Archive for October, 2007

There are fruits and vegetables whose appearance alone can make me salivate: fat heirloom tomatoes, juicy summer peaches, bright orange peppers. And then there are vegetables so ugly they look like a genetic abomination. Case in point: celery root.

Celery root

Celery root, also known as celeriac, is quite possibly the world’s ugliest vegetable. It’s hairy, it’s dirty, it may or may not have emerged from John Hurt’s chest in Alien.

So what is this thing, and what does it taste like?

As its name suggests, celery root lives underground and is associated with a special variety of celery, but the part we eat isn’t the root itself. What we eat is part of the plant that channels nutrients between the root and the celery leaves. Unlike true root vegetables, which store lots of starch, celery root is only about 5-6% starch by weight.

After some serious peeling and cooking, the flavor of celery root is really wonderful: reminiscent of celery, with another more mysterious flavor I can’t put my finger on. The boiling celery root smelled, to me, faintly of mild curry, but it didn’t taste like curry, so I’m having trouble pinning it down.

Pureed with potatoes, butter and some salt and pepper, celery root is transformed into a creamy, luscious side — similar to mashed potatoes, but more complex. I can assure you that the sight of this hairy excuse for a veggie won’t have me smacking my lips any time soon, but the memory of this scrumptious puree certainly will.



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This week I was swept up by the Zeitgeist. I did something I never thought I’d do: I bought an iPhone. And, let me tell you, this gadget just might change my life. It is awesome.

My purchase got me thinking about Apple, which in turn got me thinking about apples. In my mind, everything comes back to food.

As luck would have it, we are in peak apple season, and the farmer’s market is teeming with them: Honeycrisps, Galas, Cortlands, Cameos, each seemingly tastier than the next.

All of the varieties above are great for eating out of hand. For baking in cakes and muffins, my favorites are Rome, Cortland, Golden Delicious and Winesap. I will use Granny Smith too, but I find that Granny Smith are a little too tart these days. But they are perfectly suitable for baking.

McIntosh, Fuji and Gravenstein apples make wonderful applesauce, and Golden Delicious, Pink Lady and Northern Spy are great in pies. For pies, I try to use a variety to make the flavor more interesting. You can find more information on what apples to use for what purpose here.

Spice bars

In the fall, you will often find spice cakes and apples paired together, and the combination is one of my favorites — when it’s done right. I find that a lot of recipes out there use way too much spice, drowning the flavor of the apple.

That’s why I love the two recipes below. There’s enough spice to warm up the flavor and scream “Autumn!” but not so much that you feel like you’re eating a mouthful of cinnamon and cloves.

When you use the right amount, the aromatic compounds in spices like cinnamon and allspice actually enhance the sweetness of fruits like apples. If I had more time, I could explain why (it probably has something to do with the phenols in the spices and the esters in the apples), but alas, the day is only so long.

So even though these apple cakes probably won’t change your life like some other Apple products, I think you’ll find they will, nonetheless, make your life a little sweeter.

Apple cake


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Leftovers, Incognito

When you live with one other person and you like to cook, it’s pretty much guaranteed you will end up with leftovers. Lots of them. And when that other person you live with doesn’t love eating leftovers night after night, and you cannot bring yourself to throw away food, you’re left with a bit of a conundrum.

Many of said leftovers wind up as the next day’s lunch. But when you have, say, several pounds of leftover risotto, lunch isn’t really gonna do it, unless you want to have risotto for lunch every day, for eternity.

So what to do…? In such situations, creativity sets in: leftover spaghetti turns into crispy noodle cakes, veggies re-emerge as omelet fillings and, in the case of Sunday’s leftovers, risotto becomes suppli al telefono, Italian fried risotto balls.

I tried suppli for the fist time in Rome on a trip with my brother, and we both fell in love with them (and ate so many that my brother started sweating and could barely breath). At home, I’ve found them only at 2 Amy’s in DC, and I get them nearly every time I go (which, sadly, is only a handful of times each year).

Making suppli is pretty straightforward. You take some leftover risotto (an amount a little bigger than the size of a golf ball), stick a cube of mozzarella in the center of the ball, roll the ball in flour, beaten eggs and breadcrumbs and then fry the suckers.

In my case, I decided to bake them instead of frying them. Sacrilege, I know. But it was a work night, it was late, and I was tired. The thought of dealing with deep-frying and the cleanup was very, very unappealing.

Did the suppli suffer for it? Slightly, but not much. Fried suppli have a crispier exterior, and you can eat them with your fingers without creating a total mess. I think I prefer them that way. Baked suppli are a little more delicate and were best eaten with a fork, but the taste was still fantastic. After all, how bad could cheese-stuffed risotto be, really?

And whichever way you decide to make them, I assure you, no one will feel like they’re eating leftovers.



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Peeling butternut squash is one of those unfortunate and unpleasant tasks that, to my dismay, almost always end up being worth it.

If recipes requiring peeled and chopped winter squash wound up being eh or even just okay, I’d swear off peeling squash forever. But the sad fact is, the payoff is usually tremendous. So I soldier on.

Sure, all that slicing and peeling is tedious, but that’s not what bothers me most. What gets me is what the little buggers do to my hands.

At first I thought I was the only one who had this problem. Every time I’d get the brilliant idea to peel and chop a butternut squash, my hands would end up looking chapped and raw, with a strange film covering the surface of my skin. No matter how many times I’d wash my hands and slather them with lotion, that strange sensation wouldn’t go away. I felt like Lady Macbeth.

But then I heard more family and friends making the same complaint. “I just spent all afternoon chopping up squash,” my mother once said to me over the phone, “and now my hands look like I stuck them in acid. I hate what that vegetable does to my skin!”

So it isn’t just me. And after a little Googling, I came across a scientific paper entitled “Butternut Squash (Curcurbita moschata) dermatitis,” written by two dermatologists. Apparently, a compound in butternut squash can cause contact dermatitis, a localized rash or irritation of the skin. This isn’t necessarily the case for everyone, but it happens to enough people that now I don’t feel like I’m crazy.

You can imagine my reaction, then, when I saw a phenomenal recipe for saffron risotto with roasted butternut squash, for which the first instructions read, “Peel squash, remove the seeds and chop into 3/4″ cubes.” Oh no, not that again. But the recipe looked so good and I couldn’t get it out of my head. There had to be another way.

That’s when it came to me: rubber gloves. A perfect solution? As it turns out, nearly, and it was certainly better than raw hands or — horrors — no risotto at all. I threw on a pair of tight-fitting rubber gloves and peeled away — a task that does not become any less tedious with gloves, but at least I didn’t need to sacrifice my skin in the process.

So problem solved. I peeled the squash, the squash didn’t peel me, and I made a risotto that was most definitely worth the effort.

Edited to add: If you’ve had a bad skin reaction after peeling and chopping squash, wash your hands with cool water and soap, then rub some cortisone cream all over your hands.  This should help heal the contact dermatitis, though the rash and strange sensation will not disappear immediately.



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What’s in a name? Well, if you’re a sweet potato, not much.

Sometimes called a yam, sometimes called a sweet potato, the sweet potato is actually neither a yam nor a potato.

What what?

Yes, it’s true. All three are basically underground organs where plants store their starch. But that’s about where the relationship ends.

Yams are tropical “tubers,” the place where tropical grass and lily plants hold their starch, and are native to Africa, South America and the Pacific. They come in varying textures, colors, sizes and flavors and have been know to grow up to 6 feet (yes, 6 feet) in length.

Potatoes, on the other hand, are tubers of a stem plant that bears yellow or silver flowers and are native to moist, cool regions of Central and South America.

So then what is a sweet potato, that wonderfully syrupy starch that so many of us eat at holiday dinners, often adulterated with a hefty dose of marshmallows and brown sugar?

Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are actually root vegetables — which are similar to but different than tubers — and are the storage root of the Ipomoea batatas plant (helloooo botany). They are native to northern South America, but today China is the sweet potato’s biggest consumer and producer.

There are a slew of different varieties: some dry and starchy, others moist, some deep orange or purple and others pale yellow. The “garnet” and “jewel” variety are the kinds you find most often in the supermarket, usually labeled as “yams,” which — as we have just established — they are not.

So…why do we call them yams?

There are a couple of theories. The prevailing one seems to be that yam is a derivative of a Western African word meaning “to eat” as well as the word for true yams (“nyami” and “anyinam”). African slaves brought to America started calling sweet potatoes “yams,” the term spread and then in the 1930s, food marketers ran with it, promoting sweet potatoes as yams in their advertising campaigns. To me, that’s sort of like saying, “Hey, let’s promote turnips by calling them parsnips!” But whatever, clearly I don’t think like a food marketer…

Sweet potatoes macro

Happily, they got the “sweet” part of the sweet potato’s name right. There’s an enzyme in sweet potatoes that, when heated, breaks down all that starch into a sugar that’s about a third as sweet as table sugar. So the longer you cook those babies, the sweeter and lovelier they will taste.

Boiling or steaming will cook them too fast and you will lose some of the sweetness. But if you roast them…mmm. You will be rewarded with a delicious, soft and mouth-watering accompaniment to any fall meal, no sugar required. And if you whiz them in a food processor with some vanilla-infused half-and-half, butter, salt and pepper? Sweet heaven.

So whatever you call them, if cook them right, you’ll be in for a treat.

Sweet potatoes above


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I have a confession to make.  You may find it shocking, but here it is:

I don’t crave chocolate.

I know.  Unthinkable.  Some of you probably just closed this window, never to return.  At least allow me to explain the genetics that gave rise to this deficiency.

Growing up, my father was surrounded by chocolate fanatics: his siblings, his parents, every relative within a 50-mile radius.  When it came to dessert, my grandmother’s attitude was, “If it’s not chocolate, why bother?”  It could be chocolate-flavored dust and she wouldn’t care; it was chocolate.

And yet when presented with the choice of, say, chocolate or vanilla ice cream, my father would unfailingly choose vanilla.

My grandparents were baffled.  How could this be?  What kind of strange creature had they brought into the world?  Sure, he was a straight-A student and destined to become a doctor, but then there was…this.  My father, the vanilla sheep of the family.

And then one day he met my mother, who inexplicably also favored vanilla over chocolate.

“Imagine that,” my grandmother would tell her friends.  “He found someone out there just like him!”

So I’m working with a stacked deck here.  Don’t get me wrong: I love chocolaty things.  Nothing beats a thick, moist slice of chocolate cake or warm, gooey brownies.  And clearly I have a thing for chocolate pudding.

But sit me in a restaurant and throw a dessert menu in front of me, and nine times out of 10 I will make a non-chocolate choice.  I really, really like chocolate; I just don’t crave it.

Bete Noire

I do realize, however, that I’m in the minority on this one and that some people hold fast to my grandmother’s “if-it’s-not-chocolate-why-bother” mantra.  So when my boyfriend and I had friends over this Friday, I decided to succumb to popular demand and make a chocolate dessert — a notable concession, since I had just made chocolate pudding the week before, which would do me on the chocolate front for a while.

I decided to go with the Kate Zuckerman’s Chocolate Bête Noire, a flourless chocolate cake that is one of the most intense chocolate desserts out there (they don’t call it the “black beast” for nothing).  I guess I figure go big or go home.

This recipe is perfect for a dinner party because the batter can be made up to three days in advance and thrown into the oven just before your guests come.  The result is a slightly warm, dense and creamy explosion of chocolate flavor, made more complex by the addition of a vanilla bean (adding stock to my belief that the addition of a vanilla bean will make anything taste better).

The chocolate lovers groaned with delight.  I must admit, although I tend to find flourless chocolate cakes overwhelmingly rich, this one went down easy — maybe a little too easy, given the second slice I cut for myself and a few others…

My grandmother would unquestionably give this dessert her stamp of approval — and possibly a standing ovation.  But always my father’s daughter, I couldn’t help myself: I served it with a fat scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream.  Genetics be damned.

Bete noire with ice cream


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When you think of controversial words in the foodie lexicon, pudding probably isn’t one of them. Foie gras and trans fat? Sure. Pudding? Not so much.

But in my circle of friends, the term sparked a postprandial debate that – I think we all can agree –probably lasted too long. It all started one night when my South African friend Richard hosted a dinner party for a group of us, a mix of Americans, Brits, South Africans and continental Europeans.

As we finished our meal and began clearing the plates, Richard waved us back in our chairs. “Don’t get up, there’s pudding!”

Now, the visual image that immediately popped into my mind was a bowl of thick, creamy, custard-like deliciousness – the kind of thing that would put a big, fat grin on Bill Cosby’s face.

This was not to be.

Out came Richard with a pint of ice cream and a bowl of fruit. What was this? Was he hoping the ice cream would melt…and turn into pudding?

Almost in unison, all of the Americans at the table said, “I thought you said we were having pudding?”

The non-Americans looked confused. “We are. Here it is.” They went on to explain that in the countries where they were raised, pudding refers to any sweet concoction that follows a meal.

After much heated debate, we decided to put the issue to rest by agreeing to disagree: the Americans held strong to their custard-like notions of pudding, and the international contingent stood by their contention that pudding is merely a synonym for dessert.

Well, it turns out we were both right…and we were both wrong.

(Nerd alert: In a totally nerdy frenzy, I decided to look into the history of pudding… Scroll to the bottom if you want to skip the mini history lesson…)

After doing a little research on the subject, I found that the world’s first puddings were really more like sausages (the word pudding itself is derived from the Latin word for sausage) and were savory, not sweet. Even Medieval puddings were mostly meat-based.

Somewhere around the 17th century, sweet puddings entered the picture along side savory ones, consisting mostly of flour, nuts and sugar boiled in special “pudding bags.” By the late 18th century, cooks had phased out savory puddings, and by the 19th century puddings began to resemble cake, although they were still boiled.

So when did what we Americans call “pudding”begin to resemble custard, a separate European phenomenon with a similarly lengthy history?

I couldn’t find a very clear answer for this, but it looks like the two separate histories became sort of jumbled in the mid-19th century. At that time, an English chemist named Alfred Bird developed “custard powder,” a derivative of cornstarch, which allowed cooks to thicken foods – especially custards – with something other than eggs. Americans went crazy for it.

So at the turn of the century, food companies latched onto the custard powder/cornstarch phenomenon and started promoting custards and puddings as health foods, and it looks like that’s where pudding and custard converged. Jell-o and Royal started marketing “quick” custards and puddings for their health benefits (funny to think of chocolate pudding as health food, eh?), and the modern American pudding industry was born. By the 1930s you could get pudding mixes at almost any grocery store.

The British phenomenon of calling any dessert a “pudding” probably stems from the 18th or 19th century and at this point has just become a colloquialism.

Bottom line? The history of pudding is convoluted, and you can get away with calling a host of things by that name – some sticky, some figgy, others made with bread or rice. And as long as it tastes good, what’s in a name, anyway?

But all this pudding talk stirred up a craving for what I have called pudding all my life. And whether you’re American, British, South African, French or any other nationality, I think you’ll agree this recipe is delicious. (more…)

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