Japanese Squash and Soba Noodle Soup

After a very difficult and stressful week, which resulted in trying to cope the wrong way — by eating very poorly — I needed something super healthy to start off this week. I’ve been meaning to try this recipe for Japanese Squash and Soba Noodle Soup from Martha Stewart Living since I read it in January, and since it’s still cold enough for hot soup, I jumped on this healthy recipe and tried it out last night. Healthy it was: built with a broth of kombu — dried seaweed — and bonito flakes, the two components of a Japanese sea stock called Dashi, with buckwheat noodels and vegetables cooked in the stock.

The flavor of the soup was a little weaker than I had hoped, but the instructions encourage adding soy sauce to taste, so I could have definitely added some more soy sauce for flavor. I wanted to stay away from a sodium-overdose, however, so I added some lower sodium white miso instead; the subtle flavor enhanced the soup a little bit, but the flavor was still modest. Whatever the soup lacked in flavor, it made up for with the range of textures: soft squash, nutty noodles, raw scallions and crunchy enoki mushrooms. I’m a big fan of adding something fresh and green to every meal, so at the very end, once the soup was ready to be served, I added another texture: a few leaves of baby spinach.

I served the soup with miso-sesame tofu and scallions, a quick, sweet and salty recipe that turned out great but didn’t photograph well (some food never does). Again, inspired by a Martha Stewart recipe for crispy sesame tofu, I pan fried firm tofu, coated in sesame seeds, but added a new twist by searing scallions in sesame oil, soy sauce and brown sugar in the pan first, before adding the tofu. When the tofu was almost finished, I added another handful of scallions. And now I have leftovers for a few healthy dinners to keep me in check this week (after, of course, I go out for old country Italian food in Queens tonight).

My Favorite Matzo Ball

What makes a good matzo ball? It’s an age-old question that has stood the test of time and the duration of many a Passover Seder. Should they be light and fluffy or dense and hefty? Should they be the size of a golf ball or a fist? Should they sink or swim? Should they flake and fall apart or stick together at the slice of a spoon?

Some say the key to a good matzo ball is using seltzer water, which makes them extra fluffy. Others swear by whipped egg whites to get that light-as-air consistency. Still others say the secret is using enough schmaltz, or chicken fat, and one Jewish food aficionado claims the best matzo balls on earth are made not with chicken fat but with goose fat. The techniques and opinions on what makes matzo balls great vary, but one thing that all matzo ball lovers can agree on is that their mother makes them best.

For all of us New York transplants who can’t enjoy our mothers’ matzo ball soup this Passover, luckily we’re in the right city. From Katz’s Delicatessen to 2nd Avenue Deli to Barney Greengrass, there is no shortage of great places to find matzo balls, just like your mother makes them.

My favorite matzo ball hails from Lobel’s, one of New York’s oldest butchers. A five-generation family business since 1840, Lobel’s is known for its high quality beef. The butcher shop has been located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan since 1954, and in 2009, Lobel’s debuted their now-famous steak sandwich, which has earned a dedicated following, at Yankee Stadium. Just last week, on Monday, March 18, Lobel’s expanded its reach once again with the opening of a second location in Manhattan, on Third Avenue at 61stStreet: Lobel’s Kitchen.

The new spot serves prepared foods — like rotisserie chicken, cheeses, smoked salmon and sandwiches — as well as raw meet. You’ll find their classic steak sandwich on the menu, along with their signature steak, the Wrangler — a cut that the Lobels patented themselves. Light and spacious, with floor to ceiling windows, Lobel’s Kitchen has a significantly different feeling than the original butcher shop — a compact space lined with wood paneling –but both are marked by the same dedication to high quality.

While beef is their main business, Lobel’s also makes a great matzo ball soup — an unexpected gem.

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The ingredients for the matzo balls are simple, but, as co-owner David Lobel says, “it’s the technique that makes all the difference in creating the perfect matzo ball.” The matzo balls are made with matzo meal, eggs, pepper, canola oil and a little chicken broth, and once they are shaped into large rounds, they’re carefully placed in boiling water, which is then reduced to a simmer. The key is treating them gently to avoid breakage. When they’re ready, they must be carefully removed from the boiling water and delicately spaced out on a sheet, far enough apart so that they don’t stick together.

The matzo balls are solid and don’t flake apart, but in the soup, the exterior soaks up some of the chicken broth so that they’re slightly soft on the outside but retain their texture on the inside. Pepper is the only discernible spice in the matzo balls, and it’s very subtle. I love the matzo balls for their simplicity, but mostly because they remind me of childhood. My family’s long been a fan of Lobel’s for their beef, chicken noodle soup and of course their matzo ball soup. It’s this taste of home that keeps me coming back, which is why I’ll be serving Lobel’s matzo ball soup tonight at my seder.

No matter how you like your matzo balls, matzo ball soup is the ultimate comfort food because it is first and foremost about family and tradition. It stands to reason, then, that Lobel’s, a five-generation family business, serves up some of the best matzo ball soup in New York City, and definitely my favorite (except for my mother’s, of course).

This post was originally posted on the Huffington Post. See here for more photos.

A Deconstructed Dinner

The jury’s still out on how I feel about “deconstruction” as a fine dining trend, but as an easy, relaxing weeknight dinner technique, it’s perfect. What could be more relaxed than a deconstructed, well, anything? There’s no right way to deconstruct- so the pressure is off and you can have fun with whatever you’re making.

Tonight I was in the mood for an Avocado BLT, so while tomato season is still months away, I went with my whim and made a deconstructed avocado BLT: a fatty, smokey, seriously great BLT salad. To top it off, I whipped up a semi-homemade, deconstructed butterscotch cream pie with cinnamon graham cracker crust. Not only a relaxing Tuesday night- an indulgent one too. But that’s what Tuesdays are for, right?

To make the BLT salad, I tried two techniques I read about in Sam Sifton’s New York Times Magazinearitcle, “Smells Like Green Spirit,” where he describes a simple, green salad from Seattle’s Canlis as a “revelation.” First, I fried cubed squares of bread in bacon fat to make croutons. I love making homemade croutons, but I usually stick to olive oil when I toast the bread. Frying the bacon first, and then tossing the croutons in the grease was, to use Sifton’s term, a revelation indeed.

Next, I tried coddling an egg before making the dressing, as Sifton also describes in his article. Per his instructions, I poured boiling water over an egg in a coffee cup, let it sit for one minute and then removed and let it cool. Then I cracked the egg into a bowl of olive oil and lemon juice, and whisked to finish the dressing. The half-cooked egg made for a thicker dressing, which coated the greens, tomato and bacon-croutons really nicely. Finally, I crumbled the bacon and threw the cubed avocado onto this lemony concoction and as simple as that had my deconstructed A(vocado)-B(acon)-L(ettuce)-T(omato).

And while I was at it, I whisked up some instant butterscotch pudding, and crumbled Christina Tosi-inspired cinnamon graham cracker crust and homemade whipped cream on top for a deconstructed dessert. On a more ambitious night, homemade pudding would have been better, but this was relaxing deconstruction night where anything goes, and I went with the instant pudding in my cupboard. With the crumble and cream, you might never have known.

For the recipes and what to cook next

End of the Summer Salads

The weather is officially cooling off and I’ve surrendered to fall, willingly. I’m ready for crisp air, sweaters, apples and foliage. I readily welcomed the opening of Ganso, a new ramen restaurant in Downtown Brooklyn, and found myself happily slurping noodles in steamy bowls of hot and spicy broth last night. I’ve planned a trip to Vermont next weekend to get my full, fall flavor on. But our CSA is helping me hang on to that summer feeling, delivering the end-of-the-summer bounty of corn, zucchini and squash, radishes and tomatoes. So, thankfully, I get a little bit of the best of both seasons, in this sometimes jarring, but more often lovely, transition from summer to fall.

Eating corn on the cob is such a treat in the summer (and it’s obviously quick and easy), so I love to eat corn that way for as long as I can. Variety being the spice of life, however, I also love corn soup and corn salads, with anything from avocado, peach and red onion, to black beans and tomatoes. Lately, I’ve been simmering corn kernels in a few cups of white wine with a generous amount of thyme for just a few minutes, draining the corn, tossing it with salt, pepper and sunflower seeds, and eating it as is or on top of a salad for an amazingly fast and desk-friendly dish. The corn tastes almost buttery with the white wine, and the thyme pairs perfectly with the acidic wine and sweet corn.

I’ve also been enjoying trying bok choy in different ways. I’m used to simply stir-frying this leafy, Chinese cabbage, but yesterday I tried it raw, tossed in a salad of julienned yellow squash, radish and cucumber, with a light vinaigrette of dijon mustard, lemon juice and a dab of light mayonnaise. It made a great side salad to some homemade turkey burgers, and a great lunch, topped with my white wine simmered corn!

For the recipes to these end of the summer salads and what to cook next

“Caesar” salad and sweet potato fries

One of my favorite meals is a caesar salad with a side of sweet potato fries. For some reason, this meal is settling to me — after a long day of traveling (or a long day of partying), if I’m out at a pub or — as of late — if I’m home and feel like making something fast, reliable, and for which I probably have most of the ingredients, in some variation or another.

I really like kale in a caesar salad — preferably black kale but any kale will do. So will iceberg lettuce. I’m partial to kale, however, because if it’s slightly steamed, it really holds the dressing well, which is, of course, the most important part! Depending on what I have around the house, I’ll cut up bread into big hunks, toss those in olive oil and pepper and toast them in a pan. Last night I actually had the perfect bruschetta toasts from a dinner earlier in the week, so I chopped those up and threw them in. Sometimes I’ll add strips of grilled chicken (that don’t need much, if any, seasoning, since the dressing will do the work), and sometimes I’ll throw a few anchovies on top. Finally, I always grate an excessive amount of parmesan cheese all over the salad.

I make a faux-caesar dressing because it’s fast, easy, delicious, and I usually already have all the ingrediants in my fridge. I start by mincing garlic, and mix that together in a blow with olive oil, lemon juice, and either some white or red vinegar. Depending on what I have or what I can find easily, I’ll either add anchovy paste, or the anchovy-infused olive oil from anchovies in a tin, and then I add a good amount of dijon mustard. I whisk all of these ingredients together, and when I’m just about ready to serve the salad, I add the egg and continue to whisk vigorously. Just before serving the salad, I pour the dressing on top and mix. The last step is grating a little more parmesan cheese on top.

Sweet potato fries are the perfect partner to this caesar, and the baked ones I make are not only easy, but they’re also pretty healthy. I peel and cut the sweet potato into long strips, lay them on a baking sheet, douse them in salt and drizzle them with olive oil, and stick them in the oven at 450 degrees. About 15 minutes in, I remove the baking sheet, sprinkle pepper and thyme on the fries, push them around on the pan, and stick them back in for 20-25 more minutes, or until crispy, but not burnt. Voila! An easy, not-too-unhealthy, and comforting dinner.

Spring Dinner: Seasonal Pizza and Salad

Endive, Radiccio, Arugula, Pecorino Salad
Asparagus, Leek, Goat Cheese, Prosciutto Pizza
Lemon Sorbet With Lemon-Thyme Syrup & Raspberries 

Spring weather has been gracing New York since February, and finally spring vegetables are here! Monday night I chose a few of the Springtime’s key offerings and put together a delicious and deceivingly simple dinner.

We started with a salad of endives, radiccio, arugula and pecorino. This salad involves nothing but slicing — the endives lengthwise, the radiccio in half and then lengthwise, and the pecorino thin — and tossing — the sliced endives, radiccio and pecorino with the arugula, the juice of a lemon, and a drizzle of olive oil. Salt and pepper and you’re done!

Next we had an asparagus, leek, goat cheese and prosciutto pizza. To make the pizza, I sliced one, whole leek – making use of both white and green – and sauteed half of it in olive oil for 12 minutes. Meanwhile, I broke off the ends of the asparagus spears and cut the edible parts in fourths.  I then stuck the quartered asparagus in the microwave for one minute to cook through a bit. While the leeks continued to cook, I worked on the salad. When the first half of the leeks were done, I removed them fromt he heat and set aside, and sauteed the next half in the same pan, but this time I added a shower of balsamic vinegar.  While this batch was cooking, I rolled my pizza dough out on a floured surface and finished the salad. By the time the second batch of leeks was done, I brushed the pizza dough with olive oil, spread all of the leeks onto the pizza, layered the asparagus on top, and sprinkled chunks of goat cheese all over the pizza. When the pizza had cooked for about 11 minutes in the oven, I removed it and added the prosciutto, and then cooked it for one more minute. So easy, so good!

A few hours prior, I had made a simple syrup with lemon and thyme that I would use to jazz up dessert.  I boiled 1/2 cup of water with 1/2 cup of sugar, and after all the sugar had disolved (about three minutes), I removed the syrup from the heat and added 2 tablespoons of fresh thyme from my thyme plants. I squeeze 1 tablespoon of lemon in and let the syrup sit for about 2 hours before straining, and pouring over lemon sorbet, topped with raspberries. Spring tastes good!

For the recipes and suggestions for what to cook next…

Farro Salad with Squash, Kale and Goat Cheese

Farro, a soft and nutty grain, is my new favorite fall ingredient. Somewhat high maintenance at first, farro can be difficult to find and requires a four to five hour bath before it’s to ready warm up. But once it’s soaked and simmered, farro is effortlessly appealing and has “comforting” written all over it. The subtly chewy, hearty texture is somewhere between wheat berries and pearled barley. It’s great on its own but also makes fabulous, substantial salads.

I’ve made this farro salad with squash, kale and goat cheese a few times already this fall, and each time I’m delighted with the outcome and pleasantly surprised at how well it keeps for left-overs. I’ve actually brought this dish to three, separate potlucks, and each time it’s been a real crowd-pleaser. It can be served warm or at room temperature, and goes well with a range of flavors, making it a perfect potluck offering.

After soaking and draining the grains, I cover the farro with about two to three inches of water, and let the water simmer on very low heat for about 60-75 minutes. Meanwhile, I’ll peel the squash and cube (or if I’m in a time-crunch, use pre-cut squash), and dice a medium onion. I mix the squash and onion together in a bowl with a tablespoon or so of olive oil, salt and pepper and throw on a baking sheet. The squash and onion cooks at 400 in the oven for about 30 minutes, and I make sure to push it around on the baking sheet every so often.

With the squash and onion mixture in the oven and the farro still on the stove, I’ll remove the stems from a bunch of kale, chop up the leaves, wash them and then blanch them for about one minute – just until the leaves turn bright green, so they’re tender but still retain some crunch. I’ve also been known to saute the kale with garlic in olive oil – and both methods turn out great. When the farro is soft but not too chewy, it’s as simple as mixing all the components together with roughly 3 tablespoons of walnut oil, more salt and pepper, and 2-3 tablespoons of fresh thyme. Adding chopped walnuts is optional (as is the walnut oil if allergies are a a concern). The final touch is crumbling a generous amount of goat cheese on top of the salad, and I never skimp on this, because it’s everyone’s favorite part. And there it is: an easy but unique, loveable fall salad.

For the recipe and what to cook next

Hanging Onto Summer

Labor Day has come and gone. It is now September and summer is undeniably over. If you’re like me and you’re not ready to let go of long days, sandals and outdoor grilling; if you find yourself prematurely flipping through your summer photos and resisting putting your white pants away; and if you’re already nostalgic for salt, sand and sunshine, then you might find these summer recipes worth giving one last try, and you might like their variations, which will allow you to hang onto summer well into the winter.

Some Simple Summer Recipes
Corn Soup

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic; 1 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons salt; 2 teaspoons cumin,
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup carrots, thinly sliced; 1/2 cup celery, thinly sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
2 poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded & diced (or jalapeno chiles)
3 1/2 – 4 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 1/2 cup water
8 ears shucked corn
1 roasted red pepper, peeled seeded and finely chopped
2 – 3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

– cut corn kernels off ears of corn and set aside
– cut corn cubs in 3 pieces
– heat oil in heavy pot over moderately low heat and add garlic, stirring for a few minutes
– add onion, poblano chilies and cook, stirring occasionally until soft, about 4 minutes
– add cumin, coriander, salt and pepper and cook for 2 more minutes
– increase to moderate heat and add carrots and celery, and cook for about 5 minutes
– add 3/12 cups of stock, water and corn cobbs and bring to boil
– reduce heat and simmer, uncooked for about 15 minutes
– add all corn kernels EXCEPT 1 cup, which should be reserved for later
– allow soup to simmer, covered, until corn kernels are tender, about 15 minutes
– remove corn cobs and allow soup to cool
– when soup has cooled, puree the soup in batches in a blender until very smooth
– cook the 1 cup of reserved corn in a small saucepan of boiling water until tender – about 3 minutes
– drain and rins under cold water to stop from cooking further
– stir corn kernels into the soup
– add the chopped red pepper, cilantro and chipotle chili powder, and salt and pepper to taste
– can serve at room temperature or heat slightly if desired

 

Wheat Berry Salad

1 1/2 cups wheat berries
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup carrots, diced
1/4 cup red onion
1/4 cup scallion
3 tablespoons olive oil

– place wheat berries in a pot and submerge them in enough water to cover them by about 2 inches
– bring water to boil and let wheat berries cook until soft, for about 1 hour in uncovered pot
– drain and toss with dry ingredients, then oil and lemon juice


For more simple, summer recipes and winter substitutions.

(For pet lover, also check my friend’s blog reviewing on best outdoor cat shelter & house for garden space)

The Slow Cooker Chronicles: Mediterranean Lamb

Yesterday I christened my slow cooker, my newest kitchen appliance and an instant best friend. I madeLamb Shanks with Lemon, Dill, and Feta, an easy and delicious recipe from Food & Wine.


Minimal preparation, plus five hours of slow-cooking at high heat, and the lamb shanks were so packed with flavor and so tender, that I might never cook anything outside the slow cooker again.
It’s perfect for a lazy Sunday when you can enjoy the aromas wafting from the pot – especially if you live in a pint-sized, New York City apartment and the aromas fill your entire home.

Along side the lamb, I served healthy and light sides to even out the rich flavors of the meat: Whole-Wheat Orzo tossed in Olive Oil and seasoned with Salt, Pepper and Oregano, and an Israeli Salad – my favorite.

The slow cooker will undoubtedly become a reliable companion for me as the winter encroaches on the joys and great tastes of summer fruits and vegetables, and outdoor grilling. Stay tuned for the next slow-cooked meal, and check out yesterday’s recipe here.

Curried Crab and Apple Salad with Watermelon and Avocado

Watermelon salads have been on trend for a while now, and they don’t seem to be going out of style any time soon. There’s something so summer about watermelon – I can hardly think of a more refreshing fruit – which makes it the perfect ingredient in a seasonal salad each year when the temperatures rise and we start to crave all things crisp, sweet and juicy. Inspired by a recipe in Food and Wine for Curried Crab and Watermelon Salad with Arugula, I made my own watermelon salad Monday night with curried crab and apple, avocado and, of course, watermelon, over greens. It was simple but felt sophisticated. I served the salad with a lemon zest basil pesto over whole wheat orecchiette, topped with yellow cherry tomatoes for a wonderful summer dinner.

For the salad, I started by heating vegetable oil in a pan with curry powder and chopping a quarter of a granny smith apple into cubes. I cooked the apple in the oil until soft, for about five minutes, and then removed it from the heat and stuck it in the freezer to cool down quickly. Next I cubed watermelon and avocado and tossed that over some greens, which I had seasoned with salt, pepper and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. After about five minutes I removed the cubed apple, which had cooled enough, and tossed it with the crab meat. The crab and apple mixture went over the greens, watermelon and avocado, and an easy, elegant salad was ready.

Ina Garten’s Macacroni and Cheese (Or How I Won My Boyfriend Over)

If I didn’t win my lovely boyfriend over with my wit and my charm, I won him over with homemade macaroni and cheese. I made it once, and now I have to make it on a regular basis, otherwise my lovely boyfriend might not think I’m so lovely anymore! I kid. But he really, really likes it. Anyway, my favorite recipe belongs to the queen of the Hamptons herself: Ina Garten.  She has a classic recipe that you can modify to cook in a cast iron skillet instead of the oven, to save some time or if it’s just too hot to deal with the oven.

I cherish the few Barefoot Contessa‘s cookbooks that I own. Actually, I cherish all of the cookbooks I own. But Ina’s are special- they set a mood of summertime. Summertime filled with garden dinner parties, fresh squeezed lemonade, and beautiful friends dressed exclusively in white linen. Thank you, Ina, for bringing me summertime all year-round. (And thank you for helping me seal the deal with my lovely one.)
xo
Alison

Mussels With White Beans and Chorizo

On Monday night I tried out a recipe I’ve had my eye on for a while: mussels with white beans and chorizo from Food and Wine magazine. I had chorizo-style spicy smoked chicken sausage on hand (which I use often in pasta – it’s got a great chorizo flavor), so I used that, and added some chicken stock when I felt the mussels needed a little more liquid.

Other than those two, basic modifications, I followed the recipe closely and took the suggestions of commenters who recommended adding a little more than the called-for pinch of crushed red pepper. The broth turned out spicy, a bit acidic – thanks to the tomatoes – and hearty – thanks to the white beans. The smokey sausage took the fresh mussels, which tasted of the sea, to new heights. Served with a crusty baguette, this was a great, summery dinner, and one that I’ll look forward to making again.

For the recipe, see here.

Purple Rice & Stir-Fry

Everyone knows January is Holiday-Hangover month, where New Years resolutions to eat healthy abound. Everyone also knows that good intentions to improve one’s diet don’t always make it past the first month of the new year (or the first few hours, in my case. My blog posts from last January say it all: healthy chickpea recipes; followed by an indulgent, guacamole-filled trip to Tulum, Mexico; swooning over my favorite cupcake from Billy’s Bakery; all capped off by a Sunday afternoon baking Momofuko Milk Bar’sCompost Cookie.) Needless to say, it’s easy to slip back into old habits and let resolutions to eat healthier wait until next year.

It’s not all hopeless, however. One strategy that helps me follow my intention to eat healthier is making healthy food – cooking and eating it – interesting. If I can get excited about trying something new, be it challenging or easy, then eating healthily doesn’t feel quite like a punishment.

In my resolve to keep things interesting this year, I recently tried purple sticky rice as a substitute for the brown rice I typically use when making a vegetable stir-fry (one of my favorite, post-work dinners when I get home late). A new, wonderful friend in my life gave some to me to try, and I’m so grateful to her for introducing me to something new. Purple rice, originally grown in Thailand, is sticky and sweet and often used in desserts (no wonder I like it). Its chewy texture and vibrant color revitalized what was becoming a predictable dinner for me. I added the purple rice to sauteed shallot and garlic, and cooked it on low heat for about one minute before adding the water and letting the rice simmer for about 30 minutes.

I served the rice with a red pepper, snow pea and onion stir-fry, and a tofu and brocoli stir-fry, garnished with cilantro and shaved carrots. Now I’m excited to try purple rice in a lunch salad, and stay on track by keeping things interesting.