Monday, November 26, 2007

Spice Market

So often I feel as if I don't get much accomplished in the evenings. Not tonight. I arrived home feeling inspired to tackle a task I've been thinking about for a while now--reorganization of the spices, oils, vinegars, sauces, and other sundry items in our cabinets.

The inspiration was the result of a trip to Patel Brothers, an Indian grocery in Jackson Heights, Queens, near where I happened to be working this afternoon. After spending yesterday afternoon making a list of "Spices I Must Buy" while browsing through The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa (a much-loved cookbook by Marcus Samuelsson that I actually bought by mistake on last spring--darn that one-click ordering!), I couldn't pass up a trip to Patel Brothers when I was right in the neighborhood. I had to go elsewhere for the berbere, but they had just about everything else. Whole cloves, star anise, coriander seeds, crushed fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, cinnamon sticks (For 1/4 the price of our local grocery! Hot apple cider anyone?), and much more. How could I help but be inspired to reorganize when I had such exciting acquisitions to accommodate?

Reorganizing the spices doesn't sound like much, but it took a fair bit of time and brought me an amazing peace of mind when all was arranged (and inventoried, of course, with a list of everything on each shelf taped to the inside of the cabinet door). Now I feel I can rightfully reward myself by relaxing on the couch for an hour and watching Law & Order.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Is This Becoming a Cooking Blog?

The other day I Googled "how to use egg yolks." I had 10 egg yolks in a bowl in the fridge, having used the whites the night before to make a no-wheat/no-soy/no-sugar/no-gluten party snack for a friend's birthday celebration (spicy potato pancakes--quite decent actually). I couldn't let all those yolks go to waste. Google did not let me down. The very first search result told me I could use 8 of those 10 yolks by making creme brulee. Coincidentally we were given a creme brulee set as a wedding gift (complete with blow torch and ramekins), and had yet to use it. Thus began an afternoon of kitchen firsts:

1. First vanilla bean.
2. First blow torch experience.
3. First flash of understanding that there is something truly wrong with our oven.

Who could have guessed that 4 tiny inches of vanilla bean could fill the apartment with such a heady aroma. I scraped out the seeds and simmered them in heavy cream, then mixed the cream into the whipped egg yolks (tempering it, so as to avoid making vanilla scrambled eggs). I filled the ramekins and into the oven they went for the suggested 35 minutes at 275 degrees. An hour later, it still looked more like soup than creme. I upped the temperature. Another 55 minutes at 350 degrees. STILL soupy. It was supposed to "jiggle slightly in the middle." I turned it up to 450 degrees. 40 minutes later I had the consistency I was looking for. What the heck? Clearly our oven is way off (the recipe could not possibly be that wrong). Well, that could certainly explain a number of past cooking problems. How can I figure out how hot it really gets in there? Oven thermometer? What would Alton do?

Moving on. After the 3 hours of baking came the fun part:

It actually worked! I might have gotten a little carried away and burned the first one, but I was pleased as punch when the spoon cracked the hardened sugar just the way it's supposed to. Sadly, I do not like creme brulee, so poor Ashkon had to eat all four of them.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Mysterious World of Photoshop

PHOTOSHOP: Has ever the name of a computer program suggested more mystery and possibility? Perhaps, but not to me. As far as I'm concerned, Photoshop is the ultimate mystifying miracle-worker. Rumor has it you can use it to change colors, textures, effects, backgrounds, and even (gasp) remove a person from a photo altogether.

I've long wished to venture into the uncharted universe of Photoshop, but frankly it has been a little daunting. I open up the screen and am overwhelmed and utterly confused by the options I am presented with. Despeckle? Mezzotint? Craquelure? Are those ways of manipulating photographs? The terms sound like they belong in A Standard Book of Spells: Grade Four by Miranda Goshawk.

Fortunately, when the need to tinker with a photo is truly desperate, Ashkon comes to my aid. That was the case with the picture above, which I took a couple of weeks ago on a rainy day in New Haven, Connecticut. The colors of the house, the tree, the leaves, were so vibrant in real life, but I just could not capture that in my picture. I was so disappointed. My polarizing filter, which I now invariably use to block the glare and deepen the color of my photos, had fallen out of its frame the week prior and was unusable.

I knew there had to be a fix for a washed-out, should-have-been-polarized photo. And I knew Photoshop had to have it somewhere. Rather than meander around trying out different things, Ash suggested Googling something along the lines of "photoshop AND tutorial AND polarizing filter." Lo and behold, we came up with something. And thank goodness, because it was absolutely the least intuitive series of steps you could ever imagine. But it worked! Amazing!

Perhaps I went just a tad bit overboard. In real life the leaves were not approaching fluorescent, bright though they were. Sorry, couldn't help myself; it was just so thrilling to figure out how to do something in Photoshop. The question is, could I ever duplicate it without the tutorial? We're not there yet... Next project: to figure out how to remove pesky things like power lines.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Part Three: Banana Bread and "Gourmet" Sabzi

This is the last in my series of weekend cooking posts. I will have to move onto something different for my next few posts as I won't be cooking for a bit. Now I'm on a mission to clear the fridge of leftovers!

Monday was a Baha'i Holy Day, and fortuitously it was a work holiday as well. In celebration of the Holy Day a friend hosted brunch at her home. I baked a quick banana bread in the morning to take over. I have made banana bread a few time before and invariably it comes out of the oven looking lovely, but concealed in the middle is a little spot of doughy not-quite-done-ness that I can't get rid of. Why? I always thought it was because the bananas congregated in the middle, but this time I pureed the bananas into a banana soup, rather than just mashing them with a fork, so I know for a fact they were evenly distributed! If I leave it in the oven longer, the whole rest of the loaf dries out. This loaf was no exception. See below...

The outer slices deceptively look just right. But cut in a little further and look:
Is it my pan? (A non-stick 9-inch loaf pan.) Is it my oven? (A non-descript ancient clunker.) Is it the recipe? If anyone has thoughts, or better recipes to share, I am open to suggestions.

I had much greater success on Monday afternoon, which I spent making a famous Persian stew called qormeh sabzi (قرمه ‌سبزی ). Personally, I like to refer to it as gourmet sabzi, or "gourmet greens." It's an herb stew made with meat, dark red kidney beans, and lime. The name comes from the selection of green herbs that go into it--mountains of parsley, cilantro, chives, scallions, and fenugreek (I had to use dried for that last one). I snapped a photo mid-process of the herbs ready to go into the pot.

Sadly I did not have the presence of mind to photograph the finished product. By the time it was finished cooking (after 3 hours of slow simmering), we were so eager to eat that pictures were the last thing on our minds.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Part Two: Wontons

I came home on Friday evening in the mood to cook. I opened the fridge to find pork chops--lots of them. It rarely occurs to me to buy pork, so I don't know many ways of preparing it well. I opened up The Best Recipes in the World and looked up "pork" in the index. 30 seconds later, I had my answer--a Chinese pork and asparagus stir-fry with a starter course of pork wontons. The stir-fry, I have to be honest, was nothing special. The wontons, however, were fabulous, and they opened up new vistas of dumpling-making that I fully intend to explore.

I picked up the wonton wrappers from the supermarket. (Homemade wrappers? Not likely to see those in the near future.) I ground up one thick, lean pork chop in our trusty Braun blender/slicer/dicer, added some scallions here, some soy sauce there, a drop of sesame oil, ginger, garlic, and that was about it.

I folded the wontons up the way the pictures-only directions seemed to suggest, only to find out after having cooked and eaten them all, that I had interpreted the diagrams incorrectly. That is why Ashkon deciphers Ikea instructions in our house rather than me. Anyway, no harm done. After folding they got a quick pan fry, and then 5 more minutes in a covered skillet to steam them through. A little soy dipping sauce on the side, and you've got a tasty appetizer. They began disappearing before I even managed to take a photo to record this wonton milestone.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Part One: Pie

This weekend our kitchen saw more action than it has in the past 3 months combined. It was a weekend cooking extravaganza. So much so that I will have to address it in a multiple-part series of posts. Part one: Pie.

Inspired by a number of different cooking blogs, I spent some time last week thinking about pie. I have tried to make pies on one or two prior occasions, but never with particular success. I decided it was time to get back up on the horse and try it again. I settled on a triple-front attack that would guarantee at least ONE successful result. Three pies: (1) my Aunt Tammy's famous pecan pie, (2) Alice Waters' apple tart (via Smitten Kitchen), and (3) Ruth Reichel's blueberry pie with crumble topping (via The Amateur Gourmet)

My downfall in prior pie-making efforts has always been the crust. I would begin by rolling out two crusts (or, more accurately, attempting to roll out), and one would invariably (1) fall apart in dry crumbly pieces or (2) wrap itself around the rolling pin and stick like crazy glue. Then I would be left turning my pie into a makeshift tart with the one misshapen crust that survived. This time I settled for one homemade crust (for the apple tart) and bought two pre-made crusts from the grocery store (for the pecan and blueberry).

My friend Rachel came over Saturday afternoon to act as sous-chef and provide moral support. We began with the apple tart. I used Mark Bittman's simple tart crust recipe from How to Cook Everything. Once we formed the dough and got it into the freezer, we went to work on the pecan and blueberry. At first appearances, pecan was a snap. Mix together all the ingredients in a bowl, pecans included, and pour it into the crust. The most time-consuming part was turning the pecans so they all faced upward. (My aunt mentioned she did this for her pie and I felt I just wouldn't be doing it properly if I didn't follow along.) Blueberry was almost equally speedy. Just pour the fruit into the crust and whip up a quick crumble topping. Rather than use recipe topping, which The Amateur Gourmet called a "disaster," I went with my mother's tried and true apple crisp topping, which has never failed me yet. Those two went into the oven.

The pecan pie came out looking fabulous. (Yes, that's me in the reflection, attempting to take a clear photo in the low-light !)

The blueberry had some difficulties, however. Our oven (or perhaps our whole kitchen) slants slightly downward on one side. As a result all liquids roll in one direction, and all baked goods end up thicker on side than the other. Mid-bake I opened the oven to check on the pies and realized the blueberries had all migrated to one side of the pie and were drowning the crumble crust! In an attempt to rectify the situation, I turned the pie around. Not a good idea, as it turned out. The blueberries promptly rolled down to the other side of the pie and drowned the crumble opposite. By the time the pie was done, I was left with an island of crumble crust floating in a blueberry sea.

While the first round of pies was baking, we rolled out the apple tart dough. Thanks to Rachel's assistance and helpful tips, we actually were able to roll out a relatively supple, non-sticky, more-or-less circular tart crust. We pressed it into my new tart pan (bought especially with this in mind at A Cook's Companion on Friday) letting the dough hang over the sides, then arranged the apple slices in the middle (rather artistically, I'd say), and folded the dough back over on top. Before popping it in the oven we sprinkled sugar over the apples and folded dough (3 tbsp, rather than the 5 the recipe called for), and brushed it all with a little melted butter. It came out looking miraculously like Deb's picture in her Smitten Kitchen post! How thrilling that the most complicated of our experiments should have turned out so attractively!

Some friends invited us over for a potluck on Saturday night, and that gave me the perfect venue for pie-testing. (Because, after all that running, the last thing I want to do is ruin the results by eating three pies myself.) The apple tart was a definite hit. The pecan pie got rave reviews on taste, but somehow the filling just did not solidify as it should have, so there was some serious runny stickiness that will have to be addressed on my next attempt. The blueberry did not have as many takers, likely due to its questionable appearance, but it was tasty enough. Next time I will toss the blueberries in a little sugar before putting them in the crust. And perhaps next time I will make all the crusts myself.

Pie-making was just one of the many experiments performed in our kitchen this weekend! Stay tuned for more.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Oscar Wao

I'm not much for book reviews. I don't read them too often, and I certainly do not write them. If I really enjoy a book and I feel that for the benefit of humanity it is necessary to spread the word, I usually just go around telling everyone, "I read the most amazing book...." for about a year afterwards. That's what I did after I read Alexander Hamilton's biography by Ron Chernow (life changing, but don't get me started). Still, I somehow can't resist sharing, very briefly, my thoughts on the most recent book I've read: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

I expected to enjoy it (it having been recommended by at least one person whose taste I trust). I didn't expect to spend the evening after finishing it smiling to myself because it really surprised me. I rarely have that feeling after reading a book, and I found myself thinking, "Junot, man, I was not expecting that! You got me that time!" Its unique blend of sweet nerdiness, streetwise attitude, and confrontation of the cold, hard historical facts was a fascinating combo. It was thought-provoking on so many levels: the changing perspective of the narration, the development of the story's somewhat eccentric characters, the terrifying picture of a Dominican Republic under Trujillo's dictatorship, and let's not forget the spot-on Spanglish and the innumerable references to science fiction and fantasy novels (some popular and some unbelievably obscure). From beginning to end it was starkly different from everything else I have read this year, and it was so refreshing. Two thumbs way up.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Marathon: 26.2 in New York City

Well, it's all over. The New York City Marathon. All 26.2 miles of it. And every moment of it was incredible in its own way. Those hours of anticipation in the chilly Staten Island morning; the thrill of the start; the exhilaration of the crowds cheering; the thousands and thousands of cups littering the streets after every water station; the changing face of the city and its people as we passed from neighborhood to neighborhood; the painful uphills when I wanted to walk, but didn't; the even more painful final miles when I wanted to cry, but didn't; finding that last burst of speed in me to pick up the pace at Mile 25 and sprint to the finish. What a range of emotions I went through during the 5 hours and 44 minutes I was out there on the course! Most overwhelming of all was the feeling of joy and gratitude I felt every time we saw our friends and family out on the course cheering us on, and every time I thought of the many people who told me they would be cheering from afar. Truly, it made the whole experience. THANK YOU!

My running buddy Amy was my mainstay through our 5 months of training and every step of those 26.2 miles. I would not have made it halfway without her.

Below are a few photos from the day, mostly courtesy of Ashkon, my #1 fan. Ramin also made us feel like professional athletes, by running alongside us at Mile 8 with his massive Canon lens and capturing these shots. Now I have pictures to go with the memories.

Before the start, with the Verazano Bridge in the background:

Still feeling good at Mile 8 on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn:

Cups littering the road after a water stop:

Our surprise and excitement at finding friends and family waiting for us at Mile 15 in Queens:

Our cheering section! Who could help but be inspired?

Going for a strong finish after Mile 25:

Saturday, November 3, 2007


Oh my goodness. The New York City Marathon is TOMORROW! I may not have mentioned it on my blog previously, but I am supposed to be running that marathon. Did I mention it's TOMORROW?? 24 hours from now I will be at about Mile 10. I'm having a bit of a meltdown. No photos. Nothing more to share. Just that.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Disco Bowling

For anyone who was under the impression that bowling on the Nintendo Wii might improve one's skills in the actual game, let me assure you that it is not so. Last Friday night I went out bowling for the first time in about eight years. I figured all that Wii bowling would finally get me past the 100 score mark; after all, my little Mii has an average of...okay, I don't remember, but it's definitely respectable. Apparently those skills don't translate. Still, fun times were had by all and there was just a teeny bit of disco dancing under the strobe lights too.