29 February 2008

Matching flavors

I've been looking for a dictionary of flavors. I'm sure something like this exists, I'm just not sure where. Lately, I don't follow recipes at all, I just scan my cookbooks for new ingredient combinations and apply them to whatever I feel like making. For instance, I wanted to make up a new salmon dish the other night. I knew that fennel and orange went well together from a salad I make, and they are both at their peak season here right now. Red onion fits well with salmon and could balance out the sweetness of the other two flavors. Violà, my new favorite salmon recipe. It's so delicious I'm sure someone has thought of this before me. I love putting the pieces together like a puzzle. There are so many combinations out there, waiting to be discovered, transformed, adapted....

Orange marinated salmon over grilled fennel

Salmon fillet (the thicker the better)
Fresh Fennel (the herb)
A handful of capers
Red Onion, thinly sliced in rings
White Wine
Olive Oil
Oranges (I used delicious red oranges from Sicily)
Fennel bulbs (1 per person)

Lay the salmon out flat in a large tupperware and marinade with the juice from one orange, one lemon, a cup of white wine, olive oil, onion, capers, salt and pepper, and some sprigs of fresh fennel (not chopped). Cover and refrigerate for 30 min to an hour, or less if you're pressed for time. In the meantime, wash fennel bulbs and remove outermost, toughest layer. Cut them in to quarters vertically, brush with oil and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Toss these babies on the grill and cook until soft when poked with fork (I used a grill pan, but if you don't have one you could just brown them in a regular pan).
Next, prepare the fish. I like to sear it in a large, non stick skillet, but if you have an actual grill fired up, that would be a delicious alternative. To sear it, really heat up your biggest pan over a medium-high flame with no oil. Pick up the salmon fillet, shaking off the marinate, and toss it (pink side down) in the hot pan. Let it sear and brown for a few minutes (check the color so it doesn't burn), then pour in the marinade and cover pan. After another minute or so flip the fish, add more wine if it's getting dry, and cover again. Cook until the fish is done, but not over-done, it should be pink and moist inside still. Serve over the grilled fennel bulbs and garnish with a slice of orange.

22 February 2008

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Everyone loves chocolate chip cookies.
If they claim otherwise they're either lying or peculiar. I have probably made hundreds of batches in my lifetime, spilling pounds of flour in the process, and devouring mounds of dough. There is nothing that brings out the inner child like witnessing the mysterious alchemy of the oven as greasy dough balls grow and puff in to soft, moist, gooey cookies.
Chocolate chip cookies, like so many kitchen miracles, were discovered by accident. Ruth Wakefield, proprietor of the Toll House Inn, ran out of baker's chocolate one day while making cookies in the early 1930s. She improvised by chopping up a Nestlè semisweet chocolate bar, expecting it to melt completely and incorporate with the dough, but instead it only softened, and those gooey little chocolate pockets remained intact. The chocolate chip cookie was born, and was an instant success. When Nestlè saw it's sales of semisweet chocolate jumped as the recipe spread, they struck a deal with Ruth Wakefield: a lifetime supply of Nestlè chocolate in exchange for the rights to print her recipe on their packaging. In 1939, "Nestlé Toll House Real Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels" were born, and the rest is history.
In my ever-growing cravings for truly American treats, I have used my Italian kitchen to import all sorts of traditional foods from apple pie to oatmeal, popcorn to pancakes, brownies to barbecue sauce. I have no idea why it never occurred to me to make chocolate chip cookies. It's as if they were too American, too home-like, too genuine to take out of their natural habitat. I didn't even miss them, it's as if they never existed. Yesterday, however, I stumbled upon the history of chocolate chip cookies on the internet and was overcome with an undeniable urge to make them, not just to eat them, but to actually bake them. I wanted the sticky fingers and the flour-dusted counter top, the aroma of the oven, and obviously the sweet, hot reward.
I went to the grocery store and was foolishly surprised not to find chocolate chips. I bought a dark chocolate bar, and made them the Ruth Wakefield way, trying to picture the kitchen of the Toll House Inn in the 1930s, and thanking the lord for the necessity that mothered this exquisite invention.

Original Toll House Inn Chocolate Chip Cookies:

2 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 sticks butter
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 lg eggs
1 3/4 - 2 cups chocolate chips (semi sweet)
1 cup nuts (optional)

PREHEAT oven to 375° F.
1. COMBINE flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl.
2. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy.
3. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
4. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels and nuts.
5. Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.
6. BAKE for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown.

04 February 2008

Homecomings and Goings

Going home is such a funny thing for any grown child- it grows stranger and more surreal with each visit. Living in a foreign country, these homecomings become even more peculiar. Upon each return, new vocabulary words are tossed around to describe trends of which I’m ignorant, a years worth of movies I’ve missed are discussed with faded enthusiasm, ideas have changed, people and pets have died, been born, and gotten married or divorced.

This year, bamboo was suddenly a fabric, Modest Mouse played on the radio, 11 year olds wore Uggs over Skinny-Jeans, global warming became dinner conversation, several new engagements and divorces were announced, and the iPhone became just another household object.

Fortunately, however, some things never really change. One of these things is my mother’s kitchen: always crowded, lively, warm and full of healthy smells. I love to cook in that kitchen. It’s the center of the house, and an adventure in itself. You never know when platters will come careening off their precarious position atop the refrigerator, if you’ll ever find that knife you’re sure existed yesterday, or what surprises you’ll find in the back of the cupboard. It’s a space without time. Sure, she can buy new plates or reorganize the pot lids, but the spirit of that kitchen remains the same: spontaneous and creative. It’s the perfect kitchen for experimenting: if necessity is the mother of invention, then abundance must be the rogue father- and they mingle peacefully in this timeless room. My cousin Shelly, who grew up to be a chef in 5-star restaurants, remembers her first culinary adventures in my mother’s kitchen: a recipe that called for cacao, white sugar and enriched cake flour would be nearly unrecognizable when replaced with carob, molasses and spelt.

While it’s not as extreme in its substitutions as it once was, this kitchen has retained her cozy vagabond soul. She has been the backdrop for my childhood cooking shows and the host to hundreds of dinner parties with countless combinations of guests- some who came to stay and others destined to leave us. She has seen garden grubs explode in a wok, and witnessed my transformation after my first adventure in Italy, as I rolled gnocchi with my future husband. Through all the years and thousands of meals, she has always opened her crumb-covered arms, and welcomed us home.

It’s comforting to know, in a world transforming too quickly to absorb, where my native land feels more alien with each passing day, that there exists this cozy, bustling refuge brimming with the aroma of memory, evolving yet never really changing.