The Food Markets of Cuba

Posted by on Thursday Apr 23rd, 2015

In Cuba last month, I kept my eyes on the food.

Spring Veggies

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Spring Veggie Sauté | Big Girls Small Kitchen

In a world where we’re always seeking out the new, making and remaking an old favorite has the advantage of propelling us towards perfection.

That’s what happened when Alex and I made pasta with tomato sauce a weekly dinner staple, its assembly a cherished routine. He makes the sauce, and I assemble the dish. As he’s grown to know exactly how the garlic should look and smell when you’re ready to add the tomatoes, I’ve determined the right scale of acidity to richness (olive oil, parmesan), and how to melt mozzarella in the bottom of the bowl so each forkful of pasta includes a cheese pull. These days, our pasta with tomato sauce has gotten really good, because of a few particular ingredients and techniques.

I know this might sound simple, even trivial, the idea of going through a dish that a lot of you could make in your sleep in such detail. But with a couple extra flourishes and some mastery of timing, I think you can transform a ho hum dinner into the kind of food that reminds you why you cook, why you eat, and why you rarely need to order take-out.

For a two-person dinner and leftovers, you’ll need 3/4 pound of pasta (any shape), one 28-ounce can of whole plum tomatoes, an onion, as much garlic as you can stand peeling, a hunk of parm to grate, and some good olive oil (if you care). I sometimes put mozzarella into my pasta, but the dish is also good without.

Here’s the step by step.

Warm Chocolate Pudding Cake

Posted by on Wednesday Apr 15th, 2015

We seem to remember the gooiest desserts best. Puddings and cakes that feel familiar gratify us like no dolloped, perfectly assembled, fancy sweet ever can.

Almost every reference to Chocolate Pudding Cake comes with a heap of nostalgia. People remember the one-pan dessert when they think of their grandmothers, their church groups, and the way they cooked in the 1980s. The method is miraculous, and it wedges itself in your memory. Here’s how the process goes: after you stir together the thick batter, you sprinkle sugar and cocoa on top, then finish the assembly with hot water. The oven transforms this odd organization into a light chocolate cake that sits on top of a lush chocolate pudding. You scoop up from the bottom, so every portion gets cake and pudding and tastes like a fluffy brownie topped with hot fudge. Ice cream happily melts on top.

 

The recipe appeared on the HERSHEY’S Cocoa can in 1992, 1993, and 1997, though an early version appears in the archives as far back as 1981, according to Linda Stahl, manager of HERSHEY’S Kitchens. The recipe was already iconic by then, circulating among family and friends. The back-of-the-can recipe has a decent amount of sugar, some of it brown sugar, which heightens the chocolate-y taste from the cocoa.

For the last two summers, we’ve been members of a CSA. The twice-monthly vegetable deliveries have kept us feasting healthfully on the most seasonal stuff without a lot of effort. But this year, with a new very sunny roof deck attached to our apartment, we decided to try something different.

We’re planting vegetables.

I jumped in with a two-session course about small space gardening at the NYBG last month, which made me feel simultaneously overwhelmed and excited. Now that the soil’s warming up, we’re solidifying plans and browsing seed catalogs. Here’s what we’re going to do:

  • Get two EarthBoxesThese containers were recommended for their drainage abilities in particular. It’s going to get really hot up on the roof, and we’ll have to water a lot. With good drainage, we won’t have to worry about drowning our plants. We’re putting the containers on casters, so we can move them around the roof til we find the best location with respect to sun and wind. Our landlords also left some containers–there are chives (see them in between the Adirondack chairs?) surprising us in one!–so we may make use of those, too.
  • Keep the rest of the equipment to a minimum. Small kitchen, small shed. So far, the list is: gloves, soil thermometer, watering can, popsicle sticks (for labeling), hose, organic potting soil, and organic fertilizer. And seeds. Later in the season, we’ll figure out supplies for trellising, should our beans or tomatoes make it that far. The idea is also to keep the budget in check and avoid the $64 tomato problem.
  • Plant radish and carrot seeds in the containers before we leave for a two-week trip in late April. If it rains while we’re gone, maybe we’ll be on our way to early radishes. If the plants wither, we’ll plant again when we return, plus add herbs and greens. What gardeners know and I’ve just discovered is that you have to embrace trial and error. So this will be my first exercise.
  • Prioritize low-energy plants with a short time to harvest. I’d never thought about veggies this way before the course, but it makes so much intuitive sense. Plants grow roots and leaves first, then spend more energy to develop flowers (broccoli, for example) and fruits (like peppers). So if there’s a plant where you eat the roots and leaves (carrots, radishes, lettuces), you’ll be able to harvest more quickly. That also means there’s less time for things to go wrong. I’m still going to try planting some pole beans, cherry tomatoes, and peppers once a few small harvests of roots and leaves have actually come up.

Do you have a garden? Any tips? I’d love to hear any thoughts about starting out, not getting frustrated, and acquiring a green thumb.

P.S. The simplest way to prepare spring’s first radishes and scallions.

How to Make Your Own Chicken Biscuits

Posted by on Thursday Apr 9th, 2015

Most of the time, when I go to write a “complete guide” for this series, I have at least a solid relationship with the food I’m about to research and recreate. That’s because I’ve made a point to conquer only the most beloved classics like pizza, pancakes, and burgers.

But chicken biscuits are a beloved classic to many who adore Bojangles’, Popeyes, and Pies ‘n Thighs–they just weren’t on my personal menu. So, with the help of my friend Anika, who introduced me to the chicken biscuit at Cheeky’s, I pestered experts and tested recipes until I’d achieved some minor expertise. The result? Enough know-how to turn out flaky biscuits filled with crispy chicken tenders and condiments from cold gravy to jezebel sauce–all in my own kitchen. The full guide on how to master the chicken biscuit, over on First We Feast.  

Green Tea Chocolate Bark

Posted by on Tuesday Apr 7th, 2015

Mostly, when menu planning, I give dessert an exemption from a dinner’s theme. So long as the sweet fits the balance of the meal–airy after something heavy, rich in the wake of something light, or easy after a main that requires full attention–there’s no imperative to seek total authenticity in terms of nationality or style or tradition.

That’s why I surprised myself when, tasked with bringing dessert to a sushi-and-soba dinner at a friend’s, I fixated on green tea flavors and couldn’t dissuade myself once I’d begun. On the Wednesday before, I ordered a supply of matcha online and started to brainstorm.

My mom helped. My first idea was a green frangipane tart with apples or pears. She bested me with a matcha meringue pie. I spent a lot of time picturing an emerald-hued coconut custard filling topped generously with swirls of billowy toasted meringue. I bookmarked the best coconut custard recipes. But then I wondered if I wanted to hide the green color, rather than show it off. And, would my friends endeavor to cut and eat a whole slice of pie after dinner on a Saturday night? After more reflection, the matcha pie seemed overwhelming and hard to transport. I stored the concept away for an afternoon barbecue at our place.

After cycling through cookie concepts and ice cream ideas, I ended up where I should have started: with my irresistible, addictive, and delicious old friend, chocolate bark. In addition to tasting great and looking charming, bark is an accessible dessert, meaning that even those who claim they didn’t leave room will try some. Like mini cupcakes, bark wants you to acquiesce, and saying yes is as easy as nibbling on piece after piece–far less daunting than cutting into a meringue pie. 

Six months ago, we moved (two blocks) to a new apartment. Between the beautiful afternoon light and the roof deck where I’m about to plant radishes(!), we marvel each day at our NYC real estate luck–no matter that we hike up five flights to reach our nest and now cook on an electric stove.

The kitchen, though, didn’t have a microwave when we got here, nor an obvious place to install one, so we decided to try nuke-free living for a while before we committed any counter space to the gadget. Six months in, we barely miss the ability to melt cheese in a heartbeat. That’s not fully true. But still, though there’s more patience needed to reheat leftovers or make oatmeal, and more dishes dirtied in the process, I’ve loved the exercise in not depriving foods of texture and never sticking my spoon into steaming soup to find that the center is cold.

Here are my notes and tips from a half year of microwave-free cooking and eating.

Reheating Leftovers

Stovetop heat is bottom up, so the key to getting your leftovers good and hot throughout is to capture some steam, creating an oven-like situation in your pan. Note, by the way, that we don’t have a toaster oven either. This is all about stovetop and oven.

For pasta (sauced or plan), I like to add some olive oil to the pan. If I’m looking for crispy edges, I cook over medium heat, turning every so often. If I want sauced pasta to get a little soft, I cover the pan. See also: Fried Noodles, Spaghetti with Red Sauce & a Fried Egg.

Extra rice dries out in the fridge, making it the perfect candidate for use in fried rice or rice pudding cereal.  I used to love being able to make rice in advance for dinner parties, then heating it up til it was fluffy and hot in the microwave. I’m still working on an exact replacement for that situation, but it definitely involves some extra water. I have been experimenting with a bastardized Persian rice, where you melt butter in the bottom of a pot, then add the leftover rice and some splashes of water, reheating the whole thing very slowly til the rice is moist again and the bottom has a crust. Also, if you know you’re going to eat your rice with curry, for example, store them in the fridge together–the sauce will prevent the rice from drying out, and then you can reheat in a covered pan over low heat all together.

I always skipped the microwave for pizza anyway. I’d rather eat it cold than soggy! You can reheat pizza in the oven (at a high temp, for a very short time), but if you don’t want to preheat for just a slice or two, grab a big enough pan and set it over medium heat. When it’s hot, add your slices and then cover the pan with any lid that even remotely fits. This will create steaminess inside. When the bottom crust is crispy and the cheese is melted, you’re ready. This is also how I make open-faced grilled cheese toasts.