Tuesday, May 27, 2008

nothing says Memorial Day Weekend like knishes!

It was such a lovely weekend! I woke up early on Saturday morning, and finished reading the book (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith) for my Queer Book Club on Wednesday (if you're here, you're queer, and you're a book nerd and want in, lemme know). Then I hit the Strip and met up with the E-dawg, and ran into lots of other pals down there. At the Firehouse Farmers Market I got some shittakes, "walking onions", baby greens, basil, eggs, asparagus, turnip greens pie, baba ganoush and pita chips, and these teensy little baby turnips that the woman I bought them for called them something like "hot currans" or "hot callans" or "hot somethingorother". Anyone know the name I'm searching for? I wish I'd photographed them. Whatever they were, they were really delicious and pretty cute. I chopped them up raw into a salad. The texture was sorta like water chestnut, the taste was sweet and mild. Yum. I also hit 21st Street Coffee for the best coffee in the 'Burgh, and a chat with the E-dawg. Then E-dawg went off with Barbara to do a 50-mile bike ride, and I stopped in to Cafe Richard, where sadly someone had already bought up all the veggie quiche (wild mushroom with goat cheese and scallions - sob!), so I just got a coconut custard tart.

Sunday we met up with some peeps, and trekked out to the Rachel Carson Homestead for the Sustainable Feast. That evening Barbara wanted to make knishes, so we used the recipe from Vegan With A Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz (we just made the potato and the spinach, not the sweet potato. also, for a non-vegan detour, we added some cheese to the spinach ones). We had Mags over to hang with us, and also used her for a little kneading power. They are serious comfort food. Little pastry rolls of warm potato-y goodness. Yum. We paired that with a salad made from my farmers market bounty: the baby greens and some leftover spinach from the knishes, some roasted asparagus cut into 1" pieces, chopped red bell pepper, the baby turnips I mentioned above, several of the walking onions, carrots, chevre, and a quick lemon vinaigrette with lemon zest and juice, olive oil, shallots and salt and pepper. Again, yum.

I had the leftover knishes for breakfast on Monday morning. (OH MY GOD THERE IS NOTHING BETTER THAN A LONG WEEKEND, HUH?).

Last night we went in completely the opposite direction. Ice cream from Cold Stone Creamery (my favorite combo is Chocolate Cake Batter Ice Cream with strawberries and yellow pound cake folded in) and fries from the O.

One can't be virtuous all the time.

[this post is dedicated to the memory of a sweet little cat I once knew. Sports Kramer, rest in peace].

Thursday, May 22, 2008

spring fever

You wouldn't know it by how often I've been blogging, but I really do have spring (food) fever. There's nothing like the bursting forth of green after a long, grey winter. When the farmers markets and CSAs kick it into gear, when you can start getting local produce again. This is my favorite time of year.

The Firehouse Farmers Market started up again two weeks ago, and the city farmers markets are on their second week this week (they're still a little slim this time of year, but that'll change soon!). I had to switch my CSA. Unfortunately one of the owners of Mildred's Daughters had an injury recently that made their CSA program unworkable for this season, but luckily the good folks at Penn's Corner took the E-dawg and I under their wings. (Some of my work friends did the spring share, too, and it's been amazing! I can't wait for mine to start! I know they still have some openings if you haven't signed up for a CSA for this year yet). And, if you're wondering what the heck a CSA is, here's the wikipedia listing that tells you all about it. It's a fantastic idea that gets you the freshest produce available, and helps you support the local economy. You can find info for the various CSAs in the area here.

It feels good. Do it.

I love having a Saturday morning ritual centered around the Farmer's Market. How it usually goes down is that I meet up with E-dawg at some point (we carpool or ride bikes, or she rides and meets me, or whatever). Lately our itin has been that we hit the farmers market first, then Cafe Richard (which recently just changed into the hands of Raymond, one of the long-time staples in the kitchen), sometimes Reyna (for the softest, most delicious tortillas ever), sometimes Mon Amiee Chocolat (especially great during cold weather because they have the best hot chocolate I've ever tasted), sometimes Penzeys or Penn Mac, or Enrico's or wherever else we need. Then roll up into 21st Street Coffee for some fantastic brew and we sit upstairs in the little loft--sometimes a friendly game of Foodie Fight (nice play, opponent), sometimes just chatting and people-watching. It's something I look forward to every week. I love having a little ritual of 100% pure fun, and I'm elated to see fresh local goodness in the market.

I love the Strip District on Saturday mornings. I love the bustle of it. I love all the different shops. I love the incredible smells. It feels like I'm in a city the way I imagined living in a city would feel when I was a kid.

Anyhow, I've made a couple dishes that I really enjoyed recently from my market bounty. One of my favorite vendors at the farmers market is Mushrooms For Life. They have a fantastic variety of cultivated and wild mushrooms. I love mushrooms. Week before last I got some shittakes and some royal trumpets, and used them in a dish I took to a friend's birthday potluck. I based this dish on Heidi's Spring Butterfiles with Lemon Cream from Cook 1.0. While the pappardelle pasta had a great flavor and texture, I think it'd be better with a lighter pasta, like the butterflies Heidi suggests or orecchiette or something like that. Here's what I did:

Spring Pasta
(makes enough to take to a potluck)

Boil salted water, then throw in your pasta and cook until pasta is al dente. When you have about one minute to go, through in some asparagus (a small bunch, cut into 1" pieces) and some peas (I used frozen petit green peas, about 2 c.). Drain and set aside.

In the meantime, chop up a mix of mushrooms (I used shittake and royal trumpets, about 1/3 lb. each), and saute in some butter (about 3 T.) with some diced onion (1/2 onion) and minced garlic (about 3 cloves). Add in a few shakes of crushed red pepper, salt (helps the shrooms to give up their moisture) and pepper. Cook long enough that the mushrooms gave up their juice and are golden brown. When they're ready, add 2 c. heavy cream and 1 c. milk and cook over low heat until it thickens into a cream sauce.

Pour the cream sauce over the pasta/asparagus/peas and stir gently.

Now zest three lemons, chop up a handful of basil, and grate about 1 cup of cheese (I used about 1 c. of parmesan and about 1/2 c. of this wonderful raw goat cheddar I got at the market from the East End Food Coop's booth; I forget who the maker is). Chop up about 1/2 - 3/4 c. of pine nuts. Reserve about 1 T. each of the zest, pinenuts, basil and cheese, and mix the rest in. Sprinkle the reserved items over the top for good looks. Salt and pepper to taste.

This flavor is all about spring.

[I want to mention as an aside that while I don't often stress this, I do use all "organic" ingredients when I cook. Not necessarily all certified organic (you can read about that distinction in the brilliant book The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan), but grown without chemicals. I try to buy as much local stuff as I can, and to eat as seasonally as I can. It's better for you because the food is fresher, it's better for your local economy because you're supporting local farmers and growers, and it's better for the environment because you're not contributing to adding additional chemicals to the soil (and the subsequent run-off), you're not using fossil fuels to bring your food from across the globe, etc. I'm just sayin'. I do make exceptions, but I like to keep these goals in mind when I'm choosing foods].

Okay. Back to cooking and eating.

Last week I heard tale that Mushrooms For Life were bringing some foraged morels to the market. I got there early, but there was already a line. The word spread back down the line that he'd brought about 1 pound of morels, and was divvying them up in 2 oz portions. I crossed my fingers that I'd make it to the front before they were sold out. And, I did! There was enough for me, and for the people behind me, and then everyone else had to console themselves with other beautiful mushrooms and ramps and the like.

I hadn't had a morel in a couple years. My stepdad used to forage them in a couple secret patches on their property, but a couple years ago someone found his stash, and made it there before he did. Last year Kramer and I talked about joining the Western PA Mycological Club (I think that's the name), but never got around to making it to a meeting or foraging with the group. Anyhow, morels are wonderful mushrooms. They're kind of lovely and creepy looking at the same time. And, they have this really amazing flavor. It's really kind of meaty. Like, steak-esque, but gamier and earthier. They live up to the hype.
I made a dish with the morels, and my leftover shittakes and royal trumpets. I didn't really have much of a vision to start with, but I just made it up as I went along (often my cooking method) it turned out fantastically well. The texture was almost risotto-ish and the taste was reminiscent of stroganoff. In other words, yummalicious.

My method was to cook some brown rice.

Then to saute the mushrooms in some butter with onions and garlic. Keep the heat kinda low so you can cook them for a while. I wanted the onions to be soft and sweet, but not browned. I through in some minced rosemary, salt and pepper and crushed red pepper. After about 15 minutes or so, I deglazed the pan with a little sherry, and when that moisture was gone, I added a couple glugs of heavy cream. Let it bubble for a minute and thicken.

Then I made a big dip in a bowl of rice and scooped in some of the mushroom mixture, and crumbled some (okay, lots) of goat cheese. I photographed it at this point, but it really was kicked up a notch when I stirred it all together. The goat cheese lent it a fantastic creaminess and tanginess, and the morels made it so meaty that if I hadn't made it myself I'd have sworn that there was some kind of beef or something up in there. I made enough for two servings, and accidentally ate them both for dinner. So simple, so incredibly delicious.

Want to get your local and sustainable grub on this weekend? Check out the Sustainable Feast at the Rachel Carson Homestead on Sunday noon - 5pm. E-dawg, Kara and I went last year, and it was really super. $5 gets you in, and tastes of all the lovely food. Some big Burrito peeps will be cooking up some goodness (Corporate Chef, Bill Fuller and Casbah's Executive Chef, Alan Peet), too. It should be a Real Good Time. And if there's one thing I like, it's a good time.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

busy with overflowing goodness

I'm going to say this again. It won't be the first time, and I'm sure it won't be the last. I have been so freakin' busy! Busy at work, busy looking for a new place in which to cohabitate with my lady-love, busy with other general life things. Work especially has been kicking the ol' hind-end with regularity. It's the high season in the catering world--weddings, communions, graduations, etc. On one hand it's great, on the other, I'm a tired lady. But, things are good all-around. I'm still loving the job, and Barbara and I found an awesome place to live! It's so cute and perfect, and had everything (except a dishwasher...) on our wish list. We're going to be residents of the fine neighborhood of Bloomfield-ish/Lawrenceville-ish/Strip-ish/Garfield-ish soon! I'll post some pics when we get in there and set up all our stuff just exactly how we want it. And, there's room for a small garden in the back yard, and already has a compost pile going. I'm so, so, so thrilled--both about the place itself, and to live in sin with my gal. Good stuff.

I promised to tell the tale of my fantastic dinner at Eleven. Seriously. It was so good I actually wrote a fan letter (er, email) to the Executive Chef, Derek Stevens (like the nerd that I am). He wrote back a really nice note. I'm supposed to have a work meeting with him soon, and I'm kinda nervous. See, chefs and authors, (and, uh, some musicians/rock stars) are my rock stars.

Anyway, to the meal. Eleven's menu changes daily, and there's always a Chef's Tasting Menu, and a Chef's Vegetarian Tasting Menu ($45 for five courses). It's not often that you find such a thoughtfully created and prepared menu especially for vegetarians. I love food and love eating out, and always look wistfully at tasting menus that sound fantastic but are heavy on the meat. So, Barbara and I both opted for the Chef's Vegetarian Tasting Menu. I should mention also, that we have pretty different palates, but that we were both pleased as punch. It was interesting, delicious and varied. Our menu was...

amuse bouche:
pea puree with roasted red pepper and chili oil
This was a really nice taste--very fresh-tasting and very lightly spiced with the red pepper adding a slight bit of acidity and the oil adding a tiny bit of heat)

soup course:
Cauliflower Puree w/ nasturium, herb & brioche salad
This soup was a really wonderful presentation. the soup itself was rich and lovely, and the nasturium and herbs (basil and parsley, i think) looked beautiful on the top, and added a nice balance. The brioche croutons were really flavorful and just-crisp. This plate was so pretty that another diner being seated stopped in his tracks to ask us what it was. The servers also brought around some of the lovely house-made breads (I tried a sunflower one with golden raisins and also a walnut one with the entree. Both were delish).

salad course:
Three Sisters Farm Mesclun with lemon-rhubarb vinaigrette
The greens were gorgeous and tender as they only can be at the height of spring. The salad was very lightly dressed (as it should be!). The dressing was mouth-watering, and just a little bit creamy. Maybe a little yogurt as the base?

appetizer course:
Chili Relleno with Capriole goat cheese, salsa romesco, local honey, oregano
Whoa. I think that's exactly what I said when I tasted this. The presentation was stunning, and I think I've thought about that salsa romesco every single day since this dinner. It was the epitome of freshness, and the nuttiness pushed it over the top into richness and perfection. The local honey drizzle on the plate was genius. This is one of the single best plates of food I've ever eaten. For reals.

entree course:
Spring Pea Ravioli with black truffle, Parmesan cream and basil
So, I thought nothing would EVER be able to top the Chili Relleno until I tasted my first mouthful of this dish. The raviolis were tender little pillows of love, the Parmesan cream sauce was incredibly rich and velvety, the truffles added an utterly amazing level of earthiness, the basil cut through the richness and brought the freshness back into the forefront. I seriously thought about donning a ski mask, and running into the kitchen with a weapon and some huge containers and demanding the kitchen fill them up tout suite. Ah-mazing. Uh-mazing. I'm not even hungry, and my stomach growled in agreement while I was typing that.

dessert course:
So, here's the thing. The chef's dessert pairing was an Orange-Buttermilk Creamsicle house-made ice cream with lavender, white chocolate shortbread and orange salsa. But, they let us peek at the complete dessert menu, and I was overwhelmed with choices. I went with the Meyer Lemon creme brulee (and Barbara got the Molten Chocolate Cake with cashew ice cream and black pepper-cherry coulis). It was good, but not quite as tart as I like. Plus, I just wished I would've stayed with the chef's suggestion since I think the interplay between courses is one of the great things about a tasting menu. I couldn't help it, I looked at the list of desserts and couldn't think straight anymore.

But, anyhow, the service was fantastic, the food was utterly phenomenal, I had a really delicious glass of vino (2006 Chateau de la Vieille Tour Bourdeaux Blanc), a beautiful dinner companion, and a lovely evening out. It doesn't get much better than that.

Eleven on Urbanspoon

Okay. Amen. I have much more to say and many more topics I'd like to write about, but I've reached the end of my block-o-time. In the meantime, check out the E-dawg's new blog. She's a fantastic and interestingly introspective writer.


Friday, May 2, 2008

Susie's brownie recipe

I wanted to follow through on my promise of sharing my favorite brownie recipe that was given to me by my good pal Susie. She's a great baker, and since she moved to California last year, I've missed her treats. Luckily I got this recipe out of her (and her recipe for banana bread) before she split town. I love this recipe for the intense chocolatiness and the ease of preparation. I'm not sure if she made this recipe, or if she just knew a good thing when she saw it, but it's definitely a good thing. Without further ado...

Easy Cocoa Brownies (a la Susie)

Preheat your oven to 350 (F).

1/2 c. melted butter
1 t. vanilla
1 c. sugar
2 eggs, beaten

Mix butter and sugar thoroughly. Stir in vanilla and beaten egg mixture.

1/2 c. all-purpose flour (EK note: I made these once with WW flour, and didn't like the texture as much. Now I usually use King Arthur)
1/4 t. aluminum-free baking powder
1/3 c. unsweetened cocoa
1/4 t. salt

Sift together, and mix with the wet ingredients.

Spread in a greased 9" square pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until brownies start to pull away from the edges of the pan or when a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.


For the version I made for Saturday's rampin' road trip, I used just slightly less sugar (maybe reduced by 2 T.), and added a vanilla buttercream frosting with a few drops of red food coloring to make it a soft pink fluff color.
I used:
3 c. powdered/confectioners sugar
1 c. softened butter
1 t. vanilla
2-3 T. half and half (you could use milk, that's just what I had on hand)
3-ish drops of red food coloring
some colored sugar sprinkles, if you wanna

It makes a lot. Use the leftovers to make your girlfriend "icing balls" (don't ask), or refrigerate for about a week or so.

Stay tuned next week for tales of my fantastic dinner last night with Barbara at Eleven. Wowza. Up there with one of my all-time favorite meals. Fresh, seasonal, interesting, delicious. That is what I'm talkin' about.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

ramp, ramp, ramp it up!, the reprise

First of all, if you are down a little windy West Virginia road, and you stop to ask a backwoodsy type of fella for directions, and he looks surprised, and cautions you to take another route, you might wanna listen. Just sayin'. Unless of course, you feel like taking your friends and your friend's brand new car on a True West Virginia Adventure (tm), being over two hours late to meet your parents, and missing out on a significant portion of the Ramp Day festivities. I mean, if that's how you roll, go for it.

That is how we rolled. Not really on purpose, though. We had some Google directions that instructed us on the shortest (by distance) route (which would be fine as the crow flies, but we were not crows and not flyin'), which were made tougher to follow since most of the roads are not marked in that part of the world. These are roads that you only know the name of because you grew up there, as your mothers and their mothers before them. You just know where to go because you've been going that way (on a four-wheeler, mostly) since before you can remember.

But, luckily we had some road snacks to sustain us and good times to keep us going. And, we made it eventually. But, let's start with the road snacks.

I made, as is tradition, curried pea and potato pocket tarts with a shredded mango dipping sauce (I didn't actually make the sauce. I think I got it at Kohli's Imports a while back. Or maybe Trader Joe's. I don't remember). Anyhow, these are based on a recipe from Heidi Swanson's Cook 1.0: A Fresh Approach to the Vegetarian Kitchen (aka my guru). They are delicious and they are cute. It doesn't get much better than that.

I also made some brownies. I pretty much always use this fantastic recipe I scored from my friend Susie a couple years ago, and then just do variations on the theme. This time I reduced the sugar a little bit, added some chopped walnuts and semi-sweet chocolate chips, and then frosted them with a vanilla buttercream that I dyed pink, 'cause, again, cuteness. Plus, some little hot pink sugar sprinkes. They were yum. I'll try to remember to post the recipe because it really is the best brownie recipe ever. And, it's really easy.

So, anyhow, yes, we finally arrived, and met up with Ma & Pa, and got in a (very long, very windy) line. The logistics for this dinner were a little wack. Helvetia was originally a Swiss craftsman community, and they do stay true to that ideal in large part, but whatever Swiss efficiency they had seems to have been bred out once they started mixing it up with the West Virginians. 'Cause West Virginians, as a general rule, are not in a hurry. But, we did eventually eat. Unfortunately pretty much everything had some type of pork (ham or bacon) in it, except the applesauce and the coffee (and I'm not so sure about the coffee). I did a little suspension of disbelief and ate a few things that were surely bacony, but not as overtly so. Unfortunately, we'd arrived late so we missed out on hitting up the Cheese Haus (with goat cheeses made by a trio of Helvetian sisters) and the arts and crafts. But, I did get a couple bunches of ramps to take home.

Reacting to the stinky outhouse (strangely, E-dawg looks pleased!)

Look how beautiful it is behind us! (not the Joe DeLong supporter, the mountains...)

The line to ramp it up

The fam

Since Barbara and I were feeling a little left out of the true feastiness of the ramps, I made us a vegetarian ramp feast on Sunday evening: ramp-cheddar cornbread, ramp roasted potatoes, rampy pinto beans and deviled eggs. It was full of yumminess. That's my kind of eatin'.

the majestic ramp

ramp-cheddar cornbread

deviled eggs (before they got squished in the car)

the pinto thingy

I have to say, that the inspiration for the pinto thingy was just trying to figure out some kind of protein, and just throwing some stuff from my pantry together, but it was really fantastic! Super simple, it probably took under ten minutes, but was so delicious. It's just:
-1 15 oz can of pintos, drained and rinsed
-about a 1/2 c. of canned diced tomatoes
-some Gimme Lean sausage-style. I probably used the same amount as I'd generally use for about 5-6 patties, so like, 1/4 of a tube
-3 big handfuls of fresh spinach
-3 cloves of garlic
-1/2 c. onion, small dice
-a little olive oil
-a mess of ramps (I probably used the bulbs and leaves of about 4-5 ramps)--minced the bulbs, and chopped the leaves
-a small handful of jarred banana peppers, small dice
-a little shaved parmesan for serving

I just sweated the garlic, onions and ramp bulb for a few minutes with the olive oil, then added the Gimme Lean and sauteed for a couple minutes, then threw in the tomatoes, banana peppers, spinach and ramp leaves, and let the leaves wilt for a couple minutes. Then shaved some parm on top. Easy, peasy. So fantastic. You could easily leave out the ramps, and it'd still be super.