Restrictions have nothing on her.

Sustainable Kosher

Posted: November 25th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

For Shabbat dinner a few nights ago I went to a program at 92Y Tribeca, a local Jewish cultural center, to eat professionally prepared local foods and learn a bit about the local, sustainable foods movement and how it relates to Jews today. Two speakers were on the program, Zachary Adam Cohen who runs the Farm to Table blog, and Nancy Lipsey, who works for one of my favorite food organizations, Hazon.

It goes without saying on a site like this, but eating healthy, fresh, seasonal foods is something I care deeply about, and the more local and sustainable food is, the better! You can really taste a difference in quality, and knowing that you’re supporting a local farmer or business is a gratifying feeling. Have I mentioned how much I love farmers markets?

I wouldn’t call the menu for the evening local, though, despite the fact that a local chef prepared it: salmon in beurre blanc, salad with pine nuts, crisp green beans, couscous, cauliflower and parsnips with carrots. Dessert was strawberries and grapes (neither in season!) and homemade rugulah from the chef’s bakery in Staten Island. OMG – yum! Will find out later the name and location of said bakery.

Once most of the room had finished munching on their cauliflower, Zach and Nancy addressed the audience, Zach spoke about his blog, the kinds of topics he covers and why. Later, Nancy spoke about what Hazon is and does and their contributions to the Jewish food movement, which is basically the current trend in sustainable, seasonal food but with a Jewish bent. Unfortunately, while both were charismatic and spoke well, neither got to cover much of what they were billed to talk about, both going off onto tangents, like genetically modified foods (GMOs) and Whole Foods and how they’ve been raising the “local/organic” profile to mainstream consumers.

Just about the only relevant topic mentioned – briefly, was “What does kosher mean,” literally. “Pure?” came a suggestion from the audience, but the true answer is “fit,” as in, “Is this fit for me to eat?” Hazon is one of the leading organizations advocating the eco-Jewish movement currently on the rise across the United States, and they’re asking questions such as “If the first ingredient in this food is high fructose corn syrup, is it fit for me to eat?” and “If this cow has been slaughtered by a 16 year old illegal immigrant earning less than minimum wage, is it fit for me to eat?”

That last question and others like it are being raised by other groups trying to change the definition of “kosher” to include ethical eating practices relating to the conditions of the workers preparing kosher foods, so that not just that the meat is fit to be consumed on a physical level, but on a morally sound one as well.

So, a lot to chew on, so to speak. But it was frustrating for these topics to be touched upon only briefly and I would have liked to hear more.

I’ll definitely update soon with that rugulah info though.


A Very Zen Thanksgiving

Posted: November 18th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays resplendent with color: vibrant oranges, browns and reds; harvest time. A cornucopia centerpiece never graced my family’s table, but if it did, I’d make sure it burst with colorful seasonal fruits. While Thanksgiving is an American holiday, I believe the Japanese have the right idea when it comes to a complete meal: everything should be balanced by the varieties of color, texture and flavor, which is why when creating meals, I strive for harmony, case in point, my colorful dinner party the other week. No better time to put this in practice than now, when seasonal fruits and veggies are a huge component of the traditional Thanksgiving meal.

This year I’ll be home and in all likelihood, my mother and aunt will insist on cooking everything themselves. Usually we’ll feature the standards — turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing, canned cranberries that none of us will actually eat, and of course pumpkin. Despite autumn’s bounty of seasonal options, my clan tends to go for the heavy stuff and far too many starches.

If I distilled down to a bento box of what Thanksgiving foods mean to me, here’s what I’d feature:

- Pumpkin phyllo cups (hors d’ourves)
- Apple and butternut squash soup
- Arugula and cranberry salad with almond slivers
- Wild rice with parsnip and squash
- Smashed sweet potatoes
- Sauteed collard greens, meatless
- Roast turkey with rosemary sage stuffing
- Pumpkin pie made with homemade whipped non-dairy cream or pumpkin whoopie pies (using Tofutti cream cheese for the filling in this case)

When hosting guests, a great bite-sized hors d’ourves is pumpkin phyllo cups, which are also super easy to make. Take a 15 oz can of pureed pumpkin, stir in 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1 tsp vanilla, 1 tsp cinnamon and 1/2 tsp nutmeg; adjust to taste. Scoop them into little phyllo dough cups and bake at 350 on a cookie sheet until phyllo becomes golden. It’s like mini pumpkin pies!

The first time I ever tried pumpkin, in fact, was eating a variation of this, in boreka-like phyllo pockets, rather than cups. My love affair with pumpkin started then.

The rest of the menu has links to their recipes or are pretty standard, but combine well altogether to highlight the bounty that nature brings us this time of year, as well as sharing it with the bounty of our loved ones. Happy Thanksgiving!


Birthday Shabbat Dinner – now with pictures!

Posted: November 10th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments »

For most people, birthdays are a time when you try to put aside stresses and responsibilities; at least, that’s in an ideal world. Since I enjoy coming up with ideas and executing them, I insisted on undertaking and cooking a full three course birthday Shabbat dinner (with help from a friend) as part of the festivities this year. Doing it my way would sidestep the usual overly heavy, starchy and store-bought meals that tend to be the case when it comes to such dinners, and it can be as healthy and unique as I want! Woo!

The menu was mentioned in a previous post, but basically everything I made was a veggie since my friend took care of the salmon appetizer and spiced baked chicken main. There were also pumpkin swirl brownies. I am very happy to have discovered such a potent, delicious recipe!

Here’s how it went down. Once the menu was set and the ingredients purchased I spent a couple of days prepping like seeding a pomegranate myself instead of paying $6 for fresh pomegranate seeds and spending about 45 minutes handwashing four bunches of rainbow chard, but it was all totally worth it, because everything came out great except the quinoa. Can’t win ‘em all.

The day before the dinner I prepared the beets, the chard and the butternut squash and sweet potato puree; the rest was made at my friend’s apartment. Now, I like experimenting but for this dinner everything came from a recipe. The beets with cumin and tamarind dressing is something my mom tends to make as one of the salads at a Shabbat meal and I don’t often experience such a dish anywhere else, so I consulted my copy of Aromas of Aleppo the Syrian-Jewish gourmet cookbook. It calls for ot’ (pronounced “oot”), which is a tamarind syrup found easily in the Syrian-Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn but nearly impossible to get anywhere else. Luckily I had some in my fridge. The cookbook also has a recipe for making your own.

Diced beets in cumin and tamarind dressing

The rainbow chard came out great. The recipe I used called for regular swiss chard but rainbow chard is more colorful and festive.

Rainbow chard stems Rainbow chard with golden raisins and pine nuts

The puree recipe came from a leaflet at a farmers market. I’ve been collecting the recipes they give out at farmers markets for years and put them in a three-ring binder to consult later. This particular one originally came from The Hudson River Valley Cookbook. It’s pretty easy, but time-consuming.

Butternut Squash and Sweet Potato Puree

Serves 4

2 large sweet potatoes
1-pound butternut squash
1 cup fresh orange juice – I halved this
1 tablespoon unsalted butter – I used margarine
A 2-inch piece of cinnamon stick
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
I added 1/2 cup of brown sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cut the sweet potatoes in half. Cut the squash in half vertically and scrape out the seeds. Put the veggies, cut side up, in a baking pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper and bake, uncovered, until they are very soft, at least 1 1/2 hours. Scoop the potato and squash out of the skins, combine them and smash until smooth.

Put the orange juice, butter, cinnamon stick and brown sugar in a small saucepan and reduce until it is about 1/4 cup syrup. Discard the cinnamon stick. Stir the orange syrup into the mashed vegetables, season with salt and pepper, transfer to a small casserole and reheat gently in the over or on top of the stove.

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I doubled this since it was meant for 10. Only using 1/2 a cup orange juice even after doubling the rest is plenty, otherwise the whole thing will be overpowered by the citrus flavor.

The next day I prepared the quinoa, the sesame broccoli and a mixed green salad at my friend’s apartment, where dinner was held. No kidding, I brought a whole pushcart of the prepared food and supplies!

The quinoa was mushy because my friend didn’t have a proper sized lid for the size pot I needed. Oh well. The sesame broccoli was another farmers market recipe, this time coming from something called The Recipe Source. It’s super easy and quick. Just cut the broccoli into florets and cook in boiling salted water until tender, about 8 – 10 minutes, or you can steam it in salted water for about 5 minutes. Mix together sesame oil, soy sauce and toasted sesame seeds, and toss. Done! I think properly salted water is key because I needed to add a bunch more soy sauce to make this have any flavor but it turned out alright in the end.

Quinoa with chickpeas, pomegranate seeds and spices

Then, dessert. I had made the brownies the night before so that was all ready to go. They came out denser than I expected and stayed super moist. The comments for the recipe really helped. I will definitely make them again!

Pumpkin swirl brownies

I’m ok with not doing another dinner party for a while. This was a lot of food!


Shabbat Birthday Dinner

Posted: November 6th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Hi all,

Long time no write! I apologize for the hiatus but between work and technical difficulties I wasn’t able to write about any fabulous kosher creations of mine. But let’s look forward, not back. Autumn is a great time of year for food and I look forward to incorporating seasonal fruits and veggies in my cooking as much as possible.

What else is great is that my birthday is in autumn, next week in fact. A friend of mine graciously agreed to host Shabbat dinner as a dinner party/birthday celebration/Shabbat meal. I’m very excited, not only to share a meal with good friends but also because as always, I’m dying to cook for a dinner party.

A Shabbat meal is the epitome of dinner parties, with certain items that are musts. (Challah; some sort of chicken or meat, usually; wine.) These can be tweaked if necessary — I’ve been to many a vegan and vegetarian Shabbat dinner and lunch, for example.

Preparing and cooking for the ten of us who are attending this week gets expensive, which is why I don’t do this more often. However, my friend who’s hosting alerted me to a wonderful program run by Taglit Birthright, which you may have heard is the program that sends Jews 18 – 26 years old on a fully subsidized 10 day trip to Israel, so they can be more connected with the country and see what a great place it is. I did this the summer of 2003. (That’s right, I missed the big Northeastern blackout because I was on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights at the time.)

Anyway, what I didn’t know until two weeks ago is that Birthright will sponsor alumni of their trip to host any Shabbat meal — dinner, lunch, Havdallah (end of shabbat dinner), for at least four and no more than 16 adults… at $25 per person. Wow. Granted, you’re only allowed to do this once every 30 days, and I gotta say, kosher food is really pricey. And so they know you’re not gaming them, you have to take a picture of you and all the guests holding a customized sign so they know how many people to reimburse you for. Or, if you don’t roll on Shabbos like John Goodman in the Big Lebowski, take a picture beforehand of the set table and prep-work. No cash advance though, only reimbursement. But! Great deal! I plan on taking this opportunity as much as possible. So, this is how this week’s Shabbat meal will be funded.

Since my friend is a big wine and scotch connoisseur, he’s taking care of that and allocating a big chunk of the budget for drinks, as well as buying and preparing the meat. I’m very excited for kosher meat, since I don’t eat it too often; I’m practically a vegetarian.

Adding to the challenge of cooking for 10 — I insisted on creating and executing most of the menu, is that diner will be held not at my apartment, where I am familiar with the kitchen and the things in it, but at my friend’s, who, while I’m guessing has necessary supplies and cookware, doesn’t even have garlic and onions on hand! (I asked.) By necessity I will make some dishes there and transport the rest. Oh boy.

Here’s the full menu:

Appetizers
- Hummus, Tahini, Turkish/Eggplant Salad (all store-bought)
- Diced Beet Salad in tamarind dressing
- Mixed Green Salad with red onion, apple slices and cherry tomatoes
- Salmon (my friend is taking care of this)

Entrees and Sides
- Baked Chicken (my friend is taking care of this)
- Rainbow Swiss Chard with golden raisins and pine nuts
- Butternut Squash and Sweet Potato Puree
- Quinoa Pilaf with chickpeas, pomegranate and spices
- Sesame Broccoli

Dessert
- Grapes
- Pumpkin Swirl Brownies

The brownies were baked last night and omfg they look mouth-wateringly beautiful, a perfect pale orange swirled with wisps of chocolate. Pictures will be posted in my next entry. I know Bakezilla wrote about cakes making the best birthday dessert and I definitely agree! But I can’t resist a pumpkin-chocolate combo, ever. Even if I have to substitute butter for margarine.

I tweaked the brownie recipe based on the comments posted beneath it — thanks, Internet! They were actually very helpful, so if you’re going to try it out (please do!), take a look there first for tips. Last night I also seeded a pomegranate and washed four bunches of chard, but I still have a lot of work to do to get it all ready!

Tonight: make the sweet potato/squash puree, soak the red onions in cider vinegar for a couple of hours, make the chard and make the beet salad. I’ll do everything else at my friend’s place day of.

I’ll update next week to share how it all went down! Whew.


Anti-food and Yom Kippur

Posted: September 26th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

After sunset in a couple of days, Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year on the Jewish calendar begins and for the next twenty-five hours there will be no eating or drinking of any kind by Jews all over the world. Fast days, quite literally, are anti-food: in order to ritualistically purify ourselves for the day we have to elevate ourselves spiritually by temporarily denying ourselves unnecessary bodily activities we enjoy, like eating; snacking on cake or samosas, say, won’t put anyone in the right mindset of atoning for a year’s worth of sins. Bakezilla’s samosas however: I’d sin for those any day. Not eating is a method of focusing ourselves, of not being concerned with our regular day-to-day lives but setting that aside in order to concentrate on more spiritual matters and also to be uncomfortable. It is the Day of Atonement after all, who said it had to be comfortable?

As far as I’m aware, there are no particular foods directly associated with either the before or after of Yom Kippur, but there are some guidelines on what to eat beforehand in order to make the fast be as easy as possible.

The first tip requires a little advance planning. If you’re a coffee freak like me, you will definitely want to cut down or wean yourself completely in the weeks before YK. If in general you’re a bleary-eyed, grumbling ogre in the pre-caffinated AM, then that ain’t how you want to be on the day that there is zero you can do about it. Also, coffee withdrawal gives many people headaches, so cutting down from three cups to two, one or none might be annoying at first but you’ll thank yourself later and you can always pick the habit back up the morning after anyway.

Ok, so now your veins are more blood than caffeine. Congrats! Next, you will want to increase your water intake. Drinking more water than usual will keep your body more hydrated (duh) but since you’re not allowed to sip even water on YK, the more your body has to work with in advance, the easier it’s going to be to not pass out from dehydration, especially if celebrating the holiday in a hot, humid place like Florida, which is what I’m doing. Note: I have never passed out from dehydration on YK but some friends of mine have come close, so watch out!

Alright, so far you’ve re-proportioned your coffee and water intake. Say the fast starts this evening and pre-YK dinner is late this afternoon. Pop quiz: what do you make for dinner? If you said huge juicy steak and fries with lots of ketchup and hot sauce you would be… dead wrong! But that sounds really tasty. No, the trick to a successful fast is to eat light and unsalty foods the night before. One of the worst feelings in the world is toddling along with a brick in your stomach from eating too-heavy foods but you have things to do and all you want to do is sleep it off and you’re not allowed! In addition, salty things such as fries (delicious, delicious fries) will make you want to drink lots of water, which you won’t be able to do once the fast starts.

So, what do you eat before a fast?

In my experience, the best preparatory dinner is a salad plus something dairy, perhaps a quiche or pasta dish. Nothing too sweet or any baked goods for dessert, best is fruit, which won’t make you as thirsty.

As it turns out, this type of meal is what you’ll want for the break-fast as well. A lot of people eat bagels with lox and cream cheese once YK is over, because even though you’re starving you’re not going to have the energy to weigh yourself down with any heavy foods.

In honor of Yom Kippur, here’s a recipe for gravalax that you can serve with bagels and cream cheese at your break-fast or at your next DIY brunch.

Gravalax

Note: requires 48 hours of advance prep. You can use inexpensive salmon for this recipe; if it’s too expensive you might as well buy prepared lox!

Ingredients:
- Fillet of salmon (debone beforehand) – can use only 1/4 of a fillet depending on amount of people to serve
- 1/4 cup of kosher salt
- 1/4 cup sugar
- Couple of bunches of fresh dill, enough to cover one side of fillet
- 1/2 tsp all spice (optional)
- Slice of fresh ginger (optional)
- Fresh pepper

In a bowl, combine salt and spices. Rub both sides of the salmon fillet with the spice mix. If the salmon has its skin, just rub the exposed side. Garnish with fresh pepper and smother it with dill. Slice the fillet in half and fold it together. Wrap the salmon tightly with plastic wrap and place in a ziplock or other airtight bag. Store it in the fridge for 48 hours, minimum, with a weight on top to press down on it, turning it every 12 hours. After refrigeration, rinse off the fillet, pat it dry, slice and serve.

Enjoy!


Happy Rosh Hashanah!

Posted: September 19th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Today is Saturday, September 19th; it is also the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and the beginning of the Jewish holiday season. It’s kind of a big deal. It’s impossible to decouple food from Jewish festivity, from the High Holidays down to Tu B’shvat, a kind of Semitic Arbor Day. You may have heard of the Passover seder but in truth every holiday has its own “seder”, ie, major meal where symbolic foods are explained (and explained, and explained) and then consumed.

Rosh Hashanah, literally “the head of the year” actually does entail eating or at least displaying on the dinner table, a fish head or cow’s tongue (or lamb’s head, but I’ve never, ever seen that), so that the coming hear will bring the “head” or best of things rather than the “rear” or as I will put it less delicately, the crap. Another major component of Rosh Hashanah is apples dipped in honey, so that the new year will be sweet. Most children will sing a little ditty that is just the phrase, “Apples dipped in HO-ney for ROSH Ha-SHA-a-NAHHH!”

There is much, much more that could be mentioned but I’d like to discuss pomegranates. By now everyone’s heard that they’re the greatest superfood this side of acai berries, filled with anti-oxidants and other things that will help keep us young and healthy. I’m not sure how much they were on everyone’s radar before, but I’ve been eating pomegranates for years because it’s a very good and important deed, a mitzvah, to eat pomegranates on Rosh Hashanah. The reasoning behind this is that the Torah has 613 mitzvahs that Jews are commanded to do, and the pomegranate has numerous seeds. To eat one is symbolic of doing all these good deeds in the coming year.

Right now I am home in sunny, mosquito-ridden Florida for the holiday. While my mom is an excellent cook, I thought it would be nice if I made a dish for the holiday meal and give her a chance to worry about one less thing to make. Since it’s a holiday we will definitely be eating meat which means no dairy will be present at all, since we all keep kosher too. A dairy restriction dashed my hopes of a pomegranate-flavored souffle. (Never heard of it before but hey, why not, I’d eat that!)

Curiously enough, there don’t seem to be many pomegranate-based recipes out there, despite all the hype. POM’s website, however, has tons of options. Most of them call for using its products, surprise, but a couple of recipes caught my eye: Butternut Squash, Sweet Potato and Pomegranate Soup and Chocolate Covered Arils. What I like about the soup is that it’s adaptable to the kosher constraint, since I could either cut the milk and cream or substitute veggie stock rather than chicken stock if making it for a dairy-laden meal. It also utilizes butternut squash, another traditional harvest-time vegetable, as Rosh Hashana requires that you serve a type of gourd at the big holiday dinner. (Usually we do pumpkin in filo dough appetizers to fill that requirement — mmm pumpkin.) Also, it can be made in large quantities in advance! Chocolate covered arils (pomegranate seeds) is easy enough to make, and sweet chocolate together with tart pomegranate is a formidable and delicious match!

Unfortunately, dashing these plans is the fact that my mom already made matzoh ball soup, upon request by some guests coming over for dinner — she makes awesome matzoh balls. So there goes that. And she’s trying to be healthier, so she nixed the clusters of chocolate covered pomegranate seeds. But how can someone say no to such a thing??

Instead we will be eating the usual, traditional holiday meal, already basically complete by the time I arrived home. Oh well. So I leave you, dear readers, with my fantasy holiday meal, one that I will hopefully be able to prepare part of if not next year, then soon:

Appetizer
- Butternut Squash, Sweet Potato and Pomegranate Soup (made dairy-free)
- Mashed Pumpkin dolloped into filo dough cups
- Green salad with dates and sliced apples
- Cow’s tongue

Entree and sides
- Roast chicken with dried apricots and pomegranate seeds
- Garlic-sauteed swiss chard with black-eyed peas
- Butternut squash drizzled with honey
- Yebra (stuffed meat grape leaves in a tamarind sauce)

Dessert
- Apple honey cake
- Chocolate Covered Arils
- Fresh cut fruit

Shana tova! Happy new year!


Microbrewed Root Beer?

Posted: September 12th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A “sophisticated palate” is a concept that has always eluded me. What do you mean, a sip of this wine evokes elderberries and freshly trimmed grass? Oaky? Floral? I’ve just never gotten it. I suppose with practice I’ll be able to train myself but for now let’s just say I’m confused at best.

Recently I had the pleasure of tasting a microbrewed root beer, Virgil’s. It came highly recommended by a friend who saw the elusive elixir once, years ago, in a high end grocery store, never to see it again until Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s began to carry it. His girlfriend was away for the weekend and since as usual I bought far too much produce for one person to consume before it spoils, I invited him over for a home-cooked meal. “Sure,” he said, “I’ll bring the root beer.” It hadn’t occurred to me that root beer as well as beer can be microbrewed, but that makes sense, sure, and hey I’m adventurous. Ok!

My friend described Virgil’s as fragrant, with a strong wintergreen and anise after-flavor. Anise is one of the few flavors I detest and licorice flavored products make me ill — don’t even get me started on absinthe – ick! — so I was a little hesitant!

Meanwhile, as my friend read the comic books tucked on my bookshelf, I prepared dinner. Ever since I saw the Tomatoes Stuffed with Bulgur and Herbs recipe on NY Times I’ve been dying to try it, not only because tomatoes are in season and will therefore be tastier, but also because I keep bulgur wheat on hand in my pantry; it cooks way faster than rice or quinoa, has a pleasantly grainy texture, it’s tasty and pretty good for you. Also, I realized I had an extra heirloom tomato on hand from the farmer’s market I had forgotten about, so there was enough to make for lunch the next day, yes! In addition, in my earnestness to buy things in season, I purchased two ears of fresh local corn from the grocery store and several nectarines that I knew I’d never finish before they go bad, so as an appetizer I whipped up a grilled chili corn and nectarine salsa. Pretty tasty!

First I started on the bulgur wheat. After pouring boiled water onto it, it had to sit for half an hour or until fluffy. While that was resting, I chopped everything else up for both dishes. I accidentally threw out the caps to the tomatoes; they were supposed to be the lids when the tomatoes were stuffed but I didn’t read the recipe carefully enough. Oh well. When the bulgur wheat was fluffed enough, I combined it with chives and mint and a tablespoon of olive oil. I wish I had pine nuts too but I had to do without. Their crunchiness would have been a nice addition to the soft bulgur and roasted tomatoes.

Herbs and bulgur combined reminded me of tabouli, but without lemon. Instead, and this is what made it fantastic, I shook a whole bunch of cinnamon in the bulgur mix. Now, I love cinnamon. I eat it everyday with breakfast, either on yogurt or oatmeal. My opinion: you can’t go wrong with cinnamon. And wow, it really made the flavor pop!

After that, I salted and peppered the scooped out tomatoes and stuffed them. I drizzled olive oil onto my lidless tomatoes, wrapped it up in tinfoil and baked it at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. I think I was supposed to add water to the pan but decided against it, as that always causes a mess. Or maybe I’m just a klutz?

Then while the tomatoes were roasting I grilled the corn. I sliced off the kernels of both ears, seasoned it with chilli pepper and some salt. When cooked through for a few minutes — the kernels slowly turned a bright yellow, I turned the gas off the stovetop and added half an onion, chopped. The recipe I was going by called for scallions but unfortunately I had none. Same difference. I let the corn and onion breathe in the still-warm pan while I pitted and chopped a nectarine into little pieces. Again, I was going with what I had on hand — really there should have been at least two juicy ones, and peaches at that. Whatever. About one tablespoon of chopped mint was tossed in with the nectarine bits and then I added the corn and onion saute all together. Instead of lime juice I squirted in lemon juice and salt to taste, then tossed.

It was absolutely addictive. The starchiness of the corn played off the sweetness of the nectarine just enough to balance each other and there was but a hint of chili flavor to make it interesting. Perhaps it should have been saucier but I preferred the salsa a little dry, and we easily scooped it up with crackers. By this time the tomatoes were done. Quickly I whipped up a garnish: greek yogurt with two cloves of garlic and a bit of chopped mint to dollop on top of the tomatoes, then served. The root beers had been opened and were breathing in tall glasses. We cheered – “To cooking!” and took a sip.

There was indeed a strong anise aftertaste, but pleasant. Soft. Not the sharpness of licorice but diffuse, with flavor. You know, I could taste the wintergreen too, but not as strongly. With the tomatoes the flavors were intensified. I don’t think I’ve ever had that much flavor in any non-alcoholic beverage before. Beat that, wine!

Later I discovered that root beer pairs perfectly with pizza. Was it the tomatoes, the cinnamon in the bulgur stuffing or the garlicky, refreshing yogurt that the root beer was reacting to? Who knows. But as my friend remarked after we wolfed it all down, “This root beer has never tasted better.”


Best Sangria Ever

Posted: September 5th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Recently, my roommate of three years moved out to live with her boyfriend, and as a thank you for helping her move the two of them took me out to their favorite restaurant in my ‘hood, Guadalupe. Since it’s such a heavily Dominican neighborhood, opening a Mexican restaurant around here takes some cojones, but since it opened a couple of years ago its thrived. Here’s a reason why: the food is damned good. And setting aside the fact that it’s sexy, romantic, a scene in the late evening and has superb service and reasonable prices, a major reason for its success, it must be said, also has to do with their sangria.

I’ve sipped my fair share of sangria and this is the only spot where I begged for the recipe. At first I thought it was so tasty due to the type of wine used, but I quickly ruled that out since both red and white had their own distinct complexity, fruity of course, but with a bite. Could it be brandy? Something else was at play too because any old bartender can dump wine, brandy and fruit chunks together and tada, sangria, but Guadalupe’s version has more layers to it.

After admonishing how fantastic the sangria was and asking for the recipe, the waiter returned with instructions for what I hope will fuel many great parties of mine (and yours) to come. He said the bartender starts with either red or white wine, then adds triple sec, peach schnapps, brandy or Henessey, orange juice AND pineapple juice, and tops it off with bits of fruit. Vodka can also be included, especially if using white wine.

This explains why I was knocked out after one glass.

Pineapple juice! That was the ribbon of flavor running underneath the brandy, what gave the sangria its tart sweetness. I urge everyone to try this at home or at least come up and visit my area sometime, so you can experience how the experts do it yourself.


A Bar is a Bar is a Bar?

Posted: August 5th, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

What makes a cookie bar a cookie bar?

Last night I attempted to bake banana-oatmeal bars with chocolate chips; a perk of not timely eating all the bananas means that they will be featured in a new, desserty incarnation. After much soul searching, I determined to make bars because the week before was banana bread muffins and I like creating new things. The bars were decided upon because Epicurious’s other ideas were banana pudding bananas foster or other unportables I can’t give out at work easily, and the dessert cookbook I own didn’t list much with banana!

I used this recipe, but substantially adjusted it based on reviewers’ suggestions and to taste. Basically, I halved the sugar, added a cup of oats, upped the ripe banana quotient to three instead of two and nixed the nuts. I figured it would be bar-like, since, well, it’s a bar recipe. Didn’t happen.

I’ll be honest, I like baking and I like that it’s generally simple and has consistent rules and formulaic outcomes, (whipping room temperature butter + eggs cracked one at a time equals…) but I’m pretty ignorant about what leads to what! (…equals fluffier cakes? Uh…?) So in adjusting this and other baked goods recipes I do not know, essentially, what exactly I’m doing. Which is fine by me since everything usually comes out ok anyway, but not what I was expecting; it would be nice to know how to actually achieve what I thought I was making!

My roommate, not at all a cook, whipped out her Betty Crocker Cookbook guide which she got as a ‘new college student’ gift from relatives. And there was the light! It gives overviews on these basic rules I was not tutored in. I’m more at ease with mains, salads, the savory stuff. But this basic intro to baking is exactly what i need. It might be helpful to review the whole thing, to be honest.

She told me that it’s one thing to play with an established, “sure thing” recipe but to adjust an unknown, well, who knows what will happen?

That being said, my “cake” got rave reviews! But does anyone know what makes a bar a bar?


Fish With a Kick

Posted: August 2nd, 2009 | Author: rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Normally I’m not one to prepare spicy foods. Flavorful foods, yes, but hot sauces and jalapenos are ingredients not in my repertoire. So when Johanna posted the other day about sriracha it inspired me to venture outside my comfort zone and thus a giant bottle of the red stuff is now sitting in my pantry. Now what the hell do I do with it?

Part of my weekend was spent staring bug-eyed at all the piles of produce at the farmer’s market, so later this week I’ll figure out what to do with the Black Tuscan kale, rainbow chard and white beets (and their leaves). When I got home though, I forgot I had a bunch of organic spinach sitting in my fridge. It was still fresh but I figured it’s best to use that first. The chard, etc can wait a day or two. Luckily, when I purchased the sriracha I impulsively bought some tilapia too — Johanna is very inspiring — and an idea for dinner was born.

I like balance in my meals. Well, who doesn’t? Too much of one flavor doesn’t satisfy anyone’s palate. Here’s what I came up with. Spinach, check. Fish, check. Got some spicy stuff I want to use, but I want to balance it out. Aha, let’s make a yogurt dill sauce for the tilapia and flavor the spinach with the sriracha; refreshing and eye-opening all on the same plate. Yogurt sauce pairs better with salmon but tilapia works just as well. For breakfast nearly every morning I eat Fage greek yogurt with fruit and cinnamon and there was enough left over to make a sauce out of that. I mixed it with chopped dill from the farmer’s market; add the juice of a whole lemon and it’s complete.

The tilapia I didn’t do much to. Its lack of flavor is seen as a plus by some who don’t like “fishy” fish but my response to that is: IT’S FISH. But anyway. This time I just sauteed it with a little onion and garlic and spiced it slightly with ground ginger and black pepper. The spinach I sauteed with crimini mushrooms and garlic, then when cooked I squirted in a little sriracha,, just enough to give it a kick. Plated, I topped off the fish with the yogurt dill sauce and voila, my dinner.

Dessert was a peach, fresh from the farm.