Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Chicken Fricassee with Leeks and Mushrooms

Another World Cup Dinner...Bon Appétit!

I love Spain. As I have mentioned before, the food, especially the tapas, has taken hold of my culinary imagination so forcefully that I hope to live there someday. Mike and I will be pressing our own olive oil, tending our orchard of fig trees and riding around on scooters under the Catalonian sun. Although Spain has been a hot spot of culinary innovation in recent years, the Spanish football squad was not exactly on fire in their match versus the French on Tuesday. France bested Spain, 3-1 in an exciting game that was tied until the eighty-second minute when France pushed ahead, then cemented their victory with a 3rd goal during stoppage time.

For my World Cup Dinner, I must confess that I was rooting for a Spanish victory so we could make the pan fried chicken with an almond egg sauce that I had on deck. It was not to be, and it turns out that I could not be more grateful for the French team for renewing my appreciation for simple French food.

This dish is so simple, in fact, that I felt as if I must be cheating. A fricassee is just meat cut into pieces and stewed with vegetables and aromatics. What makes it French is the conspicuous use of butter and cream, a touch of white Cotês du Rhône and the liberal use of tarragon, an herb often seen in French cooking. I love good butter and am happy to slather it on bread any day of the week. For sautéing and pan sauces, however, I use extra virgin olive oil as my base almost exclusively. From now on, I will change my ways, and will even remove cream from my dietary hit list. The truth is that I know very few things are truly bad for you in moderation. This dish contains just 1/3 cup of cream for two large servings, and this tiny amount creates a wonderfully rich sauce, as it infuses with tarragon and wine. And with that, let’s get on to the cooking.

Chicken Fricassee with Leeks and Mushrooms
Adapted from
Serves 2, but can be easily doubled. If doubling, you may want to brown the chicken in two batches so the skillet is not too crowded.

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces
Salt and fresh ground pepper
1 ½ tbsp. butter
8 ounces sliced mushrooms
2 leeks, white and light green parts only, chopped
1 tsp. dried tarragon or 1 tbsp. chopped fresh tarragon, if available
1/3 c. dry white wine
1/3 c. whipping cream

Leeks are quite a dirty vegetable, so wash them well. I trim and slice them first, then soak them in a bowl of water so the dirt sinks to bottom. Next, I remove the leeks to a colander, discard the dirty water and repeat. This whole process takes just a few minutes.

Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper. Heat the butter in a skillet on medium heat, watching it carefully so it does not brown. Once the butter is melted (this takes about 1 minute), turn the heat up to medium-high, add the chicken pieces and lightly brown for about 2 minutes per side. Add the leeks and mushrooms and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Add the tarragon and continue to cook on medium-high, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are soft, about 6 minutes.

At this point in the cooking process, I saw that there was quite a bit of liquid in the pan, probably from the vegetables (our mushrooms were wet because they were unusually grimy and needed to be rinsed off). I didn’t want this liquid to water down my cream sauce, so I covered the skillet with its lid and tipped it over the sink, allowing the excess juices to leak out. I added a bit more tarragon and pepper in case any flavor had been lost.

Now it is time to reduce the heat to medium-low and add your wine. Any dry white wine that you plan to drink with the meal will work. Since we were fêting the French team for their victory, Mike made a special trip to our wine store to pick up an inexpensive French white that we knew would be perfect. Sometimes I omit the small amount of wine called for in a recipe, usually because we are greedy and do not want to sacrifice any precious drops that we would otherwise be drinking. In this recipe however, I think the wine is definitely not optional. With so few ingredients and so much of the flavor being concentrated into the simple cream sauce, it really does add a crucial layer of flavor to the fricassee and livens up the cream immensely.

Pour the wine into the skillet and stir for about 45 seconds, scraping up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add the cream and gently stir to incorporate. Cover the skillet and simmer for two minutes or until the chicken is completely cooked through. Remove the lid and continue to simmer the fricassee for 1 to 2 minutes or until the sauce reaches the consistency you like.

We served this with one of the best and simplest vegetable sides we know: roasted asparagus with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Mike trimmed the asparagus, laid it on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray, drizzled it with olive oil, seasoned it with salt and fresh ground pepper and tossed it to evenly distribute the olive oil. We roasted it in a 350 degree oven for about 12 minutes, but thicker asparagus can cook longer. We like it roasted to the point that it gets slightly crispy, but even if you forget to take it out in time, as we often do, it will still be tasty. Tell people it is caramelized.

To finish off, we steamed some rice, et voila…a beautiful French meal in 30 minutes.

As a side note, France has been popping up all over my radar lately. I came across the Savoring Provence cookbook that goes along with my Williams-Sonoma series on the other day and ordered it immediately. Browsing other tasty food blogs, I found an incredibly useful and beautifully written series of articles by Maki of I Was Just Really Very Hungry on her yearly trips to Provence. And just last night after eating this lovely dinner, I came across an article on Cahors, France on, exalting the local truffle harvest. Is all of this a sign that France is destined to take the entire World Cup tournament? All I know is that I am now officially obsessed with taking a trip to Southwest France.

We have not yet decided on the game for our next World Cup Dinner. Will we eat Bangers and Mash? Perhaps Wiener Schnitzel or Spaghetti alla Carbonara? There is only one way to find out...

Monday, June 26, 2006

Portuguese Swordfish with Tomatoes and Anchovies

I Went to the World Cup and All I Got Was this Lousy Red Card...
Take the Portuguese and Dutch football teams. Mix them together on the high setting in a World Cup knockout game. Temper with one out-of-control referee. Bake in a humid arena for 90 minutes and you’ve got one awful football match.

Sunday’s World Cup Dinner, where I pick one of the day’s matches and cook a meal from the country of the victorious team, was the result of a controversial game whose rhythm and joy was replaced by constant foul calls and the red carding of 4 players, two from each side. If you’re not hip to the soccer lingo, a player gets a red card after already receiving one warning, or yellow card, for fouling other players. The red card sends you off the field immediately, leaving your team short one man for the rest of the match AND prohibits you from playing in your team’s next match in the tournament—serious stuff. When referees constantly stop the game to call fouls that may or may not have been flagrant and start sending half the players off the field, things get a little heated. As it turned out, Portugal got one goal around the twentieth minute of play, and that was the only score we would see.

Now, enough of this technical sports blather. You are probably here for the food, and I have a great one for you tonight. If you’ve been following my World Cup Dinners, you may recall that I picked a previous game where Portugal won, and the resulting meal was both lovely and delicious (at least in our opinion). I knew that by picking Sunday’s Portugal-Netherlands match, I ran the risk of repeating a country. Since neither team was a clear favorite, I figured the game could go either way, and I certainly would not mind going back to Savoring Spain & Portugal for recipe ideas.

Mike and I decided on swordfish baked in tomato sauce with anchovies, only we were quite nervous about whether our local market would have any nice swordfish on hand at 5:30pm on a Sunday. We decided halibut or snapper would be an acceptable substitute, even tilapia, but cod or mahi mahi would not do. Much to our pleasure, we did find two perfect wild swordfish fillets. This fish has a dense, meaty texture and higher fat content than a light, flaky fish like cod. You generally will find swordfish steaks, as opposed to fillets. If swordfish is overcooked, it develops a dry, chewy texture. With the method in this recipe, however, it is nearly impossible to overcook the fish. This technique could be done with any combination of fish and flavorful cooking liquids. We kept it in the oven a bit longer than the recipe suggested, and it was wonderfully moist due to the briny, anchovy-spiked tomato sauce. Anchovies are one of those magic ingredients that impart a flavor far more complex and wonderful than its humble appearance suggests. When you add one or two chopped anchovies to a pasta sauce, whether tomato or olive oil-based, the little fillets completely dissolve leaving behind a unique briny flavor. I used one more anchovy than the recipe called for because I wanted a very full-flavored sauce. Generally speaking, I would use one anchovy per person in a recipe.

Chopping the anchovies.

With no side dishes recommended in our cookbook, Mike suggested polenta which may not be a staple in Portugal, but was ideal for soaking up all the tasty juices. Polenta is Italian cornmeal. Any finely ground cornmeal can be used to make polenta, but I like the imported instant variety that cooks in one minute. It can be prepared after you have finished cooking the rest of the meal, so you don’t have to watch too many dishes at once. I use chicken broth for the cooking liquid and sometimes add a little milk at the end. You can also stir in butter or any kind of cheese. Because the cornmeal soaks up the liquid so quickly, be sure to stir constantly over very low heat and add a little extra liquid if it gets too thick too fast.

Portuguese Swordfish with Tomatoes and Anchovies (Espadarte a Lisboeta)
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Savoring Spain & Portugal by Joyce Goldstein

2 tsp. olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
2 to 4 anchovy fillets, chopped
1 can diced tomatoes
2 tbsp. tomato paste
¼ c. dry white wine (optional)
10-15 good quality black olives (I used oil-cured), pitted and chopped
¼ c. flat-leaf parsley, chopped, plus more for garnish
2 to 4 six oz. swordfish steaks (if you just want to make this for 2, you’ll have extra sauce, but that is certainly not a problem)
lemon wedges, for serving

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook until softened and lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Add the anchovies, tomatoes, tomato paste, white wine, olives and parsley. Season with pepper (you shouldn’t need more salt, as the anchovies and olives will take care of that). Simmer for about 8 minutes, stirring often so the sauce thickens a bit. Coat a baking dish with cooking spray. Sprinkle salt and pepper into the dish, place the fish in the dish in a single layer and season the top of the fish with salt and pepper. Pour the sauce over and around the swordfish and bake for 15 to 18 minutes or until the fish is opaque throughout. Garnish with parsley and lemon wedges and serve with polenta.

Simmering the sauce.
Checking for doneness.

Stirring the instant polenta.

Our next World Cup dinner is going to be the Spain vs. France match on Tuesday, 6/27. I have already started looking up recipes for both. Two fabulous culinary traditions…I cannot choose a favorite.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Shredded Pork Tacos with Roasted Pepper and Mango Salsa

Throw a Simple Dinner Party with Latin Flair

Get out your maracas, mis amigos. I have a meal that you can make almost completely ahead of time so you can salsa your way through your evening without a care in the world. Mike and I have been making this meal for awhile, tweaking it a bit each time. This weekend we served it to our friends, Pedro and Sandra. We had everything ready to go before they arrived, so that all we had to do was heat up the roasted, shredded pork tenderloin and put a stack of corn tortillas wrapped in foil in the oven to warm up. For an appetizer, we seasoned some shrimp and threaded it onto wooden skewers. When our guests arrived, Mike put the shrimp under the broiler, poured some drinks and served the spicy shrimp with green tomatillo salsa for dipping. Best of all, I finally got to use one of the many fabulous serving platters I got as wedding presents.

Mike peeled and seasoned the shrimp with a spicy creole seasoning blend and fresh ground pepper. Adobo seasoning, chili powder or cumin would also work well. He coated a baking sheet with cooking spray and skewered the shrimp. You can do this up to a few hours ahead, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until your guests arrive. If you are using wooden skewers, be sure to soak them for at least 30 minutes. Preheat your broiler and cook for 1 ½ minutes on each side. Remove from skewers and serve with salsa, chutney or other dipping sauce.

Mike did a study abroad program in Puebla, Mexico where he got most of his meals from the street vendors selling tacos filled with slow-roasted meat that was sliced off a spit to order. Travelers are often warned to avoid these tasty street snacks for fear of food poisoning, but it is a known fact that Mike cannot pass up meat on a spit, especially if tortillas are involved. In his experience, the tacos were served on soft, fresh tortillas, not the fried shells that always taste just a little bit stale to me. We used our favorite brand of small size corn tortillas that we warm in a dry skillet or in the oven if we need a large quantity.

The fresh salsa is my own creation and it is more of a topping than a dip, as I like to cut the veggies and mango into larger pieces. You should definitely make this at least an hour ahead so the juices have time to stew and develop their flavors. Here is the recipe:

Roasted Pepper and Mango Salsa
1 red bell pepper and 1 green bell pepper, each cut into four flat pieces, seeds and ribs removed
2 tsp. olive oil
1 c. red onion, sliced into half moons
2 medium sized mangos, peeled and cut into ½ inch pieces
2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
½ c. chopped fresh cilantro
juice of 1 lime
salt and pepper

Place the bell peppers skin side up on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray and cook under the broiler for about 12 minutes, or until the skin has blackened. Put the peppers in a ziploc bag to steam for about 15 minutes, then peel the skins off and cut the peppers into thin strips. Add to a serving bowl. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until softened and lightly browned, about five minutes. Remove from heat to cool, then add to bowl. Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl and combine gently. Taste for seasoning, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour so the flavors have a chance to mesh.

The finished salsa.

Pork tenderloin is one of the easiest cuts to prepare. You can season it anyway your heart desires, put it in the oven for about 30 minutes, and you have your main dish. Shredding the pork then briefly simmering in seasoned broth creates the flavor and the moisture of slow-cooked, pulled pork. Sofrito is a tomato-based seasoning that is added to soups, stews and sauces in Latin dishes. It can be found in most large grocery stores or Latin markets.

Shredded Pork for Tacos
2 lbs. pork tenderloin
olive oil
adobo seasoning
chili powder
fresh ground pepper
½ to 1 cup chicken or beef broth
¼ c. sofrito, or to taste
1 to 2 tsp. adobo sauce (from a small can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce)
Warm corn tortillas and sour cream for serving

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat the pork with olive oil and place on a baking sheet. Season pork on all sides with adobo, chili powder and pepper, or whatever Latin seasoning you like. Roast for 30 minutes or until the meat is just slightly pink when pierced with a knife. Remove from oven, tent with foil and let the meat rest for 20 minutes. Using two forks, shred the pork. You can prepare up to this point several hours in advance and refrigerate until ready to eat.

Add half a cup of broth to a large skillet over medium heat. Add the pork, sofrito and adobo sauce. Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce are very hot. If you like, you can finely chop one of the peppers and add it to the pork. If you are not sure that you can handle the heat, just add the sauce from the can of peppers, as the recipe suggests. If you can’t find chipotle peppers in adobo, add extra sofrito or a dash of hot sauce. If you need more liquid, add some of the remaining broth. Simmer for about five minutes, stirring occasionally. To serve, have your guests fill their warm tortillas with some pork, the Roast Pepper and Mango Salsa and a bit of sour cream.

The seasoned pork, ready to roast.

Mike does the shredding.

Simmering the shredded pork.

We topped off our dinner with the wonderful cheese flan that Sandra made us from Pedro’s mother’s recipe. Flan is a Latin custard-style dessert with a carmelized flavor. Es delicioso!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Nobody Does Wiener Schnitzel Better…than Actual Germans

Even though about a quarter of the blood coursing through my veins is of Germanic origin according to my elders, Mike and I opted NOT to don our lederhosen and whip up some spaetzle to celebrate the German soccer team’s 3-0 victory over Ecuador on Tuesday. It was not because we had trepidations about turning out inferior bratwurst, but because we just so happen to live within walking distance of The Ambry, a Fort Lauderdale bastion of hearty German cooking and Alpine kitsch.

Expanding the parameters of our World Cup Dinners project proved to be an excellent idea. We had an excuse, no an obligation, to venture out to a restaurant that we have been wanting to try for over a year. We are hoping that France wins one of their upcoming games so that we have a similar obligation to try to well-reputed little French boîte just up the street from The Ambry.

According to their menu, the The Ambry has been owned and operated by the same family since 1981. I could not decide if all knickknacks, steins, antlers and trumpets (yes, trumpets were hanging from the ceiling in the cozy bar area) had been accumulated over that 25 year history, or if they transported the whole collection in one shot back when shoulder pads were just a gleam in Donna Karan’s eye. Regardless, the Alpine lodge-style décor, the rustic brickwork and the division of the long, narrow space into intimate dining rooms made us forget the sultry 90 degree day and transported us to a place where smoked pork, sausages and beef roast are not only appetizing, but absolutely required.

Our waitress was an attentive lady with a rather strong German accent who told us about the beers available on draft. Since we had never heard of most of them, Mike, like the adventurous diner that he is, asked our hausfrau to bring him one of the dark beers “that people seem to like.” I requested a pilsner. All the beers are served in their pre-ordained glasses, designed, I believe, many generations ago, to showcase the unique flavor, aroma and style of each individual brew.

The menu highlights meat in traditional German preparations with quite a few veal dishes listed under “Specialties of the House.” There is also a section of the menu titled, “On the Wild Side,” consisting of gamier choices like venison, rabbit and buffalo. There are several fish dishes, a variety of steaks done both in the sauce-laden style of the house and simply grilled. All entrees include the salad bar which is a fun throwback to the days when lettuce was iceberg, salad dressing was creamy and macaroni salad was king. I made myself a plate of crisp iceberg (not a wilted leaf in sight), fresh cherry tomatoes, sweet and sour German potato and three bean salads and fat slices of carrot that was tastier than I expected. I also helped myself to a fresh slice of crusty German rye. Mike tried a spoonful of the completely-white-in-color macaroni salad because it made him nostalgic for the days before trans fat. He later admitted that foods like that are often best enjoyed in our memories.

By the time our entrees arrived in a prompt though not hurried fashion, the beer, the sounds of the groups speaking German at the two tables near us and the synthesized muzak playing unobtrusively in the background had primed us for the meaty house specialties placed before us. Mike had been dreaming of sausage all day since Germany’s victory in the early game, but being a fan of variety ordered one of The Ambry’s combination plattes, the Bayrische Bauernplatte ($14.95). The bratwurst was lean, but very moist and meaty-tasting. It was paired with a huge grilled smoked pork loin, on the bone, that was at least an inch thick. It had the pink color of a holiday ham, but with a delicate smoky flavor that did not mask the taste of pork. The kraut was puckeringly sour and addictive, and the homefried red potatoes were firm and seasoned simply with salt and pepper. There were no leftovers on Mike’s side of the table.

I was torn between ordering the Schweinebraten (roast pork with dumplings, $14.95) and the Sauerbraten (marinated beef roast with a sweet and sour gravy and spaetzle, $14.95). Our helpful frau’s description of beef roast soaking all day in a vinegary marinade won me over. The three large medallions of beef were meltingly tender and doused in a brown gravy that was, as the menu claimed, “outstanding.” I thoroughly enjoy the tang of so much of this Eastern European fare. I think it serves to provide a contrast to the creamy sauces and heavy meats in the rest of the meal, keeping our palates awake and excited. The red cabbage accompanying my sauerbraten was more sweet than sour and although I like slightly crisper cabbage, the flavor was excellent. I was anxious to try The Ambry’s spaetzle, the thick, homemade noodles typically sautéed in butter. I had it in Vienna years ago while traveling with my mom, and remember it fondly. This spaetzle was fine, but a bit doughy and greasy for my taste.

I asked to see the dessert menu, knowing full well that I would not be eating another bite. I would have loved one of the fruit brandies in the list of after dinner drinks, and I am sure they make a nice liquor-spiked coffee. We will definitely be back for these and maybe even some strudel. I would love to try some of the appetizers like black forest ham with pickle and horseradish or snail and mushroom ragout in garlic butter. The entrees are so varied, and so well-priced that restraint is difficult. Since lack of restraint is our biggest complaint against The Ambry, Mike and I will be happy to raise our steins to German team there anytime.

Cookbook Awards

This post comes to you as the result of a great idea by Adam of The Amateur Gourmet. He will post a list of links to everyone who contributes to the meme. I love cookbooks in general, and I love MY cookbooks specifically. When I have time on my lunch hour, I have been known to drive to Barnes & Noble and cruise through the cookbook section with no specific goal in mind. I love to see what is new, what might catch my eye and what is being promoted by the store (on a display table or endcap), as I someday hope to write my own cookbook. In the best of circumstances, I view the books on my shelf at home as a conjurer’s tools, guides to bring to life the promises of nourishment, shared experience and joy that are contained in their pages. I handle them carefully. I take their recommendations to heart, then interpret a dish in my own style knowing that personalization and creativity are the goals of the best cookbook writers. I do not own an excessive number of books. Space is one problem, but I also like to curate my collection carefully. There is nothing worse than ordering a book from amazon, anticipating its arrival and almost immediately discovering that it is not what you hoped for and does not live up to the fantastic review you read, etc. I do not like mixing those books on the shelf among my favorites, but I can’t help hoping that I’ll find a use for them someday. Here are my 1st Annual Cookbook Award Winners, in the categories devised by Adam, plus one extra category of my own:

Desert Island Cookbooks

1. How to Eat by Nigella Lawson. Ah, the original domestic goddess. Reading this book validated my belief that food is one of the most important, inspiring and restorative elements of our lives and that being totally obsessed with the preparation and eating of it is perfectly okay. And if you are Nigella, it is not only okay, but sexy, glamorous and worthy of celebration. I love the way the book is organized (Basics, Meals for One or Two, Healthy Food), and I love Nigella’s very opinionated, slightly bossy prose. She just wants your dinner to be the best it can be. This is the book I turn to for ideas on anything, and her basic roast chicken is the absolute definitive for me.
2. The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden. Claudia is one of those grand dames of cookbook authors in a class with Paula Wolfert and Marcella Hazan. This is an updated version of the book she released in the 70s and a fairly recent acquisition for me. Middle Eastern (especially Turkey, Syria and Morocco) is one of my favorite cuisines and this book is an encyclopedia of recipes with multiple variations and the stories and traditions behind them. If I could only bring one book to the desert island, this might just be it.
3. Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen by the lovely Deborah Madison, proponent of fresh, local produce and simple preparations where the ingredients are the stars of the dish. I constantly flip through this book just to look at the pictures, and I curse the fact that South Florida is not exactly the easiest place to find farmers markets brimming with seasonally grown, organic produce. Still, her ingredients are far from exotic and her methods are accessible. If I am on Adam’s fantasy desert island with access to all the fresh ingredients I could ever dream of, this book is definitely coming with me.
4. The King Arthur Flour Baking Book. These people eat, sleep and dream flour, and they know their stuff. The tone of the book strikes me as a less obsessive America’s Test Kitchen, meaning that they have tried and tested every recipe to ensure that they are providing readers with the best method. Everything is in here. Every dessert from fancy cakes to basic brownies gets its due. Then there’s the bread; bagels, baguettes, whole wheat, not to mention quick breads and muffins. This may not have the prestige of a professional chef behind it, but it is an incredible resource for home bakers.

The Most Beautiful Cookbooks

1. Rocco DiSpirito’s Flavor. How could this book not be at the top of this category? Rocco (the man’s name is Rocco) is the Chippendale’s version of celebrity chefs and his book lives up to the promise of food porn like no other. Granted, Rocco does not cover his own scantily-clad body in melted chocolate, he just pimps out his attractive female sous chef or whoever she is. There are photos of Rocco’s powerful, yet smooth and sensual hands tossing your salad—no tongs for this bad boy. The recipes are helpfully rated for ease of preparation, there is a nice essay by Rocco on the importance of the five flavors in his cooking, and there are a few recipes that I hope to get around to trying. Still, there are a large number of esoteric and downright wacky dishes (Ceviche of Diver Sea Scallops with Tamarind and Popcorn), and the book is more of a work of pop art and a stellar example of innovative cookbook design than a useful resource.
2. Forever Summer by Nigella Lawson. It’s Nigella. She’s gazing at you with those big doe eyes, about to toss her silky mane of black-brown curls. She entices you with the freshest tomatoes that taste better in her Italian villa than anywhere else on the planet. Her come-hither look draws you in and you surrender to her simple, fresh pasta dishes and pastel colored cocktails. True, there isn’t much that is terribly innovative or challenging here, but it’s Nigella finally escaped from dreary London and loving every minute of it.
3. Williams Sonoma’s Savouring Series. I am embarrassed to say that I got my three books from the Savouring series (Savoring Spain and Portugal, Savoring Italy, Savoring Southeast Asia) at Buck-A-Book a few years ago because I would absolutely have paid more for these beauties (they didn’t cost a dollar, it was more like $12). Unlike the previous two winners in this category, I love to use these books, both to learn about the food culture of the title countries and to cook the authentic dishes marked with the specific region from within their country of origin. I used Spain & Portugal to make the fabulous Portuguese Bread Soup and the bacalhau dish from one of my recent posts. The photojournalism in the introductions to each section of the books is transportive, and the gorgeous photos of every finished dish are reason enough to own these books. Sadly, I’m not sure where you might find these. I just checked amazon, and there are a few hanging around. Actually, I just bought Savoring Provence!

Best Book for a Specific Purpose

1. Meze by Diane Kochilas. I love Diane and I love her meze. This type of food fits right in with my obsession with Spanish tapas, as meze is the Greek version of these small bites, often served with a leisurely conversation and a carafe of wine. I put Meze in this category because, although I love to read the recipes and look at the photos, the opportunity to serve meze only comes up on specific occasions like when Mike and I make a point to hang out and cook a bunch of small plates instead of a whole meal. This is slightly impractical to do for just two people, but we find it worthwhile to stretch our meal out over a few hours and sample lots of different flavors. This book is also handy for cocktail party nibbles, although that is a slight departure from the tradition of meze that Diane so fondly describes in her introduction.

Best Book I Am Glad to Own But Barely Use

1. Feast by Nigella Lawson. I am sorry Nigella, I really am. And I do love this book, truly I do. Nigella’s most recent offering is a massive, beautifully photographed tome, detailing menus for every possible celebratory and/or monumental occasion. It is classic Nigella with recipes tending towards her own personal tastes and obsessions, but that is why we love her. The reason I do not use this book much is because I am not a glorious earth-mother figure and provider of feasts to my adoring ensemble of loved ones at this stage in my life. In fact, most of Mike’s and my loved ones are not often within feasting distance of my kitchen. But I know this book will remain a valued part of my collection, and rotate into more regular usage when the time comes.

Best Cookbooks that Read Like a Novel
This is my own category, and I include it because I want to honor the cookbook authors who not only provide excellent instructional content, but lively, engrossing prose. When it comes to these books, I do not care if I ever cook a single recipe because the knowledge and distinct voice of the writers are my favorite feature.

1. How to Eat by Nigella Lawson. I already alluded to Nigella’s writing above, but it bears repeating. This woman has opinions about food and cooking, and her love and enthusiasm for her subject are as inspiring and comforting as her risotto.
2. The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden. She has traveled so extensively and amassed so much information, that I’m sure she could fill a second volume. Claudia has been in the kitchens of home cooks all over the region and this immersion in the culture comes through in her writing.
3. The Italian Country Table by Lynn Rosetto Kasper. This book by the host of NPR’s The Splendid Table is all about simple peasant food, except that the peasants are in Italy and have been preparing glorious ingredients with practiced restraint for generations. Lynn introduces every recipe with helpful tidbits or background information. The book is full of sidebars with stories from Italian kitchens and food artisans. Like Claudia Roden’s book, this is the result of the author’s immersion in the life of her subject.

I hope you enjoyed my very biased cookbook awards. I hope other bloggers take up this meme; I’d love to do it on a yearly basis. It is a great way to discover new cookbooks worthy of a place on my shelf.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Croatian Crepes with Souffled Yogurt Topping

Croatia had far more success in my kitchen than they did on the soccer field on Sunday. After this past weekend, I have seen so many World Cup games, that I can barely keep up with all the triumphs and disappointments. However, as I did pick Croatia vs. Japan as my World Cup dinner game, I paid especially close attention. The game was a draw; not just a draw, but a scoreless draw. Not only that, but both teams missed out when they had easy chances to score—Croatia on a penalty kick, and Japan on an opportunity that only required them to tap the ball into the net. So, I was left with a dilemma. There are no tie breakers in the World Cup, and I was not in the mood to devise an Eastern European twist on the dragon roll. I had to make a decision, so I went with Croatia, based on the fact that Mike and I are pretty familiar with sushi, but do not have a clue what the Croats put in their bento boxes.

The Dalmatian Coast of Croatia is on the Adriatic across from Italy. Croatians in this region eat a lot of seafood dishes, many prepared with an Italian inflection. This would not do for Mike and me. One of the objectives of cooking World Cup Dinners is to expand our knowledge of world cuisines, and Croatian shrimp scampi, a popular dish in Dalmatia, just does not fit the bill. We wanted to travel east of Zagreb where the cuisine is influenced by the Austro-Hungarian palate. We settled on Punjene Palacinke, or meat-stuffed crepes, with hopes of being transported to the dark reaches of Eastern Europe. What we got was a hearty, yet healthy dish with a fluffy souffled yogurt topping.

Before I continue with the method for Croatian savory crepes, I just have to pause and say that my husband is the most patient, kind and generous crepe-flipper in the whole wide world. He’s got skills.

Crepe-making is a genius technique to know. All you do is mix up a simple batter and cook the thin pancakes until just crisp around the edges and beginning to brown. Soon you’ll have a stack of slightly sweet wrappers for any wonderful filling you can dream up. You can make sweet breakfast crepes filled with strawberries and mascarpone cheese, or savory ones with sautéed spinach, mushrooms and fontina. They would be great for a brunch or party where you put out a stack of warm crepes and three or four different fillings and garnishes so guests can make their own. For the palacinke, Mike’s crepes got the enchilada treatment: stuffed with a meaty filling, rolled up and baked. First, I chopped and sautéed one large yellow onion, then added one pound of lean ground beef to the skillet. When the meat had browned, I added a large can of diced tomatoes, and about 1 tsp. each of marjoram, thyme and oregano. Of course, you would also season every ingredient with salt and pepper as you go. I simmered the beef mixture for about 10 minutes so as much liquid as possible would evaporate. I still had to cover the skillet with a lid and tip it over the sink to drain the excess fat from the beef to avoid watery crepes. I tossed a handful of chopped parsley into the beef mixture for some color, as well.

While I made the topping, Mike stuffed the crepes, rolled them up and nestled them into two baking dishes:

Now for the best part, in my opinion: the yogurt topping. I separated two eggs into two large bowls. I beat the whites with a hand mixer until stiff peaks formed and set them aside. To the yolks, I added 1 ¼ cups thick Greek-style yogurt. I have recently discovered that there really is not an acceptable substitute for Greek yogurt, although I have never tried draining regular yogurt as is sometimes suggested. I recommend finding the real thing for this recipe (our Whole Foods had several different brands). I also added about ¼ tsp. salt and ½ tsp. nutmeg. The recipe called for ½ cup of parmesan cheese which naturally, we were out of. We did however have leftover nubs of some interesting cheeses from an antipasto platter we made recently. I added some pungent, firm goat cheese that was hard enough to grate as well as another firm cheese that was in the style of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Using these strongly flavored, high quality cheeses absolutely made a difference in the finished dish. They added a distinct layer of flavor that was a sharp counterpoint to the nutmeg and complemented the tangy yogurt. I gently folded the beaten egg whites into the yolk-yogurt mixture, poured my beautifully aerated topping over the stuffed crepes, and baked for 15 minutes at 400 degrees. You can tell it is done when the yogurt has puffed up and is beginning to brown around the edges.

The crepes going into the oven.

I will admit that this dish has multiple steps, but they are all pretty simple, especially if you live with a world-class crepe flipper. The original recipe came from, an English website that I happened upon with lots of useful information about Mediterranean food. It does not give a method for the crepes, so we used a basic recipe from Betty Crocker. Just discovering a type of dish or a technique that you have never tried before is so refreshing—and it’s all thanks to the Croatian team even though they did not manage to seal the deal against Japan. At least we won.

The next game is Tuesday’s match between Germany and Ecuador. Two worthy competitors; two totally disparate cuisines…who will win?!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Portu-goooal! vs. Iran

When I said I was going to pick World Cup games and cook a dish from the winning countries, I did not say I wouldn’t play favorites. The game I picked for Saturday was Portugal vs. Iran. I was rooting for Portugal (they were the favorite, as well) because I absolutely love Iberian cuisine. The food and the food culture of Spain captivates me so much that Mike and I have every intention of living there and spending our days cooking, eating and giving food tours to tourists. Keep in mind that I have never actually been to Spain, but this plan is my heart’s desire, nonetheless. When Portugal scored its second goal with a penalty kick, I went straight for Savoring Spain & Portugal, a big, beautiful Williams-Sonoma cookbook with National Geographic-worthy pictures. The food photography works me into such a frenzy when I flip through the pages that I beg Mike for reassurances that my little Spanish villa is more than just a pipedream.

Portugal, like Spain, is made up of distinct regions with their own cuisines according to what foods are available. Portugal’s entire western border is the coast of the Atlantic, so there is a strong fishing tradition and tons of seafood dishes. I have made simple Portuguese fish stews, so I wanted something a bit more exciting.

Mike and I selected two dishes: Acorda a Alentejana, or Bread Soup with Coriander, Garlic and Egg and Meia Desfeita de Bacalhau, or Salt Cod with Chickpeas. The bread soup won us over with the book’s gorgeous photo, plus the fact that it combines some of the most perfect foods in the world: garlic; thick, crusty bread brushed with olive oil and toasted; and poached eggs with rich, runny yolks. How could we go wrong? Here is the photo of our version:

Bread soup from Portugal’s Alentejo region in the South which includes coastal as well as inland areas.

I could eat this simple soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner any day of the year. The greatest skill you need is timing, as you prepare all the individual elements and combine them just as you are ready to serve.

This is where the flavor’s at…Mike is holding the muddled garlic, cilantro, salt and olive oil. You put this into a warm soup bowl, toss with the croutons, pour in the broth and crown the aromatic liquid with a poached egg.

We finished our soup then took a breather before preparing the salt cod. Actually, we had no choice but to take a breather because salt cod needs to be soaked and re-hydrated. According to my cookbook, this process takes 24 hours of soaking with multiple water changes. Luckily, our box of salt cod offered the alternative method of running the dry, salty fillets under cold water, then slowly heating them, but not to boiling, in a skillet. You heat the fish this way two or three times until the flavor of the cod is not overwhelmed by salt when you taste it.

While the cod was being de-salted, we hard-boiled three eggs. The rest of the dish comes together easily. First we sautéed a chopped onion in a tablespoon of olive oil, then added sweet paprika and 3 cloves of minced garlic. I had never purchased good paprika before, and I was pleasantly surprised. Unlike the standard spice that is simply labeled, “paprika,” this was sweet, earthy and full of flavor. Then we added a can of chickpeas, ¼ cup white wine vinegar, ¼ c. flat-leaf parsley and two of the eggs, chopped.

This simmers in the skillet just until warmed through. To serve, we garnished our bacalhau mixture with more chopped parsley, the reserved chopped egg and some oil-cured black olives. I thought the addition of one more salty element might be too much, but the olives are a great accent, imparting an oily, slightly bitter flavor. According to Savoring Spain & Portugal, this dish originated in Estremadura, the coastal region that juts out a bit further into the Atlantic. Salt cod, however, is common all over the country and in Spain as well. Mike and I had some fantastic sweet peppers stuffed with salt cod at a tapas place in Miami recently, but I had never used the ingredient myself. Happily, this dish was a huge success—hearty, salty and sweet.

World Cup Dinners have been fun so far, and even more educational than I expected. My next pick is Sunday’s game of Japan vs. Croatia. Sushi or Slavic…what will it be?

Saturday, June 17, 2006

World Cup Dinners… Gooooooal!!!

Don’t you love a gimmick? For instance, a diet book cannot just tell us to exercise more and eat less. It has to give us a detailed regimen that requires us to eat say, every three hours, or a plan involving the supposed habits of French women. I am not by any means condemning the use of gimmicks. They keep things new and fresh. Instead of a yawn-inducing tally of calories in and calories out, a dieter can obsess over the gimmick of the moment (“Get me to the nearest frommagerie; I must prepare a cheese course, stat!”).

In the interest of spicing up my routine in the kitchen (you didn’t think I was writing a post about dieting, did you?), I have seized upon a fabulous gimmick to shake up the dinner status quo. My dinner gimmick is focused on the most popular sport in the world (no not baseball—there’s a whole world beyond these domestic borders, and I’m not just talking about Canada). It’s a sport that results in more missed work days and deaths by trampling than any other. It’s futbol, and the ultimate event in footballing, the World Cup, is about to become an exploration of world cuisines.

Here’s how it works: On a day when I have the time and inclination to prepare a home-cooked meal, I will pick a World Cup game being played on that day. I will watch the score with baited breath, and I will cook a dish from the victorious team’s country. My first world cup dinner was on Tuesday, and I picked the Brazil vs. Croatia match-up. I know all about Brazil because my sister’s been living there for the past two years with her Brazilian boyfriend. I can’t even tell you what continent Croatia is on (I do have a college education, I swear), but I had the notion that their cuisine is an eastern European mélange of Hungarian and Czech. I never got the chance to find out, as Brazil took the match, 1-0. So, I turned to the internet for Brazilian recipes. Mike and I were in the mood for seafood, so I settled on Moqueca de Peixe, or white fish cooked in a fresh salsa, that I found on

A gorgeous vista near Rio, courtesy of my lovely sister, Sara. You can just make out the famous statue of Christ on the rocky promontory on the left.

I picked this recipe for its mainly for its simplicity. All you do is toss an onion, 2 jalepenos, 2 tomatoes, garlic, cilantro and salt into the food processor. Then, squeeze in some lime juice and puree until fairly smooth.

Once the salsa is made, add it to a skillet with your white fish of choice, then simmer until the fish is cooked through. I marinated the fish in the salsa for about 20 minutes, but I don’t think this step is critical. In Brazil, they seem to be quite taken with dende, a highly saturated red-orange palm oil. It was included in many of the recipes I read, with olive oil often listed as an acceptable substitute. Since I didn’t see the need to add yet another exotic fat source to my cooking repertoire, I used the olive oil. It was drizzled over the salsa-simmered cod at the end of cooking. Maybe Sara will send me some authentic Brazilian dende for my birthday…

You can just barely see the fish peeking out of its tasty salsa Jacuzzi. You can turn the fish fillets halfway through so they cook evenly.

If I were in Brazil right now reveling in the World Cup victory, I would end my day with a plate of moqueca eaten outdoors at sunset with this view of Ipanema in my sights…

Friday, June 16, 2006

French Wines…Mais Oui!

Admit it: you have issues. You want to experiment with new things, but you just end up falling back on routine. You swear by your taste for the exotic, but so often revert to the familiar. Last week, you almost ordered the braised pig cheek, but you got the pan-seared salmon yet again. You had every intention of pouncing on that foreign exchange student who tutored you in French sophomore year, but ended each late-night study session with a prim, “au revoir, Jean-Pierre.”

Well, my risk-averse friend, now is the time. You’re busting loose. While I hope I’ve inspired you to overhaul your lifestyle choices in a big way, all I ask of you now is a simple expanding of the palate. Make your first brazen act as a windmill-chasing, marrow-sucking dilettante a feat of culinary daring. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is: embrace the froggies!

Wine Warehouse in Fort Lauderdale. Lock me in there with a corkscrew and some Brie anytime.

Well, not literal froggies—just their wine. My husband and I love wine. My alcoholic beverage of choice is, in fact, a glass of red wine. Unless I’m lying on a beach in Cozumel, in which case it’s Corona. Or grilling fajitas, in which case I’ve got to have one of Mike’s margaritas. You see there are exceptions to the rule, here, but the point is I love wine. In the last couple of years, Mike and I have grown to appreciate and often prefer French wine. We never had a taste for the apples-fermented-in-butter with a touch of burnt vanilla flavor of typical California Chardonnays. We get turned off by the homogenously overpowering ripe fruits of Australian Shiraz. A Pinot Noir from Oregon can be cool and subtle, but if you really want to taste the ground beneath your feet, go to Burgundy’s rendition of the grape.

And that brings us to the Voarick Aloxe Corton 2003 (retail $24.99) that we tasted at our favorite wine store this past weekend, along with several other French imports. Just know that Burgundy is where pinot noir is grown, and it is deep, earthy stuff. The soil in the different districts of Burgundy varies, so there is plenty of diversity among Pinot Noirs. Chardonnay is the other grape varietal grown in Burgundy, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

The Aloxe-Corton would be lovely with olive-crusted lamp chops or braised duck.

My other favorite region for red wines is the Rhone. I have had the most experience with Cotes Du Rhone, as these incredibly food-friendly blends always seem to be available at a great price, as in $8-$12. You just don’t have to spend more. There are over 10,000 producers in this large region and the primary grape varietals are Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Cinsault. Many producers, and not just French ones, do 2 or even 3 bottlings each year, from grapes culled from the same vineyard. The high end bottle is the crème de la crème. The low end bottle benefits from all the same skill and methodology of that same producer, but might consist of slightly less pristine grapes and lack the complexity of the high end bottle. The low end bottles are generally a fantastic value. The first wine on the left is a 2004 Cotes Du Rhone from Chapoutier. Drink a not- too-fruity, not-too-earthy gem like this with anything from pizza to roast chicken. Bring it to a cookout, and your hot dogs just got classy. Interesting aside about the Chapoutier: the label is in Braille…who says the French can’t be progressive?

It’s me checking out the nifty wine-pairing wheel they gave us at the tasting. Each type of food has at least four different suggestions—so drink what you like!

Between trips to the snack table to eat more than our fair share of baked brie, we also tasted some zippy French whites. The one that most bears mentioning is another Mingling favorite, Pouilly Fuisse. The bottle pictured below on the right, was a 2004 from Gerbeaux.

Pouilly Fuisse, also from Burgundy, is what the French did with the Chardonnay grape long before anyone ever heard of Napa Valley, much less turned it into Disneyland for wine-lovers. Pouilly Fuisse has the full body of a California Chard without any of the cloying richness. A good one will retain its acidity, foiling the buttery quality of dishes like lobster tail or tuna sashimi. It will highlight your food instead of overpowering it with oak.

I could go on, perhaps discussing Alsace, the source of some of my favorite food-friendly whites, but that’s a whole other post. I didn’t even mention Bordeaux, home of fabulous Merlot and Cabernet varietals. I also might be treading on some thin ice, as I am but a neophyte in the wine world, although an enthusiastic one. I may not know everything about wine, but I know it’s time to give France a try! For food pairing, they can’t be beaten. It’s either that or look up Jean-Pierre…

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Antipasto Platter!

What meal requires virtually no cooking and elicits spontaneous marriage proposals…?

This is the story of a girl who loved food. No bite could pass her lips until she held the morsel under her nose and inhaled its aroma, as smelling only enhanced the pleasure of tasting. She also snuck straight pats of butter at the table when no one was looking. The girl eventually outgrew her butter fetish, stopped sniffing food in polite company and found a guy who didn’t mind, heck, even embraced her obsession with food. The pair got married and the girl, bolstered by the love and support of her wonderful husband, decided to start a food blog.

What does this have to do with antipasto, not to mention that audacious claim about marriage proposals? Well, I guess I will just have to drop the handy third person literary convention and explain myself. I am that girl, and I believe that the antipasto platter is the best way to introduce you to my food-centric life and explain why you should bother reading this blog in the first place.

Why Another Food Blog?
As I think I have already made pretty clear, I love food. Shopping for it, eating it, paying for it in snazzy restaurants and, most especially, cooking it myself. My husband, Mike, and I cook all the time. We might go with something complex and time-consuming like Moussaka on the weekend or something fast and simple like soy-glazed salmon with couscous after work that we eat while watching Jeopardy and ripping on Alex Trebek. We know our food is as tasty and definitely healthier than restaurant food, and we can drink better wine at home because we’re not paying the restaurant mark-up. Don’t get me wrong, I love restaurants. My favorites are ethnic places and anywhere I can order food that I wouldn’t or couldn’t cook at home. Our travel is often planned around where we can eat, and I’ll be sharing all those destinations with you too. To my knowledge, there are no South Florida food bloggers out there, so all you New Yorkers can read about me eating fish tacos on the beach in February…ha!

I am here to say that there is no excuse for not eating well every single day. Life is too short for a bad meal. Why squander any opportunity to delight your senses by eating any food that is tasteless, unappealing or seasoned primarily with grease? Sure we all need to fall back on the occasional bowl of Cap’n Crunch for dinner on a rough day, but why save your moments of ultimate culinary satisfaction only for dining out or the occasional holiday dinner? In this blog, I want to share the way I eat and cook and encourage all the food lovers out there to approach every hunger pang as a chance for total sensual pleasure or at least some really tasty food.

So What’s the Deal with Antipasto?
Antipasto is the appetizer that you skip in most Italian restaurants. It’s basically a shopping and assembly job that only requires cooking if you insist on grilling the vegetables yourself, like I do.

Otherwise anyone with access to a decent supermarket can pull off antipasto; but that, of course, is why I love it.

This is my first contribution to the food blogosphere: The easy antipasto platter, one of the ultimate mingling of tastes. The more foods and flavors I can fit into any single meal, the happier I am.

To do the vegetables, lightly coat them with olive oil using a pastry brush and season with salt and pepper. Roasting is good, but cooking under the broiler is faster. Drizzle them with balsamic vinegar when they are done. Or you can buy roasted vegetables at any market with a good prepared foods counter.

Artfully arrange the roasted veggies on a big platter and buy some different types of olives from the bulk bins.

Arrange the olives (That’s me contemplating how to most artfully arrange them).

Buy some thinly sliced prosciutto imported from Italy. Most markets carry it pre-sliced, but getting it straight from a gourmet deli can be worth the extra trip. We get ours at Fernanda’s Gourmet Market on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale.

That’s Mike artfully arranging the prosciutto. Check out the stunning selection of cheeses on the left. Our Whole Foods Market has a basket near the cheese counter labeled, “cheese ends.” These are the little bits that are small and awkwardly shaped, the runts, if you will. They all cost around $1.50 or less, so we get to try lots of new cheeses without investing in a massive half pound wedge. If your cheese store doesn’t have “cheese ends,” just get your hands on as many different kinds as possible.

Above is a picture of the cheese wrappers. Mike saves them and lays them out next to the cheeses so we actually know what we’re eating. Mike rocks at meticulous kitchen tasks that I have no patience for.

And here’s the finished platter next to the light and zippy California Merlot that we bought for the occasion. That bottle would go for at least $35 in a restaurant. Our price: $14.99. Nice.

And the best part about the antipasto platter is that it can be different every time. It’s the perfect medium for low-pressure creativity in the kitchen! Experiment with different charcuterie! Turn those olives into tapenade! Go Greek and buy baba ganoush!

Get to the proposal thing, you big teaser…
The lovely antipasto platter that you see above is a re-creation of the meal Mike and I prepared the night he proposed to me. We had already bought the ring together, so I knew it was coming eventually. Mike kept saying that he was trying to think of a cool way to ask me that wasn’t cheesy and lame. It was just another Saturday night and antipasto was the dish of the day. We’re the type of diners who firmly believe that the appetizers are the best part of most menus and we love tapas and small plates because we get to try lots of different tasty things. We had a fun time shopping for and preparing the dinner and were tickled pink with our discovery of the “cheese ends” basket, so we were both in a good mood and feeling smug that we didn’t have to leave our comfy condo to eat a gourmet meal. While we were eating, Mike got up to go to the bathroom or something. A few minutes later he came over to me and asked me to marry him while I had a big piece of prosciutto and baguette in my mouth. My lips were kind of greasy from the olive oil, but we kissed anyway. And there you have it: spontaneous marriage proposal induced by antipasto. Don’t knock it till you try it…