August 2009 Archives

Cooking for Others: Backseat Chef

EVENT: Saturday Night Barbecuing
VENUE: Cara’s Mother’s House, Long Island
MENU: Eggplant with Sweet Sesame Soy; Lettuce Wraps with Cod and Condiments

Jill, my older sister, is not as culinarily disposed as the rest of my family. She likes cooking now more than she used to, but where the rote parts of making a meal—cutting, mixing, and stirring—provide me an entrance into a nearly meditative state, for her, they are a little dull. For whatever reason, she does seem to enjoy cleaning up the kitchen after we’ve made a feast that uses every pot and pan and sullies every possible counter top.

Even more than cleaning, Jill likes designing meals. She’ll spend an afternoon brainstorming exactly the meal we should eat that night, down to plating style and important condiments. She’ll decide on what complements what, and she’ll even head to the supermarket to pick up any ingredients we’re missing. And then she’s been known to direct once cooking is underway, making sure those at the stove and cutting board are remaining true to her vision. All these behaviors have earned her the nickname of Backseat Chef. I would like to clarify, though: while a Backseat Driver has connotations of annoying and overbearing, we do appreciate Jill’s involvement in developing the menus we eat.

Since it’s nearing the end of the summer, we’ve exhausted the go-to grill options. Throwing on a big piece of striped bass and adorning it afterward with only grilled zucchini and perhaps some potatoes cooked in the embers isn’t quite as appealing in late August as it was in June.

So we get creative. Or, more accurately, Jill gets creative.

She first described this dish as fish wraps, and I turned my nose up. But then we revised the name as Lettuce Wraps, just lettuce wraps that happened to have fish in them. Jill dictated some of the necessary condiments, the rice noodles, the nuoc cham, and the crunchy cucumber salad. I added the eggplant, which was a variation on a dish I had wanted to make anyway, and I also threw together a peanut-cilantro relish, for beauty and added flavor. Everything was married by the juice of innumerable limes. Knowing what endpoint Jill had in mind somehow gave me the intuitive knowledge needed to fulfill her vision, despite never having made such a dish, or even such a cuisine (bastardized Thai-Vietnamese, or something like that).

From my kitchen, where I steer the spatula even if I don’t navigate the menu, to yours,



Lettuce Wraps with Cod, Cucumber Salad, Peanut Relish, and Nuoc Cham
Serves 6

1 head iceberg or romaine lettuce, leaves intact
2 pounds cod
1 package rice noodles
1 teaspoon canola oil

Rinse the lettuce. Carefully pull out each leaf and arrange on a plate.

Cook the rice noodles as directed on the package. Drain and toss with the teaspoon of oil. Set aside.

We cooked the cod on the barbecue, since that what we’d been doing all summer. But you need a grill pan to do this, since cod falls apart on the grill, and so I’d recommend cooking your cod inside, as below. (You can also substitute chicken breasts, pre-cooked and shredded.)

Poach the cod: arrange it on a steamer basket in a large pot over about 1 inch of boiling stock or water. If you don’t have a steamer basket, lay it right on in the pan. Cover and let cook 8-10 minutes, until opaque throughout. Carefully lift it out, but don’t worry if the fish flakes, since you’ll break it up for the wraps anyway. Garnish with a bit of lime juice and a sprinkling of Peanut Relish (see below).

Put out the plate of lettuce, the fish, the rice noodles, and all the below condiments. Let each person load some noodles, fish, sauce, and whichever condiment she chooses onto the wrap.

The Condiments

Nuoc Cham
2 cloves garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons lime juice
3 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons julienned carrots (optional)

Pulse the garlic with the sugar in a food processor. If you don’t have one, mince the garlic, then sprinkle with about 1 teaspoon of the sugar and use it to pulverize the garlic while y0u chop.

Add the lime juice and let sit for about half an hour so the garlic can mellow.

Add the remaining ingredients and refrigerate until ready to use.

Peanut Relish
1/2 cup roasted salted peanuts, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 small onion, diced
juice from 1 lime

Toss the onion with the lime juice. Let sit for about 30 minutes. Add the peanuts and cilantro and mix so the ingredients are distributed evenly.

Cucumber Salad

8 Kirby cucumbers, sliced
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 mild white vinegar (like rice wine)
1-2 tablespoons sugar

Toss the cucumbers with the salt. Let sit for about 30 minutes, then rinse. Wrap the slices in a dish towel and squeeze as much liquid as possible out of them.

Combine the vinegar and 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Toss with the cucumbers and add more sugar to taste.

Eggplant with Sweet Sesame Soy
Serves 6 as a side dish.
Adapted from
NY Times/Mark Bittman.

2 large eggplants
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons sesame seeds

Cut the eggplant into slices. Sprinkle with salt and let sweat for 30-60 minutes. Rinse and blot dry. Brush with the olive oil and grill as described in this recipe. If you have an outdoor grill, definitely use it.

Meanwhile, toast the sesame seeds in a dry pan over medium heat until they are brown and fragrant. Mix them with the soy sauce and sugar.

When the eggplant is done cooking, cut each round into slices about 1 inch wide. Toss with the soy-sesame sauce and serve at room temperature.

Cooking For One: The Kohlrabi Dilemma

DISH: Steamed Vegetables in Curry Sauce
TYPE: Working with What You Have

Sometimes, when I’m in the mood to feel pampered, I’ll take my mother up on her offer to get me some farmers’ market vegetables when she’s out shopping for her own. Though this is a luxury, it also come with some risks. Recently, when I requested “cucumbers, tomatoes, and some greens,” I received cucumbers, tomatoes, and a bunch of kohlrabi, three purplish bulbs with long leafy stems. I had been expecting kale, Swiss chard, or arugula, so I’ll admit I was a little taken back by these strange items.

Googling brought up the fact that kohlrabi is often eaten in Kashmir, and that made me think of curry. I think in India, it’s eaten almost like a relish, with whole mustard seeds, but I went down an American path, making the kind of curry sauce that might coat poached chicken in a gourmet deli’s chicken salad. It’s an enticing and unusual way to serve an unusual vegetable, but if the veggies in your bag are a bit less odd, it’s a good way to dress them too.

From my kitchen, where no vegetable is left untamed, to yours,



Steamed Vegetables in Curry Sauce

Serves 2

2 kohlrabi
1/2 small white cabbage
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 small onion
1/2 cup plain, low-fat yogurt
1 tablespoon curry powder

Separate the kohlrabi stems from the bulbs. With a paring knife, peel the bulbs, then cut them into 1/4-inch slices. Trim the greens from the stems and wash them well. Cut the cabbage into rough squares, about 1 1/2-inches wide.

Bring an inch or two of water to boil in a large pot. If you have a steamer, arrange the kohlrabi bulb slices on it and set it in the pot. If you don’t, just throw the slices in, and either way, put the lid on. Steam for about 5 minutes, then add the cabbage and the kohlrabi greens. Let the greens wilt and the cabbage become tender, about 5-8 more minutes, then remove from the pot and drain if you weren’t using a steamer. Set aside.

Meanwhile, make the curry sauce: Saute the onion in olive oil until translucent, then add the curry powder, a pinch of salt, and the cayenne. Let cook for a moment, until fragrant, then stir in the yogurt and a few teaspoons of water to thin and smooth. Keep the mixture simmering over medium-low heat until slightly reduced, then taste for salt and pour over the waiting vegetables, tossing to coat. Serve at room temperature or cold.

Big Girls, Test Kitchen: Guacamole

DISH: Guacamole
MAIN INGREDIENTS: Avocado, Cilantro, Lime

I think with perhaps the exception of a fried egg, guacamole is the dish I’ve made the most in my lifetime. It started as a summer tradition with my mother, but slowly, as I began honing my tricks of the trade in kitchens beyond my mom’s—entertaining friends in high school, college, and beyond—I discovered that mashed-up avocado is a foolproof and simple crowd pleaser. Even at parties where I’ve stuck my nose up at the host’s bland, under-spiced, under-seasoned attempts, the bowl of guac would still be licked clean by the end of the night.

This enthusiasm can lead to a false sense of success, which can lead to quite an ego when it comes to guacamole. Everyone always believes that his recipe is the best, which is quite a thing to claim since the ingredients only vary by one or two changes at most. Some people swear by a hint of cumin, others by lemon over lime, pickled jalapeño rather than fresh, or red onion as opposed to yellow (I’ve begun using shallots).

I’m not going to make any claims here. After all, guacamole is really a matter of personal taste. But over the years I’ve landed on the winning equation for myself. In the early days, I left out the tomatoes since my fruit phobia was in full gear and, well, I thought they were weird. I was converted when I realized how the tomato juices thinned the avocado slightly making it all the more velvety and adding a brightness that just screamed summer.

For me, the key to a great guacamole is in the texture. You don’t want an avocado puree, uniform squares, or unwieldy chunks. My mother’s potato masher always did the job perfectly, but when I moved into my apartment and didn’t have one, I figured out a way to improvise, roughly chopping half, and mushing the rest with the back of a knife.

I make no promises of perfection, but I do invite you to try my version of guacamole, and can more or less guarantee that when you do, the bowl will end up clean. In the comments, we’d love to hear how you make yours!

From my kitchen, where an avocado is at the center of it all, to yours,



Makes 8-10 servings

2 cloves garlic, pushed through a press, or finely minced with salt
1 ½ limes, juiced
1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
½ small red onion, finely diced
2 medium plum tomatoes, finely chopped
5 pickled jalapeños, minced
7 avocados
1 tsp salt (to taste)
¼ tsp cayenne pepper

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the garlic, the juice of 1 lime, cilantro, red onion, tomatoes, and jalapenos. Stir to combine.

Wait to add the avocado until (at most) an hour or so before serving. Halve the avocados, and with a large kitchen knife, remove the pit by wedging your knife into it and twisting. Reserve 4 pits. Take a large spoon and separate the avocado from its skin. You should have two large halves of clean, skinless avocado.

If you have a masher, add the avocados to the bowl and mash together with the other ingredients. If not, roughly chop half of the avocado and add it to the bowl. With the second half, roughly chop again. With the back of your knife, smash the pieces of avocado against the cutting board until it becomes a coarse mush. This will be a little messy, but the result will be a great texture, smooth but not overly pureed.

Using your knife, scrape all the avocado mush from the cutting board and add to the bowl. Mix together using a fork, and mix with additional large chunks of avocado until you obtain your desired consistency.

Squeeze the remaining half a lime over the top and submerge the four pits just below the surface of the mixture. Cover tightly in plastic wrap. This should prevent the guacamole from browning for at least an hour or two before serving.

Before serving, remove the pits, mix together, and taste for seasoning.

In my family, we tend to use guac as a condiment and add it to, well, just about anything. Above, some mixed greens, a healthy slice of frittata, and a generous dollop of guacamole.

Recipe Flash: Summer Squash Angel Hair

We hope very much that you get sick of summer squash‘s ridiculously plentiful bounty before you get sick of us blogging about it. Still, before you write us off as overdoing it (there’s chips, saut ées, and cake, already we know), we offer up this simple pasta, in which the grated summer squash (from Cara’s shopping bag) has a rich, melt-in-your-mouth quality, only bettered by the addition of butter—rather than olive oil—garlic, and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. It is truly very good.

From my kitchen, albeit small, to yours,


Summer Squash Angel Hair
Serves 2

4 ounces angel hair pasta
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 small onion
2 garlic cloves, pressed
2 medium summer squash or zucchini, grated
pinch cayenne pepper
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of water to the boil.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until the onion is translucent, 5-10 minutes. Put in the pinch of cayenne pepper and of salt, then add the grated zucchini and the garlic and cook over medium heat until reduced, about 8 minutes. Sprinkle with pepper and a little more salt and turn the heat to low.

When the water is boiling, add a teaspoon of salt and the angel hair and cook according to package directions (angel hair cooks quite quickly – it will take only 2-3 minutes). Drain, reserving 1/3 cup of pasta water.

Add the angel hair and pasta water to the summer squash and turn the heat to high. Let the whole thing reduce, then scoop into a serving bowl and sprinkle with the cheese. Serve immediately.

What’s in the Bag: We Have A Banner!

where meals really come together: the shopping bag

Cara’s Shopping Bag: Summer Squash, Parmesan, Onion, Kohlrabi
Phoebe’s Shopping Bag: Tomato, Avocado, Cilantro, Cucumber

It’s been a long time coming, but finally, we have a banner. Quite frankly, we’ve been a little Goldilocks about the whole thing. Over the last six months we’ve tossed around many ideas and design iterations, some good, some bad, but in the end, not one until now, felt just right. For this beautiful, final version, we have to thank Tom (his website is TypeShapeColor) for being patient with our indecision, and offering the endless options and creativity that fueled it.

We would usually round out this post with some sort of tasty token of appreciation courtesy of Cara’s oven. But since it’s too hot to bake, we thought we’d try something a little different.

In the spirit of our new imagery, we got to thinking about the contents of our shopping bags—plastic, paper, or tote. In a lot of ways, our culinary livelihood as quarter-life cooks is defined and confined by the contents of those bags. Our recipes begin with what we buy, and then they evolve through an endless debate on how to use up fresh produce and supplement enough stock pantry items so that our weekly ingredients fit both within our bag and our budgets.

Resourceful strategies aside, what we choose for our bag is mainly a product of our individual tastes. Its contents say a lot about who we are as cooks, revealing many idiosyncrasies. Cara might come home with blueberries, veggie sausage, and kohlrabi, Phoebe with basil, Merguez, and cherry tomatoes. While you’ll never find meat in one, you just as rarely find fruit in the other. Our pantries and our fridges do sometimes contain similar ingredients, but it’s what we use to spice up those essentials that leads to two different, if equally delicious, approaches.

Yet sometimes, it’s a breath of fresh air to step into someone else’s kitchen and, in doing so, step away from the staples of our shopping bags and our pantries. Which is why we’ll be asking, oh so kindly, for a little assistance from all of you out there. Please open your shopping bags to us and share three or four fresh ingredients you will be working with this week. We will then, in turn, adopt some of your shopping bags (two each) to our kitchens, cooking your ingredients in our style. We’ll post the resulting recipes at the end of next week. Of course, we need to work through ours first, so please see our lists above and stay tuned for what’s been happening to them in our kitchens during these next few days.

There is no vegetable too obscure (hello, kohlrabi?) or animal part too gnarly, though if it’s meat at all, Cara is likely to take a pass. But, that said, we’d prefer not to be appalled or nauseated by what you’ve bought, so please, unless you would actually like to try tomatoes stuffed with gummy bears, be honest about your recent market finds—or any hypothetical combination you would like to pick up if only there existed the right recipe out there to guide you.

So, to recap:
•go shopping (or imagine what you’d have bought if you’d gone shopping)

•submit your list of four items in the comment section below—ones most exciting, unusual, or emblematic of your cravings

•we’ll choose two “bags” and each go at them, interpreting your ingredients with our tools

•stay tuned next week for the recipes we’ve created

Though we’ll be the ones in the kitchen, this time you supply the creativity. We so look forward to what you come home with.

From our kitchen, where it all begins with a bag, to yours,


Cooking For Others: Good Riddance, Cubemate

Farewell Enchiladas, packed tighter than my co-workers

EVENT: Onto Greener Pastures
VENUE: Cara’s Apartment
PARTY SIZE: Same size as the cube, aka 4
MENU: Nachos; Enchiladas; Raspberry Sorbet Squares

Sitting in a cube breeds a quick, peculiar intimacy. Before you know, say, where your cubemates hail from or what they like to do over the weekend, you know how fast they type, where they prefer to shop online, what their favorite YouTube videos are, how often their cell phones ring, how loudly and long they gab on the phone, the scent of what they eat for lunch, and what time they start thinking about what to eat for dinner.

I don’t really remember how our (my, Christina, and Junie’s) fondly departed fourth cubemate, Oliver, used to type. I know he LOVED the Mother Lover video from SNL because I’d often find him singing along to it first thing in the morning; that he was sort of opposed to online shopping to begin with and so didn’t have a favorite site; and that he chatted on the phone to his authors, siblings, and friends with way more gusto than you’d have thought a chill dude like him could muster up.

As for lunch, he would go to the chili, burrito, and soup places with Junie, and as for after lunch, his talk would quickly turn to dinner (training for the marathon made him hungry, I guess). So I count among the things I do know about Oliver that he used to go to La Tacqueria, a delicious Park Slope establishment, several times a week back when he lived in the neighborhood. I still go there, and so does Junie, and nothing used to make Oliver more jealous than my bringing in a leftover half burrito for lunch. In fact, I could pretty much count on the fact that the second I wedged my fork into my slightly soggy tortilla he’d call over the cube wall, “Cara, got any food?” Oh, the good old days.

So, for Oliver’s cubemate-centric going-away dinner, it was clear to me that if I wasn’t going to have the party catered by Domino’s pizza (another much talked-about fave of the cube men), I was going to be making Mexican. Nachos were first on the list, but nachos do not a dinner make, so I supplemented them with enchiladas—both chicken and black bean—and Mexican beer.

From my kitchen, whose yield eventually makes its way to the cube, to yours,



Serves 5

10 small flour tortillas
1/2 purchased rotisserie chicken, taken off the bone and shredded
1 can black beans
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika
handful Swiss Chard or other green, chopped
1 cup corn kernels (frozen is fine)
1 tablespoon adobo, from chiles in adobo sauce
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 cup canned tomatoes
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 cup shredded cheese, preferably a mix of sharp cheddar and jack

For the beans and enchilada sauce:

In a frying pan, sauté the onions in the canola oil over medium-low heat until translucent. Add the garlic and cook a few minutes until softened. Scrape half of this mixture into a medium saucepan.

In the original pan, add the smoked paprika, and the can of black beans (don’t bother draining). Cook until the beans’ liquid is reduced, then add in the greens. Once they’ve wilted, turn off the heat and set the whole skillet aside. Add salt to taste—be careful though, as canned beans can e salty.

In the other saucepan, add adobo, chili powder, cumin, tomatoes, brown sugar, and a cup of water to the saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook until reduced by half, about 20 minutes. Cool slightly, then puree in a blender, taste for salt, and set aside.

To make the enchiladas:

Up to 1 day in advance, assemble the enchiladas: roll about a 1/2 cup of shredded chicken and a few tablespoons of corn in half of the tortillas, folding in the ends so the filling stays in. Fill the remaining tortillas with 1/2 cup black beans and a few teaspoons of corn. Arrange in a 9×13″ baking dish.

When ready to serve, preheat the over to 350°F. Pour the sauce evenly over the whole pan, then sprinkle with the cheese. Bake 15-20 minutes, until the enchiladas are heated through and the cheese is melted. Serve with sour cream and/or rice and a simple green salad.

Raspberry Sorbet Squares
Makes 16 squares

6 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
pinch salt
1 pint raspberry sorbet
1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup water

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease a 9×9″ baking pan.

Cream the butter with the sugar. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and stir to combine. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture, and stir to combine.

Using your fingers, press the dough evenly into the pan, and bake until golden and slightly pulling away from the edges. Set aside to cool completely.

Let the sorbet melt to a spreadable consistency, then, working quickly, press it onto the cooled cookie crust. Smooth the top as much as you can, but don’t let the sorbet turn to liquid. Freeze a few hours, until solid.

In the microwave, melt the chocolate with the water, checking at 30 second intervals, until just melted. Spread evenly across the raspberry sorbet layer, return to the freezer, and let cool until the chocolate is hardened. At least 2 hours before serving, turn the whole thing out of the pan and cut into 16 squares. Return to the freezer until ready to eat.