Thursday, March 22, 2007

News from the Front

Greetings, readers. Is it April 18th yet? I ask that question every day at work, and the answers I get have, so far, been decidedly unsatisfactory.

Those of you who have heard me whinge about this before read my blog regularly will know that because I am ear-deep in the muck (an appropriately appetizing metaphor for a cooking blog, yes?) that is tax season, I am doing little cooking and less writing about cooking. But I thought I'd say hello and report a few things:

1. I am the proud winner of Lindy's pointless contest. This significant honor (at least as important, surely, as the Nobel Prize, though slightly less remunerative; you can't buy me with your big bucks, Stockholm!) proves that I am the most pointless person ever! Frankly, I don't think there was ever any doubt, but it is certainly gratifying to have the recognition of one's, well, we can't really say peers, since I am peerlessly pointless, but it is nice to have the recognition of good people. There are those who have suggested that "pointless" was meant as a modifier of "contest" in such a way that one would say, "oh, this contest is pointless," rather than "oh, this is a contest of pointlessness." Sour grapes, readers. Those people knew they couldn't match me in pointlessness, so they denigrated the whole contest. In any case, the contest could not really have been pointless since that would mean that it was without point, and it cannot have been without point since I am now the proud possessor of Gillie Basan's Modern Moroccan. I have, thus far, only been able to browse through the book, but I will assuredly be cooking something from it at my earliest convenience. Or perhaps sooner than that, since my earliest convenience is weeks away. In any case, the existence of a prize makes any contest decidedly pointed, and this contest just keeps on giving: I can certainly use having won the book as an excuse to buy myself a tagine. Or perhaps a set of 4 6 8 10 for my next dinner party.

2. The cooking that I've been doing has been mainly batch cooking of things to take for lunch. Most recently, I adopted my fabulous (really, it is) turkey burger recipe into a turkey meatloaf. I did this by more than doubling the amount of chick peas. I also cooked my own chick peas, which meant that they were very nice, but I only had enough time to cook them one night, and then I had to wait a couple nights more before I had time to make the meatloaf. Unfortunately, I really did not adequately season the meatloaf, so that while the level of salt was about right, it was bland. Fortunately, I'd used a meat thermometer, so it was cooked perfectly and not dry, despite having very little fat in it. I heated some up at work today, and then I addressed the blandness issue by taking some leftover packets of mustard and sweet sauce (from the Chinese food that made me sick last weekend) and mixing them together to get a fairly strong sauce for the meatloaf. Tasty and very brightly colored. It probably does not do to dwell too much on just how they achieve that fluorescent orange and yellow that mix together to look like the sun, but I was momentarily comforted to read "No MSG" on both sauce packets. But then I realized that I would not have assumed that they had MSG in the first place, and I wondered whether that means that I must now assume that anything that doesn't have "No MSG" on the label might contain MSG. Just today, I have consumed the following foods, which, apparently, might have contained MSG: an egg McMuffin; two containers of nonfat yogurt; a triple venti nonfat latte; a venti skim, no-whip mocha; two slices of garbanzo turkey meatloaf; four Poptarts (hey, it's busy season); an obscene amount of Diet Coke; and a small package of trail mix. My body might well be 10 - 20% MSG by now. I feel pretty good, though, considering.

3. In other labeling news, a week ago, I was at Costco, and I bought a two-pound, refrigerated container of mango slices. They were delicious, and I was very happy with them until I looked more closely at the label (which, I only now realize was silent on the subject of MSG!). It assured me that my mango slices were "Alpine fresh." DO I EVEN HAVE TO EXPLAIN WHY THAT IS SO, SO WRONG?

Anyway. That's the news for now. I'll be back with some recipes soon. Soonish. Relatively soonish. I hope that all of you (or at least all of you who are due refunds) have filed your taxes. Uncharacteristically, I filed mine before the end of January, and I received a substantial refund weeks ago. I was tempted to spend it on truffles, but I set most of it aside for tuition (A.'s tuition, not mine; she starts college in the fall) instead.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Bowl of Red

You know what? Tax season sucks, and so does the weather.

I'd been working so many hours that I was starting to feel like I was becoming nothing but a tax machine, so about a week ago, when V. returned from Paris, we were having dinner out in Bethesda, and I said, "I'm sick of not seeing anyone. I'm going to invite a bunch of guys to dinner next week, and I'll just do something easy, and we'll all eat and drink lots." So I did. Last Sunday, I made a big pot of chili and froze it. Then Tuesday night I set some pinto beans soaking. Wednesday night, I stopped at Trader Joe's and got some desserts from the freezer case, and then when I got home, I cooked the beans and refrigerated them. Thursday night, I stopped at the supermarket and the beer and wine store on the way home and did the rest of the shopping and then when I got home, I made the cole slaw.

And then yesterday afternoon, it started to sleet and snow, and I noticed that the roads were pretty slushy on my way home, and then I got five calls within about ten minutes from guys saying they were afraid to venture out. When I got home, I had another couple of emails saying the same thing.

But, hey, you can't control the weather, right? And, after a fashion, I'd mostly accomplished what I'd set out to do. I'd thrown together a large dinner without driving myself crazy. I'd convinced myself that I didn't need to make everything myself (though, obviously, I wished that I could have) and that simple is fine. And, if not for the utter wimpiness of my friends winter storm, I'd have had a house full of friends.

As it happens, one of my friends lives down the street, so I called and told him that everyone else was cancelling but that I hoped he'd still come, and he did. And another friend, who works way over in Virginia, was coming directly from work, so he didn't get the message I'd left saying that other people were cancelling so that he could stay home if he felt like it but if he didn't get the message, there'd still be food. So there were still four of us, and we still had a terrific time.

We still drank a lot, too. Or at least we did by my standards. I had a small glass of wine while I was reheating and cooking, then I had a strong martini when I made one for my friends, and then I had two beers with dinner. And then I had a small glass of port and a smaller glass of vin de noix with dessert. For me, that's incredible lushiness. My buddy A. had three or perhaps four martinis as well as wine and port and vin de noix and it seemed to affect him not at all, so it's possible that I'm just a lightweight. In this one context.

Anyway. I may have written before about my long and unsavory history with chili. For the longest time, it's just been something I didn't do well, but last night's chili was great. I decided to go Texas style and to make the beans separately, so the chili is pretty much beef, beef, and more beef with a bit of tomato and some spices. It was a bit soupy on reheating, but I had biscuits to sop up the liquid, so it was all good. The chili is not especially spicy, so have hot sauce to serve with it for all those guys who think that the ability to withstand pain is an essential element of masculinity.


1/2 c. olive oil
1 very large onion, diced
5 lbs. stew beef, cut in 1/2" dice
1 small can tomato sauce
3 T. ground cumin
3 T. ground ancho chile
1 T. sweet smoked paprika
1 t. ground cayenne pepper
1 t. garlic powder
Ground black pepper
1 can beef broth

Put a heavy stockpot on medium heat and add the oil. Add the onions, stir well, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have browned. This is one of the rare instances where you are neither required to soften the onions without browning them nor caramelize them slowly over several hours. Just let them brown. It should only take five to ten minutes.

Add the beef and cook, stirring, until the outside of the beef is no longer red. In a perfect world, you would brown the outside of the meat well, but unless you want to take all day and use a lot more oil, you're just not going to be able to do that. It won't matter in the long run.

Open the can of tomato sauce and pour it over the beef. Then run some water in the can, swirl it around, and pour that in the beef so that you're not missing any tomato sauce. Add the spices and stir well. Add the can of beef broth. If the beef is not fully covered in liquid, add some more water (or beef broth) to cover. Stir well again.

Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cover. Cook for at least two hours, stirring occasionally. Taste and add a little less salt than you think you need. Uncover, and simmer to desired degree of thickness. Correct seasoning.

Serve with whatever fixings you like. I usually have sour cream, grated cheddar, and sliced scallions. And the beans, of course.

I like chili with beans, but some people don't. If you make the chili and the beans separately, everyone should be happy. Especially if you've given them a martini first.

These beans are flavorful without being overly assertive. The spices are very similar to what's in the chili, but they're toned down somewhat.


1 lb. dried pinto beans
1 t. celery seed
1/8 t. ground cayenne pepper
1/4 t. garlic powder
1 t. smoked paprika
1 t. ground ancho chile
2 t. ground cumin
Ground black pepper, to taste
1.5 t. salt
2 T. tomato paste
1 t. dijon mustard
1 t. red wine vinegar

Put the pinto beans in a deep bowl and fill the bowl with water. Remove any beans that float to the top, and pour off the water. Fill the bowl with fresh water, and leave overnight to soak.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Drain and rinse the beans. Put them in a pot that can go on the stove and in the oven. Add the celery seed, cayenne, garlic powder, paprika, ancho, cumin, and black pepper. Add water to cover the beans (about a quart). Cover the pot and bring to a simmer over a medium flame. Then move to the oven.

After 90 minutes, remove from the oven and check. They should be fully cooked but not mushy. Add hot water to cover the beans again (about 1.5 cups). Stir in the salt and tomato paste. Return to the oven for another fifteen minutes, uncovered. Stir in the mustard and vinegar. Taste and add more salt if necessary.

I would have liked to have made cornsticks last night, but I wanted something simpler, especially when I was expecting ten or eleven people. So I came up with a cornstick biscuit. They were pretty good. I overhandled the dough a bit, and if I hadn't done that and if I'd added a little more buttermilk, they'd have been even better. Live and learn.

Cornstick Biscuits

1.5 cups all purpose flour
1 cup stoneground yellow cornmeal
1/2 t. kosher salt
1 T. baking powder
1 t. ground ancho chili powder
6 T. cold butter, cut into 24 pieces (2x2x6)
1/2 c. grated cheddar cheese
4 dashes hot sauce

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Mix the dry ingredients together. Cut in the butter. Add the cheese and hot sauce and mix well. Mix in enough buttermilk to make a dough that is soft but that can still be handled. Knead very quickly, then roll out on a floured board or marble. roll the dough out about half an inch thick. Cut into one-inch by three-inch rectangles, and place on an ungreased baking sheet.

Bake for twelve to fourteen minutes, or until nicely browned.

For the sake of completeness, let me pass along the coleslaw recipe.


1. Surf over to google.
2. Put "lindystoast" and "coleslaw" in the search box. Click go or whatever.
3. Click on the link to Lindy's site. Follow her directions.

You would be well advised to follow her recipe precisely. I did not, of course, but only because I didn't have any cider vinegar, and I didn't feel like mincing another onion, so I just grated some instead. Also, by now you should understand that I really can't follow a recipe exactly. I don't feel the least bit bad about that, either. Lindy is exactly the same way, and I'm sure that she wouldn't follow any of my recipes exactly. In fact, I have it on good authority that her panagretto recipe began life as my deviled eggs recipe, her protestations about Jamie Oliver notwithstanding. Obviously, she made a few changes. (For those of you who are rolling your eyes and saying, "Yeah, and was that before or after she turned you into a newt?" let me say, "after," and yes: "I got better.")

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Mousse for the Misbegotten

One would think that if one had spent $30 to have five delicious cherimoyas shipped to one, then one would manage to eat those cherimoyas while they were still at peak level of ripeness, especially given that one's cherimoyas do not all reach said stage of ripeness at the same time. As is so often the case, however, one would be mistaken, and one might come home to find the last two, smallest cherimoyas sitting on one's countertop, alone and forlorn, as if to say, "really, we didn't expect any better from you; we know the other cherimoyas were bigger, and if we had hoped to be eaten when we were at our best, it was only because we were stupid, bad cherimoyas who didn't know our place," and one would then be tempted to throw the cherimoyas directly into the trash, just to teach them a lesson, but one would remember that the cherimoyas had not been expensive and that they probably still had a delicious flavor to offer, so one would -- without exactly apologizing to the cherimoyas since one never wants to encourage drama royalty of any sort -- come up with a way to use the overripe fruit.

It may not shock you to find that I found myself in just such a position about three days ago, or that I let the situation go for another two days until I had a few free moments last night. An overripe cherimoya is not an attractive thing; neither is it easy to deal with, and two overripe cherimoyas are about half as easy to deal with. The flesh will have begun to turn brown, but the seeds will be no easier to remove. The picture you see here is the seeds that I removed from the pulp of the last two cherimoyas, and it really doesn't do justice to either their number or their tenacity. To separate the seeds from the flesh, I cut the cherimoyas in half, scooped the flesh into a bowl with a spoon, mashed the flesh with a potato masher, and then fished through with my fingers to remove the seeds. I am not in any way squeamish about such kitchen activities, and the fruit was at room temperature, so it wasn't unpleasant in the way mixing a meatloaf can be with the frozen fingers and all, but plucking seeds out of a bowl of cherimoya flesh is probably not how I'd choose to spend five minutes, if I were looking for a good time.

The mousse itself, on the other hand, is phenomenal, and ridiculously easy to make, once you've removed the seeds and provided that you have good heavy cream. You could do the same thing with overripe mangos or peaches or apricots, I suppose, but the flavor of the cherimoyas is special, so while you'd have something good, you'd have something very different. When you first cut into overripe cherimoyas, they won't look very appetizing. Fortunately, the finished mousse will be a very pale pink and looks just fine.

Obviously, this preparation is loaded with both fat and calories. Also, it is in the nature of both whipped cream and overripe fruit to be ephemeral, so you have, at most, half a day to eat this, before it separates. If you want something that lasts longer, you'll have to stabilize it with gelatin and/or egg whites. You could do that by separating a few eggs, cooking the egg yolks with the lime juice and sugar to make a custard, beating the egg whites separately, then mixing the custard with the mashed cherimoyas, and folding in the egg whites and whipped cream, separately. I suppose that if you wanted to use gelatin, you could soften it in the lime juice and then fold that into the whipped cream after you'd folded in the cherimoya flesh. I have never had great success using gelatin with whipped cream, but that may be because I haven't ever really tried. I'm pretty sure that you can find directions for various types of stabilized whipped cream in Rose Levy Beranbaum's Cake Bible, though.

Or you can just eat the stuff right after it's made.

Cherimoya Mousse

2 overripe, smallish cherimoyas
The juice of 2 limes
4 T. turbinado sugar
1 c. heavy cream

Remove the seeds from the cherimoyas. Discard the peels. Put the flesh in a bowl with the lime juice and the sugar. Mash well, until the sugar is dissolved. Taste a bit and add more sugar or lime juice, if necessary. The cherimoya flesh will not and should not reach the consistency of a smooth puree. You want some little bits left.

In a very cold bowl with a very cold whisk attachment, beat the heavy cream until it is very stiff. Fold the cherimoya mixture into it. Eat at once, or refrigerate and eat soon.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Custard Cups

I realize that this recipe will seem like the worst kind of diet cooking (something that is even more replete with hypocrisy if you take into account the fact that I have been failing miserably to stay on my diet; I'm still packing good lunches and fresh fruit for the office, but I'm really stressed out, and when I get home, I have a tendency to eat everything in sight, resulting in exchanges like the following, which occurred last night:

anapestic: are you looking for the cookies?
V.: yes, why?
a: because you want something to eat, I presume, but you would no better than I
V.: ...
a.: ...
V.: I mean, as you undoubtedly know already, why are you asking?
a.: because they're not there; I meant to replace them, but I wanted to wait until the night before you got home because otherwise I would have had to replace them again
V.: [rolls eyes]
a.: I saw that!), but it's actually quite tasty. It (unlike the double chocolate Milanos, and the Chessmen) also conforms to the Weight Watchers core requirements. These custard cups are really just crustless quiches. I have generally not been a huge fan of the crustless quiche, but my undying affection for pie crusts is something that, temporarily at least, has to be kept under control.

You will note that the custard mixture here is significantly eggier than is usual for a quiche. The reason for this egginess has nothing to do with the crustlessness. It has everything to do with the fact that I am packing these in my lunchbox all this week and that I am forced to rely on a microwave to reheat them. It has long been obvious to me (as it would be to any sensible person) that if my bosses want me to work ungodly hours (and they do), then the only just and reasonable thing to do is to provide me with a fully equipped kitchen and an assistant so that at, say, eleven o'clock in the morning, I could call down to the kitchen and tell the assistant what I need by way of mise en place so that I could come down at one o'clock in the afternoon and prepare my lunch. Sadly, what I get is a refrigerator, a microwave, and an ice machine. When I'm at home, I reheat the custard cups in the toaster oven, where they reheat very well. I have tested them in the home microwave, and they're still tasty, but microwave reheating is clearly a compromise. I think that foods that need to be reheated that way should probably be sturdier to start with, so the custard cups have a relatively small amount of custard, and that custard is decidedly eggy.

You really do need nonstick muffin pans to make these. I take the additional step of spraying my nonstick muffin pans with Pam, which may or may not help, but I'm not taking any chances. This recipe made fifteen custard cups, and only one of them left a tiny bit behind when I turned the muffin pans over onto the rack and shook them to release the cups.

Custard Cups

1 T. olive oil
1 large portobello mushroom, diced
10 ounces fresh spinach
2 red bell peppers, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup red wine
8 ounces cooked turkey, diced
2 cups cooked barley
3 eggs
3/4 c. milk
1 t. mustard

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat the oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, stir well to coat with the oil, then cover and cook until they release most of their liquid. Pile the spinach on top of the mushrooms, cover, and cook until the spinach is well wilted and much reduced. Add the peppers, cover again, and cook until the peppers are soft. Stir in the garlic, cover, and cook for another two minutes or so. Add the red wine, stir well, and cook, uncovered, until the wine has almost entirely evaporated. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Transfer the mixture to a bowl and let cool slightly. Mix in the turkey and barley.

Coat one or two muffin tins with cooking spray. Fill the muffin tins level with the top with the vegetable/turkey mixture. Don't pack them too tightly.

In a large measuring cup, whisk together the eggs and mustard. Add the milk and whisk well to combine. Slowly pour the custard mixture into the muffin tins so that it comes to about a quarter-inch below the top of the solids. Transfer to the oven and bake until done, about thirty to thirty-five minutes.

Cool in the pans for ten minutes, then reverse onto a rack and cool completely. Wrap two-by-two in ziplock bags for lunches, then march them into the refrigerator, pretending that you're Noah. Imagine a world where Noah forgot to save a pair of croissants, and be glad that you don't live in such a world, no matter how much easier it might be to stick to your diet if Noah had been a bit less meticulous. Don't blame Noah for your inability to pass up pastry. You can blame him for not forgetting to save the Cheese Whiz, even though you don't eat Cheese Whiz. Who buys that stuff, anyway?

As with any quiche or quiche-like dish, the cooking time will vary greatly depending on the temperature of your solids. If you have to interrupt your preparation to run off and pick up your teen-aged daughter who swore up and down that her meeting was going until four but then called and said it was going to be done at three and could you come pick her up so that you have to refrigerate your solids, then you'll either have to reheat the solids before making the custard cups or live with a longer cooking time, which is really no big deal, provided, of course, that the same daughter doesn't need to be taken somewhere else. It is good to know and/or remember, however, that while the microwave and the quiche may be natural enemies in the wild, using the microwave to warm your ingredients before baking can greatly shorten your cooking time, if that's something you need to do.

Everything in this dish needs to be flavorful, so don't forget to season as you cook. Also, you will want to have cooked your barley in a flavorful liquid. If you add turmeric as well as other spices, you'll be rewarded with a nice color as well. Obviously, there are many other things that you could add to this dish: some softened or caramelized onions, some leftover roasted cauliflower, and any one of dozens of cheeses leap to mind.

Monday, March 05, 2007


I have no time to write these days. But I do have cherimoyas. I first heard about cherimoyas from redfox. They are the perfect food when you have no time because the only sensible way to eat them is to cut them in half, poke out as many of the seeds as you can, and scoop up the flesh with a spoon. They are somewhat messy this way, but that is as it should be. I am sure that there are other wonderful things that you can do with cherimoyas. I suspect that with a small amount of lime juice, water, and sugar, they would make a swell sorbet, but I have neither the time nor the inclination.

I am saving the seeds because I find them attractive. I am sure that they do not grow in my climate. So far as I know, cherimoyas are available only via mail order. If you go to google and enter "cherimoya" as your search term, the first hit should be the site that I ordered them from. If you go there and send them an e-mail, they claim that they will alert you when the season begins, but my own experience suggests otherwise. Fortunately, however, the season is now well underway. I believe it lasts for at least another two months. I had to wait a while between when I ordered mine and when I got them. I'm not sure whether that was a question of availability or simply that they didn't want to ship during a period of sub-freezing temperatures. Shortly after I submitted the order, the weather got very cold, and I was worried about coming home to find cherimoyasicles, but whether by design or by happy accident, my fruit arrived in great condition.

Cherimoyas are an extravagance, for sure. $30 gets you a four-pound box, and the price includes shipping. My box had five healthy sized cherimoyas, three of which I have since eaten. They ripen at slightly different times. Given the cost, you would not want to eat one when it was not at its very best.

I am not sure about the wisdom of spending $30 for five cherimoyas. On the one hand, I could get a lot of pineapples and mangoes for the same amount. On the other hand, if enough people buy cherimoyas, more orchardists will grow them, and perhaps they will become more plentiful. Of course, it is entirely possible that one can already find them at every supermarket in the land flowing with milk and honey California, but given that I already have an overabundance of reasons to envy Californians, I will not seek another.

The high price and the exoticness of cherimoyas make them a terrific gift. This is true of good, fresh fruit generally, of course, and $30 is probably no more than one would expect to spend for a modest gift from most of the mail order fruit houses. And, certainly, if you've never tried them (as I had not), $30 is a lot less than you'd expect to spend for a significant amount of morels or, especially, truffles. For that matter, it's less than many people spend for a good bottle of wine, so my sticker shock is probably unreasonable. In any case, I expect that I'll order another box next year, if not before.