Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cauliflower in mayo - Conopida cu maioneza

When you grow up Romanian, you know the taste of boiled cauliflower well, too well. One of the delights of learning to cook for myself was discovering that other, more exciting things could be done with cauliflower too -- it could be roasted to nutty sweetness, for example, or stir-fried with curry leaves, turmeric, and coconut, or pureed into a satisfying creamy soup. Cauliflower could be seriously good.

So why is it that lately I've had urges for recipes made with boiled cauliflower, of all things? It has to be something atavistic, a longing for the blander bits of my childhood. In this case, I was paging through Silvia Jurcovan's Carte de Bucate, and the single recipe she gave under "conopida" (cauliflower) was for cauliflower made with mayonnaise. Now, I despise mayo, and try to avoid it. But it turns out I had tasted a version of this recipe when visiting my uncle in Bucharest in 2006, and knew that it could be incredibly tasty.

Now, it certainly doesn't look tasty. It's a white vegetable in a white sauce when you get right down to it. But don't let looks fool you. I played quite a bit with the recipe given in Jurcovan, so much so that I'm only going to give you very vague directions. I think the keys here are not overboiling the cauliflower, and making the sauce flavourful enough to carry the veggie.

First, cut the cauliflower into large florets. I had an enormous cauliflower head (about 1800 g!), which I think was ideal. If you cut it into large enough pieces, they won't cook through as fast and they can suffer a bit of breaking. Then throw them in boiling water for around 5 minutes, but check every now and then to see if they're tender by inserting a sharp knife into a floret. Remove and drain.

In the meantime, make the dressing. Take about a cup of mayo and mix together with two cups of sour cream. I also added a couple of teaspoons of mustard and plenty of dried dill because Jurcovan told me to, and a few things Jurcovan didn't mention: four crushed cloves of garlic, a dash of Worcestershire, about half a lemon's worth of juice, a few squirts of olive oil, to say nothing of salt and pepper.

Finally, mix the thick dressing with the cauliflower -- do so gently so that the florets do not break apart. Chill, and serve! You can add some chopped parsley on top, though I might vary the leftovers tomorrow with some scallions.

Grandma's tomato soup - Supa de rosii

When I was very little, I was an incredibly difficult eater. It's hard to believe now that I have a voracious and pretty catholic appetite for food, but my family spent most of my childhood trying desperately to convince me to eat. For, as you may know, in Eastern Europe a child who doesn't eat is nothing short of a tragedy. It never seems to occur to anyone that the kid will eat when she's hungry, and so will most likely not starve. No -- she must be cajoled, threatened, forced, and constantly reminded to eat!

The upshot of this for me was that my grandmothers especially would latch on to any food item I seemed to eat with relish, and would compete with each other to provide it whenever I was at their house. I remember a visit to Bucharest when I was twelve or so. At that point, I had discovered I liked meat (an overnight sensation), and I wasn't all that finicky anymore. But there were certainly things I liked more than others... and one of these dishes was tomato soup with noodles.

The visit took place over the summer months, and I alternated between the homes of my grandparents, the way I had as a child. Every time I went to my grandmother Nadia's, she would make me tomato soup with noodles, and I would eat bowls and bowls of it, expressing a particular desire for extra noodles. So the next visit, the soup would have a greater proportion of fine, angel-hair noodles, and I'd finish it off with even more delight. I remember by the end of the summer sitting at her kitchen table, and Nadia putting a bowl in front of me: there was a mound of noodles, barely moistened by soup. This was now pasta with tomato sauce. I looked at the bowl, looked at her, and we both started laughing.

Well, despite making some delicious squash and carrot and African peanut soups in the past few weeks, what I've really been craving is tomato soup... with noodles. I called up Nadia for the recipe, and it turned out she had had the same craving. It also turned out that this soup is ridiculously easy to make -- and I simplified it even further.

You basically boil a carrot, a stick of celery, and some onion in a litre and a half or so of water, for half an hour. Then add half a litre of tomato juice, season appropriately, let it cook a little. Finally, throw in some noodles -- I used thin Italian egg noodles that come in little bird nests, crushed a bit. I made the recipe even easier by using a good vegetable bouillon instead of the real veggies (which can be crushed into the soup of course, or just removed). There are better tomato soups out there, I'm sure -- but this one is ridiculously easy, done in less than twenty minutes, and satisfies me like nothing else.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

It's always good times when a restaurant reviewer gets miffy

Nancy Nichols has to be my new favourite restaurant reviewer... at least after reading this delicious review of MesoMaya in D Magazine:

D Magazine : Restaurant Review: MesoMaya

The best line, and one that gets at all Fancy Presentation of Bad Food, has to be: "Then someone in the kitchen uses a squeeze bottle to zigzag white cream sauce across the top until the mess looks like a mud pile covered with graffiti."

Monday, November 28, 2011

And, plop, there goes my identity...

This evening, after coming home from work I:

1 - Baked some oatmeal-whole wheat bread.

2 - Made chicken in peanut sauce from the Oprah Magazine Cookbook.

3 - And in the meantime, rendered my own chicken fat from the skins left over from #2.

Yup, I've officially become a wife. Judging by these foods, I can't quite tell if I'm a Middle America wife or a Crunchy Granola wife or a East European Jewish wife. Or some weird, chewy and fatty and fibrous combination of the three. But there it is. It's done. There's no hope for me now.

Does it help at all that I was listening to podcasts of Paul Fry discussing New Historicism and hermeneutics (from iTunes U) while doing all of this? I think I'll go enter a hermeneutic circle with the crispy chicken skin bits and ponder...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Romanian's French Onion Soup

It's a bit of a running joke in my marriage that I like onions and garlic. Now, when I say I "like" them, you might be tempted to think that I sort of enjoy them, or that I appreciate a well-placed sliver of red onion, or that I think roasting some garlic for an hour and then pureeing it into the hummus is a good idea. And while these things are true, it's more accurate to say that I'm obsessed with these sulfurous bulbs. After all, growing up my father used to make a salad out of white onions alone (seriously -- I'll post the recipe one day), and one of my favourite snacks to make for myself was to rub a raw garlic clove all over a piece of toast until it disappeared, and then to butter the toast. Romanians, like Iranians and Indians, often have raw onion as a side dish; this is either a nicely washed green onion or a wedge of white onion, either of which is dipped in salt and eaten raw.

Given this upbringing, it's no surprise that given any recipe, I regularly double the onions and triple the garlic. I love the intensity of flavour this brings, and I regularly change even Indian recipes. (In the back of my animal brain is a suspicious little voice saying the recipe-writer must have adjusted the onion and garlic quotients down to suit Western tastes, as with the spice...)

Last night, feeling a bit of a cold coming on in the late November chill, I decided to make some French onion soup. Things started out just fine. I had an easy recipe by Richard Olney, but although he gave specific instructions for how many onions were needed, I couldn't help but keep slicing and slicing and slicing... needless to say, gently frying this mass of onions, waiting for the sugars to caramelize and for the slivers to turn a deep brown was an even greater pleasure than eating the eventual soup. One of my recent food reads has been Coleman Andrews' Everything On the Table: Plain Talk about Food and Wine, and at one point in the book he writes about falling in love with cooking when he realised the magic of frying onions, the superb power to transmute a substance into something delicious and luscious using only the application of heat. Making an onion soup means reenacting the first step of civilisation.

Olney's recipe also calls for a bit of tomato paste, which I haven't seen elsewhere. It's unexpected, gives a certain richness and depth and heartiness to the soup, but it also makes it unlike any other French onion soup I've had before. Because I am also obsessed with tomatoes (any good Romanian should be), I like the result, but I also initially found it too sweet. So I checked what Mark Bittman and my fancy and mostly-useless 1997 Joy of Cooking had to say about French onion soup, and wound up adding a pinch of dried thyme and a glug of cognac to brighten the soup a bit. The result was wonderful -- I had two bowls last night and ate it for breakfast again this morning. We served it with croutons (just bits of stale bread fried in some butter), but this morning I had crackers and brie as a side dish. The soup is so heavy and thick that it doesn't really need extra cheese and bread in it!

How to do it: thinly slice four or five medium to large onions. (You should have about a mixing bowl's full.) Take the pot you'll make the soup in (I like a cast iron Dutch oven), heat three tablespoons of clarified butter or ghee until it's very hot, toss in the onions, then reduce the temperature a bit. Do not leave the stove! Keep stirring the onions for about half an hour, until they become brown. Not golden... brown. Be patient. Put a podcast on or something. Savour it.

When they are ready, throw in four or five cloves' worth of chopped garlic, about a teaspoon of salt, and give your arm some exercise grinding pepper over the whole thing. Lots of pepper. Stir and fry for another minute or two -- the onions are only getting sweeter.

At this point, pour in about five cups (or a bit more) of beef bouillon. Now, if you have the real homemade stuff, I'm sure that's great. I rarely cook meat, and so I never do. What I love though is Better Than Bouillon beef base, the organic kind. It takes up almost no space, tastes better than canned or liquid broths I've tried, is less salty, and is much cheaper in the long haul. (I get it in the supermarket, and stock up when it's on sale.) Add a large tablespoon of tomato paste. And simmer gently, covered, for twenty minutes.

Finally, add a pinch or two of dried thyme, and throw in some cognac -- why not? -- but heat the soup for a bit to boil off the alcohol. And serve, in all its oniony goodness!
The base recipe is from:

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Blog on the Language of Food

Thanks to a Slate article on the etymology of macarons, I just discovered this blog on the language of food by a Stanford linguist, Dan Jurafsky. Now, this essay, and the blog in general, really appeal to my sensibilities: medieval history, cultural mixing, word change, and the contrast between sweet and savory. I'll be reading Jurafsky's other posts soon (and hoping that he posts some more), but for now, enjoy some macarons with me:

The Language of Food: Macaroons, Macarons, and Macaroni

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Searching for the Wurst

I haven't posted in ages -- the sign of a busy life, but also one with a lot of fun, experimental, and inventive cooking that went unphotographed and undocumented. However, I am planning to return with recipe ideas and food experiences soon. Until then, I'll share the news that an essay of mine on culinary fusion in Texas will appear in the literary journal The Southwest Review.

I'll post more once I know the date of publication, but I will say that I recount my experiences of attending the New Braunfels Wurstfest. And, strangely, wurst has lately become a bit of an obsession of mine. Not culinarily, because I can take or leave meat these days, but culturally. I'm starting to think that if you want to know a culture, you need to figure out what they grind up and put in their pigs' intestines. Recent bedtime reading has included Uwe Timm's novel Die Entdeckung Der Currywurst (translated into English as The Invention of Curried Sausage), Petra Boden's business history of Berliner currywurst sellers called Die Berliner Currywurst, and now Wiglaf Droste's Wurst.