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February 2006
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Christopher Idone's Lemon Pizza

Pizza_1

Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh - this is exciting stuff. This is one of those special recipes. You know, the kind you cut and paste to your fridge to make over and over again, at which point you start to know the recipe by heart and can pass it on to anyone who's ever tried it and oohed and aahed over it, and then to your children and grandchildren, even to your arch-enemies and best friends. It's timeless. It's elegant. It's perfect. It's easy.

The recipe comes from an article on lemons that Christopher Idone wrote in the New York Times Magazine last summer (when his name kept popping up all over the place, from an article on Brazilian food in the LA Times, to an odd piece on summer Thanksgiving in the New York Times that I mentioned, back when this blog was a wee fledgling and still so stilted and weird to read). Idone wrote up alluring recipes for lemon fritters (salty or sweet), roasted lemon shells filled with tapenade, and then this pizza.

Oh, this pizza. Every time I'd leaf through my clippings, I'd stop at the recipe and stare at it, figuring out an occasion on which to make it. Finally, last night, the opportunity presented itself at an Australian wine-tasting and dinner-party that a group of enterprising girlfriends of mine organized. On my lunch break, I ran to Whole Foods to pick up prepared pizza dough, creme fraiche and organic lemons, then on to a different store to get salmon roe. At home, I rolled out the dough with a rolling pin, then lifted it up and did my best to jiggle and stretch it to the appropriate size. I covered the surface with thinly sliced lemons, cracked black pepper and olive oil, then slid the pizza into the oven.

25 minutes later it emerged, crust browned and crisp, the lemons nicely toasted and barely shriveled. After it had cooled, I spread creme fraiche carefully over the surface (using only half of what Idone called for, otherwise it'd be far too gloppy), and then dotted the creme fraiche with glowing dots of salmon roe (again, I used less than called for: 4 ounces instead of 6). I'd say you should absolutely invest in a pizza cutter before making this - I butchered it by attempting to slice it with a bread knife. And did you notice that no salt was required? I had to hold myself back from sprinkling salt on the lemons along with the pepper and olive oil. But it was worth it.

The combination of puckery lemons (at once still sour and yet fragrant from the high heat in the oven), smooth cream, salty and soulful roe, and crunchy crust was a revelation. Each bite was delicate but satisfying, new and somehow still familiar. The pizza was beautiful to look at, but even better to eat. And the possibilities are endless. Need an appetizer for a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas? Try this: it's light enough and yet totally mouth-watering. Want something simple to serve to guests at a weeknight dinner party? Make this: the preparation is so swift and simple - there's barely even anything to clean up. Want a simple lunch to eat outside on a warm afternoon? Serve this along with a lightly dressed salad. Whatever you do, be prepared to dole out the recipe. People will be asking for it.

Lemon Pizza
Serves 8 as an appetizer

12 ounces prepared pizza dough
3 lemons, ends trimmed and discarded, sliced paper thin, seeds removed
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup creme fraiche (I used 1/4 cup)
6 ounces good-quality salmon caviar (I used 4 ounces)

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees and roll dough out to roughly 12 inches in diameter and very thing - about 1/6-inch thick. Place on a greased sheet pan, or heat a pizza stone in the oven. Cover surface of dough with lemon slices, overlapping them very slightly. Sprinkle with pepper and olive oil. Transfer pizza to hot pizza stone or place the sheet pan in the oven.

2. Bake until dough is brown and crisp, 15 to 20 minutes. If the lemons brown too quickly, cover the surface of the dough with foil until dough is cooked through.

3. Remove the pizza from the oven and let cool. Spread creme fraiche over the surface and dot with caviar. Cut into wedges and serve.


Regina Schrambling's Grits with Deviled Shiitakes

Shiitakes

You'd think, with my starch obsession, that I would have mastered grits long ago. A creamy pile of long-cooked, ground-up, casing-removed, lye-soaked corn kernels - it sounds like the stuff of dreams. And it certainly is, though with the amount of time spent stirring and cooking them (because I took no short-cuts and shunned instant or quick-cook grits), you might fall asleep at the stove before you can ever get around to actually eating dinner (or breakfast). It's a good thing I have a Southern roommate who helped me identify when the grits were ready or I might still be in my kitchen, with one sore arm. I wonder, does soaking grits speed up the time they spend on the stove? Could cooking them in the oven, without the incessant stirring, achieve similarly creamy results? Or is the hard work at the stove part of the whole gritsian process?

I bought my grits at Murray's Cheese, where they order in bulk from Anson Mills and then repackage them in manageable containers. This guarantees you with fresh grits that you'll use up quickly and limits the probability of them going rancid and stale before you get around to finishing your 5-pound burlap sack (though that image sort of brings the whole frontier woman thing full circle, at least for me). I used a recipe credited to Jody Adams of Rialto in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but probably didn't use a heavy enough pot (resulting in a lily pad of gluey grits sticking to the bottom until I washed the pan) and I definitely needed far more water than she called for. But they were delicious. Enriched with a dab of butter, they were toothsome and creamy and corny, yet still so different from polenta.

To top my little bowl of gritty goodness, I made a panful of Regina Schrambling's deviled shiitakes - a recipe adapted and updated from James Beard. The beauty of this dish is the speed with which it's prepared: a perfect counterpoint to the slow-cooked grits. I sauteed minced shallots and garlic in some butter, then added dried herbs (I didn't have herbes de Provence, so I used the Italian herb mixture Penzey's sent me as a present once) and salt, and then dumped in the sliced mushroom caps. I couldn't get them to brown very well, so I cooked them until they were just tender, then added soy sauce, Worcestershire, and mustard. I left out the Tabasco and ground in peperoncino instead, then added a bit of stock and let it all cook together quickly before ladling it out.

The highly seasoned, silky mushrooms were beautifully balanced with the soft, pale grits. I loved the combination of pepped-up 21st century shiitakes with old-fashioned Southern comfort food. If I can figure out how to get those grits cooked faster, I'll be one happy lady.


Mark Bittman's Stuck-Pot Rice with Potato Crust

P1020511

When it comes to Mark Bittman's recipes, I'm beginning to feel like that girl (you know) whose boyfriend is just not that in to her. At first Mark was just this really cute guy, you know? With an adorable nickname and lots of friends and whatever. Then I got to know him a little better and realized that there wasn't all that much there behind his goofy regular-guy facade. But, wham!, with one recipe he totally got me. It was like the best first date ever. And now, I've waited by the phone for him to call for days and when I finally got up the nerve to just call him because who ever got what they wanted from moping around and feeling sorry for themselves, he acted like a jerk and totally blew me off, and now I'm sitting here with this enormous pot of leftovers and I just want to get drunk and forget I ever met him. Sob.

After waxing rhapsodic about the Minimalist and his Stuck-Pot Rice, I couldn't wait to try the next recipe in that article. To eat alongside breaded-and-mustarded chicken courtesy of Gary Danko (and which probably would have been tastier if I hadn't bought the shrink-wrapped chicken at D'Agostino's, even if it was Bell & Evans and organic and whatever - it still tasted like foulness incarnate), I decided to make the version of stuck-pot rice that included saffron, fennel and sliced potatoes. Yes, I seem to be on some kind of rice-and-potato kick. I. Don't. Know. How. To. Kick. The. Starch. Fixation.

It all started quite innocently, with the parboiling of the rice and the sauteeing of the fennel. But of course things got hairy. I was supposed to mix together saffron and oil, then dump this mixture with water into the pan. Hmm. The logic of this is still a mystery to me. Because the saffron doesn't really have a chance to soak in the water and get all yellow and fragrant - it just sits limply in its oil bath while the water separates meekly and it all sort of boils together strangely while you lay potato slices on top. Why doesn't the saffron first get immersed in hot water, and then get mixed with the rice? Wouldn't that make the rice prettier and tastier? Be honest, Mark. I just want an honest answer.

I layered the rice and fennel, which seemed okay at the time, but 45 minutes later, when we were ready to eat, the combination of the soggy fennel (because it was soggy by then, after having been sauteed and steamed, after all) and the bland rice (would it kill you, Mark, to specify the amount of salt needed? Really, kill you? Because it'd be nice, at least for me, to know how much I'm supposed to put in there instead of having to read your mind and potentially get it wrong, which is exactly what happened on Saturday night and I'm sick of it. Sick of it, I tell you!), and the layer of burned potatoes that weren't appetizingly crunchy like the rice from two weeks ago, but were weird-tasting and flabby, made for quite the unpleasant dining experience. And have you (I'm talking to you, kind reader) ever tasted burnt saffron? It's not something I look forward to doing again.

Ben and I choked down our meal gamely while I cursed ever having forgiven Mark's trespasses. We made up for that sad experience by having brunch at Cookshop on Sunday - replete with spicy gingerbread beignets and piping hot frittatas and the loveliest smooth green teapots that were perfect hand-warmers on such a dreary day. But still, I feel so stupid for having given Mark yet another chance. So, Mark? Stop calling, stop writing. Forget we ever met. We are soooo over.


Lidia Bastianich's Rice and Potato Soup with Parmigiano Rind

Soup_7

These are the three best things about coming home from a business trip you would have gladly paid someone else to take in your stead:
1. Bumping quickly over potholes in a cab on your way back to Manhattan from JFK at sunset when you can see the skyline bathed in ethereal mauve light;
2. Seeing your very tall boyfriend walking up the street to meet you at a restaurant and running across the street to jump in his arms like a monkey on a tree;
3. Cooking your own dinner again.

In an attempt to purge the memories of drippy, triangled British sandwiches packaged in plastic, and to lighten the load of several multi-course meals in groovy London restaurants, I wanted nothing more than a simple soup and a plate of thinly sliced fennel dressed with lemon juice and olive oil for dinner. The soup I made, though, was so satisfying despite its simplicity that we never got around to the salad. Ben and I each slurped down a bowl and could eat no more. The light broth was filled with chunked potatoes that had been fried in olive oil, diced carrot and celery, and a scattering of rice. Bay leaf, cracked pepper, tomato paste and a generous slab of Parmigiano rind, saved dutifully in wax paper, flavored it all.

The recipe comes from Lidia Bastianich - cookbook writer, television chef, and restaurant owner - and was printed in the New York Times a few years ago. The whole thing takes less than an hour to make, but has bold and well-melded flavors that belie its quick preparation. Because my pot was almost overflowing, I used a little less broth than called for and it was fine. Today, the soup leftovers are sludgy and stewy, but just as delicious. I'll be finishing them up all weekend while I dance a jig and crow happily, "I'm home again! It's 65 degrees out! The sun is shining! I don't have to go on another transatlantic voyage for at least three and a half months!" Life is good.

Rice and Potato Soup with Parmigiano-Reggiano Rind
Serves 8

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/3-inch cubes
2 medium carrots, coarsely shredded
2 center celery stalks, diced
salt
2 teaspoons tomato paste
10 cups hot chicken broth
2 2-inch-squares Parmigiano rind, exterior scraped
2 fresh or dried bay leaves
freshly ground black pepper
1 cup long-grain rice 
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. In a deep, heavy 4- to 5-quart pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add potatoes and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Potatoes will stick to pot; adjust heat to prevent stuck bits from becoming too dark. Stir in carrots and celery and cook, stirring, until carrots are softened, another 2 to 3 minutes. Season lightly with salt. Add tomato paste and stir to coat vegetables.

2. Add broth, Parmigiano rinds and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, scraping up bits of potato on bottom, then simmer. Season soup lightly with salt and pepper. Cover pot and cook until potatoes begin to fall apart, about 40 minutes. Stir in rice and cook until rice is tender but still firm, about 12 minutes. Remove bay leaves, stir in parsley, and check seasoning. Remove rinds and cut into small pieces. Eat them right away or put a piece in each soup bowl and ladle soup on top. Serve.


Regina Schrambling's Pizzocheri

Pizzocheri

My subtitle for this post: A Tale of Two Cabbages. Or rather, A Tale of One Cabbage, Two Ways. Growing up in Berlin, cabbage was a familiar vegetable, to say the least. I had the privileged experience of being enrolled in a school where the lunch menu was something to look forward to. When I have the pleasure of smelling food that reminds me of my school cafeteria it's a fond memory and not a nose-wrinkling one. Cabbage featured prominently there (Kohlrouladen, anyone?), but also at my home-away-from-home where I wiled my afternoons away learning how to bake and sew (and escape sibling-torture to the tune of "I'm going to tie you to this chair with boy-scout knots and you have two minutes to escape, at which point, if you are still bound to the chair, I will tickle you into paralysis while "Stairway to Heaven" rings from the record player") at the knee of my honorary mother, Joan.

Joan's ways with cabbage are the stuff of dreams: no one who grew up eating her Brussels sprouts, her braised red cabbage with apples or her Savoy studded with tiny bits of salty ham could ever have an aversion to this vegetable. So when Regina Schrambling wrote an article on Savoy cabbage in the LA Times last week, I was thrilled to see that all three recipes she included looked mouth-watering to me. I don't usually find it so difficult to choose which recipe from any given article to cook, but this time around I was stumped. So I made two...and while neither one blew my socks off, I'm determined to make the third one as well.

Pizzocheri, a northern Italian baked casserole of chopped cabbage, sliced potatoes, chunks of Taleggio, and wide pasta all bathed in a sage-and-garlic scented butter sauce, was a bit too oily and flat for my taste. I had halved the recipe but didn't use a smaller baking dish, and I wonder if it might have been more appealing as a thick casserole. There was something disjointed about the whole thing: potato slices flying about, noodles slipping away, bits of cabbage here and there. I was in too much of a rush to search out buckwheat pasta and settled for egg tagliatelle - I think the dish probably has more character with the former. There was nothing really terribly wrong with it, but I probably won't make this recipe again. It just didn't blow me away.

But I still had quite a bit of cabbage left over from that meal, so last night I prepared Braised Savoy Cabbage with Anchovies (making the most of the fact that Ben isn't around to have dinner with me and thereby fall over in a dead faint from the sheer outrage of the presence of an anchovy anywhere near his being), while I scurried about my apartment washing clothes and packing for a trip of my own. The recipe required two saute pans, which sort of irritated me, but that was mostly because I didn't feel like having my dinner-for-one become a big deal. I simmered the cabbage quarters in chicken stock, while anchovies and garlic melted in the other pan, then tossed everything together and let it caramelize.

The result was quite pretty and would be tasty as the accompaniment to some simple roast sausages and a dollop of pureed potatoes. But for some reason, the pan brimming with braised cabbage and all those strong flavors was a little overwhelming last night and I couldn't eat more than a forkful or two. So I guess my critique says more about my state of mind than the dish itself. I won't discount it just yet. And with that, dear readers, I leave you for a few days while I fly over the ocean to do some work and eat one too many cheese-and-pickle sandwiches in yet another convention center. When I'm back, I'll get around to the Sausage-Stuffed Savoy Cabbage, if only to relive my memories of being an eager child in the lunchline.


Mark Bittman's Stuck-Pot Rice

Rice

Oh, Minimalist, how thou hast redeemed thyself. Remember when I said I might never try another of Mark Bittman's recipes again? Well, I am a generous and forgiving blogger and I decided that perhaps my blanket statement of refusal might not be wise, not when there were alluring recipes of his winking their little eyes at me, beckoning me over with their promises of simplicity and crunchy rice and aromas of curry and yogurt wafting through my kitchen. Thank goodness I saw the light, or at least chose well this time around.

The recipe for this rice dish is the kind of recipe you clip and save and then recopy because your clipped copy has gotten illegible with use, and then email to yourself (and all your friends) so you have a cyber copy of it, and then finally laminate and glue into a book so that you will never ever ever lose it. It isn't the world's finest rice, but it's simple and comforting, and interesting too, and very tasty and nice to look at and slightly exotic, but not too much so for a weeknight dinner. So maybe, yes, on second thought, it does deserve a spot in at least the top five of rice dishes (in which this one is included, of course).

You don't need to go very far for ingredients (though I suggest you search out Liberte 2% plain yogurt because as far as I'm concerned, this is the yogurt we've been waiting for to finally have something to measure up to the gorgeousness of yaourt veloute that the French have had all these years) and although I wish I could be more specific about what "good" curry powder means exactly, I had delicious success with the bottled curry powder from my D'Agostino's. You need a good solid pot (I made it in a cast-iron soup pot) and the ability to control a very low flame, but once those are in place, you can let it all sizzle away while you watch Meg Ryan's tragically enhanced lips (why, Meg, why?) on "Oprah" and have dinner on your plate by the time the anchorman of your dreams comes on.

My tips? Really do follow the instructions exactly (though I didn't find the towel to be necessary) and remember to salt liberally. When I make this again, I'll try it with half the oil, but that's just because I'm feeling tight in the waist these days (is that the expression I'm looking for?) and not because the rice becomes greasy (it doesn't). I ate this with a pile of steamed broccoli, and reveled in the nutty rice, the faint heat from the curry, the pleasing sour note from the yogurt. And even though I'd much rather have Ben back again to eat dinner with me, I'm kind of thrilled that I have enough leftovers for lunch and dinner today.

Stuck-Pot Rice with Yogurt and Spices
Serves 4 to 6

Salt
1 1/2 cups basmati rice, well rinsed
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup peanut oil, or neutral oil like grape seed or corn oil
1/4 cup plain yogurt, preferably whole-milk
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon good curry powder

1. Fill a medium pot with lightly salted water, and bring to boil. Stir in rice, return to boil and lower heat so water is at a lively simmer. Cook undisturbed 5 minutes; drain, and set aside. Rice will be only partly done. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

2. In a large mixing bowl whisk together 2 tablespoons oil, the yogurt, lime juice and curry powder. Season to taste with salt and pepper and whisk until smooth. Add rice, and toss gently to coat with yogurt mixture.

3. Put 2 remaining tablespoons oil in a large heavy-bottom pot with tight-fitting lid, and turn heat to medium-high. Add rice mixture, pressing it down in pan with fork. Wrap clean kitchen towel around lid of pot so it completely covers inside of lid; gather corners on top so they do not fall anywhere near stove. Place lid on pot, sealing tightly. Mixture will sizzle immediately.

4. When rice and spices are fragrant -- in 3-5 minutes -- turn heat down very low. Cook undisturbed about 30 minutes; rice should smell toasty but not burned. Remove from heat, and let sit 5 minutes more.

5. Carefully remove lid and cloth, and turn pot upside down over a platter. If rice comes out in a single crust, terrific. If not, use a spatula to scrape crisp pieces out of pan and onto remaining rice. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.


Amy Scattergood's Poached Pears with Poached Spiced Figs

Cooking skills and deftness in the kitchen mean precious little if you are missing either of the two following prerequisities: an attention span of more than .02 seconds and a memory that goes back at least 45 days. The former would have prevented me from scorching a spiced wine sauce into unrecogizable blackness last night and the latter would have reminded me that after all that trouble, I just like my figs plain, please.

In the LA Times two Wednesdays ago, Amy Scattergood wrote up a few appealing recipes using dried fruit, including Simca Beck's bread pudding, which sounds utterly bewitching even at this early hour. As the sweet end to a meal of cabbage casserole (Swear to God. Stay tuned, it will be blogged about), though, I thought a light and refreshing bowl of poached fruits would be better suited.

Amy drew her inspiration from Lindsay Shere's Chez Panisse Desserts - a book that makes me lust for an ice-cream machine each and every time I leaf through it - using Lindsay's base recipe for the pears, then adding her own poached figs to the mix. The pears are cooked in a lovely little syrup that's scented with lemon peel and vanilla bean (though the amount of sugar in the recipe took my breath away - I put in a third of what was called for and found it sufficient). I could eat those pears for breakfast every day.

The figs were an entirely different animal, at least for my addled self. I realized once I arrived at home that I had none of the spices required. I had ground cloves and allspice, but nothing whole and I couldn't get at the peppercorns in my pepper grinder. So instead of just tapping in a dusting of each, I decided to improvise (a bad idea) and flavored the poaching wine with a small piece of cinnamon and star anise, along with the strip of peel. When the figs were soft, I took them out, raised the heat to reduce the syrup, sat down to eat dinner and promptly forgot about the sauce, until it started smoking and bubbling into a terrifyingly sticky morass about, oh, 3 minutes later.

Frazzled, I decided to serve each pear with a fig perched jauntily on top and a bit of the pear syrup drizzled about it. It looked pretty enough (something quite Zen-like about the whole thing), but I took one bite of my wine-poached fig and it all came flooding back: I just don't like boozy figs. So like the four year-old that I am, I made a face and handed the rest over to my mother, sitting conveniently next to me at the table and making pleasant noises for my benefit.

This is not to say the poached figs aren't good! After all, my mother liked them (and I won't make a comment now about the fact that she lost her sense of taste in an accident several years ago. Except, oops, I just did.) Prepared with the proper spices and minded over the stove as directed, they're probably luscious. But only for those of you who like your figs poached. Maybe I'll remember that next time.

Poached Pears with Poached Spiced Figs
Serves 6

Poached figs
1 1/2 cups Zinfandel
1/2 cup water
6 tablespoons sugar
1 (1- by 3-inch) strip orange peel
6 black peppercorns
1 whole clove
2 allspice berries
1/2 pound dried Calimyrna figs

1. Bring all the ingredients but the figs to a simmer in a nonreactive saucepan. Add the figs and cook them at a very slight simmer until they are tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, 30-40 minutes, depending on the figs.

2. Remove the figs to a container with a slotted spoon, raise the heat, bring the syrup to a boil, and reduce by one-third. Pour it over the figs and chill.

Poached pears
6 firm, ripe pears, Bosc or Anjou
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 (1- by 2-inch) strips lemon peel
1 vanilla bean, split in half

1. Peel the pears, leaving the stems on. Core them with an apple corer, then slice a bit off the bottom so they cook upright. Alternatively you can halve them, remove the stems and core them.

2. Bring 4 1/2 cups water, sugar, lemon, and vanilla to a simmer in a large saucepan, then add the pears. Cook, covered, until the pears are tender but not mushy - 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the ripeness of the pears.

3. When the pears are done, remove them from the poaching liquid and boil the remaining liquid until reduced by half. Pour the syrup over the pears and chill.

4. To serve, divide the poached pears among 6 bowls and spoon the poached figs over each.