Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mini cooking-co-op

Inspired by a New York Times piece about people who trade meals, my friend Rachael and I started a mini cooking co-op of our own last year. It's just us two, making it the smallest possible co-op you can have. But it's incredible how much time it saves to have a meal ready to go on busy weeknights, and it's so luxurious to have a quick dinner that's not a repeat of the night before. We don't have very many rules, like some of the groups in the Times article do; we just agreed to trade on Mondays or Tuesdays, and to make enough for the other person and her husband to have a good-sized meal.

It's been wonderful: last week Rachael made a delicious Italian Wedding Soup, delivered in two giant Mason jars. Earlier in the summer, she made a kit of thinly sliced vegetables and instructions on how to make summer rolls. My all-time favorite trade so far has been a lobster mac and cheese last winter that was so rich and delicious and comforting that I almost devoured all of it by myself. Mac and cheese is decadent on its own, but add lobster...heaven. For my part, I've shared some of my favorite dishes: pork belly sandwiches, oxtail stew, my mom's addictive fried rice.

Besides saving time on a weeknight -- which can be accomplished just by ordering takeout -- trading meals with someone is the next best thing to going out to dinner with them. It gives you a sense of community, even when it's a community of just two, two-person families, and even when the other half of the co-op is far away, battling a flooded basement outside the city. And it inspires you to try new recipes, to keep the agreement fresh and interesting and fun. If anyone is in the vicinity of Bryant Park and would like to join us in this little cooking co-op, drop me a line!

This week, Rachael made a delicious breakfast-for-dinner hash of summer vegetables: new potatoes, corn and kale, with a little spice, and packed up fresh brown eggs and cheese to add on top once the hash was re-crispied in a frying pan. Delicious! My contribution was cold orzo tossed with basil, tomatoes and olive oil, pan-grilled lamb chops, and a yogurty cucumber and onion sauce.

Dinner is over now and it's getting late. I can hear an ice cream truck playing its tune outside my window, even though it's after 10 p.m. Soon, they'll all be hibernating in their ice cream truck caves far away. Summer! Don't go just yet. Stay a little longer.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Disaster aversion

The last three days were supposed to be disastrous. We were supposed to have a hurricane on Sunday, snarling the entire city, the power was supposed to be down, making it impossible for me to meet my publication's publish deadline this afternoon, and tonight, I was supposed to start my last year of grad school.

Oh, the anxiety!

But none of these things happened. I slept through the hurricane, and ended up needing none of the things my husband and I did to prepare, like fill the bathtub and buy lots of canned goods and bottled water.

The power was up, and even though I couldn't connect to the network at work, my co-editor and I phoned in edits, His-Girl-Friday style. Sweetheart, get me rewrite!

And, the first day of school was cancelled. I have mixed feelings about this last one -- I was feeling anxious about the whole thing, but deep down I did really want it to start. The upside, though, for this post's purposes, is that I had extra time to sit and enjoy dinner today instead of racing to class after deadline with a smashed sandwich in tinfoil. I made: radish salad with goat's butter and black salt, tomato basil bruschetta, soft boiled eggs and ate it with a big wedge of garrotxa cheese and a glass of wine. Mmm.

The other upside of all this averted disaster is that there is one more weekend to have a final, major cooking moment before the madness begins. Thinking it would be my last chance to cook anything very involved, I made spicy lamb stew with big, juicy yellow tomatoes several days ago. Luckily, it's not the last chance just yet!

Spicy lamb stew

2 eggplants, cubed and salted and set aside for about 20 minutes to half an hour.
7 fist-sized tomatoes. I used yellow plum, but you could use any you like.

Salt and pepper
1 - 2 tablespoons coriander
1/2 teaspoon cumin
2 tablespoons of powdered ginger, or grated if you prefer
Pinch of nutmeg

Big splash of olive oil
4 lamb shoulder chops, cut into stew-sized chunks of about two inches square.
1 onion sliced thinly
A few cloves of garlic
1-2 hot chilies 
A splash of apple cider vinegar

1. Rinse the eggplant under cold water and set aside.

2. Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water, dice and set aside.

3. Mix the next six ingredients together in a bowl, add the cubes of lamb, and toss until the lamb is coated. It smells so good! If you like you can stop here, wrap everything up and pop it in the fridge to make later.

4. Heat the olive oil on in a Dutch oven or a casserole with a lid on high heat. Add the lamb and sear until golden. Add the onions, then the garlic, letting nothing get too singed on the edges. Add the eggplant and the chilies. Let all the ingredients get to know each other for a short while.

5. Add the tomatoes, put on the lid, and turn down the heat. Let everything simmer for an hour.

6. Add a splash of vinegar, and if you like, a couple big handfuls of chopped cilantro.

7. Dinner's ready!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Reliable crust on hurricane eve

Oh boy. I've always been nervous in the spotlight, so here goes nothing: a little blog about the meals that fortify me in New York City. I'm from a small town -- though the people there know it as the biggest town around -- and even though I love it here, it's easy to feel out to sea. Sometimes a homemade brownie, a well-planned brown-bag lunch, a strong, rich cup of coffee, can make all the difference on a day when nothing seems quite right.

I'm a journalist at one of the speciality publications of The Financial Times, and I'm working on my Master's degree at The New School. Between the two, I often feel that most of my writing is done to meet other people's deadlines. The pressure! My plan is to use this space to get a little loose and have a project that's just for fun. I hope that within some of my posts you will find a useful recipe or two, and maybe, if you're also juggling many things at once, you'll be reassured that there's someone else out there like you, trying to grab back a little calmness.

My first offering is a delicious and stalwart lard crust, as taught to me by my gran, Mabel. It never fails -- you can even roll it out a couple of times without it getting tough. If you haven't purchased lard before, look for it in the same grocery store aisle as eggs and milk. The most common brand I've seen is in a green and white box labeled in Spanish and English. It's enough for two rounds of this recipe, so just chop it all up at once and toss the unused half into the freezer so it's ready for a second pie.

One recipe makes two full pie crusts, so you'll have a little left over if you make a lattice top or don't need a top at all.

Tonight, on the night before The (alleged) Big Hurricane, I filled this pie crust with tiny tart blueberries dusted with powdered ginger and sugar, but you can use it as a crust for any pie filling you like.  It's tasty with fruit pies, cream pies, and I like it with quiche, too, but that combo is rich, rich, rich, so might not be for everybody.

Reliable crust

1/2 pound lard
1/2 stick butter
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/4 cup cold water

1. Cut the lard and the butter into little cubes. Put them in the freezer until they are very cold and hard.

2. Mix together the flour and the salt.

3. Place the lard and butter in the flour, and using your hands, rub the fat into the flour until it looks like small clumps of wet sand. It will look like a rougher version of a store-bought pie-crust mix. Like this:

 4. Whisk the last three ingredients together in a small bowl, and combine with the floury fat, switching to a fork or a pastry dough blade when it gets too hard to incorporate with a mixing spoon. If the dough seems too sticky, add a little more flour. It rarely goes the other way for me, but when it has, I've found that adding a little milk or cream works well to bring everything back together again.

5. Divide the dough in half. Pat one half into a ball and place on a floured surface. Sprinkle a little flour on top and roll out to a thickness you like. If you find that in the process of rolling out the dough it seems too sticky or too fragile, just douse it with a little more flour, gather it up, and roll it out again. Doing so won't cause it to turn out any worse.

6. Line a pie plate with the dough and set aside. Roll out the other half of the dough and get it ready to put on top.

7. Fill the pie crust with whatever filling you'd like -- I especially love this with tart berries, because the fat and the fruit tastes so good together -- but you could use it for anything you like.

8. Pop on the lid of the crust, or make a lattice top, or leave it off altogether.

9. Place it in the oven and bake until the crust is golden, about 25 minutes. Rotate the pie, turn down the temperature to 375 degrees, and bake for another 30 minutes, or until the filling is as gooey as you like it. If it needs more time in the oven, and you're worried about the crust burning, just cover the top with some foil to protect it.

10. There! Delicious pie for you!

Here's the filling I made for this pie:

2 pint cartons of blueberries
1 cup sugar, but you could use more or less depending on how tart your berries are
About a tablespoon of powdered ginger, but you could use fresh ginger, too
A couple pinches each of cinnamon and allspice (I guess that choice was a little redundant, but it tasted good)
The juice of one lemon
3 tablespoons of potato starch
A few pats of butter

Toss everything together and slap into the pie crust. Put the pats of butter on top of the berries, and put on the crust lid.