greek-style lemon potatoes (patates sto fourno)

So it has yet again been awhile since I posted here. I’m not neglecting the blog out of boredom – I’ve just had a lot of things going on this year. As I mentioned a few posts back, I was on a posting hiatus for awhile because I was preparing for my Ph.D. qualifying exams. After passing them, and spending a lot of time reflecting, I finally decided that I don’t want to be a professor as much as I thought I did, and so I’ve decided it’s time for a career change. I’m not sure what that will be just yet – editing/publishing? Non-profit? Or will I switch tracks entirely and become a savvy business woman in a pencil skirt and power pumps? It remains to be seen. In the meantime I’ve been working odd temp jobs to pay the bills, researching different career options, and polishing the old resume.

I’ve also been cooking a lot. Because most of what I was doing in grad school was very sedentary and cerebral, I always found it relaxing and therapeutic to stand up and do something with my hands that produced nourishing, satisfying results on a much faster timeline than any results ever get produced in academic research. Some kinds of cooking projects – quiche, bread, for example, which I’ve been making a good bit of recently – are still totally magical to me. The finished product is something so completely different than the original pile of ingredients that I’m always surprised it is something I have made. I’ve tried lots of new recipes that I’ve loved in the past few months – bolognese sauce, spaghetti and meatballs, a lovely Spanish method for cooking green beans, an intense chocolate sorbet – all of which I plan to come back to at some point so that I can share them.

But the first thing on my list to share was these potatoes. When I lived in Central Jersey, the wonderful Pithari Taverna introduced me to great Greek food – if you are ever in the area, you should seriously go there. They serve these classic Greek lemon potatoes with many of their main courses, and I finally got around to looking up recipes so I could make them myself now that I don’t live there anymore. The recipe I found is a bit different from their potatoes, but it is so wonderful that I plan to make it every time I want roasted potatoes, whether or not the main course is Greek. These potatoes are everything I look for in a roasted potato – soft and fluffy on the inside, crisp on the outside. I’ve made so many roasted potatoes with hard, chunky insides (blech), but once I made these I realized that of course roasting them with some liquid in the pan, as you do here, would lead to internal fluffiness, because the potatoes soak up the liquids (along with their flavors) as they are cooking. Genius.

They are also very simple to make – one of my silly pet peeves is having to parboil vegetables before roasting or sautéing them. I know this feeling is unreasonable, but I just hate doing it! So for me these potatoes are pretty much perfect in every way, since no parboiling is required – you just chop them, toss them in their seasonings, and leave them to roast for about an hour while you deal with other things. And they are better than any of the much fussier roast potatoes I’ve made in the past. Basically, these potatoes and I were made for each other, and we’re going to go get a room now before everyone gets nauseated by my infatuation with them. Make them yourself and you’ll understand.  Read the rest of this entry »


roasted asparagus

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I haven’t posted in quite some time. This is because the last five months or so I’ve been preparing for Ph.D. Qualifying exams (which I passed last week, hooray). I thought that I’d be able to have super time management skills, and work on the blog during breaks from reading. As it turns out, “time management” during exam prep meant reading all day, every day. Needless to say, I am glad to be done with that now.

I did almost no cooking while reading for exams, and have slowly been easing my way back in this week, while of course taking time to celebrate with friends and relax. One way I’ve been relaxing is by watching episodes of Julia Child’s The French Chef, which has made me excited to cook again. I highly recommend these for anyone who loves Julia or wants to see what cooking shows were like before the days of the Food Network – they are so refreshingly unscripted (and consequently hilarious) in comparison. She always seems to be out of breath, unsure of where to stash things when she’s through with them, and frequently forgets what she’s trying to say mid-sentence. She screws up parts of recipes, and then very helpfully explains how to save the food if you’ve made a similar mistake – something I’ve never seen on contemporary food shows. They’re great fun to watch.

In any case, in the spirit of easing back into things, today’s recipe is so simple that it hardly deserves to be typed up as a recipe. This is the great thing about eating vegetables in season – you don’t have to do much to them to make them delicious. Mark and I were having a half-conscious conversation about canned vegetables and convenience late last night while trying to fall asleep (or, what is probably closer to the truth, I was mumbling some stuff about canned vegetables and Mark was wishing I’d shut up and go to sleep already). This recipe is a reminder that cooking fresh vegetables can be very quick and easy, not to mention much tastier than anything canned – it’s as simple as tossing with olive oil and baking for fifteen minutes while you finish preparing the rest of your meal. And if you want to be a bit fancier, you can spruce things up with some lemon zest, like I did.

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sausage and potato gratin

This is a comforting dinner for the miserably chilly, wet days we’re having here in the northeast at the moment – a one-dish meal of meat and potatoes that is flavorful and satisfying (though you could also have something green on the side to make this a bit healthier!). It is pretty simple to make – other than briefly boiling the potatoes and sauteeing the onions, you just throw everything into the casserole dish and throw (or gently place) the casserole dish into the oven. This is thus a great weeknight dinner option, especially if you do some of the prep work the night before to save yourself some time – chopping the onions, peeling the potatoes, or grating the cheese, for example. If you’re only cooking for a few people, it will leave plenty of leftovers, which are just as delicious reheated as when fresh out of the oven.

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hummus

I’ve been searching for a good hummus recipe for several years now, and have tried quite a few along the way that didn’t make the cut – one was too acidic, another just plain bland. I’ve eaten hummus at many different restaurants and always liked it, and I’ve even enjoyed the mass-produced stuff from the grocery store, so it seemed like it shouldn’t be that hard to find a decent recipe. Much thanks (again) to Cook’s Illustrated, I finally have. I’m not quite sure what made the difference in this recipe – I think it uses a lot more tahini than previous ones. The others I used were also more high maintenance, calling for dried chickpeas that then had to be soaked and cooked down for hours, which was very tiresome, but the recipes claimed that the outcome would be far superior to any recipe involving canned chickpeas. I trusted them, and was let down despite all my hard chickpea-soaking labor.

This recipe calls for canned chickpeas, and is thus much faster, much less annoying to make, and, most importantly, much creamier (I know some people like chunky hummus, but I am not one of those people). It has just the balance of flavors I was looking for, along with the right texture, and thus my quest for the perfect basic hummus recipe is now ended. I am trying to make more healthy homemade snacks to have around whenever I get sudden snacking urges. It doesn’t take all that much work to whip up some hummus or salsa, and then when you get hungry in the afternoon, your healthy snack is already there, waiting for you, reaching out a helping hand to keep you from eating something processed and full of weird artificial crap – or if you forget about it (as I often seem to do with homemade healthy snacks) and let it mold, it may actually reach out a real and not metaphorical helping hand…

For what it’s worth, the weird artificial crap may never mold, which is even scarier. And to move away from that creepy image, I’ll end this little discussion with a nice (non-moldy) picture, before we get to the recipe.

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baked potato soup

With frosty temperatures across the U.S. today (highs in the 20s and lows in the teens here in the Northeast), soup is the obvious solution for dinner. When I was checking the weather (which I do obsessively!) a few days ago and saw how cold it was supposed to be today, I vowed to just stay in my cozy little apartment all day (one of the benefits of being a grad student). The next day, I got an email from the library informing me that a book that is past the renewal limit is due today, which means that I have to go all the way in to campus (grad student life not looking so great anymore). In any case, I made a batch of this baked potato soup yesterday, so I will at least have the leftovers to warm me up when I make it back.

This genius idea for potato soup comes from the SmittenKitchen. It doesn’t actually involve baked potatoes, which would be a pain to deal with; one just puts the toppings to a baked potato onto potato soup – thus making it less healthy, but certainly more delicious (not to mention prettier in pictures!). There will no doubt be plenty of days during the next few months when a thick, warming, hearty bowl of soup will be just the thing you need after braving the chill outside.

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the very best sweet potato casserole ever

I know it’s generally a bad idea to go in for superlatives when describing food – the reasons that we like particular foods are based on all kinds of different factors: culture, what we ate growing up, foods that are associated with particular memories. So, in other words, the best sweet potato casserole ever to me may not be the best sweet potato casserole ever to you. But, having made the family sweet potato casserole at Thanksgiving and Christmas for too many years to remember now, I can say that this is by far the best I have ever made. It is the holy grail of sweet potato casseroles that I have been searching for the last few years.

Here’s why. First, most sweet potato casseroles are loaded with sugar. In fact, the recipe that I formerly used called for a full cup of granulated sugar to go in the sweet potatoes themselves. Sweet potatoes, as their name implies, are already sweet on their own. After making mashed sweet potatoes that didn’t involve any sugar, I realized that if I just used sugar in the pecan praline topping, this would still be enough to keep these potatoes in the realm of over-indulgent holiday foods. Without the overload of sugar, there is a nice contrast between the creamy, buttery (see: still over-indulgent) sweet potato filling and the sugary, crunchy topping.

Second, we always used to make sweet potato casserole with canned sweet potatoes. It’s certainly easier. However, if you really want an exquisite sweet potato casserole, you are going to have to start with whole sweet potatoes and roast them yourself. The taste and texture simply aren’t comparable. I started making the casserole this way when I lived in England, where there were no canned sweet potatoes to be found. Sweet potatoes are a royal pain to roast, as they always take about an hour longer than any recipe I’ve used says they will, so that is something to know ahead of time. Don’t roast the potatoes the day you need them, or you will find yourself, as I have found myself, cursing, pulling out hair, and desperately smashing the tough, uncooked portions of the potatoes in the hopes that they will decide to become soft and smushy (they won’t). If you roast the potatoes the night before you need them, the rest of the casserole will be a breeze to assemble and bake.

Finally, and I realize this is a subject that some people (including myself) have strong feelings about one way or the other, but brown sugar/pecan topping is vastly superior to marshmallows. I don’t know if this is a regional difference – I thought it was, but I’ve heard of exceptions, so who knows. This is one of those issues where one’s preferences are influenced by what one has grown up with – at big family holidays, we want the food that we remember from holidays past. It’s hard to talk about the two options in terms of healthiness, since they are both sugary toppings, but one of them is a pre-made, processed sugary topping (unless you make your own marshmallows) and the other is a sugary topping you make yourself from scratch. In any case, all of those deliberations aside, brown sugar and pecans are clearly the best. The end.

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pasta puttanesca

Pasta puttanesca means literally something like “the whore’s pasta.” The story goes two ways: either this sauce was whipped up by Italian prostitutes in hopes that its smell would seduce passersby in off the streets (in case the normal attractions of a brothel weren’t enough, I guess), or they made it for themselves for a quick and easy bite to eat when they had a bit of down time.

Who knows if either of these legends is actually true. What is true about this sauce is that it is packed full of flavor: garlic, anchovies, olives, and capers simmer (briefly) with tomatoes to produce a loud, complexly flavored sauce. A healthy dose of red pepper flakes contributes a spicy kick. This is definitely racier stuff than your average tomato sauce. I recommend having some crusty bread to mop up the leftovers, plus a nice glass of red wine (or two).  Read the rest of this entry »