The Valley of the Sun

Well, not only is my post a week late, but I don't even have that much to say. In the past two weeks, I've cooked only once. Instead, I've been basking in beautiful 78 degree Scottsdale, Arizona, a.k.a. the "Valley of the Sun." Don't worry, dear readers, I've still been eating, more than the recommended daily allowance of pretty much everything. But instead of cooking in, I've been eating out at fabulous restaurants like the Spotted Donkey, Matt's Big Breakfast, and Cave Creek Coffee Company (which I intend to buy if I ever find myself with a second home in Arizona along with excessive amounts of disposable income).

If, like me, you've been suffering from yet another New England winter and you're suddenly plopped down into the dry hot desert, your thoughts might turn not only to food, but also to margaritas. Here's a photo of my first of the trip — a specialty of the Spotted Donkey on North Scottsdale Road. Once I order the necessary prickly pear puree through the mail, I'll give you a recipe.

And, here are the pomegranate margaritas I made at my sister-in-law's the only night I did cook.

And, finally, here is the first tub of two, which I consumed at another place I can't remember the name of because it wasn't as good as the Spotted Donkey.

I did owe my sister-in-law/hostess a belated Christmas present which, lamely, took the form of dinner. So, one night and one night only, we stayed in. I made a pitcher of the aforementioned pomegranate margaritas, a bowl of guacamole, chopped salad, tzatziki, and the best grilled chicken kabob you'll ever have. I'm quite serious. It's adapted from Gourmet's "Foolproof Grilled Chicken," which I highly recommend. You can find the full recipe on epicurious.com. But if, like me (again), your focus is more margarita and less poultry, you may be too tipsy to go through the whole time-consuming brining step and want to just cut to the chase, cube the chicken, and skewer it with sticks. That way you get outside to the grill much quicker — drink in hand and under the sun, where you belong.

Foolproof Grilled Chicken Kabobs
adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook

The key is to put the sauce on the chicken after grilling. Not before.

1/4 c fresh lime juice
2 T Asian fish sauce (some day I'll wax poetic about this particular condiment)
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/4 c finely chopped cilantro
3 T finely chopped mint
1 t red pepper flakes
1 t salt
1/2 c vegetable or canola oil

1.5 lbs boneless chicken cubed

Make the vinaigrette: whisk together the lime juice, fish sauce, garlic, cilantro, mint, red pepper flakes, and 1 t salt in a large bowl. Add oil in slow stream until combined.

I'm realizing that I'm at the point where I should tell you how to grill the chicken. I could either experiment with timing and delay this post another week, or I could just tell you to cook the chicken on your grill until it's cooked through but not dry. I'm going with option number two.

Once the chicken is cooked, transfer to the bowl of vinaigrette and turn to coat. Transfer to a platter and garnish with cilantro and mint.



Topsy-Turvy: adv.: 1, in utter confusion or disorder; 2, with the top or head downward; upside down. adj.: totally disordered.
Probably ultimately from tops + terve, obsolete English, to turn upside down.
Date: 1528

Some of you might have noticed that I didn’t post in my assigned order two weeks ago; Janetta graciously stepped into the gap because I was having one of those weeks—actually, if truth be told, a number of challenging weeks in relentlessly rapid succession. Midyear grading segued seamlessly into myriad other teacherly duties and motherly chores; things came up, added up, blew up. My life was a bit of a muddle. In short, things felt topsy-turvy.

But I’m back, all is well, and I’m dedicating this post to the concept of topsy-turvyness. Let’s embrace the idea of turning things upside down—inversions are great in yoga class; why not in the kitchen? Thus, I’m giving you a recipe for a potato cake that requires you to flip it to serve it. (The technique is also used in cooking things like Chinese fried noodle cakes.) A word to the wise: flipping is certainly not rocket science, but if you have not flipped a potato cake or some such thing, doing so merits a steady hand and a bit of concentration, if not practice. (My first time flipping a potato cake, it slithered to the floor, victim of a brief lapse in my attention as I looked away oh-so-quickly to talk to my dog. I feel sure that you will suffer no such fate, having been warned.)

This potato cake works beautifully as a delicious but rather demure side dish, complementing a variety of foods; but I’m suggesting that, accorded its own garnishes, it can and should shine as a main dish in its own right. My inspiration? One of the courses Joe and I recently enjoyed as part of the very fine vegetarian tasting menu at Ten Tables in Cambridge: a potato gratin nestled on a thick pool of, I believe, Romesco sauce, and garnished with pickled red onions and some greens on the side. The combination of textures and flavors proved exciting, colorful, and very tasty. (Alas, no pictures of the plate at Ten Tables; it was far too romantically dark to get a good shot.)

Thus, I am including recipes for Romesco sauce and pickled onions, as well. You can add greens prepared any way you like. Fresh watercress (especially red, my new favorite, bought at Wilson Farm), or cooked spinach, broccoli rabe, or chard would all be nice. I’d probably go with a classic Spanish preparation of spinach sautéed in a bit of olive oil, with garlic, pine nuts, and raisins. To round out the meal, you could serve a salad, a cheese course with bread, or perhaps some crostini spread with mashed cannellini, olive oil, garlic, and herbs.

I could go on a bit more, but as things are, if not topsy-turvy, still quite busy, I'll keep this post short and sweet—and, as it were, savory. Enjoy!

Gâteau de Pommes de Terre L’Ami Louis
(L’Ami Louis’s Potato Cake)
Adapted from Patricia Wells’s Bistro Cooking. Wells notes, “this is the late Antoine Magnin’s famous potato cake” from the Paris bistro L’Ami Louis. At the bistro, the potatoes are fried in goose fat. Wells suggests poultry fat or butter; I stick to butter.

3 T unsalted butter
2 lbs baking potatoes, such as russets, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 T (1/2 oz) unsalted butter
3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
3 T coarsely minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Melt the 3 T butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes and season with salt. Sauté, partially covered, tossing the potatoes from time to time until most of the potatoes are partially browned on both sides, about 25 minutes. Reduce the heat, if necessary, to avoid burning the potatoes.
3. Using a large, slotted spatula, transfer the browned potato slices to a 9-inch round, nonstick, oven-proof skillet. Press the potatoes firmly and evenly into the pan. Bake, uncovered, until the potatoes are crisp and golden, about 20 minutes.
4. Place the skillet over medium-high heat and rub the butter around the edges of the pan, letting it melt down into the inside rim of the pan.
5. Now comes The Flip: Place a large plate on top of the pan and invert both skillet and plate to unmold the potato cake. (Whether the potatoes unmold into a firm cake or a looser cake will depend upon the firmness and freshness of the potatoes used.)
6. Scatter garlic and parsley on top of cake. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Romesco Sauce
Adapted from Penelope Casas’ Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain

1 large ripe tomato (or you can substitute 2 to 3 Muir Glen canned fire-roasted tomatoes, in which case you need roast only the garlic)
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1 dried sweet red pepper (such as “New Mexico” style)
½ dried red chili pepper, seeded, or ¼ t crushed red pepper
½ c water
3 T plus 1 t red wine vinegar
½ c plus 1 T olive oil
A ¼-in slice of crusty bread
10 blanched almonds
Freshly ground pepper

Roast the tomato and garlic in an ungreased roasting pan at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes. Place the dried red pepper and chili pepper in a saucepan with the water and 3 T of the vinegar. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for 5 minutes. (If using pepper flakes, add them later to the food processor.)

Heat 1 T of the oil in a small skillet and fry the bread until golden on both sides. Transfer to a food processor or blender. In the same oil fry the almonds until golden and add to the processor, along with the boiled red peppers (if using crushed red pepper, add here), garlic, and tomato. With the motor running, pour in gradually the remaining ½ c of oil, the remaining t of vinegar, salt, and pepper. Strain, taste for salt, place in a serving bowl, and keep at room temperature.

Sauce can be made a day in advance.

Pickled Onions
From Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
(Great in sandwiches, salads, and pastas, and as a garnish for any number of dishes.)

1 lb. red onions, peeled but left whole
1 ½ c white wine vinegar
2 bay leaves
4 marjoram or thyme branches
several small dried red chiles, optional
1 T sugar
1 t black or mixed peppercorns, bruised

Bring a teakettle of water to a boil. Slice the onions crosswise, ¼ in thick or thicker. Separate the rings and put them in a colander, then pour the boiling water over them. Mix the other ingredients plus 1 ½ c cold water and several pinches salt in a large bowl and stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the onions, submerging them in the liquid by placing a plate on top. If there isn’t enough liquid, add equal amounts of vinegar and water. The color will begin to develop in about 15 minutes. You can use the onions then or chill them first. Store in a covered jar in the refrigerator. (They keep for weeks in the fridge, but will lose some of their crunch over time.)


What to serve for dessert? The clever among you will no doubt think, of course, of pineapple upside down cake. But no: I have one more trick up my sleeve—a pineapple dessert, yes, but an unusual, and unusually effortless, one. Joe introduced me to it; he’d had it the week before at our friend M’s house. It’s so simple that no formal recipe or measuring is really necessary. But, in the interests of giving credit where it is due, I tracked down its origins; it apparently appears in Mario Batali’s book on Spanish cuisine based on the TV show he did with Gwyneth Paltrow. Served this way, pineapple tastes like itself, only gussied up in an interesting way. It is sweet and sour, with the mysteriously dark sweetness of molasses added to the mix, and simplicity itself—and thus, good to whip up when you’re having one of those topsy-turvy weeks.

Pineapple, gussied up, for our friend Annie's New Year's Open House

Pineapple with Lime Zest and Molasses
From Mario Batali's (with Gwyneth Paltrow), Spain… A Culinary Road Trip

1 ripe pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into bite-sized pieces
Grated zest of 1 lime
3 T robust molasses

Put the pineapple on a plate, sprinkle it with the zest, and drizzle with the molasses.


New Happy New Year

Overall I had a pretty good holiday season involving friends, family, Brooklyn, Broadway, Momofuko pork buns, movies, latkes, cookies, lights, and trees — all culminating with a cork in my eye at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve (we decided it was good luck). But in the midst of these festivities, I had the whole upcoming arraignment thing in the back of my mind (see previous post entitled The Commonwealth of Massachusetts vs. Me), along with an imaginary brain tumor that lasted a solid week. I even went to the doctor, which is unheard of, who didn't quite laugh at me, but almost.

Once the arraignment had come and gone without too much fanfare, and my imagination allowed the tumor to shrink, I decided I needed yet another fresh start. What better way than Chinese New Year? I looked it up and found the first day of the Year of the Tiger fell on January 30 (apparently incorrectly; I'm looking it up now, and Google very clearly states that it's not until February 14). In any case I sent out some emails to make sure I'd have a critical mass, and started to obsess about what to cook. I received a couple of books for Christmas that I already owned and exchanged them at Brookline Booksmith for a beautiful cookbook entitled Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo (a slightly derivative but fairly accurate title).

A show on NPR listed it as one of the top 10 cookbooks of the year. I couldn't agree more. I can see how someone could be put off by several of the recipes that call for shrimp roe, 85 Thai chiles (no fewer, no more), stocks that cook for days, or the Marcella-like instructions (see chile note) that at times sound as though if you can't find the proper brand of mung-bean paste, you might as well not even bother. But I have to tell you, the multiple recipes that I've made have all been straightforward and unbelievably delicious. And for those of us hankering for some Asian food who live in eastern Massachusetts, there's no better place to start than H-Mart in Burlington.

It's brand new, sparkling clean, and you can buy anything from a Hello Kitty backpack to a flat screened TV to pork belly and a lifetime supply of rice. There's an entire room dedicated to kim chee. And, if you ever need a trotter not connected to a pig, H-Mart is your destination.

I stocked up on Shaoxing wine, double dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, peanut and sesame oils, ginger, 4 different kinds of bok choy, eggplant, rice wine vinegar, and multiple pork products — everything I needed to make an authentic lunar year banquet. The rest of this post will just be photos and recipes. Why waste more space? You'll have them just in time for the real Chinese New Year!

Here was my menu (2 of the yummiest and shortest recipes follow):

Clams in Black Bean Sauce

Dan's Tea Eggs
(So beautiful and v tasty w the clams. I don't have the recipe, though. Maybe Dan will comment w the details.)

(Miraculously made by S herself)

Long-Cooked Pork Shoulder

Eggplant with Garlic Sauce

I also made stir fried bok choy and my friend Valerie brought tofu and noodles (for a long life), For some reason I don't have pix of those, but they were good too!

The Recipes

Clams Stir-Fried with Black Beans

Adapted (but almost verbatim) from Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, as are all the other recipes. Who am I to tinker? But I have not included her recipes for chicken stock and other incredibly time consuming things that you can buy at the store. And I'm not as specific as she is with my cleaver techniques. In fact I've left them out altogether.

For the clams
2 quarts water
30 medium-size clams
3 T peanut oil
2 T peeled and shredded ginger
2 T garlic
3 T fermented black beans, rinsed twice and well drained (or black bean paste).
1 T thinly sliced cilantro
1 T thinly sliced scallions

2/3 c chicken broth
1 1/2 T oyster sauce
1 1/2 t dark soy sauce
1 t sesame oil
1 tablespoon mung bean starch (I actually used cornstarch. H-Mart is great but overwhelming and I had to leave after an hour. The brain tumor was returning)
1 t sugar
pinch of white pepper (I did invest $6.99 in white pepper, but I don't think it's necessary)

1. Pour the water into a wok and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the clams and allow the water to return to a boil. As the clams open, remove them to a waiting dish, to prevent them from becoming tough. Continue until all of the clams have opened (discard any that do not). Set the clams aside. Discard the water and wash and dry the wok and reserve.

2. Make the sauce — in a small bowl, mix together all of the ingredients and reserve.

3. Heat the wok over high heat for 40 seconds (under no circumstances should you heat for 37 seconds; if that happens, cool the wok and start again. Joking). Add the peanut oil and using a spatula, coat the wok with the oil. When a wisp of white smoke appears, add the ginger, garlic, and black beans and stir to mix well for about 1 minute, or until the garlic and black beans release their fragrance. Add the clams and stir to mix for 2 minutes. Make a well in the center of the clams, stir the sauce, and pour it into the well. Stir constantly for about 2 minutes or until the sauce thickens and the clams are thoroughly coated with the sauce.

4. Sprinkle with the cilantro and scallion and serve.

Eggplant with Garlic Sauce

1T double dark soy sauce
2 t oyster sauce
1 t white rice vinegar
1/2 t Shaoxing wine
1/2 t hot pepper flakes
2 t sugar
1/2 t cornstarch mixed w 2 t chicken or vegetable stock
1/4 t salt

4 cups peanut oil
1 lb Asian eggplants sliced lengthwise into 1/2 inch wide and 3 inch long strips
2 t minced garlic

1. Make the sauce — in a small bowl, mix together all of the ingredients and reserve.

2. Heat a wok over high heat for 45 seconds. Add the peanut oil and heat to 350F on a deep frying thermometer. Carefully lower the eggplant into the oil. Cook the strips for 2 to 3 minutes, or until they soften. Using a slotted spoon, lift out the strips and allow the eggplant to drain over a bowl.

3. Pour off all but 1 1/2 T of the peanut oil from the wok and heat over high heat for 30 seconds. When a wisp of smoke appears, add the garlic and stir for 35 seconds, or until it releases its fragrance. Return the eggplant to the wok and stir-fry for 1 1/2 minutes, or until it is well-mixed with the garlic. Make a well in the center of the mixture, stir the sauce, and pour it into the well. Stir to mix well for about 2 minutes, or until the sauce thickens.

4. Turn off the heat and serve.