• Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 166 other followers

  • Noshing on

    Happy 2019! It's a new year--time for a restorative. Me? Bok choy broth with tofu for lunch. The purple tinge is not your hangover talking to you--I added purple and gold "black" carrots to the bowl and it got a little Rose Parade on me.

  • Recent Posts

  • Contents

  • Archives

  • Copyright, Disclaimer, Affiliate Links

    Copyright 2008-2019Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

    ADS AND AFFILIATE LINKS

    I may post affiliate links to books and movies that I personally review and recommend. Currently I favor Alibris and Vroman's, our terrific and venerable (now past the century mark!) independent bookstore in Pasadena. Or go to your local library--and make sure to support them with actual donations, not just overdue fines (ahem!), because your state probably has cut their budget and hours. Again.

    In keeping with the disclaimer below, I DO NOT endorse, profit from, or recommend any medications, health treatments, commercial diet plans, supplements or any other such products.

    DISCLAIMER

    SlowFoodFast sometimes addresses general public health topics related to nutrition, heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes. Because this is a blog with a personal point of view, my health and food politics entries often include my opinions on the trends I see, and I try to be as blatant as possible about that. None of these articles should be construed as specific medical advice for an individual case. I do try to keep to findings from well-vetted research sources and large, well-controlled studies, and I try not to sensationalize the science (though if they actually come up with a real cure for Type I diabetes in the next couple of years, I'm gonna be dancing in the streets with a hat that would put Carmen Miranda to shame. Consider yourself warned).

Ice Cream Therapy

Chocolate Cherry frozen yogurt

Just in time for my daughter’s return last week from college in a part of the northeast where it was still snowing in May, Pasadena entered its first major heat wave of the year–and our AC broke down in honor of the occasion. Fun times!

Today’s topic, as last year and the year before, when I first started this post (and then got side-tracked with all the college application stuff and the very unpleasantly named FAFSA)… and every year at this time, once the heat starts hitting town, is ice cream. Well, ice cream and a couple of lighter, more flavorful and frugal home-brew variations because that’s what’s uppermost on my wishlist, other than cooler air here and cooler heads everywhere. So anyway, imagine it’s two summers ago, not now, for at least the next two parts of this adventure…

Gelato

It started with gelato.

Right before the fourth of July two years ago, I found out that I could take my daughter’s sharps containers to a local sheriff’s office for disposal instead of having to drive to the CleanLA site in west Glendale (not a nice area, and the guys in white hazmat suits make you stay in your car and pop the trunk. They’re not mean about it but it’s still unnerving). When I looked up the Altadena sheriff’s office online, the map showed an unexpected gem across the main street: Bulgarini Gelato, which in 12 or so years of operation and despite its tiny size has become nationally known in the food world.

A friend has been after me for years to visit and try their pistachio gelato, insisting that it’s the real thing because they use Sicilian pistachios and it’s all natural (you know the kind of friend who speaks in italics). Despite or possibly because of how holistic she made it sound, I’d never gotten over there.

It’s a shame, in a way, because Bulgarini is the living result of a rescue operation–the owners did an apprenticeship in Italy to learn the old-style from-scratch processes for making real gelato, just as all the old guys were retiring and all the gelato shops were going to factory-made, synthetically flavored powdered mixes.

My husband and I had been to Italy… 25? can it be? years ago for a conference (the only way we could have afforded it then), when real gelato was still available. We quickly figured out how to order anything at one of the bustling gelaterie in Florence: sharpen your elbows and your tongue, know which of the 30 or 40–or more–flavors you want (spinach? avocado? rose? fior di latte? kiwi? cassata?), get to the front of the throng and have your money ready, because it’s gonna cost you. But a tiny cup–at an outrageous 3000 lire (right before the Euro took over)–held two or three distinctive flavors you ate with a tiny spoon and that didn’t melt as fast as ice cream, so you had more time to keep tasting as you wandered around the city, taking in the sights.

Bulgarini was almost the opposite experience. At mid-afternoon on a hot July day, the whole shopping plaza was silent and dusty and it took some time to locate the gelato shop in a group of new indie businesses off to the side of the deserted RiteAid. The gelateria was dead quiet, just a few customers trickling in at a time, though steadily. No need for elbows or decisiveness. Leo Bulgarini, the owner and artisan gelato maker, stood to the side with his arms folded, not saying anything as he supervised the girl behind the counter, who spoke a tiny amount of English and was obviously pretty new. There were only ten or twelve flavors in the case, reasonable for handmade in such a small shop, and none of them spinach or avocado–also reasonable, since most customers here probably wouldn’t be ready to chance them.

As in Florence, the prices on the chalkboard were authentically astronomical–the smallest cup was $7 for up to two flavors, plus an extra dollar for the Sicilian pistachio. Which I got anyway because that was the mission, even though I kind of gulped as I forked over a twenty, and asked that the second flavor be nocciola–hazelnut. I figured the super-dark chocolate and the fruit flavors were things I already knew I liked, and they might clash or overwhelm the subtleties of pistachio. The hazelnut would be just different enough to be interesting as well as a test of truth in flavor, because chocolate and fruit are easier to be convincing about and because commercial hazelnut flavoring tends to be disappointing–oversweetened and often synthetic.

In any case, I tasted and was floored. Really floored, but too shy in that environment to say anything.

When the silence threatened to become extra-awkward, I ducked out into the shaded courtyard and tasted it again. The Oregon hazelnut was so clean, so crisp, so exactly and precisely hazelnut and nothing else–not faint, not sweet or faked with extracts or overdressed in any way–that it was actually more impressive and possibly more Italian than the Sicilian pistachio that followed. The texture was right too–slightly stretchy, not super-rich, and it didn’t melt right away, so there was time to eat it in small experimental tastes.

Was it worth seven or eight bucks for a 3-4-ounce serving? There’s no way I could make a habit of it–it really is too expensive for a snack. But for a special occasion, the real thing is worth a try. My husband was overscheduled for his birthday that year, and we were away the next, but he’s just going to have to clear his slate so I can drag him back before his next birthday. Maybe tomorrow, actually.

Ice cream parlor ice cream

A few weeks after the Bulgarini experience, we flew east to see my mom and do college tours in Boston and then hung out with my sister in Maine. After a day or so of dank heat we finally admitted it was more than we could handle–what can I say, we’ve gone soft since moving to the land of 10% humidity or less. We gave in to temptation that afternoon and sampled hand-cranked ice cream at a local ’50s-style ice cream parlor. There was an impressive list of flavors on the chalkboard–easily more than 40, including licorice, various berries and several different variations on chocolate, caramel and coffee. We all liked it well enough, but I was the only one who got something other than your basic oversized milk-chocolate-caramel-cappuccino.

I came away with an important realization: Ginger just isn’t as common as it should be, it’s a great flavor that really deserves a comeback. But it shouldn’t be stuck in sweet, bland basic vanilla superpremium ice cream that’s starting to drip before you even get out the door. Even after I told the girl at the counter to give me only half the softball-sized scoop she was aiming at my cone, and she complied, puzzled that anyone would ask for less instead of more, it was just way too much. My husband went for two flavors, two full scoops. I’m still not sure how he possibly managed it, and I was watching (queasily). Oy. Boys are just into stunt portions is how I explain it.

When we got back home to California, our cat was fine, the kitchen hadn’t crawled away, and reality sat waiting on the doorstep: school was only a couple of weeks down the road and it was hot here too–though not as humid, at least. I suggested ice cream (light, not Haagen-Daz)–and my daughter glared; after the excess version from Maine, she was trying not to, which was probably smart for all of us.

The skinny versions

If you can’t get to Altadena or Maine, and you’re not sure a $5+ pint of ersatz supermarket gelato is the real experience (it isn’t) or you want a flavor that’s not so predictable, you can make gelato yourself for not very much money. Cookbooks from the 1990s abound with recipes (though probably not the spinach or rose flavors), and you might be able to find a Brazilian recipe for avocado ice cream online.

The basic idea for gelato is to make an egg and milk custard and blend it with fruit, nut pastes or other flavorings before freezing. Some use cornstarch in addition to or as a substitute for some of the eggs, and that’s as traditional as all-eggs in some parts of Italy. The base ingredients are inexpensive either way. Continue reading

Three-Hour Sourdough

Three Hour Sourdough

I love sourdough–eating it, anyway. Baking? That’s enough of a challenge that I’m elated when it turns out relatively edible. Because even with my standards, which are a bit loose, there are times when the outcome is decidedly not up to expectations. I have trouble getting the dough risen well enough and into the oven before the acid chews up all the gluten. In other words, it tends to overproof and then flop. Few of my loaves–I can face it–have ended up risen enough to consider serving other people, and most of them are a bit coarse inside–partly because I want rye or whole wheat rather than just white bread.

The other challenge is the perennial one for sourdough cultures–it takes several days to build a decent-tasting and stable mix of flour, water, wild yeast and lactobacillus culture with no undesirable bugs or off-flavors and odors. And in the meantime most instructions tell you to take a small bit of the mixture, feed it fresh water and flour, and toss the majority. Wasteful–both of ingredients and time.

So for the past year or so I’ve wondered whether I couldn’t somehow just get a running start past all that by using commercial yeast (a big no-no according to sourdough experts) with some commercial lactobacillus culture–yogurt, maybe?–and flat-out cheating. As in, faux dough. Well, more precisely, perfectly real dough, with a real-enough sourdough taste and texture, only about 4 2/3 days faster. At least. Without just caving and paying 6 bucks at Whole Foods for a small decorator loaf.

Yesterday I wondered it strongly enough to hunt around online and see if the yogurt idea had occurred to anyone else–and it had.

Ladyandpups.com is the food blog of a sometimes cranky, sometimes poetic, impressively prolific and creative baker named Mandy Lee. She has a “fraudulent easy sourdough” recipe that uses more than a cup of plain yogurt with a small amount of yeast and 3.5 cups of bread flour–no added water, apparently–and some salt for a firm dough that rises either 18 hours at room temperature (1/4 t active dry yeast) or 6 hours (3/4 t. yeast) and comes out tasting right and looking beautiful and crackle-crusted via the Jim Lahey no-knead-but-preheat-the-dutch-oven method.

And that’s all to the good.

But I’m even more impatient than that, and most of my sourdough faux pas have to do with letting the dough sit too long before baking. Even a 6-hour rise seems like too much. I also wanted a whole-wheat sourdough (so half whole wheat, half bread flour), which means it’s already comparatively gluten-challenged. So I wanted a really short, sharp rise that would get the dough puffed up and bakeable before the acid got to the gluten too badly. With luck, the yeast would win out just enough to outpace the acid buildup and resulting hopeless flop, but still allow enough to develop a good tang, which is the whole point of sourdough in the first place.

That meant changing things a bit:

1. Less yogurt, only about half what Lee calls for–half would still have plenty of lactobacillus culture to reproduce, but wouldn’t contribute as much acid right up front.

2. Some water to dilute the initial acidity further to delay the inevitable gluten-chewing effect. More water also gets the dough smoother and the gluten developing more quickly even when there’s no acid-producing bacteria to worry about. That’s an added benefit since I was going whole-wheat.

3. Not too much yeast either. Normally, adding more yeast means getting a faster rise. But even 1/4 t. is about what I usually go with for a slower-rising dough with 5-6 cups of flour, and that only takes 3-4 hours to more than double in my kitchen, at least with a hot rise. I didn’t want so much extra yeast at the start that it outcompeted and inhibited the lactobacilli from the yogurt altogether, because no sour culture equals no sour flavor. Continue reading

Days of watermelon and roses

frozen watermelon slices

We spent much of August getting my daughter ready for her first year of college in upstate New York, about as far away from Los Angeles as you can get and still be in the lower 48. Last-minute saves in the kitchen this time around included about a quarter of a small watermelon–5 or 6 inch-thick slices that I stuck in the freezer in a bag with the air squeezed out, hoping they wouldn’t be completely awful to use up somehow once we got home. I assumed it would be as hot when we came back as it was before we left, and that frozen watermelon in any form would be just about right.

Of course, today Pasadena is in the 80s and Boston and points north are in the 90s for a massive heatwave. Everything seems a bit topsy-turvy in this country to tell the truth, and as I’ve remarked more pointedly before, has for some time.

But at this moment, a world without Aretha Franklin in it– daring, flashy, cantankerous, exuberant, frank, funky, ambitious and endlessly talented–doesn’t seem right.

I have a treasure of hers that I picked up from the local Goodwill’s vinyl bins a couple of years ago: a red-labeled 45 whose B side was in perfect, untouched, glossy condition–“Prove It,” a number I only realized later that I had heard before, because honestly it was unremarkable even with her singing it.

The A side, on the other hand–scratched, worn down, dusty grooves, battle-hardened, loved to death and beyond, deservedly so. I quickly snatched it up for $1.99 and took it home, protected inside the cover of a hardback. Would it still play, was there any magic left? I stuck it on the turntable, nudged the needle arm over and lowered it as gently as possible.

Even though our speakers are o-l-d and not that great to begin with, the music just leaped out at me. Hearing the classic twang of the guitar intro and Aretha’s intricate runs on Chain of Fools puts shivers up my spine anyway, but this was the real thing. Vinyl, even old scratched vinyl from the ’60s, when I was three or four years old, is so much more evocative than the sound you can get from an mp3 it’s a sin.

Red is always how I’m going to think of Chain of Fools and Aretha Franklin, but looking back, she often chose a light pink for herself–one of her outfits on Soul Train for a live performance of Rock Steady, several of her later appearances too. I’ve never been a big fan of pale pink or Cadillacs, but I still love her exuberance and a song that full of juice and humor.

And that brings me back to the frozen slices of watermelon and what I did with them yesterday.

I knew that once it was frozen, the watermelon would probably have to stay frozen, because thawing it out would almost certainly cause it to collapse into limp mush, and what a shame (although I didn’t actually test that out, I would put good money on it).

snaplock container of watermelon sherbet

You can’t really buy watermelon ice cream or sorbet in this country, not at the supermarket anyhow, and I’ve never actually eaten any, not even as gelato in Italy, where (at least 25 years ago, when the artisanal gelaterie were still making it traditionally instead of from powdered mixes) they had just about everything you could put in gelato form and all the flavors came out really specific and vibrant and fresh.

I wasn’t sure a watermelon ice I could make at home would actually taste good on its own, and I had something a little more offbeat in mind for the flavor since watermelon is kind of subtle. But it’s popular world-wide, from Africa to east Asia as well as throughout the western hemisphere, which gave me a few ideas.

Right before we left for New York I’d interviewed someone who was born in Iran about his father’s legacy, and then while we were traveling I saw David Lebovitz‘s blog post on “booza”–the Lebanese version of Turkish dondurma or “stretchy” ice creams in exotic flavors. So I was thinking maybe rosewater and a pinch of clove with the watermelon. And maybe a dollop of yogurt in there somewhere for body so it wouldn’t be too much like a granità. And maybe…

Well, it could either be good, inedible or just plain strange–and it turned out something between good and a little strange, so I’m counting it as a good rough draft, and we’ll call it unusual, exotic, still a bit subtle but flavorful, specifically watermelon with rose. And pink.

My experimental ices tend to be low in sugar and fat, so the texture is a bit icy, sherbety or snow-cone-y rather than creamy. They’re still refreshing and I try not to let anything be cloying–rosewater can be, so I kept it to a teaspoon for what made about a quart in volume, and I added lemon juice, which helps a lot and keeps it from becoming “soapy.”

I don’t know–maybe this would be better as popsicles or paletas, but I like the snowiness, and the watermelon flesh definitely contributes that delicacy even without an ice cream maker.

And this one was pretty encouraging–cool, smooth, both down to earth and exotic, unexpected. Maybe a little like the Queen herself.

 

cup of watermelon rosewater sherbet

Watermelon Rosewater Sherbet

makes about 1 quart

  • 1-1 1/4 pounds (500ish grams) watermelon slices without rind or seeds, sliced and frozen all the way
  • 3-4 T sugar or to taste
  • squeeze of lemon juice and/or pinch of citric acid, sparingly, just to taste
  • 3-4 T nonfat milk-and-cultures only Greek yogurt
  • 1/2-1 c. skim milk, just as needed
  • 1 t. rosewater
  • pinch of ground cloves, optional–this was the part I’m not sure I’d repeat; it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t quite ideal either in combination with the watermelon, the rosewater and the tartness. So probably leave it out.

Microwave the frozen watermelon slices 30 seconds on an open plate, just enough to thaw a tiny bit so you can cut them into inch-or-so chunks for the blender or food processor and not break the blade. Add the lemon juice or citric acid, the sugar, the yogurt and rosewater (and pinch of clove? leave it out?) and a splash of milk, pulse to start it blending. Pour just enough extra milk through the processor spout to create a smooth thick icy milkshake-like blend, then pour the mixture into a 2.5 quart snaplock container with a lid and still-freeze, stirring briefly with a whisk after half an hour and returning it to the freezer.

If you want an actual sorbet with no dairy, make a simple syrup by boiling equal amounts of water and sugar for a few minutes to dissolve and thicken slightly, cool it to room temperature and blend it with the frozen watermelon and flavorings, leaving out the yogurt and milk and regular sugar. The usual sorbet proportions are about 3/4 cup of sugar (so about 3/4 c sugar, 3/4 c water, boiled up to a syrup and cooled) for a quart of finished sorbet. I find that a bit much sweet-wise and not as refreshing but it will deliver the kind of standard texture and cohesiveness you get in commercial sorbets.

Saving summer

Between the continuous stream of political, humanitarian, economic and diplomatic firestorms set by the Trump administration and the actual forest fires here, it’s been a long, hard, hot summer in California and much more stressful than summer should be. I water cautiously, keep moving forward, and try to keep my family healthy and myself from letting it take over.

I’m also looking for an effective civil rights and humanitarian aid group to contribute to–the Southern Poverty Law Center is one; there are also several mothers’ groups raising funds for legal representation for immigrants separated from their children. As I discovered last year during hurricanes Harvey and Maria, making donations for humanitarian aid is an important way to help yourself as well–it’s something concrete you can do that will actually make a difference, and it makes you feel less overwhelmed and powerless as an individual.

Whenever I step back from the newspapers for a bit, though, I look around me and see the brighter side. I consider that my daughter has finished high school with both honors and friends, and for a change doesn’t have summer homework. She’s working in a job she loves, is learning to drive and is nearly on her way to college, which we are all looking forward to. She’s ready and I’m proud of her (although I’m still not quite ready to see Ladybird).

I’m working for a community book festival this fall that promises some fun and challenging authors, I have some interesting new freelance assignments, and my first e-book project is nearly ready for publication. And I’ve started experimenting again in the kitchen–something I really didn’t have the time or concentration for during graduation and its immediate aftermath.

The heat wave is a big factor in my cooking; Pasadena tends to get over 90 F most days of summer (and plenty of times from September to April too), and the past few weeks have seen temperatures in the 100s midday. So the freezer and microwave are essentials in my book. So is eating or preserving enough of the bounty of summer produce while it’s at its best to keep it from going to waste even in the fridge. Because I always tend to go overboard at the greengrocer’s–last year or the year before it was nectarines (this year too). This year it’s plums, strawberries, any other berries I can get at a good price.

Instant Frozen Yogurt

Most berries are good if you just wash and freeze them while they’re still in decent shape. Mix three or so ounces of frozen blueberries or blackberries with a 4-ounce/half-cup dollop of plain nonfat Greek yogurt and a teaspoon of sugar in a small plastic cup or snaplock container (the plastic is a better insulator than ceramic cups or glass) and you have nearly instant all-real and nicely purple frogurt–the small berries get the yogurt freezing the right way, right in the cup, within about 30 seconds as you stir.

But what if the berries are going a bit ugly and soft–like strawberries?

There’s nearly no point in trying for homemade strawberry frogurt or ice cream unless you really personally like it. Sorbet, I can definitely see, but for my money, strawberry ice cream is generally an insultingly pale pink, not terribly fresh, and tastes duller than plain vanilla. It would be a lot better to stick some actual fresh strawberries or a not-too-sweet fresh strawberry purée on the side of some good-quality plain vanilla because you’d have a real contrast between two actual flavors, not one mediocre pink in-between.

Well, what about jam?

Strawberries are one of my favorite fruits—fresh and raw or else frozen, unsweetened. But I actively dislike most strawberry jam—the cooked, oversweetened blandness bears no resemblance to the fresh, tart wild-tasting fruit I love.

Commercial strawberry jam is not only unbearably sticky-sweet and gluey but the fruit itself, when you encounter it, is usually a slimy dull gray lumpette with five o’clock shadow, something to pick out cautiously rather than savor. It’s not the best of the fruit to start with, and it’s now overcooked and showing it.

But there are still some really heavenly strawberries out there going overripe on the market produce shelves, and I had about half a pound left just a little too long in my fridge after a party. I discovered by fooling around that strawberry jam or at least compote that still tastes like strawberries is  possible to do at home if you microwave it lightly instead of cooking it to death. And I even liked it.

 

microwave fresh strawberry jam

 

Could I keep the tartness intact? Could I keep it lightly cooked enough to still taste fresh and like strawberries to me? Could I keep it from being slimy?

Based on a few of my other impromptu microwave fruit spreads (peach, plum, apricot, kumquat) and fruit-rescue attempts (faux sour cherry, nectarine sorbet) I decided I’d give it a quick try in the microwave Continue reading

Passover mid-week: what’s for lunch?

With the best will in the world, there is only so much matzah anyone really wants to eat in a day. Even whole wheat. Yes, it’s crunchy. No, you don’t have to run the toaster oven. Yes, you should eat something else, and not just macaroons or gefilte fish from a jar. Or more hard-boiled eggs. Yeesh. Something lighter, please.

Salad

If you can get tomatoes of worth yet (it’s been a pretty long winter across much of the US), cut up some tomatoes and cucumbers, some red bell pepper, splash a bit of olive oil and vinegar on, maybe some Greek yogurt, some dill or basil, a bit of scallion and some feta or an olive, If good salad veg is scant but you can get cabbage, shred it and toss with some fresh or dried dill, thyme or oregano, maybe mint, oil and vinegar, a bit of lemon juice if you’ve got it, a couple of Greek-style olives. Or make a mix of oranges–slice them and serve with vinaigrette and lettuce or chopped cabbage, maybe a scallion and an olive or so, to brighten the last of winter and the first of spring.

Microwave melts and other vegetable and cheese combos

My standard eggplant microwave “melt” combo, with peppers and/or artichoke hearts and mozzarella/feta sandwiched between two slices of microwave-steamed eggplant. Salsa or shakshouka or even plain tomato sauce if you’ve got it, but jazz it up with hot pepper flakes and/or smoked paprika, or if you don’t have sauce then at least some hot pepper flakes, paprika, and basil or oregano–something.

Fish

Tuna salad is pretty classic, obviously, even though if you keep kosher it means scouting out kosher-for-Passover mayonnaise, making your own, or using plain yogurt instead (my current preference; my experience making mayo from scratch is more vast than I care to admit, and I don’t even like the stuff).

But if you have leftover cooked fish, especially tilapia or salmon, or you’re willing to cook a pound of it specifically for a batch of quick fake-smoked-whitefish-style fish spread, go ahead and microwave it a couple of minutes until cooked through, then drain off the liquid and mix with fat-free plain (!!!) Greek yogurt (add cautiously by spoonfuls so you don’t get too much and make it gloppy), plus or minus tehina if you eat it at Passover and like it, plus some lemon juice and grated or finely chopped onion or scallion, a bit of garlic and dill, and either a couple of drops of liquid smoke or a good dash of smoked paprika, with salt just to taste at the very end. Let it chill and it’ll solidify a bit overnight in the fridge. Good again with Greek olives and some salad (and okay, a little–but only a little–matzah). If you’re going for a meat meal and want to keep it nondairy, do a little more lemon juice and some olive oil as the binder and leave out the yogurt.

Fake-smoked tilapia salad on matzah

Fish Salad Rellenos?

But you can take it further, as I discovered. I’ve never actually loved gefilte fish, and even though Joan Nathan swears that fresh homemade gefilte fish is much better, I have chosen all these years not to believe her because it’s a big to-do and an even bigger mess, plus all the matzah meal and eggs mixed in–it’s basically a fish meatloaf full of stretchers. No. In my book, if you can get real fish, you should eat real fish as a main course and treat it with respect.

Leftovers, maybe, if you don’t just want to eat them straight–but not with yet more matzah and eggs. For crying out loud.

And all leftovers have to be good enough to eat on their own merits. Whatever you do to them should improve them or at least not degrade them.

I live in warm–sometimes way too warm–territory near Los Angeles, so the Armenian and Latino corner greengrocers always have good veg for cheap. Both are into peppers of varying shapes, sizes, colors and burn factor, a plus in my book. Passover can really use a hit of ta’am (flavor) and some vegetabalia to go with it.

A bag of Hungarian peppers–pale green, mostly-mild, thin-walled, good for quick-pickling–was going for 50 cents a pound this week, and they’re long like Anaheims but nice and boxy at the stem end, not flat, so they’re easy to core and stuff without parcooking first. Fill them with the fish salad, I discovered, and you can microwave them a couple of minutes on an open plate or in a snaplock container with a lid until the peppers are cooked just to tenderness on both sides. I sliced one of them crosswise into inch-thick pieces and got this:

salmon-stuffed peppers

A decorative sprinkle of smoked paprika over it and not only was it good for a hot lunch, it would also be a quick and pretty southwestern take on gefilte fish as an appetizer, one or two slices per person, without all the traditional filler or grating and boiling and carp in the bathtub and so on, but with some actual flavor and freshness.

B’te’avon (bon appétit, mangia bene, eat nice) and Chag Sameach (happy Passover)!

A Microwaveable Passover, 5778 (2018) edition

Spinach matzah balls in the microwave

No matter how many times I vow I’m not going to work too hard this year, I always end up cleaning the fridge some time in the small hours the night before Passover, swearing creatively to get all the vegetable bins and shelving back in the way they came out. Between packing out the unkasherable dishes and appliances like the toaster oven, shopping for the week, and kashering the silverware, dishes and pots for Passover, it always ends up about 5 to 6 or so in the evening before I can actually cook.

Passover started Friday night, and it was just us at home this time around for the first seder. So I didn’t have to make a huge menu, which was good. Because I did have to kasher the kitchen–starting after a 3-hour stint at the DMV (my third this month) to help my kid finally get her learner’s permit. Type I diabetes throws a monkey wrench into the proceedings and requires extra time, paperwork, and hocking to make sure one office actually sends the other office the fax within your lifetime…so it was a bit on the late side that I actually got to start, and by the time sunset rolled around, I was kind of wiped and ready to skip it. Not a great frame of mind for experimenting in the kitchen, certainly not that night. Although the fridge IS still astonishingly clean and sparkly.

We don’t always get fully past the rush to the enjoyment of the seder, especially those of us who are doing the cooking. But the first bite of parsley dipped in saltwater always signals the start of the holiday for me, and the first bite of matzah tastes like freedom. (The thirty-fifth bite or so, perhaps not so much…)

By now I’ve played around enough to have quite a number of simple Passover-worthy dishes that can be microwaved, some of them start to finish. That can be handy when you’re either short on cooking time after getting home from work on Friday or just short on patience and yet you still want to do a simple–but still nice–small seder. It might even provide a save at least for the side dishes if you’re doing a bigger one.

Some things you can’t help cooking on the stove–hard-boiled eggs for the seder plate and for the table of hungry guests.  And some things like charoset take some hand work to chop if you don’t have a food processor around.

However.

Even if you’re serving something long-cooked like chicken or brisket as a main dish, a couple of easy microwaveable vegetable dishes, appetizers and desserts–even soup–might benefit from not having to compete for stovetop and oven space, particularly if a heat wave is headed your way. And microwaving reaps big benefits for reheating or supplementing leftovers quickly during the next several days if you keep kosher for Passover, or even if you don’t.

Vegetabalia

Fresh vegetables really matter for Passover. Salad, yes. It’s spring, after all (even though my mother said they were expecting another snowfall this week in Boston). And also cooked greens. I’m a big believer in microwaving them lightly and last-minute wherever possible, so that they’re just-cooked, fresh-tasting and still green when you serve them–at least, if they’re supposed to be green.

microwaved asparagus with a poached egg

Lightly-microwaved asparagus stays green even the next day. It’s good either cold or reheated with light vinaigrette and a poached egg (regular or microwaved) and some basil or other spring herbs.

Asparagus is traditional, and as long as you don’t abuse it the way my mother [probably] still does, by boiling the regulation seven minutes, shocking in ice water, and then letting it sit around in the cold water for ages until the stalks start shredding into floaty olive-green kelp-like bits, because she’s too busy with the soup, and dinner’s not for another whole hour…..skip all that and microwave the stalks instead for 2-3 minutes and you can be a winner.

Snaplock containers that are about the same size as the amount of vegetable you’re microwaving make it easy to prep ahead and store raw trimmed, washed asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts or other greens in the fridge, ready to nuke and go. When you’re ready for them, just add a drizzle of water, maybe a quarter-inch, to the container, put the lid back on, shake once or twice over the sink (in case of drips), and microwave them 2-3 minutes for a pound–you can let them sit a minute or so afterward and they’ll continue to steam. If you’re doing 2 pounds in one container, double the time, but stop and stir gently halfway through so the less-cooked ones on the bottom get moved to the top, and keep an eye on it the last minute or so–that is, stop the microwave again and check with a fork for doneness–so you don’t overcook.

Once the vegetables are just fork-tender and still green, drain them carefully and either serve right away or take the lid off and lay it back on loosely with an  air gap–you can probably get away with letting it sit this way for 10 minutes or so without it cooling too much, and the veg will stay green. But obviously, it’s best to serve it fairly quickly.

Vegetables you plan to roast or pan-brown can get a very quick head start in the microwave before tossing quickly with olive oil, garlic and rosemary in a frying pan or, if you’ve already got it going anyway, the oven. The precooking definitely cuts down the browning time. Brussels sprouts, fresh fennel, new potatoes, carrots, and red squashes are easy to microwave with just a bit of water in the bottom of a covered container to help steam them quickly.

Not-Chicken Soups

Microwaveable not-chicken soups, good for a vegetarian, vegan, or fish dinner,  can be made ahead in a couple of minutes (well, 5 to 15, including prep time) and reheated. They’re also good to have on hand if you’re doing a big meat dinner with the standard chicken soup in a stock pot but you also have a few vegetarian guests.

vegetables for microwaveable not-chicken soup

Basic not-chicken soup (about 2 1/2 quarts or 8-10 servings)

  • 3-4 full-sized carrots
  • medium or large onion
  • 4 long stalks of celery
  • drizzle/spoonful of olive oil
  • fat clove of garlic, minced, mashed or grated
  • handful of fresh dill or 1-2 T dry
  • 12-20 black peppercorns
  • lemon juice and salt to taste at the table

Fill up a 2.5 quart microwaveable bowl or container nearly to the top with chopped (bite-size pieces) vegetables. Stir in a spoonful of olive oil, and microwave-wilt the veg for 5 minutes on HIGH with the lid on. Add a fat minced or grated clove of garlic, a handful of dill and a few black peppercorns, plus water to cover and reheat another 5-6 minutes or until steaming hot, then let it sit with the lid on. Your soup will be pretty flavorful after letting it steep half an hour, if possibly a bit sweet (just one of those leftover mongo onions from last week’s “gifting” weighed a full pound on average). A squeeze of lemon and a dash of salt–not Campbell’s or Lipton’s level salting, salt-shaker-at-the-diner’s-discretion salting–and a grinding of pepper will work it out.

Pan-browned not-chicken soup

The pan-browned minimal carrot-onion soup is a little more hands-on, but very convincing and full-bodied. The basic setup is the same as for plain, but after wilting, pan brown the veg in a nonstick frying pan until you see actual browning, about 10 minutes. Add a grated or minced fat clove of garlic, a sprig of thyme, and a splash of white wine, and cook it down to dry. Put the veg back in the microwave container, swirl a bit of water around the empty pan to pick up the browning (i.e., deglaze), add it to the veg, fill the container up to the top with water, and microwave 5-6 minutes to heat, then let it steep.

My current version (since I was gifted with celery as well last week) includes a couple of chopped stalks of celery with again, a very large onion. I also added in a bit of dill plus–chop ’em if you’ve got ’em–one or two finely-diced shiitake mushrooms, fresh or dried and soaked in half a cup of hot water,  for added not-chicken potency.

diced shiitake mushrooms

A squeeze of lemon and a dash of salt and fresh ground pepper at the table makes it even better than actual chicken soup. And you never have to skim any scum.

If you want to surprise people, go with bok choy broth but skip the soy sauce (contains wheat) and add extra shiitakes and fresh brown mushrooms, plus scallions, garlic and ginger. Use apple cider vinegar. We think sesame oil is fine for Passover but a lot of people don’t; it’s okay even without it.

Whatever soup you offer, keep the vegetables in. I never really understand the appeal of throwing out good veg just to have a 1950s-style “clear consommé”.

Microwave matzah balls?!

You can, actually, but not the conventional way, at least not in water to cover, mimicking the usual stovetop boiling. I tried it one afternoon last week just to see, using the classic back-of-box recipe just to be sure (I try these things so you don’t have to…). Continue reading

Color and Taste

We have a week and a half before Passover, and I’ve been experimenting a little with the foods I have to use up before then–flours, beans, lentils and spices.

I also–help! got “gifted” an awful lot of leftover vegetabalia from my daughter’s youth group director after last week’s major fundraiser, a huge Harry Potter-themed congregational dinner (Fantastic Feasts and Where to Find Them, still quite a popular title) that brought in nearly 200 diners and was frankly amazing.

bulk sacks of celery and onions

This is just the smaller bag of onions, along with way too much celery…

I managed to donate an entire 25-pound sack of onions to a local food pantry, but got another 10 pounds as a reward, along with two caterer’s packs of organic celery–that’s six full-sized heads–a huge box of organic mesclun that leaked horrible brown liquid in the shopping bag, so I composted it rather than trying to use any.

too much garlic

Worst of all….a 5-pound box of peeled garlic cloves. Which looked well-sealed and fine if ridiculous.

I looked squint-eyed at the youth director, who had such a hopeful wheedling expression on her face:  You like vegetables, you believe in garlic, could you please, please take it? Please?

Oy. By the end of a 10-minute ride home it was definitely reeking up my car. Why? Because the garlic cloves themselves were prepeeled, which always seems like such a bright idea to caterers and those who aspire to buy big. They were also machine-peeled, so some were cut into, hence the reek. And I mean, 5 pounds? I grabbed a modest handful of uncut cloves, rinsed them carefully, stuck them in a baggie and froze them. I had to toss out the rest of the box immediately. In the outside trash bin. Well wrapped.

In using the few cloves I kept, I’ve discovered I’m not wrong–looks really aren’t everything. The garlic itself, fresh or frozen, is impressive in size but very different from the usual small tight heads of garlic I buy for myself–harsher and yet less intense, lacking the warm flavors that make garlic garlic to me. So I’m going back to the real thing, peels and all.

In the meantime, I’ve been practicing my microwave not-chicken soup skills, along with testing the microwaveability of matzah balls–yes, you kind of can, they just won’t be spherical–which means we may all be sick of soup by the actual seder. Oh, no!

And while distracting myself from doing taxes, I’ve been looking for inspiration on another library cookbook binge. I drift by the New Books section and get caught by the new cookbooks with all the pretty colors–purple soup? red and yellow nasturtium blossoms on a salad? Bright green or pink or charcoal-gray (literally, as it turns out, using bamboo charcoal powder) shu mei wrappers?

As with the caterer’s box of garlic, though, looks can be deceiving.

I snatch up the books; I check them out, I lug them home and marvel at all the photographic bravura on my desk. Most of them are unexecutable in my kitchen because I don’t have a stick blender or enough counter space to do the fancy dim sum wraps justice. And some of them feature pork belly or crabmeat or other unkosher items.

Mostly, I look through the ingredients list and wonder mightily if they actually taste as impressive as the colors suggest, or if it’s all just for Instagram-worthy photos.

Love Italian Food (Maddalena Caruso, 2014) is a good case in point. Gorgeous photo of three technicolor puréed soups–cauliflower, broccoli, red cabbage with purple potato. I’m stunned by the purple velouté. But reading through I get cautious and skeptical. I want cream of red cabbage soup to taste amazing if it’s going to be that color and topped with a pale-jade romanesco floret. Caruso says it tastes peppery from the red cabbage; she adds purple potatoes for body and further color, some chicken broth, salt and pepper. She simmers the cabbage only 10 minutes or so before blending–hopefully that keeps it from going sulfurous. It might be good. It might be too subtle for me. I might have expected some lemon for the mild acidity that will keep the cabbage pigments from turning blueish-green. Or basil and garlic pesto. Maybe something smoky–smoked paprika? Or hot peppers and toasted sesame oil? Something.

I nuked a wedge of chopped red cabbage one recent afternoon to test the concept. It wouldn’t really blend smoothly in my food processor, and on its own, the purple mash smelled distinctly sour and a bit dank, lightly cooked as it was. It might combine well with other ingredients, but it wasn’t obvious that it would. Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: