Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Consider Clemntines

I love clementines. I love that they are cute and tiny and you can eat three in a single sitting. I love that they are so much easier to peel than oranges, so you can snarf them down at your desk or wherever you may be without squishing the fruit in the peeling process and making a big ol' mess. I love that they are sweet, never sour, as can sometimes happen with oranges, and you don't have to worry about seeds, either. And lastly, as pointed out in New York Magazine, they are in season now, in February, a bit of citrus-y sunshine in what has been an otherwise beastly cold winter.

Clementines are the tiniest of the mandarin orange family, aw, and are said to originate in the Canton province of China. As they are in season in the winter, as I mentioned above, they are also commonly referred to as "Christmas Oranges," and those funny wooden crates they always come in seem to imply that they would be a perfect present for a vitamin C-deprived friend or someone who is suffering from the winter flu or just the winter blues. While I enjoy clementines as they are, freshly peeled, and sometimes will sprinkle them over a salad, in addition to the neat recipe linked in New York Magazine above, I came across this great recipe from Bon Appetite, and plan on trying it this week! Instead of Chicken Broth, you can sub-out for vegetable stock instead if you want to make it vegetarian (Lent starts this week and a common thing to try is being vegetarian, or so I have found, and this will be a nice thing to try as you explore vegetarian options in lieu of meat for 40 days!)

  • 2 cups low-salt chicken broth (or vegetable stock)
  • 1 10-ounce package plain couscous (about 1 2/3 cups)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 clementines
  • 1 15-ounce can chickpeas
  • 12 large green olives, pitted, quartered lengthwise
  • 6 dates, pitted, diced
  • 1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped

Bring broth to boil in small saucepan. Mix couscous, 1 teaspoon salt, and olive oil in medium bowl. Pour boiling broth over couscous mixture. Stir, then cover with plastic wrap. Let stand 15 minutes.

Peel your clementines; chop peel. It should be easy to peel it with your hand in one nice strip but you can always try with a vegetable peeler if need be, although I feel like then you run the risk of squishing the fruit inside. Cut flesh into 1/4-inch pieces. Combine chopped peel and flesh in small bowl and set aside. You can also just grate the peel if cutting it into mini pieces is too tedious.

Bring chickpeas with liquid to boil in saucepan. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until chickpeas are heated through, about 3 minutes. Drain chickpeas. Gently fluff couscous with fork. Add chickpeas, olives, dates, mint, and clementines. Stir to incorporate evenly. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bon Appetite also includes a mini-tutorial as to how to remove the "pith" or white stuff that sometimes remains attached to the fruit after peeling, but I like to eat it. It doesn't seem to taste like anything to me, and Chinese folklore says it is an anti-carcinogen, so if you're into that sort of thing, go nuts!

Yummy! And the fact that this also includes dates, so much the better. It would be interesting to try this recipe with straight up figs as well, but dates are perhaps a bit easier to use/not quite so squishy.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tastes like Balsamic-Pomegranate Glazed Chicken

I have a tried-and-true chicken recipe that I use over and over again at home. It's simple and I almost always have the ingredients on hand so I can make it on the fly (sugar, soy sauce, garlic and olive oil). But it can't hurt to mix it up every now and again, and a friend of mine passed this delicious recipe onto me. It's almost as quick and easy as mine, and she has just welcomed the sweetest, most beautiful little boy into her and her husband's life, so the fact that she has time to cook something so yummy is a testament to its ease and practicality! Plus, it is healthy, too, and we all know how I feel about pomegranates...

Take equal parts balsamic vinegar and pomegranate juice (POM or some other equivalent) and coat however many chicken piece you like, along with fresh thyme, pomegranate seeds and a bit of olive oil to help coat.

Bake in oven at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes or until done. That's it! The glaze coats the chicken nicely and whatever is left over in the baking dish you can pour over the chicken upon serving.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

In bounds the rabbit: Chinese New Year Yummies

My Chinese mother is a self-proclaimed banana, which I suppose is a kinder term than "twinkie." Vronsky is a self-proclaimed "egg," so I suppose everything evens out in the end. If you can't figure out what I am referring to here, think colors and pejorative terms for race.

Slang aside, I think there are a lot of "eggs" out there when it comes to food. My favorite part of Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential was where he decreed that, in all honesty, his favorite, quintessential New York meal was Chinese take-out, Sriracha sauce, a joint and a classic movie. Illegal drugs aside, a part of me truly does think that Chinese food really is the "world's cuisine." I am not kidding. You could find a "Lucky Noodle" in Nairobi and in St. Louis. And while the level of taste at these places could vary widely, from fake Chinese food like orange chicken, to wonderfully authentic, I always smile at the ubiquity of the cheesy fortune cookie and lo mein.

Since Chinese New Year's Eve is this Wednesday and Thursday ushers in the Year of the Rabbit, now's a good time to partake in the omnipresence of Chinese food and try some traditional Chinese New Year treats. Food has such a high standing in Chinese culture itself, the food served on the New Year is filled with tradition and some superstition.

For example, a whole roasted chicken symbolizes family togetherness, while noodles represent long life, so eat them whole and don't break them if you can! And my po-po made sure to remind me to eat some oranges or tangerines tomorrow night and Thursday, which symbolize good luck and Cantonese families will give the fruit to each other as gifts. Too bad I don't have any oranges from her orchard out in Sacramento. Those are the best...always sweet, never sour, and she always peels them for me in a single long peel, like she's done since I was little, because it still impresses me.

Fish also served whole, on the bone, is another traditional treat and done well (nice and thin and crispy) it is absolutely delicious and de-bones very easily. In fact, whole proteins are the M.O. for New Year meals as the act of cleaving meat could be perceived as cleaving family togetherness and unity, a big no-no. As far as your whole fish goes, don't be intimidated by the fact that it comes with the eyes still intact. My grandfather would always tell us to eat it because it would make us wise (all-seeing perhaps) but we never believed him. The fact that he never ate the eye either tipped us off...

Steamed rice cakes are the classic desert. Rice is life, the sweetness symbolizes richness, and the circular shape of the cake itself represents unity. Pomelo fruit is also a classic, but I actually don't care for the taste, but I'll eat plenty of leafy greens and gai lan (Chinese Broccoli), which are also "lucky," to counteract that.

In the moving book Mao's Last Dancer, Li, the protagonist fondly recalls making "jiaozi," or special New Year dumplings with his mother when he was a boy. He grew up in abject poverty in a collective farm in northern China, where "jiaozi" are tradition, and the family would scrimp and save for months to be able to afford enough meat, oil and dough to make the dumplings.

To balance out the excessive feasting that occurs on the eve of the new year, the first meal New Year's Day is traditionally vegetarian. This meat-free meal is also thought to generate good will on that first day as nothing was killed to make it.

The New Year feasting lasts for almost two weeks and you can learn more about each day and what food coincides with it here, but for a half-banana and an indulgent egg, one night of feasting is enough. I plan on making Vronsky's favorite "at home" meal: fresh white rice, steamed lapchong, some sauteed veggies (broccoli, water-chestnuts, snow-peas, ginger and carrots with soy sauce and garlic), and oranges for dessert. And then we will leave all the cleaning for the next day, since it is also bad luck to clean on the New Year, lest you sweep bad luck away. I am convinced that tradition was started by fed-up wives, who themselves were exhausted after the feast and the preparations the night before and needed a DAY OFF before tackling all that mess....

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

As Always, Julia

Vronsky is a very thoughtful fellow. The other day, he was walking by Book Court in Brooklyn, a marvelous independent bookstore I recommend you visit next you are in Cobble Hill, and saw As Always, Julia in the window, which is the entire collection of letters between Julia Child and Avis De Voto, who was a critic, gastronome, and member of the "literati" in Boston/Cambridge, as her husband was a prominent columnist for Harper's and she herself was a well known writer and critic for the Boston Globe among other things at a time when women, as a rule, did not engage in such intellectual pursuits and circles once they were married.

Julia and Avis were wonderful friends, but it would be many years before they first met face to face. The started off as pen pals. It all began when Child, then living in France with her husband, responded to one of Avis' husband's columns in Harper's, in which he bemoaned the fact that he could not find a decent knife in all of the United States. He had to order knives from abroad in order to get the sharpness and strength he needed to be even half-adept in the kitchen. Most of the knives available at the time were simple stainless steel which, although very easy to clean, did not hold an edge to the point where he said they couldn't even slice an apple, and if they were serrated, then you might as well go out and buy a new one. Plus, if he applied any sort of pressure to the handle, like when boning meat or cutting through something tough, like say, a carrot, the knife would actually break off in his hand at the handle.

Contrary to what maybe people believe at the time, dull knives are actually more dangerous. By pushing harder to make a cut, you exert more force and have less control, often resulting in slippage or breakage which could really do some damage. It is just like a fresh versus a dull razor when you're shaving, to use a silly simile, but it is true. When you have to force the knife, the loss of control is when accidents happen.

Anyway, Julia Child responded to this column with a nice note and a new knife straight from France. Avis wrote her a letter in return, thanking her for the knife and inquiring just exactly what she was up to in France, and so the friendship was born.

Reading these letters, it first and foremost causes a pain in my heart knowing that nobody writes beautiful, eloquent, well-though-out letters any more. Sort of like how I wish everybody still wore hats. My friend Sarah and I, still actually write eachother letters from time to time. Real letters, in pen, to bring back the days when we were pen pals from camp. Except we were not at the levels of Julia and Avis, talking about saffron or McCarthyism. Instead, we talked about boys, boys, clothes, and then boys again.

But I digress. Another thing that struck me reading these letters is just how far the American culinary scene has evolved in a generation and a half. There were no fancy pot and pan kits (and certainly no teflon), and clearly there was a dearth of proper knives for the home cook. People probably had a skillet, a stock pot, and a sauce pot or two and that was it. There wasn't a microwave and certainly no George Foreman's. Check out the cover of the book...look at that TINY little oven! And I bet you that the Beef Bourginon coming out of there is absolutely perfect. Even my mom has cribbed off Child's recipe.

And it wasn't even the tools in the kitchen that would seem spare by today's standards. The American palate was so limited. Just imagine: no Chinese food. No sushi or Korean BBQ. No pad thai, tacos, fajitas or Latin food of any kind. Even French food was anathema in the home. Shallots or green beans? Anathema. My dad even drove this point home the other day. His own father worked at the local auto shop in high school growing up, and the shop was owned by an Italian family. Since his own father (my great-grandfather) died very young, my grandpa had no father figure, so the shop owner would frequently invite him home for dinner, where they ate traditional Italian food like spaghetti, meatballs, perhaps some cannellini beans and of course, tomato sauce. Pretty standard right?

For my grandpa, and for others in the town, it was literally the most exotic food they had ever heard of. Sure, it was quite common amongst the immigrant population, but as far as main stream diet? No way. Something outside of steak and potatoes? Madness! I always joke with Vronsky that Chinese food is actually the world's cuisine, but it is hard to imagine a world without Chinese take out, or just a world where no one you know has ever had a dumpling or white rice. Or even heard of such a thing. Forget the fact that pizza is a made-up word and what on earth is an artichoke? I believe that was part of Julia Child's appeal--she opened up a whole new world of food that people could prepare and enjoy on their own, something that is still true today. Sure, most people don't make their own pad thai (although it is easy to make your own peanut sauce), but lots of people use tarragon in their cooking, or eat tofu at home, and cook with soy sauce or garlic or shallots, something that was nearly unheard of before Child. It is no wonder people rarely eat Beet Wellington anymore except at badly catered conferences--as Avis said in one of here letters, "Just the phrase 'Wellington Casserole' sounds it is!'"

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Terrifying Teflon

I have always taken the "____ Will Give You Cancer" posts that pop up on news-y sites across the internet with a grain of salt, because if you listened to everything that they said (including "turning on the bathroom light in the middle of the night") you would be forced to come to the unpleasant conclusion that life in general is chockablock full of carcinogens.

That said, we live in a toxin-filled world, where harmful things come from even the most benign places. Children's toys, the clothes we wear, beauty products, and food. I don't like it when celebrities get all preachy about the virtues of buying all organic food because let's face it, it is usually more expensive and more difficult to obtain, and not everyone has the financial means to do it, even if they wanted to. And while I try to buy organic/free-range/hormone and cruelty free meat and eggs and diary when possible, I try not to drive myself crazy over it. It is good to remember Michael Pollan's pithy words of wisdom. Eat food. Not to much. Mostly plants.

And yet, what good is organic meat when you're cooking it in a teflon-coating pan? Teflon is scary. I don't think I have ever come right out and said "DON'T DO THIS" but seriously, folks, stay away from teflon. My mom always told me not to buy those "non-stick" teflon pans and stick with all-clad or something similar because if and when something sticks to the teflon, which it always does, when you try and clean it off, the sponge/brush and soap you use will scratch the teflon, leading to little abrasions where food will get stuck and never come out, and it will also flake off into your next meal.

The unsavory and futility of that aside, teflon is highly toxic. How it is still allowed to be used in cooking tools is beyond me. A friend of mine will be writing a more in-depth article on this in an upcoming issue of Health magazine, but this little anecdote she told me last night is truly frightening. If you heat a teflon coated pan on your stove without enough oil to hold in the fume of the burning/heated teflon, and you have a bird anywhere in the house (parakeet, parrot, canary, whatever), within five minutes the bird will be dead. Dead! How do you think people discovered this? Pretty obvious...there were DEAD BIRDS all over people's houses across the country from breathing in noxious fumes!!

If that is not frightening I don't know what is, especially considering the fact that these same people, prior to realizing their beloved pet just died what I can only imagine was a highly unpleasant death, were probably happily making their stir fry or seared fish or whatever and then chowing down on the meal cooked with that very same toxic fume!

I maintain that for most things in life, the ol' ancient Greek mantra of moderation will work for almost anything, but as far as teflon goes, I think I gotta just say no.