January 28, 2010

Best Bread in Brooklyn?

On Saturday I found myself in Brighton Beach with time to kill. Hungry, I cruised by Georgian Bread on Neptune Ave and sidled in behind a burly Russian man in a fur hat.

Places like these sometimes make you feel as if the USSR hasn't dissolved, only replanted itself in the Borough of Kings. Inside, Russian was the clear lingua franca, which could have been intimidating, but I'd been there before and knew what I wanted.

And what did I want?

The bread.

Oh, the bread.

I had to wait, as it was still baking inside the enormous, beehive-shaped oven that takes up the floor in the front corner of the store, just behind the counter. Much larger than a tandoor, it seems to function on a similar principle—hot coals at the bottom, breads slapped on the sides to cook.

When the counterman finally bagged a hot, burnished loaf for me, it was all I could do not to tear into it right then and there. But I managed to wait until I got outside.

And wow! Tender yet crisp crust, chewy and slightly custardy crumb, straightforward wheat flavor. A loaf of bread from this place, hot out of the oven, may have no equal in Brooklyn—or even perhaps the whole city.

To accompany the loaf I chose two from their array of delicious Georgian spreads:

The one on top is eggplant, slightly smoky and mixed with walnut and something tangy—sour plum, perhaps? The one on bottom is spinach, laced through with chopped onion and so much garlic I could ward off vampires for a week.

Georgian bread also sells delicious khachapuri, a cheese-filled round bread baked in the same beehive oven.

Oh, Brooklyn, how I do love thee!

January 23, 2010

Cherry-Chocolate Chip Cream Scones

In an effort to keep up with the Vegetarian, who is in a dual-language French-English program at our local public school, I take French class every Tuesday. I'm in the advanced class, which is shocking to me, but would seem normal to anyone who knew how many years of French instruction I've actually had in my life.

In an effort to butter up appease my French teacher, Ria, because I rarely do my homework (old habits die hard) I usually try to bake something for class.

This week it was these scones.

I had some cream that was about to go bad in my fridge. I had dried cherries. I had chocolate chips. I had lots of flour, because I bought a few bags on sale a couple of weeks ago.

I got the recipe from here, but I think it's originally a Cook's Illustrated job.

How'd they turn out? Ria seemed pretty happy. They weren't bad. A tad overbaked, which was my fault, because I was worried about underbaking them and popped them back in the oven for an extra five minutes. I forget that they keep steaming and cooking as they cool.

I like a soft, super-moist scone that is not too crumbly. These fit the bill, particularly if you don't overbake them. If you seriously hate crumbly, try adding an egg. It will make them more cake-like. Which is less scone-like. But some people don't know what they want.

Cherry-Chocolate Chip Cream Scones

2 cups all-purpose flour (I like a lower protein flour for scones. If I had any White Lily flour left (which I unfortunately don't), I would have used one cup of that and one cup of regular unbleached all-purpose)
1 tbsp baking powder
3 tbsp sugar + more for sprinkling
1/2 tsp salt
5 tbsp cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup dried cherries, chopped
1/2 cup chocolate chips or chunks
1 cup heavy cream + more for brushing if you have it

Preheat oven to 425 F.
Place dry ingredients in bowl of food processor and pulse two or three times to aerate.
Cut butter into small pieces and add to bowl. Pulse 12 times.
Add cherries and chocolate and pulse 2 or 3 times.
Add cream and pulse 2 or 3 more times, until mixture looks shaggy. DO NOT pulse until mixture comes together in a ball. That would overwork your dough and give you tough, horrible scones.
(You could do the above steps by hand in a bowl and your scones would probably turn out better. But I was short on time and a food processor is faster.)
On a floured board or silpat, turn out dough from food processor and shape into a shaggy rectangle. Fold rectangle into thirds like a letter. Pat out into a bigger rectangle and fold again.
Pat out one last time into a rectangle about 1 to 1 and 1/2 inches thick. Using a very sharp knife, cut into 16 squares. (A dull knife will drag the sides down and give you less lift and fluffiness.)
Brush tops of squares with cream and sprinkle with sugar, if desired.
Place scones on a parchment or silpat lined baking sheet close together but not touching.
Bake for about 12-15 minutes, or until tops are golden but sides still look a little soft.
Cool on a rack and then eat, or pack up so you can brown-nose your French teacher.

January 22, 2010

Fried Bananas (or The Day I Almost Drowned)

My apologies for going so long without posting. Sickness descended upon our house, writhing its tentacles into almost every nook and cranny. (Mr. Coffee escaped, as always, with nary a slight tummy bubble, but the rest of us were laid low.) Apparently it's going around Brooklyn, this norovirus, flu-like thing. I personally haven't been that sick in years.

It's taken me almost a week to feel like myself again, and during that time I haven't been cooking, really, so I didn't have much to post about.

But today, feeling guilty, and wanting, needing, to post for my own sanity's sake, I dug out some pictures of fried bananas from our visit to Thailand this summer.

In case anyone who does not know me happens to be reading this blog (and I encourage that), my family—parents, brother, sister-in-law, and two nephews—lives in Bangkok, and semi-regular visits to Thailand are part of our summer. We try to go every other summer, alternating with a summer in which they come here.

Thailand (like Italy, where my family used to live) is one of those cultures that, in a sense, is perfect for me, as the Thais are obsessed with good food and eating well. We can't travel anywhere without my Thai sister-in-law making a short detour to a locale renowned for some gustatory treat. If we're returning from Ko Samet, there's the obligatory stop for the best sweet sticky rice steamed in bamboo tubes. In the Kanchanaburi area, it's fried taro chips and honey.

So on this trip, we went for the weekend to a beach resort very close to Bangkok, north of Hua Hin, where the water and beach are still kind of muddy. (not a spectacular beach by any means, but fun nonetheless) We had decided to head out to a nearby river for a rafting trip. (in which I, and the Soccer Monster, and the Vegetarian, were swept away by the current and scared witless like big sissies nearly drowned, but that's another story).

Of course, as soon as we got in the van, my SIL and her friend began having a discussion with the driver about good eats in the area. This was, as always, a passionate discussion. Nothing excites my SIL quite like the prospect of something delicious.

The local specialty turned out to be kluay kaek—fried bananas, and the van duly made a detour to stop at this stall, the best kluay kaek stall around.

And boy were they good. Hot and crunchy, sweet and salty. The bananas are coated in a little coconut and some kind of flour or batter—perhaps rice flour or taro flour (the photo shows the bowl they are coated in) and then fried and piled into little bags made from old newspapers or book pages.

We gobbled them up in our innocence, not knowing that death waited for us mere hours later. Those were the bananas of Eden, enjoyed in the time when rafting down a Thai river still seemed like a decent pursuit, before the knowledge of inept boatmen, abnormally strong currents, and an overloaded raft full of arachnophobes would conspire to rob us of our love of rafting forever.

Or at least until next summer.

And in case this post has given you an unshakeable jones for kluey kaek, video tutorials/recipes can be found here and here, though I warn you that neither of these look as delicious as the ones we had. Of course, that's both the beauty and heartbreak of Thai food in Thailand. You're always searching for the incredible version of something you had in the place where it's a specialty, and no version anywhere else will ever compare.

January 11, 2010

Pie, the Lardman, and Me

I have an arrangement with a farmer at the Grand Army Plaza farmer's market. He gives me lard from his locally raised pigs (and often, vegetables) and in return I bring him pies. Usually apple pies, as that's the kind he always asks for.
My friends make fun of me and call him my boyfriend. Mr. Coffee simply refers to him as the Lardman.
Mr Coffee is pretty happy with this arrangement. He gets a lot of pie out of the deal, as it's almost as easy to make two apple pies as it is to make one.

My Lardman gives me the lard packaged in great big gobs.

It's my job to render it.
First I chop it up into small pieces.

Then I put it into a great big cast iron cauldron. I make sure there's a wee bit of water at the bottom of the pot, so the lard doesn't brown or burn before it starts rendering.

I let it cook for several hours, stirring every once in a while, until the liquid fat has turned a soft gold.

Then I ladle it out into a jar, straining it through a coffee filter.

Look at it. Ain't it purdy?

If you want, you can keep cooking the remaining pieces until they are a deep golden brown and then strain the rest of the liquid. This gives you a darker, more porky tasting lard. Not so good for pies but great for refried beans or stews. Use any place you might be tempted to use bacon drippings.

Those deep golden brown cubes of fat are called cracklings, and they last a long time in the fridge and are great in things like cornbread.

January 6, 2010

Pressure Cooker Risotto

It all started back in October.

I asked for one of these for my birthday.
Fagor 918060607 6 Qt Splendid Pressure Cooker

Instead, I got one of these.

Atlas  Original Italian Pasta Machine, Stainless Steel

Hmm. One makes cooking quicker and easier. The other makes cooking longer and harder.

After much grumbling subtle prompting, I finally got my pressure cooker for Hannukah. (And I have actually enjoyed my pasta machine, but that's a topic for another post.)

I mainly wanted the pressure cooker to cook dal, because the dal I love most, toor dal, can take forever to cook. I had great visions of my aunt Kamal in Mumbai, cooking her dal (or umpti as it's known) and her veggies (or bhajis) in stainless steel dishes stacked inside her pressure cooker. (But that, too, is a topic for another post.) Somehow I believed that with a pressure cooker I could turn out the same sort of deliciousness that Kamal does.

Since I got the pressure cooker, I have made dal in it a few times. But I knew it had to be good for other things as well. Then I remembered that I'd read somewhere about cooking risotto in the pressure cooker.

So tonight I tried it.

And you know what?

I'm hooked!

It's not just that the whole process is so much faster and easier—which it is. It's that the rice comes out just the way I like it—tender but with an al dente middle. When I cook it the regular way, it always comes out gummy.

For years I bemoaned the fact that I could never get a decent risotto outside of restaurants in Italy. Even in the homes of Italian friends it was never as good. What I now realize is that most restaurants must use a pressure cooker to make their risotto. It's the exact texture I've been searching for.

I know, I know, there are plenty of detractors out there who will claim that pressure cooker risotto isn't the real, authentic thing.

But you know what?

I don't care.

It's delicious, and that's all that counts.

Pressure Cooker Risotto
I used this recipe, but mainly as a proportion and cooking time guide. I changed it up because I was trying to use up some things in my fridge.
Here's what I did:
I washed and chopped two slightly old leeks and sauteed them in some bacon drippings. (I tricked the Vegetarian again. But hey, gotta try to get some B12 in her somehow.)
Then I added 1 and 1/2 cups of arborio rice and stirred til it was coated with the fat.
Next I added a half cup of red wine and let that simmer until it was almost all gone.
Then I added 3 and 1/4 cups of liquid, which was one 16oz container of chicken broth and about a cup of water.
I closed the lid and brought the pressure up to high.
I turned down the heat and  cooked it for 4 minutes on high pressure.
Then I used the quick release valve on the cooker to bring down the pressure.
When the pressure came down, I opened the lid and tasted the rice. It was done, so I added in half a cup of parmesan and a tablespoon of butter, stirred vigorously, put the top back on and left it for two minutes. If your rice isn't done after the pressure comes down, add a little hot water and cook it until it is.

January 4, 2010

Rakott Krumpli, aka Hungarian Potato Cassserole

Everyone has their Proustian associations. Smells, tastes, the sight of something—these can all transport us back to the innocent days of our youth.

I have plenty of these associations, but for me there's something else that does it as well, something I was reminded of when I awoke to the sound of people speaking Hungarian at my uncle's on Sunday morning.

The sound of people older than me conversing in Hungarian takes me right back to my childhood, probably because a good portion of that childhood was spent sitting around while a bunch of adults talked in Hungarian. It's as comforting as a steamy bowl of cauliflower soup on a cold day.

But unfortunately, being sort of an adult now, my Proustian moment on Sunday was tinged with sadness. For children, the future is endless, but for us sort of adults, endings are visible everywhere. And what I realized on Sunday was that there is a limited amount of time left in which I would ever be able to awaken to the sound of Hungarian. My grandmother and her seven sisters are all gone, and while the next generation (my mother and uncles) will not be gone anytime soon, it's a wise bet to assume they will all precede me. Plus, they don't speak in Hungarian so much among themselves. It's only with the older generation (some of whom had come over for brunch on Sunday) that it really comes out. And in my generation, none of the cousins speak Hungarian. So at some point Hungarian won't be a part of our family gatherings anymore.

What does this have to do with food, you might ask? Well, one other Proustian benefit of waking to the sound of Hungarian on Sunday morning is getting to eat Rakott Krumpli, the quintessential Hungarian brunch casserole.

I have to confess that I forgot to take pictures of the beautiful one my mother baked, so I took the pic here off of this site. And if you're wondering why I couldn't just make it again and take a pic, let me assure you that rakott krumpli, no matter how delicious, is a dish best eaten only once every few months.

Rakott Krumpli
whole peeled boiled potatoes cooked in plenty of salted water (if it's a main dish, count on about 1 per person)
hard-boiled eggs (about 1 egg per potato)
keilbasa or ham or other type of smoked/cured sausage that can be sliced (can be omitted to make the dish vegetarian)
well-salted white sauce (about two tablespoons per potato)
sour cream (about one tablespoon per potato)
bread crumbs
Choose a baking dish that will hold the potatoes in about 3 layers. Mix sour cream and white sauce together. Slice potatoes and make a layer in a buttered casserole dish. Slice hard boiled eggs and kielbasa and scatter half of them on top. Drizzle with a quarter of sauce. repeat a second time, then end with third layer of potato. Pour remaining half of sauce over. Cover top with bread crumbs and dot with butter. Bake at 350 for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until bread crumbs are browned and casserole is bubbling.