Wednesday, October 27, 2010

ingredient: HORSERADISH

Growing up, I thought that horseradish was just the spicy white thing you mixed into cocktail sauce and dabbed on oysters. I spent a lot of time in New England, so sue me. But luckily I didn’t even have to wait until I discovered bloody mary’s to appreciate the horseradish; I simply went to high school in Brooklyn.

I was very much in the dark, because in fact horseradish has been a celebrated plant for its culinary and medicinal uses since Roman times. The plant has diuretic and anti-bacterial properties. Pliny the Elder and the Oracle at Delphi wrote about the stuff, and later William Turner and Shakespeare did as well. Horseradish is a member of the mustard family (an odd-ball cousin of more common plants like broccoli and cauliflower, for sure, though wasabi may be the real black sheep of the line). This perennial plant actually produces a lovely white flower, though we generally cultivate it for its gnarly root. As you might guess, horseradish is pretty aggressive. Gardening guides warn; “Horseradish is considered invasive. It will spread quickly throughout the garden if not carefully controlled.” This rule applies to its use in your food. Once you cut or grate the horseradish root, it releases a mustard oil which is spicy, hot, and about to get out of control if you don’t stabilize it with vinegar. But once stabilized, or “prepared” as all marketed horseradish products invariably are, this root produces a fiery, intense flavor that I love. Why did it take me so long to find this condiment? It is because Collinsville, Illinois produces sixty percent of the world’s horseradish (thanks to a soil rich in potash, a nutrient on which the plant thrives)? No, because New York has to consume a sizable chunk of that crop. As I said, it was a matter of geography.

Until high school, I went to an Episcopalian school which was completely wonderful but horseradish free. Then, in a religious one-eighty, I ended up at a school in Brooklyn were most of the matriculating students were Jewish. It was, well, a God send. I love Jewish food. I can down bagels at break-fast with the best of them. Charoses? Challah? Bring it on. Matzo ball soup? I’m not waiting for Elijah to dig into a bowl. At Seder, I was the only person under 40, Jew or goyum, who liked Gefilte fish. (I still do and am available for rental at Seder to impress your grandmother). Horseradish is one of the marror, or the bitter herbs, at Passover, but also just as a condiment at your local deli. That is how I was led to horseradish mustard, a condiment to shame all other condiments.

My horseradish revelatory experience number two came in another unexpected place; the theater district. You see, the sad truth is that New Yorkers rarely go to “Broadway” and when out-of-towners ask me what show to go see, I may, sometimes, laugh in their faces. But not only did I find myself on my way to see a piece of musical theater, but I had been coerced into eating dinner in the area beforehand. Dark thoughts of Applebees and overpriced theme diners took over. Instead, I was led to a street somewhere in the 40s and past the real avenues (read: west of 8th). There was a shady door. There was an even shadier entrance way to a dimly lit restaurant with red walls and a shocking display of crushed velvet. There was a TINY MAN PLAYING A PIANO. You can’t make this stuff up. And then there were the Russian gangsters. Tables of them. It seemed that every table except ours was a table for two, and not just any two people, but row after row of large, sweaty men in suits sitting across from women who were clearly not their wives. As might be expected, the food was not good. Borsht is not an aphrodisiac my friends. Finally we followed the lead of our fellow diners and ordered the house infused vodkas. My favorite was the horseradish vodka, a preparation that has to my delight spread with the current mixology craze. What did I learn that night? Horseradish will perk up your doughiest pirogi, it can mask the taste of overcooked vegs. It can even give a notoriously tasteless substance (vodka) the taste of the gods. It’s a genius ingredient and a great source of vitamin C (well, that last part I learned later.) So grab a bottle and go to town, no matter what part of town you're in.

Potato Salad with Smoked Salmon and Horseradish Crème Fraiche
Adapted from Jaime Oliver

This dish is an assembly of many of my favorite things: smoked salmon, dill potatoes, and a lemon caper vinaigrette. Yet what makes it more than just a plate of things I like, what draws it all together into a cohesive and layered dish, is the horseradish crème fraiche.

Note: I am making this again tonight, but with freshly grilled salmon in place of smoked, to make it a little more hearty for dinner. This is both a testament to how good the dish is, how versatile, and how much horseradish you get from one freaking root.

Serves four


1 pound new potatoes, cleaned
1 large lemon, zested and juiced
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp capers, drained
1 x 1 inch piece of fresh horseradish, peeled and grated, or a few Tbsp grated horseradish from a jar
¾ cup crème fraiche
A handful of dill, chopped
14 ounces smoked salmon


First, make sure your potatoes are all about the same size, so if there are larger ones in the bunch, cut them in half. Put the potatoes in a pot of salted, boiling water, and cook for about 7-10 minutes. Note: my potatoes took seven minutes, but they were teeny. You’ll know yours are done when you can piece them with a fork. Drain potatoes in a colander.

Put the lemon zest and half of the juice from the lemon into a bowl. Add the vinegar and the olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Mix with a fork to emulsify.

Put the dressing over the potatoes and toss to coat.

Grate the horseradish into a bowl. Mix in the crème fraiche, the rest of the lemon juice, and a wee bit of salt and pepper.

Now you get to make it look pretty. I laid my salmon out on to a plate, lumped the potatoes in the middle, then sprinkled the dish with the capers and the dill. Finally I dolloped the crème fraiche here and there, so that I’d get a nice bit in every bite. Honestly though, this dish is very laid back, and perfect for lunch, so assemble it as you will.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Brussel sprouts have undergone the kind of transformation that most of us can only dream of. Somewhere in the last five years or so, those little crucifers gained cool-kid status. I remember when the mere mention of brussel sprouts resulted in pulled faces. “I don’t like them,” people would say, demonstratively shuttering. Brussel sprouts were such a disliked vegetable that it was a joke. Literally. There is an entire Leave It To Beaver episode in which Beaver won’t eat his brussel sprouts, and his parents spend the following thirty minutes fighting over how to get the little wanker to eat them (Yes, I used to watch a lot of Nick at Night— but back when Nick at Night was actually old shows, not just shows that make me feel old, like the Fresh Prince). How did brussel sprouts go from being the sitcom worthy duds of the vegetable patch to ruling the co-op?

I think a lot of it has to do with bacon. It’s not particularly mind-blowing to say that bacon really revs up a dish. But bacon and brussel sprouts seem made for each other, thanks to the way the smoky fattiness of the pork plays against the crunch and bright flavor of the sprouts. Bacon also carries a bit of the bad-ass. Brussel sprouts can now proudly look down at the more reserved vegetables on the menu, and say, “I’m served with bacon, what about you? Oh? You’re sprinkled with rosemary? How cute.”

Another reason that people now boast of their sprout eating with pride (yes, I’ve heard two women actually arguing over who loves brussel sprouts more. I should start wearing headphones on the subway) is that we’ve actually learned how to cook the darn things. For a long time, this was not the case. In fact we seem to have maintained certain culinary traditions from the Mother Country: baked beans, toast, potato chips, and overcooked vegetables. Anyone born pre-Panisse will remember that it was de rigeur to cook the life out of veggies, which is always a shame, but particularly dangerous for cruciferous vegetables which will start to emit a sulfurous smell. Of course no child wants to eat a vegetable that smells like low tide. Beaver was a rascal but he wasn’t stupid; I bet old June was turning those sprouts into a smelly mush.

But in the end, like all parents, June did have a point, or at least Beaver’s best interests at heart. Perhaps in between vacuuming the rug and mixing Ward his martini, she had checked out one of the one hundred studies on brussel sprouts which can be found in PubMed, the health research database at the National Library of Medicine in Washington, D.C. These studies prove that the brussel sprout is a cancer fighting extraordinaire, particularly for cancers of the bladder, breast, colon, lung, ovaries and prostate. They’re also packed with antioxidants and vitamins A, C, and E.

So while the first recipe that comes up when you type “brussel sprout” into Epicurious is still called Brussels Sprouts for People Who Think They Hate Brussels Sprouts at least there are a whopping seventy three recipes listed, ranging from sauteed brussel sprouts with lemon and pistachios to Panettone Panzanella with Pancetta and Brussels Sprouts (say that ten times fast).

It also helps when David Chang, currently coolest of the cool kids, makes, shockingly, brussel sprouts, a sell-out item at Momufuku Saam Bar. Of the sprouts, Chang said, “Basically, you can't fuck them up.” Yup. ’Nough said.

Soy Sauce and Sriracha Glazed Brussel Sprouts
Adapted from Mr. Daniel "I make my own jerky" Deboer

Five years ago, my friends started a culinary tradition which has become near and dear to our hearts: Turducken. Turducken has become our alternate-thanksgiving, a day when we come together to celebrate our little voluntary family, and, of course, the fact that we live in a country where it’s permissible to stuff a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey and wrap it in bacon. Last year, my friend Dan not only co-headed the de-boning and stuffing of the birds, but had time to make a side-dish as well. He cooked these brussel sprouts and I fell in love. They are spicy and salty and crunchy. They have a bit of pork fat goodness and a dose of lime tang. These sprouts just scream for a cold beer, so cook some up, call over some friends, and enjoy the sweet (and spicy) life.

serves 3 as a side dish
3 strips thick-cut bacon, diced
About 20 Brussel Sprouts, halved and cleaned
*note: I found these teeny, tiny sprouts at the farmers market, no bigger than a mini Cadbury egg, so I used 40 and kept them whole.
2 Limes
Freshly Ground Black Pepper
1-2 tsp Sriracha, depending on how spicy you want them
3 Tbsp Soy Sauce

Heat a sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the bacon and let it cook until it’s crisp, about 5 minutes. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon. Set aside on paper towels.

Throw the sprouts into the pan. Deglaze the pan by squeezing in the juice of the two limes. Season with freshly ground black pepper.

Sauté the sprouts for 3 minutes. Add the soy sauce and sriracha to the pan.

Sauté until the sprouts start to brown and the sauce thickens, about 8 minutes. Remember, you want the brussel sprouts to remain crunchy, and the sauce to reduce to a sweet, spicy glaze.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

ingredient: CRANBERRIES

Fruits that we don’t eat raw can be a hard sell. Quinces never made it past the occasional jelly; plantains are pretty much stuck in fritters. People seem to expect fruit to burst forth sweet, juicy, and ready to eat. So from an economic standpoint, the cranberry has done considerably well for itself. Though it is too sour to eat raw, it’s still a major crop in both the United States and Canada. I should be happy for the cranberry. And yet.

And yet about 95% of cranberries are processed into products which, frankly, can bear little resemblance to the tart berry itself: drinks like cranberry juice cocktail, sweetened dried cranberries, and of course, cranberry sauce to liven up your aunt’s dry-as-straw Thanksgiving turkey. This is a shame because, as I’m sure you’ve heard, the cranberry is an actual, and I might add, the original, “super-food” (suck it, açai).

In case you’re not sure what it takes to be a legitimate super-food, consider this: cranberries are super-effective at preventing kidney stones, improving blood vessel function, preventing macular degeneration, and fighting viruses. Each beautiful berry contains super-high levels of antioxidants which help your body do all sorts of things, like fight cancer. As a matter of fact, I’d like to think that it was no coincidence that of all the cocktails, the Cosmopolitan became the iconic drink of the self-empowered girl. Wouldn’t it be nice if the producers at HBO were at least trying to promote UTI-free Sex and the City? Because, dear ladies, downing some cosmos will cut your risk of getting a UTI by 50% while increasing your chance of getting laid by the same. It’s win-win for everybody except E.Coli, which, thanks to cranberry juice, is now unable to adhere to the walls of your urinary tract.

From a culinary standpoint, cranberries are super because they have a unique flavor profile. Their slight sourness provides the perfect foil for rich desserts. Yet, especially when cooked with a little sugar, they also have a wonderful berry flavor (a flavor which as a kid I would call “red.”) Wine-poached cranberries on vanilla ice cream, perhaps? Chocolate tart with candied cranberries? Yes, please.

And of course, cranberries taste like New England. It’s just a historical fact! These low creeping evergreen shrubs are native to the region. The Native Americans ate them. Which means the botanically-challenged pilgrims ate them. In fact, half the US production of cranberries still comes from Massachusetts. I can personally attest to this because I have been going to Cape Cod every year for twenty-five years. Cape Cod is not only where the pilgrims tromped around before making the stupid decision to move on to mosquito-infected Plymouth (I guess they couldn’t foresee the two hundred year rise in property value), but also where cranberries were first commercially cultivated. There is something about the Cape’s crisp, salty air and the gnarled scrub pines which shoot from the sandy soil which makes the cranberry feel like the prefect representative food. It’s wicked sweet and sow-ah, like life!

Cranberry Linzertorte
adapted from Orangette

I have always wanted to cook with real live cranberries. They don’t cross my path very often (quick math from above: only 5% of cranberries are sold raw) so I was surprised and delighted to see them on the “seasonal” display table at my grocery store, next to some decorative gourds and a tenuous pyramid of Halloween candy. I was even more delighted to find that Orangette had once made a cranberry version of one of my favorite desserts (it uses jam): the Linzertorte.

To be fair, this tart isn’t a traditional Linzertorte. The traditional Linzertorte is an Austrian specialty which was developed as early as 1653. In 1653, the Pilgrims were probably still figuring out what to do with corn, much less the cranberry. But as an old-world/new-world hybrid, this tart is way more successful than Groundhog Day or David Beckham for L.A. Galaxy. The crust itself is like a crumbly cookie. It’s spiced with cinnamon and cloves and has nuttiness from the toasted ground almonds. Despite the sugar, the filling is not too sweet, especially because the sweet-tart cranberry flavor profile is replicated by the raisins (sweet) and the orange peel (tart). In fact, I could easily eat the filling alone as a new cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.

Serves 8

For the filling:
2 cups granulated sugar
¾ cup cold water, divided
12 ounces fresh cranberries, picked over and rinsed
½ cup golden raisins
1 tsp grated orange peel
2 Tbs cornstarch

For the crust:
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups toasted almonds, finely ground
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp grated orange peel
1/2 tsp ground cloves
½ tsp salt
6 Tbs unsalted butter, at room temp, diced
2 egg yolks, beaten with 1 Tbs water
1/4 cup water

Powdered sugar (optional, for dusting)

equipment: 9 inch tart pan


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

*if your almonds are not yet toasted, now would be a good time to toast them.*

Start by making the filling. Combine the sugar and ½ cup water in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the cranberries, raisins, and orange peel.

Raise heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Continue to let the filling bubble away, stirring frequently, for about 6 minutes. Orangette says stir “until the cranberries pop.” I read this and thought, until the cranberries do what? But pop they did, quite literally. What you’ll see is the berries crack down the side, oozing out their succulent juice, and what you’ll hear is, as promised, as many little pops as a bowl of rice krispies.

When the berries seem to have almost all popped, mix the cornstarch with ¼ cup water in a small bowl. Add it to the cranberry mixture and stir to combine. Take the saucepan off the heat and set it aside. You should allow it to cool completely, during which time it will also thicken to the texture of a chunky jam or chutney (see left)

While the cranberry mixture cools, make the crust.

In a food processor (what oh what did we do without food processors?) add the flour, ground almonds, sugar cinnamon, orange peel, cloves, and salt. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture is crumbly. With the machine running, add the egg yolks (which you’ve mixed with water). At this point I’m almost positive you will need to add some water to help the dough cohere. I went with a half tablespoon or so at a time, processing between additions, and squeezing the dough to see if it would stick together. I needed quite a bit of water, probably 3 TBSP, to get my dough to go from sand to a workable condition. Once it’s there, take the crust out of the processor. Set aside 1 ½ cups of the dough which you will use to make the lattice crust

Take the remaining dough and press it into the 9 inch tart pan with removable bottom. Try to make sure that there is a definite difference between the sides of the pan and the bottom, so that the filling will have somewhere to go. Bake the crust for 15 minutes.

When the crust has baked for 15 minutes, take it out of the oven and fill it with the cranberry filling. Roll out the remaining dough into a 9 inch circle that’s about ¼ inch thick. Cut the circle into ¾ inch strips with a pairing knife. Carefully lift the strips up and onto the tart, first horizontally, then back over, to make the lattice. This dough is too delicate to do a true weave, but it looks perfectly nice doing an overlay.

Bake the tart for 30 minutes, when it should be nice and toasted brown. Once the tart was cooled, I dusted it with confectioners sugar, to make it look extra special. Serve on a crisp New England day, while the leaves change.

Friday, October 15, 2010

ingredient: LENTILS

Lentils are about as old as the pebbles they resemble. Yes, we are talking biblically old. Point in fact, in the Old Testament we see Esau sell his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of his lentils. Stupid? Perhaps. But it was probably thanks to all those lentils that Jacob was eating that he managed to supersede his older brother to lead the Israelites, wrestle an Angel and win, while managing two wives, two mistresses, and thirteen children. Jacob died at the ripe old age of 147. Esau got skewered by an arrow. I think I’ll have a bowl of lentils, please.

I’ll also eat lentils because they contain the third highest amount of protein by weight of any non-meat source (and while I’ll eat soy, I’ll save hemp for my fimo bead necklaces). Those little heart-shaped pulses also give me iron, folate, fiber, and B vitamins. These are all things people need, and, worth noting, all things that vegetarians have a hard time finding.

There are two countries which particularly know what’s up with lentils: India and France. In India, they typically serve lentils as dal, a stew-like dish that varies from region to region. A cup of spicy dal, either ladled over rice or mopped up with bread, is the perfect comfort food. And not that I need another reason to go the Indian restaurants on 6th street where your head is 2 inches from being strangled in a tangle of chili-pepper lights and they play an amped up Indian version of Happy Birthday when you tell them it’s your birthday (which you should always, ALWAYS do) and it’s byob so you can buy a six-pack of Kingfisher from the bodega across the street and drink them until the birthday song with its accompanying flashing lights is suddenly the greatest thing you’ve ever seen, but they also give you a free cup of dal with your meal. Ok, let’s just move there.

In France, people like to eat Puy lentils, an A.O.C pulse grown in the volcanic soils of (you guessed it) Puy. These small, dark green lentils are particularly great for cooking because they have a rich flavor and they hold their shape after boiling. While I was studying in Paris I ate a lot of lentil salad. Why? Because French lentil salad is served slightly warm, with a few nibbles of sweet carrots, and often some liquoricy fennel, and a garnish of earthy thyme. It’s clean-flavored and elegant yet rustic at the same time. Lentil salad is fairly ubiquitous on bistro menus and pairs perfectly with hot onion soup, a Galouise, and the belief that you’re being très chic.

Here in America, I've found that we like to eat our lentils in soup. While I would like to see some more lentil-thinking out of the box (like in desserts, another thing that Indian cuisine has mastered), I’m a big fan of lentil soup, especially on days that otherwise suck.

Lentil Soup "Off the Cuff"

Today I was at the doctor for four, count em, four hours. It was raining. I was in Murray Hill. Things were looking bleak. Walking is the only thing that makes me feel better, even in the rain, so I pushed on, reaching Madison Square Park just as the offices began to let out their beleaguered captives. It got darker, wetter.

Yet somehow by the time I reached the West Village, my mood began to change. The lights in the restaurants had turned on, casting little orbs of yellow onto the street. People were inside, having a glass of wine, eating undiscovered treasures, laughing over life’s ridiculousness ("Who greenlighted this?")

New York wears many hats: it likes to be trendy, or tough, or adventurous. I love it as all these things. But rarely is it cozy. Yet cozy was the only word to describe it. The rain gave the world just enough of a slicked over, muddled sheen, to obscure the leaves in the gutter and the bums in the doorways. I squelched home as fast as possible, ready to hop under the covers. Because that’s the thing about being cozy: it has to be uncomfortable to be outside for it to be exquisitely satisfying to be inside.

I met my next challenge when I got home. I wanted, no, needed, lentil soup. It was part of the fantasy I had concocted in my head on the way home, and for which I had specifically bought a bottle of Valpolicella, an Italian red from outside of Verona which is big enough to stand up to the rain. There was one problem; I didn’t have many of the typical ingredients for lentil soup. I poured over cookbooks, trolled the internet. It seemed I would have to wing it. But given my new found optimism, I was decidedly up for the challenge. I didn’t have celery. I didn’t have onions. So I diced up some garlic, shallots, and carrots. I call it my mire-pourquoi-pas. The result was quite lovely, a very lentil-y lentil soup. Perfect to keep out the chill and make you forget the M-Hill.

NB: You’ll see I added croutons to my lentil soup. Croutons on lentil soup, you say? Quel horreur! I know, it’s not normal, but this soup was about feeding a very specific hunger. And honestly, when it comes to bread, especially bread toasted and drizzled with olive oil, there’s really no reason to say no.

yield: Makes 1 large pot, enough for 6 or so people, depending on your course/the weather


3 cloves of garlic, minced

3 shallots, diced

1 cup carrots, chopped

6 cups chicken broth, divided

3 cups green lentils, rinsed, drained

2 good sized tomatoes, chopped

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp hot pepper flakes

1 lemon ("optional")

¼ cup parsley, chopped

for croutons: 3 slices bread, preferably about 6 inches of a stale French baguette, if we’re being precise

olive oil

salt, pepper


Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Heat four tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot over medium high heat. Add garlic, shallots, and carrots. Let the mire-pourquoi-pas cook for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the shallots are translucent and the carrots are getting a little soft.

Add the lentils, 4 cups chicken broth, tomatoes, cumin, hot pepper flakes, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper.

Let the soup come to a boil, then reduce heat and cook until lentils are soft, about thirty-five to forty minutes. Unfortunately, with this soup, you can’t exactly walk away. Those lentils are thirsty little buggers and they’re going to start absorbing the broth. Add some of the remaining broth whenever it’s looking like the lentils have absorbed what’s there; in other words, keep it looking like a soup rather than just a bowl of lentils.

To keep yourself occupied while the soup is cooking, make the croutons. Cut the bread into 1 inch cubes. Arrange the cubes on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil and salt. Pop the bread in the oven for about 10 minutes, or until the croutons are golden brown. Take out and set aside.

Now I like my lentil soup to be a mix between the French and the Italian style. I don’t want all purée, nor do I simply want broth with lentils floating around. I think the best is a compromise. To achieve cultural harmony, take 2 cups of lentils and put them in the blender, purée them, and put them back in the soup pot. Or if you’re lucky like me, use your handy immersion blender to purée some of the soup right there in the pot.

To serve, ladle the soup into bowls. Over each bowl, squeeze some of the lemon and drizzle a bit of your best olive oil (if you’ve only got crap, ignore this step), and then scatter with parsley. Then float some of the croutons on top. I promise you, with this soup, the garnishes are the key. Don’t shy away!

ps. not to shill for myself, but you're already here so: read my ode to pumpkin (or just check out the other great stuff at Good. Food. Stories)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

ingredient: RICOTTA

Some of the best things in life are byproducts of other great things. Molasses. Cracklins. Jeff Bridges. My personal favorite may be ricotta, a fresh and ebullient cheese made from whey, the byproduct of regular cheese production.

Ricotta has a lot of things going for it. First of all, the texture. It is downright pillowy. I’d like to emphasize here that much of the ricotta you buy in the store (as opposed to fresh ricotta) is not pillowy. It is gummy and almost grainy, because instead of draining the liquid out of the ricotta, they add stabilizers like guar gum (weak). So read on with the knowledge that I am talking about real, delicious, light-as-air ricotta made from adding acid to heated whey, then draining.

So thanks to its fluffy texture, ricotta is the perfect filling for pastas. There is nothing like biting through a nice layer of al dente pasta and meeting a soft, flavorful filling. And in cassata, that crazy, sweeter than sweet cake made by the Sicilians, who I applaud for being on a constant national sugar high, ricotta tops layers of sponge cake and candied citrus peel and sometimes even chocolate or vanilla icing. The filling is then soaked in fruit juice or more likely a liquor, and then this whole mess is covered with a marzipan shell and decorative fruit. The crunch of marzipan shell giving way to soft ricotta is my equivalent of the tap of the spoon on crème brulée. But whether you're Sicilian or French or anything in between, I think we can all agree: textural contrast is the shit.

The second great thing about ricotta is the flavor. Ricotta can easily be sweet (as in cannoli, as in cheesecakes, as in drizzle it with honey and eat it for breakfast because that’s clearly what they’re doing in heaven, where I’ve heard the clouds are made out of ricotta.) Or it can be savory (talking about lasagna, ravioli, calzone, or drizzled with olive oil and salt and eaten for breakfast because that’s clearly what they’re doing in hell, where everyone is hung-over and needs a nice little savory snack.) In short, ricotta is an enabler; it just wants to help you out. Need a little moisture in those muffins? Ricotta. Sick of topping that bruschetta with tomatoes? Ricotta.

Another great thing about ricotta is that you can easily make a version of it at home using milk and vinegar and feel like Alton Brown.

Regardless of whether you eat ricotta fresh, use it in cooking, or add it to baked goods, this is perhaps the friendliest of all cheeses. So grab a tub and play around; Alton would approve.

Ricotta and Spinach Gnudi
with the Simplest Tomato Sauce Ever

I have eaten a lot of ricotta in my lifetime because my Grammy’s specialty is manicotti. Or as she says, “manicot” which is filled with “rigot” (hard g). Yeah. Good though her manicot may be, I needed a change, a new ricotta recipe. Bring on the gnudi. Pronounced nude-y, like the state you’re in after someone convinces you that really, that’s what Italians do at the beach.

Gnudi are basically ricotta dumplings. Have you ever eaten ravioli where the filling was delicious but there just wasn't enough and the flavor was lost under the pasta wrapping? Well rejoice: these are just the inside of a raviolo, broken free of its shell. The spinach here adds flavor and body, but it also turns the dumplings green. Don’t be alarmed. Do serve them at Christmas with the red sauce and be the theme-queen. Zing.


1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
2 cups baby spinach, or regular spinach with stems discarded
1 cup grated Parmesan
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus 1 cup for coating


*If you are making the tomato sauce as well, start that first (scroll down for recipe).*

Heat a medium skillet over medium high heat. Rinse off the spinach and then throw into the pan without drying it off. Stir the spinach until it has wilted down into a shockingly small pile. Place the spinach on a layer of paper towels or an old dishcloth and let it cool. Squeeze the spinach dry. A lot of liquid will come out. If you’ve ever made spanikopita you’ll know how important it is to get that spinach bone dry. If you leave liquid in your spinach, it will add too much moisture to the dumplings and they will fall apart and then you will be sad. Finely chop the spinach.

In a large bowl, mix the ricotta, spinach, Parmesan, eggs, and egg yolks. Then stir in the nutmeg, salt, pepper, and 5 tablespoons of flour. At this point, take a look at the dough. It should be sticky but definitely pliable. If it seems to wet or loose, add a little more flour. Put the dough in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt like the sea.

Take the dough out of fridge. Using either your hands or a spoon, or two spoons if you’re familiar with shaping quenelles, form mixture into small footballs, around 1.5 to two inches long.

Dredge the gnudi in the extra flour to coat them lightly, like you would a schnitzel. Slide the formed gnudi into the boiling water. Be careful not to overcrowd the pan, so it’s better to work in batches if needed. The gnudi should take about four minutes to cook. You’ll know that they’re done because, like ravioli, they will have floated to the surface. Remove gnudi with a slotted spoon. Serve with tomato sauce.

Simplest Tomato Sauce Ever

Taken from Marcella Hazan

This recipe is shocking. Simplest sauce ever is no hyperbole. It’s almost unsettlingly easy. And tasty. Never buy store-bought again.


2 cups canned plum tomatoes (whole, peeled, chopped, with their juices about one 28-oz. can)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter (this may sound strange but do not use olive oil instead. The butter seems to be the magical key ingredient to this sauce’s silkiness)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut in half
salt, to taste

Combine the tomatoes, their juices, the butter, and the onion halves in a medium saucepan.

Add a pinch or two of salt. Place the sauce over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, at a very slow but steady simmer, adjusting the heat as necessary, for about 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat float free from the tomato.

Stir occasionally, mashing any large pieces of tomato with the back of a wooden spoon. Taste and salt as needed.
Discard the onion. Or do as I do and pull it aside, cover it in salt, and eat. Yum.

Monday, October 11, 2010

ingredient: GUINNESS

When I was fifteen, I went with my parents on a vacation to Ireland. One night we joined a crowd that was waiting on the sidewalk in front of a bar, and my father explained that we were going on a literary pub crawl. It was awesome. I’ve been on literary pub crawls in other cities and countries since, but nothing compares to the interwoven history of writing and drinking in Dublin. A troupe of actors led our slightly embarrassed, increasingly intoxicated group around to various pubs, telling us who drank there, lived there, wrote there. It was one heavy-hitter/drinker after the next: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Shaw, Beckett. Each pub was warm and cozy against the cold and rainy Dublin night. And at each stop, the crowd was encouraged to have a beer, but not just any beer, a Guinness.

Being fifteen, my parents and I knocked back that other world-famous black brew; Coca-Cola.

That day I wanted what I couldn’t have. I wanted to join in the fun and the history. I wanted to be a poor, drunk writer whose greatest achievement in my lifetime was wearing down a bar stool to adhere perfectly to my butt. Because then I could be posthumously famous and people would touch that butt-shaped indent in awe. Unfortunately, the New York Times claims that “the classic English pub may be a disappearing relic of a bygone era” so I guess I’ll have to settle for a Guinness instead.

As it turns out, now that I’m well past legal, I’m an I.P.A girl myself. Still, there is no denying that Guinness is a fine beer. It looks like it’s all chocolate and cream puffs, but the truth is that Guinness is surprisingly light. Indeed, Guinness’s most recent ad campaign alerts consumers to the fact that Guinness actually has less calories and alcohol than a typical beer. I’m unclear how everyone started to believe that Guinness tastes like a milkshake in the first place. No; Guinness has and has always had a tangy, malty flavor that cuts across its characteristic foamy head.

Here’s the other shocking truth: Guinness is a high maintenance beer. It’s a high maintenance beer that looks like a low maintenance beer. (That must be why men love it!) According to the master brewers at Guinness, Guinness should be served in a special twenty ounce tulip shaped pint glass. It should be served at 42.8°F when coming from the tap, and 38.6°F if it’s Guinness Extra Cold. The Guinness website includes a six-step video on how to make the perfect pour. There are obvious things, like angling the glass, and less obvious ones, like “drink with your eyes first.” I’m OK with all this brew-ha-ha surrounding the beer because a perfectly poured Guinness lets me do this:

Now that you know that Guinness isn't it's own meal in a glass, think of it as a great ingredient to cook with. It's no secret that alcohol is a flavor enhancer, and Guinness can add a nice depth to stews and stocks. Beef and Guinness pie, for example, is traditional pub fare. Thanks to Nigella Lawson, I've started baking with Guinness too. Try this cake and I think you'll agree that Guinness was made for chocolate.

Chocolate Guinness Cake

Adapted from my number one partner in kitsch, Nigella Lawson

My boyfriend’s mother makes him the best birthday cake ever. Faced with the certainty that there could be no replacement and that anything that tried to replicate the secret recipe would fall flat, I needed an alternative, a totally different cake that could be his New York birthday cake. But what to make? Well, when in doubt on how to please a boy, add beer. And when your boyfriend is of Irish descent, add Guinness.

This is a damp, not too sweet cake. It’s similar to a pound cake and I’ve eaten it plain in the morning for breakfast. And of course, with the frosting it’s full on dessert.


1 cup Guinness
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup Dutch baking cocoa
2 cups superfine sugar
3/4 cup sour cream
2 eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda


12 oz cream cheese
3-6 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter a 9 inch springform pan.

Pour the Guinness into a large wide saucepan over medium heat. Add the butter and stir occasionally until the butter is melted.

When the butter is melted, whisk in the cocoa and the sugar.

In a separate bowl, beat together the sour cream, eggs, and vanilla. Then pour the sour cream mixture into the saucepan. Whisk in the flour and baking soda. Take off the heat.

Pour the cake batter into the greased spring form pan and bake for 45 minutes to an hour.

While the cake is cooling, make the frosting. Put three cups of confectioner’s sugar in the food processor and pulse to remove lumps. Then add the cream cheese and the vanilla and pulse until the frosting is smooth. Add the heavy cream and mix again until the frosting is a good, spreadable consistency. Try the frosting at this point, if it’s too loose, or you like your frosting to be super sweet, add more sugar.

The frosting of the cake is up to you. Personally, I like a high icing to cake ratio (particularly with this cake, because it is so dense) so I always cut the cake in two, then put a layer of icing in the middle.

This cake ended up being doubly special because when you’re finished, the black cake topped by the white frosting makes the whole thing look like a pint of Guinness. IT'S A META CAKE! Hurrah!