Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Taste of NYC at Home: The Tipsy Parson's Mushroom Toasts

 At moments of restriction, fantasy alone can lift people above dreariness. Fantasy is a flower that does not flourish on passivity. -Elsa Schiaparelli ("Impossible Conversations")

It's strange to think that only a few weeks ago I was in New York City. The weekend there--the first full weekend in July--passed by in a blur of activity; when in New York, after all, one must be out and about, going to museums, sampling the wondrous culinary offerings on each and every block and walking until your feet throb. These things are practically obligatory, and we did all of them in abundance. In fact, the recipe for the Mushroom Toasts with Ricotta that I'm including in this post was inspired by one such outing: brunch at Chelsea's Tipsy Parson, home of Blueberry Buckles, fluffy Crab Cakes and Pimento Cheeseburgers. I went with the Crab Cakes, and, even though I have no regrets, my heart did experience a twinge of jealousy when a waiter walked by with a plate of grilled bread topped with a mountain of ricotta cheese that, in turn, served as a pillowy cushion for a mixture of sauteed mushrooms. More about that later, however.

 Our time in New York was certainly a far cry from the usual pace of our Berkeley life, which is, admittedly, a little (okay, a lot) less glamorous, but much more slow and relaxed. And I like it. I like it so much that there's a part of me that wonders if, after many years in California, I've finally lost my teenage enthusiasm for New York and adapted to something a little more staid and suburban--biking to the farmer's market, baking bread in the afternoon and evening cocktails at home...But then, when I'm back in New York and I see the yellow cabs and the endless expanse of pure urban landscape spreading before me, I quickly fall into the grip of that old excitement; I know I'm in one of my many homes away from home.

 This is why I'm always thrilled to go there with the Greek--to show him some of my favorite places and to spend time with my friends who still live there. Our first day in the city, July 5, was also our two-year anniversary, which obviously called for as much celebration as severe jet lag would allow. Because we didn't quite manage to have the fish sandwich that he wanted in Istanbul (is fried fish ever a good idea before getting on a plane?), I decided to surprise him with a suggestion for lobster rolls; my impulse would have been the Pearl Oyster Bar or Mary's Fish Camp, but my friend and hostess, who has encyclopedic knowledge of the New York culinary scene, suggested Luke's Lobster instead. The sampler for two, which includes mini crab, shrimp and lobster sandwiches, two sodas of your choice (Maine Blueberry was mine) and two bag of chips, was ideal. 

Stuffed from lunch, we made our way back to my friend's air-conditioned apartment, where we spent the afternoon reading the books we had bought at the Strand in the morning. After a few hours, it started to dawn on me that, tired or not, spending the afternoon with Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco might not have been the best way to celebrate. So we mobilized our energy and headed to Macondo for spicy and fruity Latin-style cocktails and patatas bravas.

The next morning, however, we were determined to have one of those perfect New York days. We weren't going to let the heat--and it was relentless--keep us inside. And the day began auspiciously, with just the right combination of salty and sweet: leftover Chicken and Waffles from the Clinton Street Baking Co. (it's just as good for dinner as it is for breakfast, and much less crowded, which is always a plus).

Our next stop was The Cloisters, i.e. one of my favorite places in the city. It's so far north of the hustle and bustle that, when you emerge from the subway or from the bus, it feels like you're in a different time and place (granted, the medieval architecture only helps to foster this illusion). It's wonderfully quiet and peaceful there; even when ridiculously hot, the open space and general lack of concrete allow you to feel cool and at ease. This time around, thanks to my summer Game of Thrones obsession, I also couldn't help but be doubly enchanted: the stained glass, the biblical portraits of dragons and lions and the statues of courtly men made me feel like I was in Westeros. I was seeing Lannister lions and Targaryen dragons everywhere I looked. 

When we returned downtown for lunch, that feeling of being in another world abated somewhat. But the Upper West Side, home of Sarabeth's West and fantastic cheese blintzes (alas, served only during the breakfast/brunch hours), is not a bad world in which to find oneself.
After lunch, we found ourselves in Central Park, which somehow we had missed on last year's trip. We crossed Strawberry Fields and then contemplated stopping for a cool drink at the Boathouse, but ultimately we decided just to brave the heat until we got to our next desintation: the Met for the exhibition on Byzantium and Islam. Admittedly, I didn't see this as a necessary stop and mainly because we had just seen the "real" thing in Istanbul. But, after a quick look around the few rooms devoted to this exhibition, I was really excited to get to go to the fashion exhibition on Prada and Schiaperelli. I left the museum feeling excited at the possibility of one day having a banana skirt of my own.
 The rest of our time went by so quickly. There was dinner at Zerza, a wonderful Moroccan restaurant with beautiful lights and excellent tagine. And, because time often seems to revolve around hunger and satisfying that all-important urge, before we knew it, we were again at another restaurant--this time Goat Town, where I had an inspired breakfast of spicy Shakshuka and poached eggs. Then it was time for beat-the-heat iced tea--Orange Creamsicle, courtesy of the tiny East Village teashop, Podunk

I think we established long ago on this blog that I live and breathe for ice cream, which is why I have no shame in telling you that after a huge meal of Japanese vegetables and okonomiyaki at Family Recipe, my friends and I made our way to the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop. In part it was because I had long been dying to go there and, as the visitor in a sea of locals, I often get to pick where we go, but it's also because this place is not just good, it's inventively good. It takes your basic light and creamy soft serve and transforms it into something fun and interesting. For example, the Greek had the Bea Arthur (vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche and crushed 'Nilla wafers) and I, a lifelong lover of coconut, the Cococone (vanilla ice cream with toasted curried coconut). 

While there was much eating, there was also a lot of walking. I finally made it to the High Line, which is just an exciting use of a formerly deserted urban space. Lush and pretty, it's a place people want to be on the weekends, even on hot summer days (you can cool down with any number of ice pops, strategically placed to save you from melting completely; our ice pop of choice was La Newyorkina). It really shows you, as Frank Bruni, recently wrote in the New York Times, how cities are re-envisioning themselves and how eagerly city dwellers are embracing these changes.

And then it was time to go home. But not without breakfast with a dear Slavic department friend, who escaped from California to New York a few summers ago. Our chosen location was, appropriately, The Smile, which fuses American and Mediterranean flavors (the honey granola with dried figs took me right back to Greece; since the head chef spends her summers in Hydra, this is no surprise). But even after a filling breakfast, it seemed wrong to leave New York without having a bagel and some lox; one trip to Russ and Daughters later and we were ready to hail a cab and sail off into the Western skies.

Once blissfully home, however, I still had New York very much on my mind. I was inspired to head into the kitchen to recreate some of the flavors I had had--to make ice pops and scones, more granola (now done), summery cocktails and those mushroom toasts with gobs of ricotta. Really, it was the cheese that caught my attention, with the mushrooms playing the role of the cherry on top.

And recently, after a particularly successful trip to the farmers' market, I got my chance. Armed with fresh parsley, ricotta and a combination of Shiitake and Crimini mushrooms (the Greek was in charge of the scrambled eggs that would go on the side, which would incorporate our own touch--fried zucchini blossoms), I tried to recreate the dish that I had seen only from afar. There's something about cooking from memory, especially when you've already tasted a dish, that can lead to disappointment. While there can certainly be moments of success, you more often than not wonder why yours doesn't taste the same, or why yours seems to have a different consistency. Too little salt? A missing, seemingly secret ingredient?

But there's something liberating about making a recipe up from memory, based on both a fleeting glimpse and a description from an online menu. Most likely I'll never know if my Mushroom Toasts live up to the reality of the Tipsy Parson's, but that's okay. I've made them my own, perhaps with a little less cheese and a little less restaurant-plating pizzazz, but, still, my own. And maybe that's what food should really be all about--endless inspiration and adaptation.

Mushroom Toasts with Ricotta Cheese

Inspired by a lovely brunch at the Tipsy Parson
Yields a lovely brunch at home for two

8 ounces of ricotta, seasoned to taste with salt and pepper
2 handfuls fresh Italian parsley, chopped
3 ounces of Crimini mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
3 ounces of Shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for brushing
4 slices potato bread
freshly ground pepper

-In a small bowl, mix the ricotta with salt, pepper and parsley. Adjust to taste and set aside.
-Heat oil in a medium-sized skillet. Once hot, add garlic and cook, in a cluster, for about 1-2 minutes.
-Add the mushrooms; salt and pepper them, adjusting to taste. Then, continue cooking for about 6-8 minutes, or until the mushrooms are browned and softened. Remove from heat.
-Brush the slices of potato bread with olive oil and place on the grill (N.B. Living in an apartment, I don't have a traditional grill, so I used a small George Foreman grill. The bread could also be put under the broiler, but only for 1-2 minutes; otherwise, it will burn!). Grill until golden and slightly crispy.
-As soon as the toast is done, place it on two plates in pairs (proximity is important, however, so make sure that the slices are next to each other.). Then, scoop the ricotta onto the bread, making sure to form a small hill (feel free to add more cheese and form a mountain if you'd like) in the center of the two slices.
-Top with mushrooms and serve, preferably with scrambled eggs--maybe even with zucchini blossoms.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Emerging from the (Blueberry) Slump

Remember that you're doing this for yourself. It was helpful for me to think of my dissertation in these terms: I'm never going to climb Everest, or run a marathon. But the dissertation is an adventure and a feat of endurance that provides a sense of accomplishment proportional to the struggle that it requires. In that sense, Sir Edmund Hillary's comment, "It's not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves," is an apt description of writing a dissertation.
-Renata Kobetts Miller ("Finishing the Dissertation") 

 Each time I begin writing a new chapter of my dissertation, I inevitably find myself googling the process. I want, no, I need to know how all the people who have come before me managed to sit down on beautiful summer days and write lucid, engaging prose. I want to know their secret so that it can become my secret, too. Of course, there's a part of me that realizes that this is all silly and, worse yet, a waste of time. Reading these articles tells me nothing I don't already know. The trick to writing a dissertation is that there is no trick. You simply sit down and do it. You convince yourself that it's important, that it's what you want to do and that you have something important to say. Conquering yourself, not to mention your insecurities, really is key. And then, if you're lucky, some days you'll even have fun with it.

 I guess we might say that with this particular chapter--chapter 3--I'm not quite there yet. The fun part is still eluding me; it will just have to come later. My process (and everybody has his or her process) usually begins with a solid feeling of dread and dissatisfaction. What do I say? What does this mean? Will anybody (and do I) even care about this? But, gradually, if I keep at it, I write a sentence that makes me smile, a paragraph that I imagine is interesting and, perhaps one day, even quotable...Then I realize that I've gone somewhere with it that is satisfyingly good.

 Honestly, it's a bit how I feel about flying. Before even getting on a plane, I become notoriously cranky.  It doesn't matter if I'm excited about where I'm going (and I often am). It's the simple fact that, in a nutshell, I despise packing, long security lines, the occasional invasion into my carefully-packed bags and crowded flights with minimal legroom. And while I think babies are adorable, chubby-cheeked creatures, when they're on a plane and wailing their hearts out, they become infinitely less cute (forgive me, but this is a fact). But as much as I dislike everything flying entails, I find myself on planes rather frequently. Suffice it to say that some trips are certainly better than others.

An example of one of these golden flying moments occurred in June, when the Greek and I were waiting at JFK to board our flight to Ataturk. I wandered into one of the Hudson News shops and, as I was looking around, I came across a copy of the June issue of Saveur. While I knew I most likely wouldn't be doing a lot of cooking in Greece and that this would be a purely frivolous purchase, I still thought it might be a nice way to pass the long flight time ahead. So I bought it. And lo and behold, all the pictures of blueberries, carnival treats and lemon trees in southern France did wonders for my mood. While I certainly don't want to make a small act of consumerism into something bigger than it actually was, buying the magazine really was my way of taking a negative experience and turning it into something tolerable--and even pleasurable. To feel excited and inspired on a plane is a rare thing, right?

But I was. It was on the flight to Istanbul that I discovered the recipe for (and fell in love with the photo of) a Blueberry Slump. Before this fortuitous moment, I had never even heard of a slump; for those who might share my slump (also known as a grunt) ignorance, a slump is really no different from a cobbler: biscuit dough is dropped or spooned on top of both. The one major difference between the two is that slumps are usually cooked on top of the stove, whereas cobblers go in the oven. However, this recipe, calling for a cast-iron skillet, defies this tradition, requiring you first to bring the fruit to a soft boil and then, after topping the slightly stewed fruit with biscuit dough, to finish it off in the oven.

 I don't know if it's the name, which seems to symbolize where I'm at these days with my work, or the fact that I had waited long enough to bring this recipe to life, but this past Saturday morning there was no other option for breakfast. And if food really can be symbolic, I like to think that all of these recipes--these flavors and cooking methods to which I turn for comfort--are simply mini-adventures in my great dissertation adventure. In any case, they certainly make things more colorful and enjoyable. And to sate your curiosity about the burning question that this post invites: yes, eating a juicy slump, from its crispy biscuit-topping to its gently stewed fruity innards, is as good a way as any to emerge from a (mental) slump.

Truly, the path to greatness is often paved with (sugary) coping mechanisms.

Blueberry Slump

Adapted from Saveur
Yields 6-8 servings

As much as I liked the sound of this recipe upon first glance, I made a few modifications. Mainly, I used less blueberries than the original called for and significantly less sugar. Call me a bit of a traditionalist, but it's nice not to bury the taste of the fruit. On that note, I would also add that, next time around, I'd also make one major change. The original recipe calls that you simmer 1 1/2 pounds of blueberries with 1 cup of orange juice and 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice. Because I had cut back on the fruit by a third, I also cut back on the orange juice and used only the juice of one small lemon. Still, for me, this was too acidic and I felt that the berries, when they should have been the star of the show, were instead overshadowed by the orange juice. Perhaps if you're using freshly squeezed, slightly frothy orange juice, the flavors would be just right, but, if you're using any other kind of orange juice, the flavor balance will be slightly off. Keep in mind that I feel this way because blueberries are my favorite fruit.
    My recommendation is that, rather than use orange juice (the lemon juice is so minimal it can stay), use could just be basic and use 1/2-2/3 cups water. Then again, if you want something that is a little more vibrant tasting than that, maybe add 1/8-1/4 tsp. rose water; there's also the lovely combination of hibiscus and blueberries, so if you have some dried hibiscus flowers, you could also steep those and use it instead.

For the biscuits:
2 cups all-purpose flour 
1/4 cup sugar
4 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons butter, chilled and cubed
1 1/4 cups milk (I used 1% and the biscuits were fine)

For the fruit: 
1 pound blueberries
2/3 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
the juice of one lemon
2/3 cups orange juice

-Preheat oven to 400 F.
-Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder and kosher salt in a medium-sized bowl.
-Add the butter, working it into the dough with your fingers until the texture changes and you feel that that butter has combined with the flour to create a mixture grainy to the touch and that clumps together. 
-Stir in the milk until a moist dough forms; without overmixing the dough, make sure that all of the flour at the bottom of the bowl has been incorporated into the mixture. 
-Cover and place the biscuit dough in the refrigerator until ready to use.
-Add the blueberries, sugar, salt and fruit juices to a 12-inch cast iron skillet. 
-Place the skillet on the stove and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
-Once the fruit mixture starts to bubble, remove it from the stove and begin adding the dough, forming thick dumplings with a tablespoon and dropping them onto the berries. 
-Lightly cover the biscuit dough with a sprinkling of sugar and then place the skillet in the oven to bake. 
-Remove from oven when the biscuits are cooked through and the blueberry-juice mixture has reduced (in my experience, it may be a bit thin when you take it out of the oven, but it will continue to thicken in the pan), about 25-30 minutes.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Summer Corn, Indian Style

Only one place attracted her attention: a small Korean grocery with fruits and vegetables set outside on plywood stands--colorful piles of oranges, tomatoes, and cucumbers, almost unnaturally clean and bright. Nina read the sign on the box of tomatoes: SUNRIPE. She was still learning English, and every new expression seemed exciting and full of great meaning: SUNRIPE brought to mind a vegetable patch on a summer afternoon, the smell of the rich soil heated by the sun, pale-green branches sagging under heavy tomatoes bursting with juice. 

Adjusting to the post-vacation life is never easy. There are things to be done, responsibilities to be resumed and, most importantly, the feeling that something has gone awry. Upon resuming your regular routine,  it's as if you've lost sight of perhaps your best possible self, the self that you could be--if only you didn't have so much stress and a list of things to do that stretches from here to Mexico (if not eternity). And while it may sound crazy, ever since I returned from my summer adventures (New York post coming soon), I've been dogged by the feeling that summer--at least for me--is over, that I've had my fun and it's now time to get serious. Kind of a sad state of affairs, right?

If you haven' t stopped reading because I've depressed you immensely with this talk of a dwindling summer (please, ignore the crazy lady behind the curtain), let me assure you that there is a silver lining in this tale of woe. And it comes in the shape of corn: sweet, golden corn.  For me, this grain, which we Americans love to pretend is a vegetable, has always been a summer staple. My mother and I used to stop at roadside stands in southwestern Pennsylvania, emerging from the cold car into the muggy heat so as to look for the sweetest ears possible.  Often we were successful, but sometimes we just weren't; it's hard to know what lies beneath the husk and corn, like most things in life, is best when freshly picked.  But even the occasional less than thrilling ear of corn didn't take away from the fact that the very act of eating it was one of summer's quintessential pleasures.

 So, when I was at the market a few days ago, looking around and mentally trying to plan out the menu for the next week, I saw row upon row of corn and suddenly remembered that, dissertation deadlines aside, summer is still upon us in all of its bountiful glory. With that thought in mind, I decided to buy several ears.

While I do believe that most summer vegetables can basically stand alone and still taste wonderful (a topic that has been under discussion recently), I had something special in mind for this corn--something that went beyond the usual smearing on of butter and the sprinkling of salt. Back in May, a dear friend sent me At Home with Madhur Jaffrey for my birthday and, when I was flipping through it, a recipe for Toor Dal with Corn caught my eye. I've eaten a lot of Indian food in my day, but, as far as I can remember, I hadn't ever seen anything with corn on the cob. It seemed worth trying (I've had success with Madhur's lentil recipes before) and was, in general, a remarkably easy dish to make. The most difficult thing is breaking the ear of corn into pieces; even with my sharpest knives, I've had no success. Instead, I've had to turn to my (well, the Greek's, actually) sheer man power and break it with my hands.

 This is now the second time I've made this dish and, each time I do, I like it more and more. It's both sunny and summery; I enjoy the bright play of colors--really, the many shades of yellow--that comes from juxtaposing red lentils (I use these instead of Toor Dal and they lose their red color as they cook) with yellow ears of corn. Its taste, too, is refreshing, running from the tangy to the sweet. The tang comes from the lemon and the toasted cumin seeds, while the sweetness comes from the sugar that you stir in when you add the corn and also from the corn itself. And it's a surprisingly light dish, one that works well with other vegetables and a steaming pot of plain Basmati rice. 

When I came home a few nights ago from the library, worrying about the seeming lack of time and the quickly approaching semester, but also pleased with my dissertation progress for the day, I decided it was time not only for some therapeutic cooking (my reward!), but also for a meal that would bring me back to the present. Before I knew it, I had several pots and pans going: one with rice, one with red lentils and corn and another with a product of my imagination: kale, coconut flakes, garlic and Saffola oil. In short, summer on a plate and just the thing to bring me back to the sweetness of the present.

Red Lentils with Corn

Yields roughly 4 servings
Adapted from At Home with Madhur Jaffrey

As I mentioned above, I've used only red lentils when making this recipe, but you can use, as Madhur suggests, either Toor Dal (toovar dal and arhar dal) or any kind of split pea. The only difference is cooking time--red lentils cook faster than both toor dal and split peas. Because of my feeling that food shouldn't be painful to eat, I use only 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper and 1 dried hot red chili; these things, however, are a matter of taste and can easily be adjusted. I would recommend that the spice not be overpowering, though; the lovely thing about this dish is the way that the different flavors come together. If any one flavor profile dominated, something would be lost. 
      And, finally, regarding a few ingredients: I was out of both ghee and canola oil, so I opted to use Saffola Oil, which is light and has a mild flavor. I'm personally against using olive oil in Indian dishes--the flavor is too strong--but it's an option if that's all you have on hand. Also, despite my best intentions to go to the Indian grocery store and get some asafetida, a powdered gum resin with an oniony-garlicky flavor, I haven't made it there yet. So, when it came time to fry the oil and to add 1/8 teaspoon asafetida, I opted to use one crushed clove of fresh garlic instead. Onion or garlic powder would have worked, too, but were strangely missing; I clearly need to get to the grocery store!

1 cup red lentils, rinsed and drained, with the damaged lentils removed
4 cups water
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 ear fresh corn, cut equally into 4 segments
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/4-3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons Saffola oil
3 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole brown mustard seeds
1 whole dried hot red chili
1 clove garlic, crushed

-Put the lentils and 4 cups water in a medium pan. Bring to a boil and remove the froth that rises to the top.
-Turn heat to medium-low and add the turmeric.
-Stir, cover partially and simmer gently for about 30-40 minutes (if you prefer your lentils to be only just soft,  but with a little texture, they should be ready at about 30 minutes; if you prefer them to be extra soft and less textured, an extra 10 minutes or so will do the trick--especially with red lentils).
-Add the corn pieces, salt, cayenne, sugar and lemon juice and stir. 
-Again, cover partially and simmer gently for an additional 10-15 minutes. 
-Once the lentils and corn are done cooking, heat the Saffola oil in a small skillet.
-As soon as it is very hot, basically sizzling, add the garlic (make sure to cook the garlic in a cluster so that it doesn't burn), cloves, cumin, mustard seed and chili(es). 
-Once the mustard seeds start to pop, add the contents of the skillet to the pot with the lentils. 
-Stir, pour into a large bowl and serve. Enjoy the taste of summer!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Lasagne for All Seasons

The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known. It persists because it is based on the power of cadence and rhythm in language and these are mysterious and hard to defeat and keep in their place. The difference between fact and fiction is like the difference between land and water. 
-Colm Toibin ("What is Real is Imagined")

While the rest of the country is sweltering and, in a lot of places, is in desperate need of rain, I'm currently looking out my window, watching as an ominous, ash grey mass crawls inland from the bay. My heater is on, I'm wearing thick socks and nothing would be so pleasant as a cup of tea or a Hot Toddy right now. So, yes, even though there's a small part of me that thinks that I must be crazy to write a post about lasagne, a dish that obviously involves turning on the oven in the middle of summer, I'm going to do it anyway. And only because, in Berkeley, particularly in July, it might as well be winter.

This kind of weather has long been one of the more frustrating aspects of my move from the east coast to the west. Initially, I didn't know how to handle it. What had happened to tank tops and sandals in the evening? Icy drinks and ice cream sandwiches on picnic tables as the sun set? It all seemed rather unfair; after all, is summer really summer when you're carrying a cardigan in your bag? The short answer is no. The longer answer--one that I've discovered in my six years here--is that there's something endlessly romantic about the swaths of fog that hang over the bay. There's something nice about not going outside and feeling like you immediately need to take a shower. And there's also something wonderful about knowing that the seasons blur together in ways that allow the simple act of  turning the oven on in July to be a welcome event. In a lot of ways, I think of it as my very own indoor campfire.

And this vegetarian lasagne, for which I came across a recipe in Saveur several years ago, is one of my favorite things to make--come winter, spring, summer and fall. At the height of spring, I've served it with a simple salad, to be followed by strawberry cake; in the midst of summer, it can easily complement any grilled meat or fish. It's a lasagne that sticks to your bones, yet, thanks to its many herbs and vegetables, allows you to feel virtuous for eating so many healthy things at once. Combining both a Béchamel sauce and a mushroom-tomato-herb sauce, I'll admit that it's not the easiest recipe that I've ever attempted to recreate at home, but it's certainly worth the extra work.

However, when I first saw this recipe in Saveur, as tempted as I was to run to the grocery store and get to work, I was also a bit cowed by the length of the ingredient list (consider this your warning; don't be alarmed!). But once I set about making it, I realized that it's simply a matter of copious chopping. It's the kind of recipe that makes you invite a friend to dinner; then you get not only a dining companion, but also a chopping buddy and friendly sous chef in one. That being said, I've also made this recipe a few times by myself and once you get into a chopping rhythm, the mushrooms, carrots and herbs don't stand a chance. New Yorker Fiction Podcasts make the time (and the vegetables) pass by more quickly, too.

Beyond the occasional tedium of the chopping, what you end up with is well worth the price of a slightly sore thumb: layer upon layer of noodles, containing a mixture of tender mushrooms, mounds of melted cheese and a creamy tomato sauce. And I imagine that summer squash would make a nice substitute for some of the mushrooms, and maybe kale for the spinach, too.

I don't know if this description will have convinced you that this is a recipe worthy of summer, but, even if not, I hope you'll at least consider giving this a chance come the fall. I do recognize, after all, that we can't all enjoy the privilege of the Berkeley "summer."

Vegetarian Lasagne

Adapted from Saveur 
Yields 6-8 slices, depending on whether it's a side or a main

Since I've been making this for years, I've adapted it a bit more to my tastes and methods in the kitchen. While the original recipe calls for only shiitake mushrooms, I use a combination of shiitake and crimini; this is both because of cost and health benefits (crimini mushrooms are surprisingly good for you!). Also, given all of the chopping, I prefer baby spinach to whole leaf, as well as pressing the garlic, rather than finely chopping it. And, when it comes to fresh herbs, which are less potent than their dried counterparts, I don't even bother to measure. I simply take handfuls, wash and chop and/or pull the leaves off of them. And since I prefer saltier cheese, I rarely make an Italian dish without using a mixture of Parmesan andPecorino-Romano. In this recipe, I think both work well, perhaps even better than the originally intended Fontina and Grana Padano.
      I'll also add that each time I've made this lasagne, I've used a different amount of dried noodles. Sometimes I use 3/4 of a box (I use the no-boil kind) and there's no room in the baking dish for any more; other times, it's the whole box or something like 2/3. This is just more proof that recipes can only take you so far; they can't predict what will actually happen in the kitchen.

12 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 shallot, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1/2 cup flour
5 cups milk
1 tsp. nutmeg
6 sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil
6 sun-dried tomatoes, to be soaked in hot water
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
10 ounces crimini mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
1/2 pound baby spinach, chopped
6 cloves garlic, crushed in the garlic press
Several handfuls of Italian parsley, oregano, thyme and rosemary, chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
5 cups canned crushed tomatoes (I used ones with basil already added)
about 1 pound lasagne noodles
About 2 cups grated Parmesan
About 2 cups grated Pecorino-Romano
sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

-Grease a 9 " x 13" deep baking dish with butter.
-Cover the dried tomatoes with boiling water and let soak until tender. Then, drain and chop. Set aside until needed.
-To make the béchamel: heat 8 tbsp. of the butter in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Add the chopped shallots and carrots; cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the flour and cook for a few minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon. Then, slowly whisk in the milk and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, whisking until thick--about 20-25 minutes. Add nutmeg and season with sea salt and pepper
-In the meantime, heat olive oil and remaining butter in a large saucepan. Add the mushrooms and cook for about 10 minutes, or until a liquid has begun to form. Add the sun-dried tomatoes, baby spinach, garlic, herbs and tomato paste. Cook for 2-3 minutes and then add the canned tomatoes. Cook for about 10 minutes, letting the flavors set, and then set aside.
-At this stage, preheat the oven to 375 F.
-Then, spread about 2 cups of the tomato sauce in the baking dish.
-Cover the tomato sauce with a layer of no-boil noodles and then spread about 1 cup béchamel on top.
-Sprinkle with both cheeses, making sure to cover the expanse of the pan.
-Repeat the layering process two more times.
-At the final stage, when the pan can hold almost no more, top with noodles and the remaining tomato sauce, béchamel and cheeses. Spread evenly across the pan with a spoon.
-Put in the oven and bake, covered with foil, on a baking sheet for 1 hour.
-Then, remove the foil, raise the oven to 500 F, and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes, or until golden.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sparkling Lights and Sumac: Istanbul, Part II

On the meeting point of two worlds, the ornament of the Turkish homeland, the treasure of Turkish history, the city cherished by the Turkish nation, Istanbul, has its place in the hearts of all citizens. -Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Exactly one week ago I was still firmly caught in the peaceful embrace of that beautiful creature, Vacationland. Now, however,  I am (finally!) home in California, looking through pictures and wondering where my vacation went. The whole trip, from door to door to door, was truly epic and by no means can I complain about a good thing having come to an end (they always do). There is something to be said, after all, about waking up in your own bed, watching the fog roll in from the hills and, most importantly, about recreating some of the tastes and flavors of your vacation in your very own kitchen. Yes, after a month of no recipes, this post will contain one--a Turkish twist on hummus!  

 But before I get ahead of myself, I should mention that, after writing my first post on Istanbul and my fortuitous layover, I realized that I had failed to mention one small, but very important detail: we would be returning for two days on our way back from Greece. In hindsight, it was a bit of an ambitious decision since our bags were overflowing and we had already been on the go for a solid three weeks...However, there was no other way. As much as a small part of me just wanted to go home already (Greece was the true star of our trip and, once we left there, our vacation star was waning), I could never regret getting to explore Istanbul and to really see some of the major sights--Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Taksim Square (aka New--as in, nineteenth-century--Istanbul). It's one of those magical places that impresses upon you the weight of history and the very strangeness of our own conceptions of space. I kept asking myself and even the Greek, what is Istanbul? Is it Eastern? Is it Western? Is it Islamic? Is it secular? There may be answers to these questions, but there are many shades of grey in between the supposed facts.

 When not pondering some of these lofty, philosophical questions (questions that intersect with my dissertation research and Russia's own uncertain status), we were wandering from cafe to monument and back again. The breakfast at Van Kahvalti Evi was one of the highlights. While the Greek went with an omelet with pastourma (a garlicky meat) I decided to go with the Classic Breakfast (klasik kahvalti) and was delighted with the simple, but fresh selection of olives, tomatoes, cheese and eggs. On the condiment side of things, I was surprised that Nutella had been given classic status, but, when paired with the sweet cherry compote on the freshly baked bread with black sesame seeds, I realized that this import (like so many things European) had taken on new life in the Turkish context.

 The heavy breakfast was necessary because, immediately afterwards, we set off for Old Istanbul, home to the monuments that bring millions of tourists to the city each year. First on our list was the Blue Mosque (more formally known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque). When you consider the immensity of the building, as well as the thousands of handmade ceramic blue tiles that decorate it, it's almost hard to believe that it was built in only seven years. The mosque is still used for prayer, but, at the height of tourist season, part of it is blocked off. One of my favorite moments was when three rambunctious children darted under the cord and gleefully started running around. To be entirely honest, I wouldn't have minded joining them.

From the gorgeous and cool blue of the mosque we moved onto Hagia Sophia.  This is where you can see traces of the city's history--Byzantine, Ottoman and even modern efforts at restoration. I loved the mixture of cultures and beliefs that you could find lurking on each and every wall; faces of seraphim are covered by stars (only one face remains), Arabic calligraphy hangs next to icons of the Virgin Mary and crosses are painted over so as not to be crosses anymore. The class that I had taken on Eastern Christianity, not to mention the paper I had done on Iconoclasm, had never seemed so relevant. Seeing it in the flesh simply brought it to life. Travel sometimes makes better students than the classroom.

Hagia Sophia is a place where you can stay for hours and, by the time we were done, it was time for a snack. We returned to the juice shop that we had passed by during our earlier reconnaissance; all of that fresh fruit, just hanging there and waiting to be juiced, drew us in. I was again a sucker for all of those vibrantly bright oranges, but this time I added mango, too.

 Besides the monuments, the two places I most wanted to go to in Istanbul were the Spice Bazaar (for the obvious reasons) and to a restaurant that I had read about in one of my favorite Turkish/Eastern Mediterranean cookbooks, Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume, the Ciragan Palace. Since it turned out that the latter, a former Ottoman Palace that looks out on the Bosphoros, has been turned into a five-star hotel, it clearly wasn't in the cards for two graduate students making their way through Istanbul. Maybe next time. As sad as I was to realize that this fantasy wouldn't be coming true (yet!), both the endlessly fascinating Spice Bazaar and some Pistachio-Crusted Baklava went a long way in healing my disappointment. Plus, considering all the sumac I bought, I can simply recreate my own Turkish feast at home, minus the Bosphoros.

Really, it was a whirlwind two days, full of smells, sights and sounds that will linger. I became accustomed to the men who were roasting chestnuts on each street corner, as well as to the stands devoted to grilling corn. I also fell in love with the evening call to prayer that cuts through the urban bustle and resonates throughout the city,  setting in motion a flurry of religious activity. Hearing the sound of the voice reminding the city of its religious obligations made faith seem very much alive. On the fashion side of things, the clothing of the women also proved endlessly fascinating. I couldn't help but wonder if they were really cool beneath those layers of somber black clothing, but then, when I would be standing right next to them, not only would they seem to be the only people not sweating, but I could also see that what appeared to be a sea of black headdresses actually included personalized bursts of color: pins, scarves, designer handbags and sunglasses.

 By night, Istanbul was just as vibrant. We spent both of our evenings there either on or around Istiklal Avenue, the Madison Avenue of Istanbul. It was amazing to me how many people were there--young singles, married couples pushing strollers, groups of smoking older men--and from nightfall until well after midnight. In some areas, it was almost too congested to move; the sidestreets make for a fine escape route, and wonderful Black Mulberry wine can be found at many of the bars.

 If you're willing to brave the storm of people, however, a trip to Hala Manti is in order. I admit that I was drawn in by the eye-catching sight of two elderly women rolling dough as thin as paper, but the manti, small meat dumplings that melt in your mouth, were also some of the best I've eaten. I'm not the kind of girl to pass up anything smothered in sour cream and a garlic sauce that the menu claimed was optional, but, really, wasn't. Trust me, when asked to garlic sauce or not to garlic sauce, the answer should always be in the affirmative. These are words to live by.

 Our final day of tourism, before taking an evening flight to JFK, included a trip to the Topkapi Palace. The opulence of this place was astounding and, as a whole, showcases the glories of the Ottoman Empire. That is, if you can see them. As beautiful as everything was, you had to fight and elbow your way through a lot of the more popular areas of the museum--the Treasury and the Clothing Rooms. Because of that, I preferred exploring the courtyards and the less crowded Circumcision Room (yes, the room with the beautiful stained glass was used exclusively for circumcision). As much wailing as that room must have heard throughout the centuries, it's now one of the palace's more peaceful corners.

And would a trip to Turkey even be legitimate without some Turkish Delight? As we dashed to the airport bus and maneuvered our suitcases through the busy streets, we decided to buy, with our last Turkish lira, some Pistachio Coconut and some Rose Turkish Delight. Amazingly, I managed to resist eating any until we were safely at the terminal. With that first bite and the way I was savoring it, I understood that our European adventure was really over. It was sad, but it had to be.

 But as I eased my way back into my kitchen yesterday afternoon by making hummus, I realized that I'd be carrying traces of my trip with me for a long time to come. I decided to consult Purple Citrus and Sweet Flower to see if there were any Turkish tricks I could incorporate into my hummus making. While the recipe I found was fairly standard, the technique it suggested--blending chickpeas and ice-cubes together in the food processor--with its promise of  a creamier and smoother texture, appealed to me. As I ground the chickpeas and ice cubes together, my eyes fell upon the vacuum-sealed packages of spices lining my counter....and the magenta bag of sumac spoke to me. I felt that adding some of the tart and salty spice would not only help the flavor, but would also carry me back to the crowed streets of Istanbul. In short, it did. I may just be adding sumac to everything in the weeks to come.

Sumac Hummus

Yields about 8-10 servings
Adapted from Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume

Making this hummus was a bit of an impromptu decision, and, although the recipe calls for soaking dried chickpeas and then bringing them to a boil with 1 teaspoon of baking soda (this leads to a lovely white color and smooth texture), I used a can of chickpeas instead and therefore held the baking soda. I did, however, employ the ice-cube method and can say that, based on my previous hummus-making experiences, the texture was definitely smoother and creamier this time around. Because I added 1/2 tsp. of sumac and more for a garnish, I was a little lighter with the lemon juice than I would have normally been, but with perfectly pleasant results. 
      Finally, because I was out of garlic (in this household, this is uncustomary, but we're still restocking our refrigerator and pantry in these first post-travel days), I didn't add any and, surprisingly, I didn't miss it. Without it, I felt that the tahini, lemon and sumac were really able to shine. 

1 16 oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
5 ice cubes
1/4 cup tahini
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp. sumac and more for garnish
sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

-Drain the chickpeas and rinse them. Set a few chickpeas aside for a garnish.
-Place in a food processor and blend. Add the ice cubes one by one and continue blending. 
-Transfer the chickpea mixture into a bowl and stir in the tahini, lemon juice, sumac, salt and pepper.
-Mix well. 
-Serve with a sprinkling of sumac and the reserved chickpeas.


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