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February 2007

Sow's Ear Baked Apple Pancake


I didn't technically clip this recipe from the Los Angeles Times. Those Best American Recipe ladies did, four years ago. They didn't know where the recipe came from (whether The Sow's Ear was the restaurant the pancake came from, or whether sow's ear just referred to the pancake's appealingly floppy shape), and neither do I. But I'm telling you, this might be my new favorite dessert. It's definitely getting laminated. Going in the Hall of Fame. Getting made over and over again. I love this recipe.

You know those gloriously puffy Dutch babies? They're like a sugar-doused Yorkshire pudding or popover - towering mile-high in the oven, gilded with melted butter, light as a dream. Well, this apple pancake is a close cousin to those, only it's been dolled up for the dessert table, with a fillip of cinnamon, a dash of vanilla, and thin, tender slices of apple studded throughout.

After a square meal last night of pork chops and winter squash (more on those another time) and a salty-sour fennel salad, I cleared the table and prepared the simple batter as my friend Barbara and I continued our conversation (men and women, Mars and Venus, that sort of thing). I beat together some skim milk, several eggs, a spoonful of sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt and melted butter. While the oven heated and more butter melted in my cast-iron skillet, I made quick work of the two apples.

I sauteed the sliced apples in the melted butter before pouring in the thin batter and sprinkling the top with brown sugar (I was disorganized and didn't measure the sugar, so I think I actually used less than called for - and it was perfect. The lesson here: use your sweet-tooth as judgment). The whole pan went into the oven while I washed up our dinner dishes. Exactly 23 minutes later, I opened the oven to find a puffed, burnished cloud of apples and pancake. Pulling that hot, heavy pan out of the oven was an ordeal (use two hands, friends - both clothed in oven mitts, please), but I managed to bring it to the table, dust it beautifully with powdered sugar (a lot less than called for - maybe only one tablespoon?) and thoroughly impress Barbara.

We dug into this beauty of a dessert to find a soft and yielding pancake base - in parts custardy, like a far breton or a clafoutis, but also with crispy, feathery edges - and silky, tender, gently spiced apples. The brown sugar had caramelized in spots, which added deeper flavors and a fantastic textural note. And even better, after an overnight rest in the fridge (removed from the skillet), the pancake sort of settled in on itself, became fudgy and dense. This, with a glass of cold milk, made a superb weekend breakfast.

I can't wait to make this again. But today and tomorrow, with Ben out of town, I get all the leftovers to myself. Glory, glory, glory! Have a wonderful long weekend, everyone.

Baked Apple Pancake
Serves 6

5 tablespoons butter, melted, divided
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon flour
2 small apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons brown sugar, lightly packed
3 tablespoons powdered sugar

1. Heat the oven to 450°. Combine 2 tablespoons of melted butter with the eggs, milk, granulated sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, salt and flour. Mix the batter by hand or in a food processor. Set aside.

2. Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter with the apple slices in a 10-inch oven-proof skillet until the apples are sizzling and slightly cooked. Pour in the batter. Sprinkle the top with brown sugar and bake until well browned and puffed, 20 to 25 minutes.

3. Dust with powdered sugar. Cut into wedges and serve immediately.

Tartine's Almond-Lemon Tea Cake


O, thrift. How you led me astray. I'd had such good intentions since the New Year - pinching pennies here, being resourceful there. Making one casserole stretch into four days of square meals, finding breakfast in the series of half-finished oat bags (rolled, steel-cut, what have you) in my cupboards, baking bread instead of buying it.

Being thrifty is glorious, I tell you. Just glorious.

But look out. Because just when you start feeling smug about your resourceful ways, something will come along and smack you in the head. In my case? A brick of hardened, year-old almond paste. That stuff is not to be trifled with. But in my cocky assurance, I trifled. I might have even gambled. This is my story.

More than a year ago, my mother sent over a little care package from Italy, stuffed with all sorts of lovely things. A note in her delightfully loopy handwriting, a pair of fishnet stockings (she single-handedly increases the stock of some hosiery companies, I'm convinced), a paper bag filled with a few pounds of sun-dried tomatoes from Puglia, and a flat brick of almond paste, wrapped in simple blue-and-white paper. The thick paste yielded appealingly under gentle pressure from my thumb, but it was the middle of summer and baking was far from my mind. (I could have made latte di mandorla, but my mother always liked that stuff more than I did.)

I slipped the almond paste into my kitchen cupboards and soon it was wedged behind a few boxes of rice, some vinegar, half a sack of beans, a can of tuna. You know how it goes. But I didn't entirely forget about the paste. I just didn't have any use for it yet, and I figured it would wait patiently, like a box of brown sugar, until I needed it.

To this, I will only say HA.

A few nights ago, when I was pulling out ingredients to make a tea cake from the pages of Tartine, which was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times before Christmas, my hands alighted upon that brick of almond paste. But after a quick poke here and there, I realized that my luscious paste was no longer the yielding mass it had once been. That stuff was petrified. Solid. A murder weapon, if you will.

And here's where my smug thriftiness led me astray. Well, it might have also been my hard-headed idiocy. You decide. Because, you see, dear readers, I'm a woman rich in almond paste. Yes! I had another log of that glorious stuff lying right next to the petrified block. And that other log of almond paste? Soft! Malleable! Creamy, almost! Labeled marzipan, which might have meant adjusting sugar levels in the cake. But still! It was right there. And yet. I couldn't possibly use the fresher log when I had a perfectly good older brick to use up first, could I? (Yes. YES, I could. Damn it.)

Definitely no. Not in 2007 with my brand-new money-saving resolutions! (The fact that both logs were gifts was inexplicably a non-issue.) I had a perfectly good, older block of almond paste to use up first and that was the end of the discussion. Besides, if softening brown sugar was so easy, how difficult could almond paste be? (This is a rhetorical question and should not be answered, as I have already learned my lesson and amply so. Sob.)

I unwrapped that hardened block, paper crinkling appealingly, and put it in a ceramic bowl. (The clanging sound it made was not promising, though I wasn't exactly listening to the signs it was giving me, was I? Don't answer that either.) I sprinkled the brick with a drop of water and put it in the microwave for one minute. And another. It grew warm and then hot. I broke the paste in half (malleability! of some kind! this must have meant success) and then again in smaller pieces. I tried microwaving those, too, but that's when the process stalled. The almond paste bits got harder and hotter and harder still.

At this point, would you have just thrown out that bowl of almond paste bits, reached for the fresh, soft log and gotten on with your life? Yeah. Are you thinking that maybe I didn't? Yeah. Hard-headed idiocy, my friends, is what this is all about. "Waste not, want not!", chanted my inner voice and so I pounded those hardened bits with my hand-held mixer until some were pulverized and others, well, just got smaller. By the time I broke out in a sweat and found myself cursing at the mixer for not crushing hard enough, I realized I'd passed the point of no return. I simply couldn't turn back. Now it was a matter of pride.

So, in a few minutes, I whipped up the batter, though the extreme exertion of the mixer-crushing must have done a number on my brain, or else I just gave up, because instead of stirring together the eggs and vanilla and beating the sugar into the "paste", I stirred together the eggs and the sugar and beat the butter into the paste, which mean that the batter took on a distinctly curdled look by the time the mixing was finished and I found myself grinning maniacally at the thought of the disaster cake that would await me at the end of this ordeal. I poured the curdled batter with its rock-hard lumps of almond paste into the prepared pan, put it in the oven and went to mop my brow and stare blankly at a wall.

And then.

An hour later, I pulled out a golden and fragrant cake that looked a bit greasy around the edges, but smelled divine. After it cooled a bit, I gently knocked the cake out of its pan, brushed it liberally with citrus glaze, cooled it further, then wrapped the golden brick well before letting it sit in the fridge overnight. The next day, I sliced into the chilled loaf and found a little miracle. Despite everything, that cake turned out all right. More than all right. Even though there were little pebbles of almond paste scattered throughout the cake and the crumb wasn't as perfect as it could have been, it was totally delicious. Fragrant with citrus, dense and rich, moist and sugary (here's one wee criticism that had nothing to do with my idiocy: too much sugar in the glaze). I can only imagine how good it could have been if I'd actually followed the directions and not my hard-headed thriftiness.

So there you have it: a seriously indestructible tea cake that I plan to serve my girlfriends for dessert tonight and proof that while I may sometimes seem like a cooking Amazon (Novocained and still at the stove), I am often nothing of the sort.

Almond-Lemon Tea Cake
Serves 8 to 10

1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature (plus some for preparing the pan)
3/4 cup pastry or cake flour, sifted (plus some for preparing the pan)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup almond paste, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons orange juice
3/4 cup sugar

1. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter and flour a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan, knocking out the excess flour.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt twice. In a small bowl, combine the eggs and vanilla and whisk together just to combine.

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the almond paste on low speed until it breaks up. This can take up to a minute, depending on how soft and warm it is. Slowly add the sugar in a steady stream, beating until incorporated. If you add the sugar too quickly, the paste won't break up as well.

4. Cut the butter into 1-tablespoon pieces. Continue on low speed while adding the butter, a tablespoon at a time, for about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Then turn on the mixer to medium speed and beat until the mixture is light in color and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. With the mixer still on medium speed, add the eggs in a very slow, steady stream and mix until incorporated. Stop the mixer and again scrape down the sides of the bowl. Turn on the mixer again to medium speed and mix for 30 seconds more.

5. Add the citrus zests and mix in with a wooden spoon. Add the flour mixture in two batches, stirring after each addition until incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl one last time, then spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface with an offset spatula.

6. Bake until the top springs back when lightly touched and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 60 to 65 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 to 7 minutes while you make the glaze.

7. To make the glaze, stir together the lemon and orange juices and the sugar in a small bowl. Place the wire rack holding the cake over a sheet of waxed paper or aluminum foil to catch any drips of glaze, and gently invert the cake onto the rack. If the cake does not want to release, run the tip of a small knife around the edge to loosen it. Brush the entire warm cake with the glaze, then let the cake cool completely on the rack. The cake breaks apart easily when warm, so don't attempt to move it.

8. When the cake is cool, transfer it to a serving plate, using two crisscrossed icing spatulas or the base of a two-part tart pan to lift it. Serve at room temperature. The cake will keep, well-wrapped, for 1 week in the refrigerator.

Marco Canora's Braised Red Cabbage



Last night around 6:30 pm, there was little joy in this small part of the universe as I reclined tensely on my dentist's plastic-covered chair and tasted something bitter (and banana-flavored?) in the back of my throat. With both of Dr. Gordon's hands firmly planted inside my mouth and soft rock on the radio ("Ya like Barry White? No? Ya don't like Barry White? How about Springsteen? Ya like Springsteen?"), I focused on the gray-beige panels of the ceiling, tried to forget about the high-pitched nasal whine of the drill and the disconcerting clink of metal on bone, and thought about dinner.

After all, how better to soothe Novocaine-induced heart palpitations and my jumpy, tender gums nerves?

It'd have to be something relatively simple and relatively quick, I thought, because by the time I made my way from the Upper West Side to Columbus Circle's Whole Foods and then further home to Chelsea, I'd be flirting dangerously with hypoglycemic jitters. Something savory and juicy to ward off the sudden chill, yes. But could it be colorful and healthy, too? It could.

After a whopping $625 bill (oh, you know: annual x-rays, a simple cleaning, and a bit of sealant around an old filling and there go my hopes and dreams for finishing my 2006 Roth IRA contributions, for my travel plans this year, and for calming some of the bone-chilling angst I experience in the middle of the night when the state of my finances wakes me up in a cold sweat), I couldn't afford much beyond two chicken-apple sausages and a five-dollar bottle of Chilean red. With the sausages wrapped neatly and stashed in my bag, I made my gum-numbed way home where a head of red cabbage awaited me and my smarting credit card.

Amanda Hesser cleverly updated an old Craig Claiborne recipe for pork chops with rye stuffing in this weekend's New York Times Magazine, with the additional bonus of a modern-day riff on the dish by Marco Canora of Hearth. While neither pork belly nor pork chops tickled my fancy, it was a different story when I saw Canora's recipe for braised cabbage. It was with this spicy, wintery dish in mind that I'd bought the delicately flavored sausages, and as they warmed to room temperature on the kitchen counter, I sliced my way through a red onion and that hard head of cabbage, almost forgotten in the depths of my fridge.

I've said it before, I'm sure, and I'll say it again. There's nothing quite like cooking to soothe a frazzled mind and body. As a knob of butter melted and fizzed in the pan, and the mise en place around me came into place, I could feel the knots in my shoulders come apart. The onion cooked up gently before the strips of cabbage went into the pan with a sizzle. And then, the pungent cider, the dryish wine, the fragrant caraway and mustard (best pals of the cabbage, those two). I cut a circle with a vent out of my parchment roll and placed it on top of the cabbage (wasn't Julie always complaining about this step? I can't remember, though I did find it a bit of a pain last night. Wouldn't a top have been better? Not that I have one that fits my skillet. So I don't know what my kvetching is about. Self-pity, I believe. Which reminds me, have I told you about my dentist's bill yet?).

While the cabbage simmered and the sausages popped and sizzled quietly in their cast-iron bed and film of broth, I sat on the couch and contemplated my options. After-hours waitressing? Foot fetish modeling? Selling all of my earthly belongings on Ebay? As I started to hyperventilate, Ben showed up just in time to firmly talk me down off the ledge and stroke my hair soothingly in that calming way of his, before oohing and aahing gratefully over the stove and then sitting down at the table with me.

I'll tell you, there's nothing like a simple, square meal and a tall, silly boyfriend to make the world right again. The silky tangles of cabbage were spicy and sweet-sour, oh-so-perfect for a full-forked mouthful along with a slice of mild sausage. The caraway gave the dish real character and strength, while the small shreds of apple mellowed and sweetened the kicky cabbage. This was no timid dish and we blithely ate up all of it (in our defense, my head of cabbage was less than the 2.5 pounder called for).

Oh sure, I'd still like to curse the gods of dental hygiene requirements and a world in which my retirement isn't guaranteed, but my dinner last night was so damn good that I think my week might have even been salvaged by it. And that's saying quite a bit.

Braised Red Cabbage
Serves 6

2 tablespoons butter
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 medium (2 1/2 pounds) red cabbage, quartered, spines removed and thinly sliced
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
2 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds
1/2 cup cider vinegar
3/4 cup dry red wine
1 large tart apple, such as Granny Smith, peeled and coarsely grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the cabbage and toss until it begins to wilt, 2 to 3 minutes.

2. Add the brown sugar, caraway seeds, mustard seeds, vinegar, wine and apple. Stir to combine, and season with salt and pepper. Cut a circle of parchment paper the size of the bottom of the pan, slice a small vent in the middle, and place directly over the cabbage. Simmer until the cabbage is soft, about 45 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper, and serve.

Jamie Oliver's Eggplant Parmesan


If you live anywhere close to the East Coast, this weekend sure was a kick in the pants. It wasn't even fun to wear shoes with no socks, leave the Arctic puffy at home, and stroll in Central Park smelling the spring-like air. Where were the apple-cheeked children, the chilling gusts of wind and the restorative cup of cocoa that should have warmed our reddened hands after a brisk stroll under the icy sun, wrapped in our warmest woollen layers? Gone the way of the Polar bear, I suppose.

But when the heat seemed to have gotten into the heads of the people publishing recipes in one of the nation's best newspapers, I found myself at a particular loss. When they find it no problem at all to print recipes calling for such warm-weather staples as "fresh" basil leaves and "ripe" plum tomatoes in the depths of winter, tell me, dear readers: what am I supposed to do?

My answer as of now is to roll my eyes, sneer at the Holland tomatoes lying plumply in the grocery displays, submissively acquiesce to overpriced basil only to find it dead and blackened by the next morning, gnash my teeth, and then come to complain about it here. Aaaah yes. Relief.

In December, Marian Burros wrote a piece in the New York Times about the healthful recipes tucked away in several of 2006's popular cookbooks, including a recipe for tuna burgers from Michel Richard that has my salivary glands in full-swing (though it calls for both fresh basil and a ripe tomato - on December 20th, no less) and an eggplant parmesan culled from the pages of Jamie Oliver's latest book, which, incidentally, is a total delight.

Written in the same appealingly slapdash voice as his previous books, with David Loftus' gorgeous photography featuring luminous Italian scenery and people, this book is a treat. It feels more passionate than Jamie's other books, perhaps because he's on a mission now to educate and empower people to know more about where their food comes from and how to truly nourish their families. His missive on page 210 in Jamie's Italy about how out of touch we are when it comes to our food's provenance resonated deeply with me (am I getting to be a bore with this whole topic? It's just that I'm feeling evangelical about it.).

And let's be honest, it's a thrill to have such a popular food star actually taking a stand on these issues - how to be a responsible carnivore, how to be a good role model when it comes to your child's nutrition, how grocery shopping can be a political act. Can you see Giada or Rachael tackling these subjects? With their massive fan base, I wish they would.

But I digress. The book is also full of some delicious food (the rich-tasting and intense radicchio-arugula salad will be my go-to dinner party salad from now on). The eggplant parmesan was chosen by Burros as an example of a notoriously heavy dish lightened by Oliver's deft touch. Though I should point out here that you would be hard-pressed to find breaded and fried eggplant, covered with a slab of melted mozzarella and doused in marinara sauce anywhere in Italy. But let me stop myself before I get pedantic again (gawd). The dish is a medley of warm, stewy flavors and textures. It's heaven eaten with a heel of crusty bread, and is a firm contender for Best Next-Day Reheated Food. Those flavors don't run.

You cut up slices of eggplant and bake them in a hot oven, brushed with a bit of oil (though in summer, you could also grill them - sans oil) while you simmer together a plain tomato sauce (here's where the fresh basil comes in - or not at all, depending on what time of year it is and just how grumpy you are about buying that stuff out of season). Then the eggplant slices and the tomato sauce and a microplaned pile of fluffy Parmigiano are layered together before being topped with a fragrant pile of oregano-infused breadcrumbs.

Some of you might be cooking for people who need a bit more than a pile of stewed vegetables and some crusty bread for dinner, but I think it's no problem to serve this a side dish alongside some simply prepared fish or chicken. And what I plan on doing when I'm sick of eating it straight (Ben doesn't like eggplant so this casserole is all mine, all week) is boiling up a handful of pasta and tossing that with the leftover vegetables, along with a judicious splash of starchy pasta water. Pasta alla Norma redux or whatever.

Maybe, if the weather finally returns to normal later this week, that will be my ray of Sicilian sunshine.

Eggplant Parmesan
Serves 4 or 5 as a main-course

3 medium-large eggplants, cut crosswise into ½-inch slices
Olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced
1½ teaspoons dried oregano
1 28-ounce can no-salt plum tomatoes or crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
½ cup (packed) fresh basil leaves (or not)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, or as needed
1/3 cup fine dry bread crumbs
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano leaves, optional

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Brush both sides of eggplant slices with oil, and place in a single layer on two or more baking sheets. Bake until undersides are golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes, then turn and bake until other sides are lightly browned. Set aside. Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees.

2. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and add onion. Sauté until soft, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and dried oregano and sauté another 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and their juices, breaking up whole tomatoes with your hands. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Add vinegar, basil and salt and pepper to taste. Into a 9-by-9-inch, 10-by-5-inch or 10-by-6-inch baking pan, spoon a small amount of tomato sauce, then add a thin scattering of parmigiano, then a single layer of eggplant. Repeat until all ingredients are used, ending with a little sauce and a sprinkling of parmigiano. In a small bowl, combine bread crumbs and oregano, if using, with just enough olive oil to moisten. Sprinkle on top. If desired, recipe can be made to this point and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before baking.

4. Bake until eggplant mixture is bubbly and center is hot, 30 to 45 minutes depending on size of pan and thickness of layers. Remove from heat and allow to rest for 5 minutes before serving. Recipe can also be reheated.

David Kinch's Salmon with Hot Mustard Glaze


That's one glorious piece of fish, isn't it? The palest of pinks, oozing with freshness and moisture, and perfectly crisped on top. I have to say, if there's one thing to be learned from this recipe, it's how to cook the perfect piece of salmon. But then there's actually a second thing to learn. And that is that a hot mustard glaze isn't as good as it sounds.

I wanted to love this, I really did. After all, who can resist a recipe with just four ingredients? And from none other than David Kinch, of Manresa and Pim-ian fame? With a pedigree like that, this salmon was bound to be destined for the lamination files, I thought. Well, and to be fair, the method - briefly searing a center-cut piece of salmon on each side, then sticking it in a low oven for twenty minutes until it emerges quiveringly perfect - is possibly the only way I'll ever cook salmon again.

(I'll have to make an exception for poaching, since poached salmon is truly glorious, and because you can then combine it with a cooling yogurt-herb sauce and serve it in the summer and feel like an English rose and in addition, there's the very very very important bonus that poaching a salmon does not make your house smell like cooked fish and if there's one real problem I have in the kitchen, it's that cooked fish hanging in the air for a day or two or even three drives me absolutely batty and no amount of scented candles or yanked open doorways or tasteful room spray (there is such a thing, I swear, but you have to get feuille de menthe, that's the only one I can vouch for) can appease me until, well, a few days go by and I get around to cooking something new and the old smell finally goes away.)

BUT. Where was I? Oh yes, the mustard glaze. I don't know. It was too sweet and clashed oddly with the fish. There's no salt in the recipe and the glaze is really more of a slurry that runs right off the fish before the pan goes in the oven. Which maybe is the point? It seemed odd that I had to throw away so much of the mustard-sugar-water combination after brushing the fish with it. I've never made Nobu's famous miso-glazed cod (was it cod? sablefish? black cod? you know what I'm talking about), but I wonder if this recipe was born out of a fad started by that dish.

Ho-hum. I am suddenly convinced that this could quite possibly be the least interesting post I've ever written. Are you as bored as I am? The rest of this is going to be brief. The method, people, is what's important here. Okay? Forget about the glaze. That's all that really matters. And with that, I'm off to contemplate my bright future in food journalism, what with this post and all.

Salmon with Hot Mustard Glaze
Serves 4

½ cup mustard powder, preferably Colman's
½ cup sugar
2 pounds center-cut salmon fillet, about 2 inches thick at its thickest, with skin
2½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil.

1.  Heat oven to 250 degrees. In a small bowl whisk mustard, sugar and ½ cup water together. Set aside.

2. Cut salmon into four uniform portions. Pat dry with paper towel. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a heavy ovenproof skillet over high heat; skillet should be large enough to hold salmon without crowding. Add salmon skin side up, and sear quickly about 2 minutes, until it can be lifted easily with a spatula without sticking. Turn, and sear about 2 minutes skin side down. Thickest part should still be raw in center.

3. Brush top of salmon with remaining olive oil and then with mustard mixture. Place in oven about 20 minutes, until medium-rare in center. (An instant-read thermometer inserted in thickest part should register 100 to 110 degrees.) Remove from oven, and serve.

Amanda Hesser's Butternut Squash Curry


You know, after yet another birthday and yet another turn of the new year, thoughts turn - reliably - to uncomfortable questions such as "why exactly don't I own any real estate yet?" and "what exactly do I do to end up with less savings than any of my peers who choose to live outside of this city?" and "how exactly is living paycheck-to-paycheck in New York City affecting my future and the future of my unborn children (who actually belong in an entirely separate conversation that I am doing my best to ignore, thank you very much)?" and furthermore, "is it, this fantastic city, worth feeling sometimes as though I am forfeiting security and stability for the continued, vibrant experience of being a New Yorker?"

I'm sure I don't have to explain that the whole point of uncomfortable questions is that you often know the answers to them, you just don't feel like accepting them. But so that this doesn't devolve into some kind of Luisa confessional, I'll get to the original point I was attempting to make, namely that all of these questions end up being beside the point when you consider the glorious temple that is Kalustyan's and the fact that living in New York is precisely what allows you, on a whim, to stroll there after work so that you can pick up a bag of fresh curry leaves, a sack of patna rice, herb drying tips from the kindest shopkeeper around, and a renewed sense that living in New York is pretty fantastic no matter how much anxiety it induces.

Did your ears prick up around curry leaves? This was my first time encountering them and I can say unequivocally that, with one whiff of their nutty, complex fragrance (that has absolutely nothing to do with curry powder), I have been bewitched. You will, too! And don't worry, Kalustyan's has mail-order service.

The recipe is a few years old and comes from a piece by Amanda Hesser on gussying up Thanksgiving leftovers in the New York Times Magazine. Trust me when I tell you that this recipe should not be put aside until Thanksgiving rolls around. Go out now to buy yourself a butternut squash and make this right away. I cut my squash in half and then again lengthwise before roasting it in a 400 degree oven for 40 minutes. The orange flesh caramelized and intensified its sweetness. I mashed up the hot squash with softly cooked onions and spices before folding in an alluring melange of mustard seeds, the aforementioned curry leaves, a little red chili or two, and a handful of unsweetened coconut flakes.

The squash is lusty and sweet, delicately floral from the curry leaves, coconut, and mustard seeds, pleasingly hot with pepper, and entirely difficult to stop eating. Luckily for those of us with resolutions, there's no reason to. With a pile of fluffy patna rice and some steamed broccoli for good measure (an ethnically dubious food pairing, I know), this is pretty virtuous stuff. It also seems to cure hysteria about financial worries and advancing age. Maybe it's those curry leaves?

Speaking of which, I've got quite a few left over and no recipes for them of which to speak. Dear readers, any suggestions?

Butternut Squash Curry
Serves 4

3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
3/4 teaspoon lightly crushed cumin (I used 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
3 cups baked, braised or mashed butternut squash
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 red chili
10 curry leaves
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut

  1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion and cook over medium-low heat until softened. Stir in the turmeric, cumin and cayenne and cook for 1 minute. Fold in the squash and warm gently.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a small saute pan. Add the mustard seeds, chili and curry leaves. When the seeds begin to pop, stir in the coconut off the heat. Fold into the squash, and season with salt.

Michel Richard's Collard Greens and Lentils


Welcome to 2007! It's not that bad so far, is it? Well, it's oddly warm here, which is mildly terrifying, and I'm currently nursing the combination of both a hangover and a small case of jetlag, which actually manages to be even worse than it sounds, but on the whole I'd have to say that I'm looking forward to this new year of ours.

In the grand tradition of Italians, Southerners and apparently the Irish, we prepared for the end-of-year festivities yesterday by eating a lunch of stewed greens and lentils. I thought the tradition was just in the lentils (legumes equal money, didn't you know), but it turns out that leafy greens carry the same significance in other cultures. And do you know who I learned this from? Mark Bittman! On the Today Show this morning! Yes, this is what waking up drunk and jetlagged on New Year's Day will do to you: you will find yourself watching Ann, Al and Meredith stuffing cabbage with the Minimalist as you sit bleary-eyed at home on your couch, marveling at their composure (and ability to walk a straight line), while wishing you'd had the wherewithal to have an actual dinner before, or even after, consuming those numerous glasses of Champagne the night before.

As that last sentence might indicate, I'm not sure I've entirely recovered.

But anyway, our lunch. The recipe came from an impressive article in the LA Times a couple years ago about a fantasy Thanksgiving feast that would be made up of contributions from famous chefs (Judy Rodgers' bread salad, Sherry Yard's pumpkin torte, Thomas Keller's shrimp appetizer, and so on, you get the picture). Michel Richard, the famous man behind Citronelle in Washington DC and the author of Happy In The Kitchen, contributed a recipe for long-cooked collard greens and chewy lentils that to me seemed far better suited for a simple weekend lunch than as a side player on the Thanksgiving table.

A plateful of this stewy stuff with a piece of cracklingly fresh bread - why would you want anything else? On some days, that's all you need. It was just so good. So simple and earthy and good. There's just enough prep work to make you feel happily industrious, but then the bulk of the cooking is done in the oven while you are free to contemplate a pedicure or finish that book you started two weeks ago, or draw up a list of thank you cards to write or just sit and gaze at your boyfriend because for a week you couldn't and now you can again. Then you pull out the pot, stir in the balsamic vinegar (which really makes this dish) and think that while the lentils and greens might bring you fortune, you're already quite happy with all that you've got.

So, isn't that extra nice? A good meal and some deep thoughts? I think this recipe's a keeper. (My only caution to you all is that the original recipes says this will serve 6 as a side course, but Ben and I polished it off for lunch alone and - er - sort of battled each other for the last spoonfuls. Those greens really cook down.)

And now I've got to go figure out my dinner plans and take about seven Advil. It's a good thing New Year's Eve comes but once a year.

Collard Greens and Lentils
Serves 2 as a main course

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
1/4 pound bacon, cut in thin strips
1 pound collard greens or mixed collard and mustard greens, ribs removed, chopped
2 cups chicken stock
3/4 cup green Le Puy lentils or other lentils
Salt and pepper
Balsamic vinegar

1. Heat the oven to 250 degrees. Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven or ovenproof pot and saute the onion over medium heat until it becomes translucent and begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the bacon and cook until it softens, about 5 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and remove any excess oil by patting the bacon with a paper towel.

2. Return the pot to the heat and add half the greens. This will fill the pot, but as you cook, stirring frequently, the leaves will wilt and shrink. When there is enough room, add the remaining greens and the chicken stock. Stir to mix evenly.

3. Cover the pot and place it in the oven to cook until the greens are well stewed and deeply fragrant, about 1 and 1/2 hours.

4. Add the lentils, stir, cover and return the pot to the oven until the lentils are tender but still a little chewy, about 40 to 45 minutes.

5. Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir in 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar. Taste and add a little more vinegar if necessary. Serve immediately.