Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How would Janus lick frosting?

This time we really did have a joint kitchen experience!

Callie was hosting a potluck and I had to bring some comfort food to work.
So with very little prepping homework, we just made cake. Callie exploited her baker-roommate's mini-muffin tin, producing the cutest bite sized muffins. Yes, Callie, bite sized. I'm still sure those soft babies of a cake should be shoved whole in your mouth. I opted for the same recipe, only using it for a two layered cake. The recipe for the carrot cake was supplied by the praised food blog Smitten Kitchen. I've made a few carrot cakes before, and they've got their fair share of appreciation. This cake though got me true twinkle eyed admiration. I mean, I don't know how to produce pretty food. The frosting was spread unevenly and the cake wasn't even leveled. And yet, time and again I was asked if I really made it myself and it's not store bought.

Is that just a reflection of my colleagues image of me? One of them actually told me he sees me differently now. Maybe cake will be my redemption here at work. Which brings me to why I'm bringing comfort food to work. My friend, who brought me to the job, was fired yesterday. No warning, no nothing. And everyone likes her here, too. She nothing of the anti-social headphone abuser I am. It was time for gustatory bribery. Bring on the butter and sugar!



I've never made anything with frosting. I usually consider things like that poison. Poison to be enjoyed as a sinful pleasure on rare occasions. Like pop music or resort vacations. Licking my (give it up for the...) mechanical whisk from the frosting's leftovers was so gratifying, I immediately went on to lick the spoon and bowl as well. What can I say, fat-sweetness is a crowd-pleaser.

It's a kind of shocking visceral pleasure. Nothing like the emotional warmth I feel when eating something that is accompanied by memories and events. Sabich is street treat I associate with student life Tel-Aviv. Sabres are summer in Haifa of the late 1980's, standing on my parents' balcony to see the Sabres guy walking down the street with a shopping cart full of the fruit and calling out to costumers. Ptitim are my culinary attempt at creating a home of my own. Frosting? It's a smack in the pallet I received in homes, restaurants, here and abroad - it feels anonymous to me. A bitter sweet reminder of the fact that I cooked it with Callie via web cam.

Hmmm... I guess frosting is going to carry more than a punch from now on.

Here's the recipe.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fresh Green Pasta, and a Creamy Lasagna

Why is it that everything I post must begin with a disaster? Again, I'll say this: the product was pretty delicious. And yet, it seems I'm a disaster in the kitchen.

After weeks of plane-hopping and all-too-brief reunions with family and friends, followed by the dreaded unpacking, it seems I am finally more or less moved in here in Oakland. Three cheers for that. Sure, I'm surrounded by paintings and photographs ("what goes on that wall?") as well as a surplus of curtains ("are you sure these don't go anywhere?"), but, for the most part, the boxes are gone, the shelves are sagging with books, and I even feel a little more organized than I was in the last place.

With things beginning to fall into order, I deemed yesterday appropriate for a cooking project. No simple stir-fry would do -- no, no, my sister got me a pasta roller for my birthday, and yesterday I was determined to use it.

And use it I did. And use it. And use it. For hours I labored over this pasta -- not just the dough, mind you, but preparing layer after layer of toppings for a lasagna of my own design: fresh tomatoes, caramelized onions, salty garlicky sauteed rainbow chard, and a mushroom cream sauce, all nestled between stacks of home-made spinach noodles, and topped with crumbled Gorgonzola. Everything would be chopped just a little larger than usual, so you could taste each flavor separately. I saw the bubbling top, the dripping sauce as I puled a piece from the pan, the crisp edges... It was going to be great.


By the time I was done with it all, poor timing had left the windows steamy, me exhausted, and I wasn't even sure that I was in the mood for the lasagna anymore. I also worried that it was too much cream and too little cheese, that it would be too rich and still flavorless. All in all, it didn't even look particularly good to me.

Nonetheless, I was proud, and excited to cook it up and see what came out. I opened the oven and... nothing. Stone cold.

I looked at every nob, searching for something I missed. Nothing.

And so I found myself, the end of the day, surrounded by dishes, holding ten pounds of unbaked lasagna in my hand, and with no oven to cook it in.

Lovely.

In the end it turned out the be the pilot light, we got it lit later in the evening, and I baked the lasagna for lunch. It was... almost everything I wanted it to be. The only thing I would change is perhaps upping the Gorgonzola by a bit, and doubling or even tripling the chard. In other words, more ingredients! More! More! But for you, those changes will be reflected here.



Callie's Green Lasagna
(pasta and sauce adapted from The Silver Spoon)

For the pasta:
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
4 eggs
generous 2 cups spinach
pinch salt

Wash the spinach and cook it using just the water that clings to its leaves. Drain and blend together with two of the eggs and blend together, careful not to whip the eggs. (The original recipe simply calls for "cooked, well drained and chopped" spinach, which is eventually added to the eggs, which are just "lightly beaten." I found that for a really green pasta, rather than just a white one with green specks, it was best if the spinach was blended together with half of the eggs, allowing for a much finer cut of spinach, as well as lending the green color to the eggs prior to mixing together with the flour.)


Sift the flour and a pinch of salt into a mound on a counter or cutting board. Make a deep well in the center and add the spinach-egg mixture along with the other half of the eggs. Using your finger, stir the egg mixture in a circular motion, careful not to let it spill over the sides. Trace the edges of the well with your finger in order to gradually incorporate the flour. When the mixture in the middle is thick enough that it won't spill everywhere, add the rest of the flour and mix it all together with your hands. If it is too damp, add a bit more flour. If it's dry, add just a touch of water -- a couple of drops at a time. Shape the dough into a ball and knead for at least ten minutes. Cover and let rest for at least fifteen minutes, or just set aside while you prepare the other ingredients.




Mushroom B├ęchamel Sauce

3/4 c butter (1 1/2 sticks)
1/2 c flour
4 1/2 c milk (or 2 1/4 c milk and 2 1/4 c cream)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
5 heaping cups thinly sliced mushrooms
6 Tbs heavy cream

Melt one stick of butter (1/2 c) in a pan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour. Pour in the milk (or the milk and cream -- I did this because I ran out of milk, turned out rich but delicious), whisking constantly until it starts to boil. Season with salt, lower the heat, cover and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for at least 20 minutes. The sauce should not taste floury. Remove the pan from the heat. Taste and add more salt if necessary (it should not be too salty) and season generously with pepper. If it's too runny, return to the heat and add a pat of butter mixed with an equal quantity of flour.

Melt the remaining better in a separate pan. Add the mushrooms, cover and cook over low heat for about 10 minutes until they release all their liquid. Remove the lid, increase the heat and boil off the liquid. Add to the sauce. Gently fold in the 6 Tbs cream, unless the sauce was made with cream, in which case this can be omitted.


Fillings:

2 medium-to-large onions, chopped
4 Tbs olive oil
3 to 4 large tomatoes
6 cloves garlic, chopped
3 bunches Swiss or rainbow chard (or spinach -- but it's not nearly as good!)
1/4 to 1/2 pound Gorgonzola cheese (more if you like it really strong)

Heat a large skillet over a medium-high flame and add 2 tablespoons of the oil. When it's hot, add the onions, toss to coat, and lower the flame a bit to slowly cook. Stir occasionally, until they begin to caramelize, but haven't yet lost their texture fully. Remove from the pan and set aside.

While the onions are cooking, chop the tomatoes into pieces that are about 3/4-inch-square, and a half-inch thick. Set aside.

Chop the leaves of the chard and throw away the stems or reserve them for another use. Reheat same pan in which the onions were cooked and add the remaining oil. Add the garlic and saute until it begins to brown. Add the chard and a generous helping of salt and cook, stirring constantly, until the leaves are tender and wilted. Remove from pan and set aside.


Assembly:

Preheat the oven to 350. Grease a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish with butter.

Roll the pasta into sheets as thin as possible and cut into squares or long strips. Boil for just 1 to 2 minutes before removing from water and begin to assemble the lasagna. (If I were to make this again with fresh pasta, I may try it without boiling first.)

Starting with a layer of pasta, alternate: pasta, sauce, tomatoes (thickly dotted), onions, chard (either a thin layer or small piles evenly dispersed). If you want a strong Gorgonzola flavor, add a layer of cheese in the middle. Repeat layers until you run out of ingredients, ending with a layer of pasta topped with the b├ęchamel. Crumble the cheese over the lasagna.

Bake for 45 minutes to an hour at 350 degrees. It will also keep in the refrigerator for several days prior to being baked.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Truth, Beauty, Sabich and Love

I may have got that quote from Moulin Rouge wrong. Let's see, was it truth or freedom?

Those of you who know me understand that if I'm going to romantic musicals for inspiration I must be especially giddy. What can i say, it's the thought of Sabich that sends me bonkers. It won't be anything out of the ordinary for me to hum on the way to my favorite Sabich place "The hills are alive with the smell of amba".

A good Sabich is something worth celebrating. Any Sabich eater has their place, the place they swear prepares the best pita-full-o-goodness. Mine is in Tel-Aviv. It's not the first Sabich Stand in the world, and it's not the original. But my oh my, the guy that makes it there is a master. It's not so much the list of ingredients that make the place so magical. Sabich rarely varies in that sense. It's the art of putting it together, the skill, the architecture, the attention to fine details.

Sabich is a pita stuffed with deep fried eggplant slices, boiled potato, a hard boiled egg, tehina, amba and a bit of salad. A mega sandwich, that goes down best accompanied with a cold beer. The true genius of the Sabich place on Tschernichovsky street in Tel Aviv lays in the way that the man behind the counter constructs the dish. With all the TLC one could hope to receive via pita, he places one layer after the other - taking out any folded piece of eggplant and laying it straight. A feat possible only by virtue of his meticulous work ethic and seemingly never ending quest to be stoned. And the result, oh, the result. In every bite you take, you get all of the flavors at once, mixing and mushing in your mouth with glee.
That's really the secret of the place. Enough care and precision so that you never have a boring mouthful of just potato or amba.

It might be a tad late to mention this, but I won't be supplying you with an actual recipe in this post. Instead, I'll tell a bit about where the Sabich came from. It's a simple dish, and by the time the story comes to an end, I'm pretty sure you'll be able to recreate it yourself.

This is the story of Sabich, as I understand it after reading arguments over the web and talking with friends and family:

In 1961 the first sabich stand opened. An Iraqi Jewish immigrant had an idea, and shoved it into a pita. He took the traditional Jewish-Iraqi sabbath breakfast: potatoes and eggs slowly boiled over night on low heat, onion, salad, fried eggplants and amba, and added to it tehina and humus. In true Israeli form, you got a whole meal in your pita. I'm usually not a fan of this tendency, throwing fries into your pita with the falafel, gosh. But sabich is gestalt: put those ingredients together in a pita, and cherish the moment you bite into it.

That man's name was Sabich. The dish got its name when people would come up to his stand and say "Give me one, Sabich". Didn't take much for the comma to drop.

A few years later another stand was opened. This time by a man renowned for his mastery of two things - his Sabich and his word games. This new player announced the that the dish's name comes from an abbreviation of the words Salad, Eggs More Eggplants - in Hebrew what comes out of it is Sabich. Thus, severing the connection between the name of the man Sabich and the dish Sabich.

Later on, another suggestion for the origin of the dish's name was born. It was claimed to be derived from the word "morning" in Arabic - sabah. Israelis of Jewish-Iraqi decent comment on the web that this is an exceptionally stupid idea.

Talking with one of my friends from Iraqi decent, I asked if he had Sabich at home. Indeed he did. His grandmother would prepare it, and the name Sabich penetrated their jargon. He couldn't tell me what it is called in Iraqi. From what I've read, it would seem it isn't called anything - it;s just the normal stuff you eat on the sabbath morning.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Tuna Ginger Ale

The saga of the disastrous dinner continues.

It's easy, in retrospect, to forget that it was a disaster, because the truth is, we used so many great recipes! In fact, most of them even turned out, they just may have been a bit cold by the time we sat down to eat, due to our fumbling.

I've been on a homemade ginger ale kick lately, much to the delight of both Goor and the guests who visited us, and so it seemed only fitting that I prepare a batch for our "greatest hits" dinner. This, in my opinion, is so much more exciting than a salad, the simplicity of which has kept me embarrassed enough that I haven't actually told more than a couple of people that we even started this blog. Hopefully, after today, I will raise my head high and go public! On Facebook, even!

Like the salad, the ginger ale was an unsurprising success of our otherwise flop of an evening. Granted, it was a touch warm, even though we broke it out for dessert, by which time it should have been crisp and chill. Nonetheless, this was a success, a welcome refreshment that relieved us from the Tel Aviv heat for days to come.



Traditionally fermented (which is why it's an "ale"), ginger ale can easily be replicated at home with just a syrup and some bottled soda water. Of course, it's the syrup that can get fancy.

After hearing about someone else's inspired idea to make rhubarb ginger ale earlier this summer, I immediately set about to make my own seasonal batches. The idea struck deep in the heart of cherry season, when the fruit was running around 12 to 14 shekels/half-kilo, or about $2.95/pound -- a decent price for the treat by any standard. The cherry ginger ale was followed by nectarine ginger ale (which really made me wish I'd used peach), and finally, the subject of this post: prickly pear ginger ale.

Prickly pear, or cactus fruit (called "tuna" in Spanish, which always makes me giggle, hence the title of today's post), has a special place in Israel. Jews born in the Jewish state are known as "sabras" -- the Hebrew name for the fruit, proudly proclaiming that as Israelis they're tough and prickly on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside.

I find this ironic.

Prickly pear, cactus fruit, sabras, tuna -- whatever you want to call them -- are not simply tough and prickly, but difficult, painful, nay, almost impossible on the outside, and stuffed with large-ish seeds that make the flesh only slightly rewarding on the inside. Granted, they're a lovely fruit, with rich reds, oranges, yellows, and pinks, and a skin ranging from green to magenta, but I'd hardly recommend them for an afternoon snack.

Nonetheless, I daresay that I may have made the world's first cactus fruit ginger ale -- and it was good. Not as great as cherry, perhaps, but a nice departure from the usual fare.

My first attempts at cutting the fruit, involving a knife and a towel, left me covered in thorns for weeks, but in the end I found a method that was not only faster, but seemed to protect me from those nasty thorns.


Prickly Pear Ginger Ale

1 to 2 lbs cactus fruit
2 cups sugar
1 to 1 1/2 cups washed unpeeled ginger, thrown in a food processor
soda water

The trick is to avoid at all costs touching the skin of the prickly pear. Empty bag of fruit into a large bowl, and have a medium-sized pot handy for the flesh. Using a fork to hold the prickly pear down, cut into quarters and then slide the knife under the flesh to remove the skin. Discard the skin and, using the fork, put the flesh in the pot.

Add sugar and ginger to the pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and lower heat to a simmer. After fruit softens, use a potato masher to break up pieces further. Simmer 20 to 40 minutes, or until the syrup is thick and flavorful. Although the fruit ranges in color, the syrup will turn a pale green color. When it's done, strain the syrup, making sure to press all the liquid from the fruit and ginger. It will cool to a lovely orange color.

Let cool, and pour one to two inches of syrup into individual glasses. Add chilled soda to taste.