local food stand:

The pumpkin was scraped out and cut into quarters, then placed cut side down on a baking sheet and baked until soft. We then scraped out the flesh (using a grapefruit spoon....very high-tech) and pureed it in the blender.

From that point, it was simple to add it to the kugel: we just boiled some egg noodles, and separately mixed eggs, milk, pumpkin puree, melted butter, and cinnamon in a bowl. We then layered the noodles and the milk mixture in a couple large casseroles and topped both with breadcrumbs. The kugel baked for a little under an hour, until a knife inserted in the center came out clean.

Meanwhile, we made the kohlrabi-carrot slaw our faithful readers may remember from its recent appearance on our blog. Here the kohlrabi slices are draining in a colander after being tossed with salt:

For a big holiday meal, it's nice to mix dishes you already know how to cook with ones that are new to you - we enjoyed making the easy kohlrabi dish but also trying out our first kugel.

For a green veggie, we reprised the balsamic Brussels sprouts which were also featured on the blog recently.

We put a twist on the traditional cornbread by instead making Mark Bittman's polenta cakes this year. Polenta can be a soft, creamy "pudding"-like dish or it can appear in a more solid form like this. The final texture is determined by the amount of liquid you add and how long you cook it, but you can also crisp up polenta by pan-frying or (as we did here) broiling the individual pieces. For this recipe we made polenta as usual, using a relatively smaller amount of liquid, and also mixing in some chopped fresh cranberries. After spreading the polenta in a baking dish to cool, we cut it into these little cakes and put them on a baking sheet under the broiler until they became crisp on both sides.

As Bob Dylan once said, behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain - and this meal was no exception. Sadly, Lizz's bicep was a casualty of the baking process. It made some inopportune contact with a hot oven door and now bears a dramatic two-inch-long burn mark.

...but ya shoulda seen the door!

Of course, the meal wouldn't have been complete without dessert. But in this, D4SA had the assistance of a special guest chef - Lizz's dad made one of his famous pies. We had requested pecan, and that is what we got:

For those of our faithful readers who made it this far - we're thankful for you this year!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tuesday: A light pre-Thanksgiving dinner

Roasted purple cauliflower with parmesan, white beans, and quinoa.

This recipe calls for roasting cauliflower florets in a baking dish with a little oil, garlic and lemon juice. This preparation results in a whole different flavor profile for cauliflower compared to how it tastes boiled - some people who don't think they like cauliflower might be interested in trying it out.

Although white cauliflower is the most common cultivar, you can also find it in peachy-orange and purple. (Yes, the color is completely natural!) This purple cauliflower took on a red tinge when roasted.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Monday: Light lemongrass soup

Tofu-lemongrass soup with pak choy and dried shiitake mushrooms.

This Thai-style soup featured a very strongly-flavored and interesting broth due to the combination of lemongrass, shiitakes, brown sugar, soy sauce and cayenne. It reminded us of a sweet-and-sour (and spicy) soup.

Yes, occasionally we do just follow random recipes from strange internet sites....but only when they look good...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sunday lunch: Simple Brussels sprouts

Brussels sprouts with almond and lemon rind.

From the classic Italian cookbook The Silver Spoon, it doesn't get much simpler than this: Brussels sprouts are boiled until tender; garlic and almonds are sauteed until fragrant in melted butter, and the chopped rind of one lemon is added along with a couple teaspoons of breadcrumbs; finally the sprouts are tossed in this mixture to coat.

Farmer's Market Haul, 11/22/09

It's an abbreviated cooking week due to the impending holiday, so this list really looks more like a "supplement" than a "haul"...

purple cauliflower

Bosc pears

whole wheat bread from Meredith's Bakery

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Saturday: The "C" word

Celeriac-pink potato mash on field mustard bed with roasted pumpkin seeds.

You might notice one very common grocery store vegetable which is missing from our list of tags at right...celery. Lizz has hated celery passionately for as long as she can remember, so it is basically banned from our house. We have, however, enacted a celeriac amnesty policy.

What is celeriac, you ask? Well, it's otherwise known as "celery root." It is in fact a variety of celery grown for its globe-shaped, knobby underground root rather than the stalk, and it is the default form of celery in some countries, including France. The taste is celery-esque, but milder and a bit earthier, and it has a uniform fine texture similar to that of kohlrabi - none of the watery stringiness of stalk celery.

This is a dairy-free mash of celeriac and potatoes. Both vegetables are peeled and cut into chunks, then boiled for 25 minutes until soft. Finally they're mashed with just a little added oil. We sauteed a couple bunches of wild field mustard in olive oil and used them as a bed; they provided a nice sharp contrast.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Farmer's Market Supplement, 11/19/09

This week's supplement: just milk and yogurt from Ronnybrook farm.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Wednesday: Braised carrots and chestnuts

Carrots and chestnuts braised with fennel seeds, served on wild rice.

Another nice use of chestnuts: pairing them with carrots was another way to emphasize their natural sweetness. The gentle anise flavor of fennel seeds was a surprisingly subtle complement. Overall we actually found this dish more complex than would be implied by the simplicity of its ingredients.

We basically followed this recipe, though we again roasted the chestnuts instead of boiling them, and we omitted the thyme (though it probably would have been nice if we'd had some).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tuesday: And now for something completely different

Lemongrass-quinoa pilaf with Italian cabbage and tofu.

You can probably tell from the above description that this meal was...a little random.

This dish came about because we were looking for recipes which could incorporate the lemongrass we had picked up at the market. We found a suitable lemongrass-flavored quinoa pilaf in Didi Emmons's Vegetarian Planet, and decided to substitute our mystery-varietal cabbage for the broccoli it called for. Hey, they're both crucifers, right? As it turns out, the much stronger flavor of cabbage probably didn't meld quite as well with the lemongrass as broccoli would have, even though it went well enough with the tofu and quinoa elements. In any case, the dish was certainly interesting and wholesome.

The cabbage was too pretty not to show you - the farmer we bought it from specializes in Italian vegetables, and he told us it would be similar in taste and texture to "cavolo nero," also known as dinosaur or Tuscan kale ("black cabbage" in Italian).

Feed me, Seymourrrr...feed me all night looong...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday: Taco night, redux

Roasted butternut squash tacos with black beans, parsley and toasted almonds.

As we were titling this post, we realized this was actually our second Monday taco night in only a couple months. (What is it about Mondays?)

When we recently made butternut squash roasted with warm spices, we had the thought that it might be very nice in a taco. And indeed it was. We riffed on the squash by adding some black beans simmered with a little cumin and a bay leaf, then stuffing both into softshell tacos along with some fresh chopped parsley and chopped, roasted almonds.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Farmer's Market Haul, 11/14/09

Back to Union Square this week - it was crowded despite the dreary weather. The season will start winding down soon, but we haven't seen any signs of it yet...

field mustard
pak choy
acorn squash
cheese pumpkin
Brussels sprouts
dark Italian cabbage - probably Capriccio
purple carrots
Rocambole garlic

Caco grapes

whole wheat sourdough bread from Our Daily Bread
Hooligan cheese from Cato Corner Farm
milk from Milk Thistle Farm
bamboo honey from Tremblay Apiaries
organic pastry flour from Wild Hive Farm
final red yarn from Catskill Merino Sheep Farm

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday: Putting the "flex" in "flexitarian"

Brussels sprouts braised with duck prosciutto on quinoa.

This is our variation on the classic combination of bacon and Brussels sprouts. In fact, we were trying to buy bacon for this recipe (yes, we do cook humanely raised local bacon about once a year as a special treat - it takes Oscar about a week to forgive us for not sharing) but we couldn't find any at the Columbia market. Instead, we've substituted duck prosciutto, which is just chopped and added for a couple minutes at the end of the braising process, whereas when bacon is used it must be fried as a first step.

Other than onion - or shallots if you have them - and a little salt, that's all there is to this dish. Yum.

Friday cat blogging, live free or die edition

If you want Oscar's catnip carrot, you'll have to pry it from his sharp, pointy claws.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thursday: "Hash-browns," Indian style

Indian potatoes with whole spices and sesame seed.

We'd actually both eaten dinner earlier this evening, but decided to make this little potato curry as a late-night snack. We needed to use up the remaining German Butterball potatoes. The Adirondack pinks were thrown in there for variety.

This recipe is a pretty basic curry, but the results are delicious: the potatoes are boiled whole and then cubed; then a series of spices are added to hot oil (asafoetida, fenugreek, black mustard seed, cumin), followed by a lot of white sesame seed and a little powdered turmeric. The potatoes are added and fried for about ten minutes total, adding a little amchur with salt and pepper halfway through.

Most of the curries we make don't involve sesame, but its flavor really added a richness to this dish and made it seem more substantial.

Farmer's Market Supplement, 11/12/09

Today's supplement: more whole chestnuts, and butter from Ronnybrook farm.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Wednesday: Pasta with parmesan

Pasta with anchovy-tomato sauce and grated parmesan.

This typical red pasta sauce with canned tomato was definitely enlivened by the Parmaggiano reggiano we realized we still had in the fridge.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tuesday: Miso-Mispoona

Mispoona-miso soup with udon noodles and boiled edamame.

We had some lingering mispoona from last week and decided to wilt it into this simple miso-based udon noodle soup.

There was a time when we used to buy those miso soup "packets" which contain powdered miso along with dried seaweed and tofu. Then we realized it's ridiculously easy to just keep a container of miso paste in the fridge (it keeps indefinitely) and a bag of dried wakame seaweed in the pantry. Now it's an easy standby dinner to which many vegetables can be added for variety.

In Japan miso soup is often eaten for breakfast, but we're not that authentic.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Monday: Kohlrabi-slaw

Kohlrabi-carrot slaw with baked tofu.

Since it consists of shredded carrots, kohlrabi, and vinegar, plus the flavors of anise seed and dill, this dish bears a resemblance to cole slaw. It's no coincidence that "kohl" sounds like "cole" - both those prefixes derive from the German word for cabbage. (The "slaw" part is derived from the word for "salad," which is itself actually derived from the word "salt" - making "cole slaw" "salty cabbage salad.")

As for kohlrabi, it's a cruciferous vegetable which grows a bulbous enlarged above-ground stem. The leaves are edible if you happen to find them in good shape, but they don't keep well. The kohlrabi "bulb" itself has a fibrous outer layer that varies in thickness, so it's not enough just to peel off the skin - you have to be sure to cut down deep enough to remove the portion with an unpleasant grain. The soft interior is greenish-white in color, and has a consistency similar to broccoli stems, with a fresh, slightly green, crisp taste.

Kohlrabi tastes pleasant raw and is a good fresh green vegetable in the winter months; it can also be braised or used in soups, where it reaches a softer, smooth consistency.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sunday: Steamed squash

Steamed ambercup squash on spinach greens, with walnuts and sherry-honey-shoyu dressing.

Often the skin of winter squashes isn't eaten, but in this recipe you peel off half the skin (ideally in a pretty pattern - not as easy as it sounds) before steaming the squash slices. The remaining skin ended up tender and nice to eat.

Spinach has finally started to show up at the market! - this is the first time we've bought it this year. Before we started going to farmers' markets we didn't know spinach was really a winter vegetable. Here it's used raw as a bed for the squash, though it wilts a little from the squash's heat.

Farmer's Market Haul, 11/8/09

Law school obligations interfered with our Saturday marketing this week, so we visited the Morningside farmer's market again...

Brussels sprouts
Adirondack pink potatoes
red beets
purple kohlrabi
(we still had some winter squashes waiting at home...)

apples - several varietals including Suncrisp, Gala, Cameo, and Newtown Pippin

apple cider
milk from Milk Thistle Farm
duck prosciutto

Friday, November 6, 2009

Friday cat blogging, stereotype edition

Oscar wanted this ball of yarn. Verrrry original, Oscar.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Wednesday: Squash salad

Warm butternut squash and chickpea salad with pita.

Before this year we actually didn't cook much with butternut squash, despite it being the most common winter squash in grocery stores. At most, we'd make a Thanksgiving squash puree as a side dish. We're still exploring the higher culinary potential of the humble butternut, and this recipe was another nice addition to our repertoire. The only tricky part is trying to make homemade tahini by grinding toasted sesame seeds with some water.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tuesday: Balsamic Brussels

Broiled haddock with brown rice and garlic-roasted Brussels sprouts.

These sprouts got an amazing treatment out of Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: they were allowed to sit undisturbed in a little oil in a hot skillet for 10 minutes with several whole cloves of garlic, and then the whole skillet was transferred into a 450F oven for about 30 minutes. They were finished with a dash of balsamic vinegar. The sprouts end up deliciously singed and slightly crunchy.

If you haven't seen Brussels sprouts in their native habitat, you might be amazed by the below:

Yes, they really grow like that! The sprouts grow like little mini-cabbages along a thick, inedible stalk. The protruding stems once had big cruciferous-looking leaves; these are lopped off before the stalk is sold at market. It is extremely satisfying to snap the sprouts off. (Kind of like the feeling of popping bubble wrap.)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sunday: Wintry comfort food

Classic leek and potato soup.

We make this at least once a year; it's one of Giselle's favorite winter comfort foods. Chopped-up leek and potato are simply sauteed in some oil; then broth is added and it all simmers for under a half hour. Serve with crusty bread.