Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cool as a Cucumber Soup

One hot afternoon, in the summer of 2007, I was sitting in one of my fave local cafes, contemplating with to do with the abundance of cucumbers and dill that I'd just picked up from the Williamsburg-Greenpoint CSA. Being a soup lover, I inquired about the soup of the day. Lo and behold, it was cucumber dill. That afternoon, I went home, investigated a few recipes, did some experimenting, and ended up with this tasty combination. Since then, this refreshing treat has become a staple at every barbecue or party that I throw or attend. It's also one of my husband's fave, so an easy way to his heart in a pinch.


3-4 cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped (about 4 cups)
3 scallion stalks, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh dill, plus more for garnish
1 cup vegetable broth (see Note below)
4 cups plan low-fat yogurt
Salt and pepper
2 radishes, ends trimmed and minced, for garnish

Place the cucumbers (see Note below), scallions, garlic, lemon juice, dill, broth, and yogurt in a food processor (see Note below). Pulse a few times, pureeing until smooth and well combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper . Transfer to a large container and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours before smoothing.

Evenly distribute among serving bowls, garnish with dill and radishes, and serve immediately.

If you prefer a more brothy soup, add 1 more cup of the broth to the mixture. In addition, if you prefer your soup on the chunky side, reserve a bit of the chopped cucumber , and then stir into the pureed soup when ready to serve. If pureeing the soup in a blender, I suggest working in batches. For one, the blender can't hold all of the ingredients, and the cucumber chunks inevitably get clogged in the blades. This technique also allows you to refine the flavor as you work.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Enticing Enchiladas

I can't get enough of Mexican food. If it not for the fact that my belly would swell in more ways than one were I to feast on it on a nightly basis, I might do just that. I love to cook it, I love to smell it, I love to devour it. The fact that I could run away with an enchilada is why I was oh-so-excited a couple weeks ago when I discovered that the Latitude 22 potluck to which I was invited presented me with an opportunity to spend some quality time with some of my favorite things: corn tortillas, salsa verde, black beans, cilantro, and, perhaps my favorite spice in the world, cumin.

Before I launch into my recipe, let's talk about what a cool idea a latitude (or longitude, for that matter) themed potluck is. The idea is that you can prepare any type of delicacy, of the cocktail, appetizer, entree, or dessert variety, as long as it is inherent to the cuisine of a country that falls on the given latitude, which, in the case of our friends Shannon and Chad's potluck soiree, happened to be 22. Oh, the possibilities, the diverse array of options. Latitude 22 marches through Chad, Senegal, China, Taiwan, Cambodia, India, Hawaii, and Mexico, just to name a smattering of the locales. The food prepared for and served at the party included some of the tastiest saag paneer and dal this side of Delhi, a peanut sauce laden platter of sauteed spinach inspired by Chad, as well as mango lassi, chai, and a knock your socks off pitcher of mai tais.

Then there were my enchiladas. A couple of words about my take on the enchilada. They are essentially a Mexican version of lasagna, including layer upon layer of cheesy, beany goodness. Another necessity, something to which I'm currently addicted (seriously, I found myself dipping carrots into it the other day) is the dollop of Mexican salsa crema. This heavenly condiment is a creme fraiche-esque type of sour cream that is a staple of Mexican and Latin American cuisines. After you try it once, you will insist on appointing it a regular member of your condiment shelf. It goes great over eggs, on top of a baked potato, and even in soup. Imagine it over a bowl of chili. Salsa crema can be found in the refrigerated dairy section of most grocery stores in New York City. I'd say anywhere, but I'm not exactly sure that the Star Market in Hyannis would be so inclined.

If you want to go to there, here's how.


1 can refried kidney or black beans
1 can chipotles en adobo, chopped fine or pureed in a food processor (optional)
1 small red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
*1 pound crimini, baby bella, or white mushrooms, thickly sliced
1 tablespoon chile powder
1/4 teaspoon each garlic power, onion powder, crushed red pepper flakes, dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin (aka heaven)
Salt and pepper
2 cans salsa verde or red enchilada sauce, whatever your poison (I personally prefer the verde)
1 pound small corn tortillas
*1/2 pound fresh spinach
8 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded

2 large tomatoes, chopped
1 small red onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small bunch cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1 lime
Salt and pepper

2 avocados, pitted and cut lengthwise into long, thick slices
Small bunch chopped, fresh cilantro
Mexican salsa crema

*If you prefer meat version, simply substitute the mushrooms and spinach with 1 pound of ground and browned beef or turkey combined with the taco seasonings.


Preheat the oven to 425.

In a medium saucepan, over low heat, combine the refried beans and a 1/4 cup of water, stir, and allow to thin for 5 or so minutes. Set aside.

In a skillet, heat the olive oil over moderate heat. Add the garlic, saute for 3 minutes, and then add the mushrooms and the spices. Saute for 5 minutes, until the mushrooms release their juices, but retain their texture. Set aside.

Ladle a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of a 9-inch casserole pan, and then top with a layer of the corn tortillas. They will probably overlap, but that's fine. Add a layer of the beans, either in an even layer or in dollops, whatever you prefer, followed by a layer each of of the mushrooms, raw spinach, and cheddar cheese. Ladle sauce over the beans, veg, and cheese, and then sprinkle with about a tablespoon of ground chipotles, if you really crave a kick. Continue the layering process until you run out of room or of ingredients, whichever comes first, topping with a layer of tortilla, cheese, and sauce.

Cover with aluminum foil and bake in the oven for 30 minutes, until the cheese and sauce are bubbling.

Meanwhile, combine the salsa ingredients in a small bowl.

To serve, scoop the cooked enchiladas out of the pan like a lasagna or casserole, top with some salsa, cilantro, and a dollop of salsa crema. Enjoy the decadence and the inevitable toot that will follow the next morning.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Restaurant Review: Brooklyn Label

Brooklyn Label
180 Franklin St
Brooklyn, NY 11222
(718) 389-2806

We've been through this before. You understand my criteria. I am forever on the lookout for a joint that offers me thoughtful, interesting, and flavorful vegetarian options. One meal during which time these demands are particularly difficult to achieve is brunch. And, we all know that in New York City and the surrounding boroughs brunch is a religion. New Yorkers from the Bronx to the far reaches of Brooklyn pray to the brunch altar like priests in Vatican City pray to their rosary beads. I guess I can order pancakes or French toast for brunch. They are vegetarian. But I'm really more of a savory girl. Don't get me wrong. I am sweet, but in the morning, I'm in the mood for something spicy to kick the day into gear. And, let's face it, Bloody Marys don't really go well with maple syrup, the Bloody Mary being my brunch beverage of choice.

Unfortunately, the one drawback of Brooklyn Label, ironically, is that they fail to deliver on my favorite part of brunch: the cocktail. Boo hiss, Brooklyn Label doesn't have a liquor license. However, they do have a license in kick-ass coffee, serving a variety of tasty, decadent coffee drinks using Stumptown Coffee beans, a Portland, Oregon, based coffee-roaster whose Sumatra, according to Saveur magazine, is among the five best in the world. BL also serves a mouth-watering selection of Italian sodas, my favorite being the grapefruit. Quite refreshing.

Now, let's dish about the food. I've sampled an array of their veggie dishes, ranging from the Cobb Salad (bacon on the side), a welcome departure from the meat product adorned variety you oft see in your neighborhood deli; you know, the pile of cheese, meat, and fat masquerading as salad. Well, BL's actually is a salad. Another fave is the veggie bagel, topped with a dab of creme cheese, slices of fresh tomato and red onion, and a sprinkling of capers. Throw on a bit of BL's homemade hot sauce (I like to combine a bit of the habanero with the mild green chile) and you are ready to rock. It may not be the most creative offering on the menu, but it never fails to please me. Okay, I've basically sampled most of the vegetarian offerings, my most disappointing of which is the Red Flannel Hash, a combo of beets, poached eggs, and hollandaise. I was hoping this entree would not be beet, but, sadly, it could be. Based on the description on the menu, as well as my understanding of "hash," I was expecting about something of the shredded beet variety, flattened and fried into a patty of sorts. Alas, I was served a pile of cubed, boiled beet chunks topped with the other accoutrement. Enticing it was not. However, my disappointment with the beet hash has been remedied time and time again with one of my favorite breakfast dishes in the land, the Organic Tofu and Potatoes, a tasty combo of firm tofu and potato chunks sauteed with green onion and broccoli in light curry spices, topped with melted provolone and pico de gallo. I am not exaggerating when I say that I could devour this dish every day. It is decadent and satisfying, without the inevitable dirty feeling I experience following a typical greasy egg breakfast.

For all of you carnivores, I'd be doing you a disservice if I did not tip my hat to the Homemade Biscuits and Sausage Gravy as well as the Brooklyn Label Cheeseburger, both of which my meat and potato eating husband proclaims to be stellar. He does warn, however, that they inspire his digestive organs to accelerate into overdrive, so you should be stationed near a toilet within a half of consumption. "But," he says, "It's well worth it."

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Childhood and Cheese Things

Perhaps the most ironic detail about my lifelong vegetarianism, a fact that I have shockingly failed to admit, is that when I was three-years-old, my family and I moved to Hyde Park, New York, so my father could train as a chef du cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America. Yes, a lifelong vegetarian grew up with a father who not only trained to butcher and prepare every non-vegetarian item possible, but he, himself, was also a vegetarian. Actually, by today's need to classify every nuance of non-meat eating status, he was a pescatarian. And now, oddly enough, after living in Europe for the past 18 years, he eats meat. That's another story altogether, though.

I, myself, was also a pescatarian for a short stint. Until a chewy mussel that I ate at Legal Seafood in Boston sent me vomiting into the night. I didn't eat seafood again for twenty-five years. Even today, I can't handle much more than a crunchy beer battered fish and chip entree, with lots of tartar sauce, of course. The fish and chips are really just a vehicle for the condiments afterall. Have I mentioned that I have an affliction called condimentia?

In 1977, when I was five, my father graduated from the CIA and was offered a scholarship to a Hotel Restaurant Management program at Miami International University. And so it was that my parents and I moved to Coconut Grove, Miami, that Spanish became my second language, and that I attended an elementary where I was the white minority amongst my Cuban friends, Sylvia, Jesus, Mercedes, Angel, and Hector. My father worked twelve hour days as head chef at various restaurants, hotels, and country clubs in the Miami area. He prepared Superbowl breakfasts for the Cowboys and Steelers in the Superbowl in 1979 and cooked delicacies for The Eagles when their tour brought them to Miami a year later. After long hours on his feet fashioning filet mignon and adorning plates with mashed potato ribbons, he craved simple, yet satisfying food, which was not meat based. In those days, the last two criteria were mutually exclusive. No one thought that vegetarian food could be satisfying.

The answer? A little something my parents and I affectionately referred to as the Cheese Thing. What is a cheese thing, you ask? Simply put, the earliest versions consisted of a tortilla baked to delightful crispiness, topped with melted cheese, chopped tomatoes, and scallions, and then garnished with shredded iceberg lettuce and salsa.

Recently, I've been revisiting childhood favorites, such as the cheese thing and tabbouleh, for example, and had a little chat with my father to discuss these nostalgic noshes. He told me that he, too, still eats cheese things when hankering for a simple, flavorful fix. He also set me straight on the origin of the cheese thing, a birth that I was surprised to hear took place years before even I was born. In the late sixties and very early seventies, my father, still a young long-haired buck, like most hippies his age, traveled across the country and in and around the West Coast. My uncle Peter lived in Tucson, Arizona, at the time, so my father paid him a visit. In a state where the Mexican population and cultural influence was and is very high, it isn't a surprise that Peter was fashioning the Mexican inspired cheese thing left and right. Of course, this was at a time before every convenience store, specialty top, and grocery store chain, no matter the level of sophistication, offered ten dollar designer salsa choices in flavors ranging from raspberry chipotle, to green chile, black bean, and caramelized corn. In the early days, the cheese thing was simple: tortilla, cheese, tomato, scallion, lettuce, delicious. According to my father, as he and his brother continued to eat cheese things on a regular basis, they began to branch out, a foray that resulted in the eventual addition of a slathering of refried beans.

The cooking technique? At first, the boys would set their veggie laden tortillas under the broiler and pull them out as soon as the cheese melted. Eventually, however, they discovered that this technique left the tortilla itself soggy and (gasp) the rest of the vegetables undercooked. They then tried baking the cheese things in a toaster oven set to a high temperature. This crisped the bottom of the tortillas and cooked the other ingredients to perfection.

Eventually, after preparing cheese things for almost a decade, my father began to explore yet another technique. Note that I've adorned the method with some of my own editorializing, but where it is you shall never know. Heat a large skillet to medium-high. Lightly brush both sides of a tortilla with vegetable oil. Lay the tortilla in the skillet and pan roast until the bottom is golden brown. Flip over the tortilla, spread on a thin layer of beans, sprinkle on the cheese, tomatoes, and scallions, reduce the heat to moderate, cover for 5 to 10 minutes, allowing the cheese to melt and the veggies to heat up. Using a spatula, remove the cheese thing from the pan, garnish with iceberg lettuce and salsa, fold in half, and devour. The only drawback is that this method prevents the preparation of cheese things simultaneously. Today, when I make a cheese thing, I just throw on all of the ingredients except for the greens and salsa, toss it in an oven preheated to 425ยบ, and bake for 5 to 10 minutes. Voila.

Looking back, the cheese thing was really nothing more sophisticated than an open-faced quesadilla, prepared in our humble kitchen at a time before every sports bar on Earth offered quesadillas as an appetizer garnished with a scoop of Ortega pico de gallo and a dollop of sour cream. However, for me, the cheese thing is something more. It is a reminder of the simplicity of childhood, of a time when my parents were young, happy, and playful. Eating a cheese thing on a warm, spring evening brings me back to my childhood in Coconut Grove, the smell of the orange trees sprouting their first blossoms, the sights of hibiscus blossoms unfurling their petals each morning and plantains hanging from trees, and the memory of my mother devouring a freshly-picked mango, the stringy pulp dripping down her chin as she deliriously savored the fruit's decadent sweetness. Cheese things remind me of unadulterated joy.

Now, how the hell do you make a cheese thing? It's really quite a simple process, but the main point is to get experimental with toppings and flavor combinations. Here are some hints:

Try a new kind of tortilla. These days, I've been avoiding the lard-based white flour tortilla, substituting them with Tumaro's Gourmet Tortillas, a brand that is not only lowfat, but intensely flavorful. Tumaro's offers a variety of flavors, ranging from jalapeno-cilantro, to honey wheat, to chipotle-chile, to green onion. Not only do they work well as a cheese thing vehicle, but also work perfectly as a veggie wrap.

Bang around a few bean ideas. This week I've been gravitating toward refried beans, but I've also been known to cook up a pot of black beans flavored with garlic, cayenne, cumin, salt. Eat the beans with some rice and veggies or scoop 'em onto a tortilla.

Tempt your taste buds with different toppings. Here are a few of my favorite flavors:
• sauteed zucchini, chopped into bite-sized pieces
• sauteed baby bella mushrooms and onions or sauteed portobella caps, sliced into strips
• roasted red peppers
• pickled jalapenos
• nopalitos (picked cactus), chopped into bite-sized pieces
• tunafish (Dad's idea, not mine)
• corn
• scallions
• tomatoes
• fresh baby greens
• arugula
• iceberg lettuce
• chopped fresh cilantro
• roasted garlic cloves
• salsa of your liking

Here's hoping that your cheese things offer you the same joyous nostalgia that mine do.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Red Hot and Romantic Cajun Spice

When my soon-to-be husband, Wesley, and I had our first date two and a half years ago, one of the first things he boasted about was his signature dish, Blackened Cajun Chicken. He cautioned me that he knew few people whose palates could withstand the heat of his proprietary blend. I assured him that my ability to withstand the scoville units wouldn't be a problem. I mean, hey, I've been traveling with a purse bottle of Sriracha since I first discovered it 15 years ago. Not really, but I've thought about it. I do, however, collect hot sauces like some women collect purses.

About a month later, only a month and a half into our relationship, Wesley cranked up the heat by inviting me to come home with him for a few days before Christmas. What choice did I have but to accept his gracious invitation. Two weeks later, on December 21, 2006, I found myself disembarking at the Jet Blue gate at Syracuse Airport. I remember the date because it was my 35th birthday. Ten minutes later, I met my soon-to-be mother- and father-in-law, Judy and Dick Dunaway, and an hour after that, we pulled into their driveway in Fair Haven, New York, an idyllic upstate New York village nestled on the banks of Lake Ontario. I spent the next three days in cozy comfort, meeting Wes's childhood best friends, eating Judy's comfort cuisine, drinking Dick's vodka gimlets, and falling asleep in my favorite way possible, to the sound of the television in the background.

On my last morning in Fair Haven, Wes trotted up the stairs to our room and presented me with a gift from Judy, a copy of the Fair Haven Church's cookbook, Recipes and Remembrances. This snappy little spiral bound cookbook, a nostalgic reminder of my first visit to Fair Haven, features hometown favorites like Dick's Pot Roast Braised in Red Wine and another of Wes's favorites, Judy's Chicken Francaise. Most important, however, nestled in the the cookbook's glossy pages, lucky readers can feast their eyes on Wes's Blackened Cajun Chicken recipe–in print.

While waiting for my plane in the airport, I cracked the cookbook for the first time. It immediately struck me that the recipe wasn't necessarily Wes's, but his favorite recipe of Judy's, submitted in his honor. I think that what tipped me off was the use of the word dredge in reference to coating the chicken with the seasonings. I almost peed my pants thinking of Wes sitting at his computer, White Stripes in the background, consciously using the word dredge in reference to his chicken. Either way, the visit, the cookbook, and the subtle gesture intimated by the recipe sealed my fate. I was in love.

Of course, it wasn't for another year that Wes actually prepared his Blackened Cajun Chicken. And, of course, as of this writing, I haven't actually eaten Wes's Blackened Cajun Chicken per se. However, I have dredged tofu in his Cajun seasoning, sprinkled it into a skillet with my zucchini saute, and, as readers of this blog know, perfected the mashed sweet potatoes in my empanadas by stirring in a tablespoonful on a whim.

I highly suggest that you concoct a batch of this seasoning, store it in your spice rack, and throw it in your next dish that needs a little spike. It's a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll.

2 tablespoons paprika
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons lemon pepper
1 teaspoon thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons basil

A Few Thoughts On a Few Dishes

It's been several days since my last blog entry. I had several family members in town for a few days and have essentially spent the last ten days eating my way through the restaurants of New York. I've eaten goat cheese in Park Slope, endive in Soho, peashoots on the Upper East Side, and ramps in Greenpoint. There are a plentitude of flavors on which to dish.

For one, I am very excited to report that Five Leaves, my favorite neighborhood restaurant, is beginning to offer an increased array of creative and thoughtfully constructed vegetarian appetizers and entrees. Last week their specials' board was adorned with two flavorful choices, both of which I sampled. The Roasted Asparagus and Arugula Salad with Hazelnut Vinaigrette was rich and satisfying, and had it been a bit bigger, it most certainly would have satiated me as a main course. This is what I'm talking about when I rant and rave about my desire for more interesting salad options. Following this tantalizer, I feasted on the Penne with Artichokes, Ramps, and Poached Egg entree. Can we say ooh la la? This was one of the most delicious meals I've had the good fortune to enjoy in a good, long while. The lemony sauce that adorned the pasta and vegetables was perfectly tangy, without being overpowering, the flavor of which was balanced by the richness of the poached egg. In fact, when I pierced the egg yolk with my fork, the lemony goodness combined with it to form an impromptu, but very welcome, sauce akin to a Hollandaise. All this is to declare that, Vegetarians (and yes, I intentionally capitalize this work), Five Leaves is working to meet our needs. Praise for them.

Second, I made two new restaurant discoveries this week, both of which will soon be reviewed on The Dish (new, more casual nickname for Greenpointdish). Jean Claude in Soho was one of the few French restaurants that satisfied my needs with something other than an Algerian inspired couscous dish that every other French restaurant seems to feature as its one veggie offering. And, Fiore in Williamsburg delighted my brunchtime stomach's gurgles with a flavorful frittata. More on both later.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Yes, I am a vegetarian. No, I'm not on a diet.

As I've noted on several occasions, a quality that most impresses me in a restaurant is a healthy selection of vegetarian choices. What I appreciate are thoughtful offerings that show that the chef and owners have taken the palates of what has become a large majority of the eating population into consideration. Too often, the vegetarian choices are limited to pastas, salads, or sides. First of all, one would think that a quality restaurant with an eclectic menu could think of something more creative to offer vegetarians than items such as pasta primavera, mushroom risotto, or butternut squash ravioli. At one point, these items were creative, but now they are cliche. Just like at one point goat cheese as an element of a dish was new and intriguing to our shores, now, when you see it on the menu in the portobello wrap at Bennigans, its just predictable. Second, just because I'm a vegetarian, it does not mean that I'm on a diet. I like to eat, dammit. Most days, I wake up and immediately start scheming about what delicacies I will feast on in the coming hours. Most of what I think and do revolves around food. Yes, I do love salad, but not as my only choice on a menu. Usually, when I make the choice to go out to dinner, especially at a time when the $20 bill is the new $1, I want to eat. And I don't mean a chicken Caesar or a cobb salad. And, if you are going to offer these old favorites, and I understand that they are favorites, give it a twist, mix it up, play with my expectations.

But I digress. As a vegetarian, living New York City, the "greatest city on Earth," I expect more from its restaurants. I expect to be able to go to a restaurant other than one specializing in vegan and raw foods to have my needs met. This is why vegetarianism and how it relates to my dining adventures will be a predominant theme of this blog. Don't get me wrong. I don't expect to eat more than a tomato salad if I go to Peter Luger's. I know my limits, but I would expect a bit more from restaurants whose claim to fame is not steak or seafood. Vegetables offer endless possibilities for culinary creativity. So, my challenge is for chefs and restauranteurs everywhere to open their cookbooks and their minds, pick up a fresh bunch of beets from the local farmer's market, and make something a little more innovative than borscht. Which I do like, by the way. But not for my entree.