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 »

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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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pizza with pecorino and fried egg

This is my attempt to recreate Otto’s exquisite Pane Frattau pizza – pizza with tomato sauce, pecorino cheese, and, the part that elicited an “Ew” from my mother when I described it to her, a fried egg. My mother is wrong, by the way – the combination of the egg yolk and the sharp pecorino is perfect in every way.

Otto is Mario Batali’s most affordable NYC restaurant (great for my limited budget!). The last time I was there, as we were waiting to be seated, I was staring off into space (a habit that made my parents worry about me as a small child), and noticed a pair of orange Crocs on a pair of feet – I thought to myself, “Who can have such bad taste to wear Crocs to this nice restaurtant?” and looked up to see Mario himself, who of course is known for his orange Crocs. I guess Mario can wear whatever shoes he likes. If you ever visit Otto (which you should if you find yourself in the area – every pizza I have tried there has been wonderful), I wouldn’t recommend dining in Crocs yourself.

I did a few runs of this pizza before I managed to get it right – I wasn’t sure exactly how much pecorino I should use, but I finally decided to use a whole lot of it (less vague quantity can be found in the recipe below). Pecorino is a strongly flavored cheese – like the more well-recognized parmigiano, it is a hard cheese with a sharp flavor. It should be made from sheep’s milk.

The first time I ever had cheese made from sheep’s milk was at a cheese and wine tasting shortly after I had moved to Cambridge (similar to the chocolate tasting I described a few posts ago). The tasting was run by my college’s head of the catering department, who was very enthusiastic indeed (though in an understated British way) about his cheeses. When he got to describing the sheep’s cheese (I can’t remember what kind it was exactly), he informed us, with great gusto in his voice, “You can really taste the animal in this one.” I was a little freaked out by both the content of the statement and the excitement with which it was said. Was I ready to taste the animal? My cheese world until then had largely consisted of American cheese singles, and pre-grated yellow-dyed “cheddar” or mozzerella. I ate only a tiny sliver, and decided that was brave enough.

My cheese-appreciation is more advanced these days (thanks partially to that cheese-tasting), and I enjoy all kinds of sheep’s cheese, including the wonderful manchego, and the pecorino on this pizza. The moral of this story is that you want to be able to taste the animal, as it were, on this pizza – the flavor of that pecorino should be loud and clear.

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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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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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mushroom quiche

This quiche aux champignons of Julia Child’s is delicious and decadent. Mushrooms are sauteed with shallots and port, enfolded in a custard-y mixture of eggs and cream, sprinkled with Gruyère, and finally encased in a buttery, flaky crust. With a simple green salad, glass of white wine, and some fruit, it is an exquisite dinner.

This was one of the first recipes I attempted after buying Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In its original form, with the crust and quiche recipe, it goes on for several pages, thanks to Julia’s always helpful specificity in her instructions. In that format, it looks quite intimidating, but it really is not all that much work, especially if you make the dough for the crust ahead of time (perhaps in the morning, before going to work, or the night before you plan to make the quiche). You can buy pre-made crusts, but the most flaky and tender crust is the one you make yourself. It’s not difficult, and once you’ve done it a few times, just like pizza dough, you won’t even have to think about it anymore. If you’re only making the quiche for yourself or perhaps one other person, you’ll also get several days of delicious leftovers for your efforts. I’m posting the crust recipe separately, probably tomorrow, in the interest of not making this recipe insanely long. If you break up the cooking process as well, it won’t seem like that much work, and I promise the results are well worth it!  Read the rest of this entry »


goat cheese and summer squash pizza, plus pizza dough

Here’s another recipe using summer squash, since it’s the time of year when markets are overflowing with the stuff. I’m a huge fan of baked goat cheese, so when I saw this recipe awhile ago on SmittenKitchen, I knew I’d be trying it as soon as summer squash were in season.

My love affair with baked goat cheese began in a far away and much cooler clime, when I took a visiting friend to Hall at my Cambridge college, and the starter for the evening was a round of goat cheese on an oat biscuit (the British kind of biscuit), baked. Hall at Cambridge is pretty much like the dining hall in Harry Potter, minus the magical ceiling and floating candles – everyone wears black robes, servers bring out 3-course meals on silver trays, there are stained glass windows and an ornate vaulted ceiling. The food was of good, solid quality most of the time, with the exception of a certain dreaded “assorted crab” risotto, which seemed to go away halfway through my second year there, only to be reincarnated into crab cakes that suspiciously contained all of the same ingredients (minus the rice). Occasionally, the food was truly excellent, as it was the night I had the baked goat cheese (followed by duck with some sort of prune sauce, if I remember correctly). The goat cheese was tangy, creamy, warm and gooey, a revelatory eating experience. At my sad local grocery store, I can only get chèvre, a soft, young goat cheese, not the firmer kinds with rinds, which is what I had in Hall. It is still delicious, especially once it is made warm and creamy through baking. Note the creamy, lightly-browned cheese poking out at the edges of the pizza:

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