Cucumber-Yogurt Cold Soup (Tarator)

Heat wave seems like mild terminology for our recent weather phenomenon. This was no regular wave of heat; it was a heat tsunami.

Walking outside for any extended period of time conjured up images of eggs frying on the asphalt.  Final destinations seemed like distant mirages. While, in hindsight, this may be a slight exaggeration, the fact of the matter was- it was hot!

Like an ant beneath a magnifying glass, I could feel the sun’s heat as I scurried across parking lots.

Attempting to put anything inside an oven would have been equivalent to sticking my head inside a burning inferno. The quest to cool down and be fed ended at a cold cucumber-yogurt soup (tarator).

Cucumber-Yogurt Cold Soup (Tarator)

Cucumber-Yogurt Cold Soup (Tarator)

Tarator most closely resembles a diluted version of tzatziki. Traditionally, it is made only with dill, but I love the flavor of Italian flat-leaf parsley and add it as well.  The walnuts, although a customary topping, are entirely optional as well.  Hothouse or Persian cucumbers are preferable to the conventional variety because they have less seeds.  

Yield: serves 4-6

1  320g Container of plain yogurt (lowfat or full-fat; I prefer Dannon)

1 English/hothouse cucumber (or 3-4 small, Persian cucumbers) , peeled and cubed

4 cloves of minced garlic

1 Tbs. of chopped dill

1-2 Tbs. of olive oil

1 Tbs. of chopped flat-leaf parsley (optional)

Chopped walnuts for garnish (optional)

In a large mixing bowl, pour the entire container of yogurt. Fill the empty yogurt container with cold water (an amount equal to the yogurt that was in there) and pour the water into the mixing bowl. Whisk until smooth. Add the cubed and peeled cucumber, minced garlic, chopped dill, and olive oil. If you wish, add chopped parsley as well. Stir until well mixed. Chill the tarator in the fridge until cold; or if you used already cold water and yogurt, serve immediately. Serve in individual bowls and garnish with chopped walnuts, if you’d like.

None of the above amounts are set in stone. Do you love cucumbers? Throw another one in there. Prefer it thicker? Use less water. Prefer it more watered-down? Really? Well, use more water. Use less or more olive oil, dill, parsley; you get the drill. It’ll be delicious and refreshing regardless.

Cucumber-Yogurt Cold Soup (Tarator)

Cucumber-Yogurt Cold Soup (Tarator)

Cuban Corn

One of my favorite snacks as a kid was corn on the cob, a simple indulgence sold by vendors on the street. Their large vats of boiled corn lined markets, parks, beaches.  Before being served the warm corn, you were simply asked if you wanted salt on it. In cooler weather, it was wonderfully warming and in the hot summer months, it was wonderfully sweet.

Perhaps it sounds a bit like those Hidden Valley commercials with kids salivating over cauliflower in vintage popcorn containers, but we did in fact line up for the corn.

When I lived in New York, I discovered Cuban corn and it conjured up those images of childhood. The corn is grilled and topped with mayonnaise, white cheese, and cayenne/chili- delicious and perfect for grilling season.

Cuban Corn

Cuban Corn

Grilling the corn adds a smoky flavor and the occasional charring; cooking the corn in the oven results in something closer to boiled corn in terms of flavor. If you can find it, Cotija cheese is your best bet. You can also use queso fresco or queso blanco. For a different flavoring, you can even use Parmesan cheese and parsley rather than cilantro. This is probably the one time I would not recommend feta, which I found tasted chalky when “melted.”    

Corn on the cob

Chili powder (or cayenne pepper)

Queso fresco  (or Cotija cheese)

Mayonnaise

Limes and cilantro (for garnish)

Grill the corn using your preferred method. If you are using corn in the husk, presoak the corn in water for 30 minutes to prevent charring the husk. Peel back the husk, clean off the silk, and rub the corn with mayonnaise and sprinkle on the chili powder. Cover the corn with the husk and place on a medium hot grill (or in the oven). You can also choose to remove the husk altogether, clean the corn of the silk, rub it with mayonnaise, and sprinkle on the chili powder. Wrap each ear of corn in aluminum foil before placing on the grill (or in the oven). Grill for 15-20 minutes. When done, remove the corn from the grill (oven), peel back the husk (foil) and sprinkle with queso fresco (you can crumble, grate, or shred the cheese). Serve with cilantro and limes for garnish.

Cuban Corn

 

Strawberry Compound Butter

I grabbed the wrong brochure at the farmer’s market over the weekend; but, nonetheless, it may have paid off because this simple concoction caught my eye. S would really enjoy it. You see, he likes butter on his bagel and, once in a while, he’ll take it with a schmear of strawberry cream cheese. Strawberry butter only seems a natural evolution.

I tend think of compound butters in the savory context. But this sweet one would be ideal on a muffin and can really dress up plain toast. Not to mention, strawberry butter can be a wonderful addition to a brunch celebration. It’s in-season, colorful, sweet, and just a bit fancy, without being pretentious.

Strawberry Butter

Strawberry Compound Butter  

Yield: a little less than 1/2 cup of butter

about 1/4 cup fresh strawberries (approx. 3-4 strawberries), hulled and chopped roughly

1/2 stick of unsalted butter (or 1/4 cup)

1 tsp. of powdered sugar

Allow the butter to reach room temperature. Place all three ingredients (strawberries, butter, sugar) in a bowl and combine until smooth. I simply used a fork to do this. You’ll still have large strawberry pieces in there; don’t drive yourself crazy mashing them (unless you insist; but the more you mash, the more liquid will come out of the strawberries). Drain any liquid that may be in the bowl. Refrigerate between use.

Strawberry Sorbet

If today was a sweltering July day, making sorbet would only seem natural.  But alas, it is barely a 70-degree Spring day and the choice may seem rather unusual.  That it, until you take a look inside our fridge where a container of strawberries has been slowly decomposing for the better part of a week, taunting me that culinary inspiration better strike before it’s too late.

But the tipping point really came when we picked up S’s mom from the bus station. “I know you guys said you didn’t need me to bring anything, so I just brought some tomatoes and strawberries; and a brisket that I had in the fridge that needed to be cooked.” Strawberries!  More strawberries!  More on the brisket later; well, later for us as we’ll be having it for dinner tomorrow.

Strawberries

But these strawberries!  Something had to be done; the thought of a second container rotting away next to the first seemed obscene.  Heavy baked desserts just weren’t right, and so, here we are… with the lime juice in there, this will also make for a sweet and light Cinco de Mayo dessert this weekend.

Strawberry Sorbet

Strawberry Sorbet

Strawberry Sorbet  

Yield: 4 servings

1/2 cup of sugar

1 cup water

2 cups ripe strawberries (hulled and sliced)

1 Tbs. lime juice

Bring the sugar and water to a boil in a small pot.  Stir until the sugar dissolves.  Remove the pot from heat until the water solution is cool.  Pour the water and sugar solution in a blender; add the sliced strawberries and the lime juice.  Puree until smooth.  If you prefer, you can strain the pureed mixture.  However, I like the little strawberry seeds.  Next, pour the mixture into an ice cream maker and proceed according to its instruction manual.  For me, this means having the machine churn and cool the mixture for approximately 20 minutes.  Transfer the mixture to an airtight and freezer-safe container and then place it in the freezer for at least 1 hour.

Strawberry Sorbet

Spearmint Rubbed Lamb Chops (with Paprika-Savory Mashed Potatoes)

It sounds fancy, but in the end, it’s just meat and potatoes.

When it comes to the cooking I grew up with, paprika, summer savory, and salt were the common condiment spices, a salt and pepper equivalent, if you will.  Combined together, they make sharena sol or colorful salt.  Not to go unmentioned in the traditional spice cabinet is spearmint.  Here, we have all three.

When it comes to cooking the lamb, I firmly believe that it is a matter of personal taste (beyond the minimal safety cooking standards, that is).  Every chef-personality out there will likely tell you to cook your meat to medium-rare.  But the fact of the matter is that meat preparation is both a matter of personal taste and cultural practice.  If reddish liquid oozing out of your meat as you cut or bite into it makes your stomach turn, then who am I or anyone else to tell you otherwise.  Do what tastes and looks good to you.  Unlike those famous chefs cooking for clients, you’re cooking for yourself and your family.

Lamb Chops

Spearmint Rubbed Lamb Chops (with Paprika-Savory Mashed Potatoes)

While the lamb chops are a meat main course, the paprika-savory mashed potatoes are vegan.  

Yield: 2 servings

4 small lamb chops

4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes

1 teaspoon of paprika

2 teaspoons of summer savory

2 teaspoons of dried spearmint

Olive oil (and apple cider vinegar) to taste

Salt to taste

Boiling the potatoes:

There is no right way.  There’s just the way you prefer.  I boil my potatoes by first rinsing them under running water, filling a medium sauce pan with water, and placing the potatoes straight into the pot.  Other people prefer to peel their potatoes before putting them in the boiling water, in which case I would recommend salting the water.  If you cut the potatoes rather than boil them whole, they will be ready faster.  The potatoes are done when you can easily pierce them with a fork, with little to no resistance.  Since I prefer to boil my potatoes whole with the skins on, once done, I rinse them under running cold water and then peel them.

To mash the potatoes, I use a potato masher or just a good ol’ fork.  I’ve heard some people accomplish the task with a potato ricer as well.  When you’ve finished mashing the potatoes, sprinkle in the paprika and summer savory.  Mix them into the potatoes until they are thoroughly incorporated.  The red color of the paprika should be evenly distributed rather than in clusters.  Taste the mixture and add salt, olive oil, and vinegar to taste.  This last step will depend both on your personal taste and the particular variety of potatoes you used.  Salt I alway add.  Olive oil I usually add, but the quantity entire depends on the texture of the particular potato variety used.  Sometimes I add a splash of apple cider vinegar.

Mashed Potatoes

Grilling the lamb chops:

You can do this on a grill outside or a George Forman; I typically use a grill pan.  Heat the pan on medium high until it’s warm.  Meanwhile, rub the lamb chops on both sides with the dry spearmint.  Place the lamb chops in the heated pan and just let them be for 4-5 minutes (or your preferred time); flip and repeat on the other side.  And done!

A weekend visit (in three parts)

Mrs.  It has a nice ring to it and I suppose the thing to say would be that I’m still getting used to the idea of being called Mrs. C.  Except that very few people have called me Mrs. C in person.  It’s funny how words like husband and wife now just seem to roll off the tongue as though they’ve been part of our everyday lexicon for years.  Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Mr. C and I try to use them as often as possible.

Things have now (sort of) returned to normal and with that comes the pleasant return of routines.  The fridge can once again be filled with groceries, friends can come over just to hang out…  Speaking of which, I asked a friend who’s visiting this weekend if she’d like to do anything special for the day and while she replied with a simple, “just hang out,” it was quickly followed by, “just feed me; I’m always hungry now.”  If I recall the last time I spent the day just hanging out with a pregnant friend of mine, I really think it’s about time I go grocery shopping.  Plus, I’ve been duly warned.

***

While my enjoyment of grocery shopping is certainly not what The Clash were thinking of when they wrote “Lost in the Supermarket,” it’s become something of a grocery shopping theme song for me.  I often find myself humming the tune as I leisurely push my cart down the aisles.  It’s a different kind of lost (more like the sixth definition of lost).  Rapt.  Absorbed.  In reverie.

***

In the end, we spent the day having protein-rich, vegetarian meals and made a version of this quinoa dish, adding some cherry tomatoes to the mix, for lunch and a simple pasta dinner with cheese and vegetables.

Comforting – Lentil Soup

I didn’t quit, I promise.  In truth, I haven’t eaten anything that spectacular.  No, that’s wrong.  I haven’t made anything that spectacular.  But that’s not what this is about, is it?  Too many meals were had out, the ones had in were quick, unassuming, unsatisfying.  And that’s what it is, isn’t it?

It’s not about spectacular, it’s about satisfying.  And there is nothing quite as satisfying as soup on a stormy day.  Queue in Sandy, strong winds, downpours, and gray skies.  The looming threat of losing power made me think that it may be a good idea to make something warm while we still could.  Nothing fancy, just warm and comforting.  I kept on thinking about lentils; kept on thinking about lentils until I decided to fill the pot with water and make them happen.  There was also the free, end-of-the-day baguette from Cheesetique that I didn’t want to go to waste.  Lentil soup with garlic bread and feta meze.  

Lentil Soup (with garlic bread and feta meze)

The soup itself is vegan, but in this instance I served it with a feta meze.

Yield: 4-6 servings

1/2 bag of lentils

4 cloves of garlic

8 baby carrots or 1 regular carrot

salt and olive oil to taste

Rinse the lentils under cold water.  Place the rinsed lentils in a pot and fill with desired amount of water.  The water level should be at least two fingers’ width above the lentils.  Essentially, pour as much water as you’d want broth and keep in mind about a finger and a half of it will evaporate away.  Cover the pot and cook to a boil on medium high heat.

Meanwhile, roughly chop the garlic and carrots and place in the water.  Season the water well with salt and a drizzle of olive oil.

Once boiling, move the lid over to allow air to escape and reduce to medium-low heat.  Cook until tender, approximately 35 minutes.

For the garlic bread, slice a baguette in half length-wise and rub each slice with half a peeled garlic clove.  Using the same garlic clove, chop it finely.  Sprinkle the chopped garlic over the bread and drizzle each baguette half with olive oil.  Place in a preheated 425 degree oven for 10-12 minutes.

For the feta meze, sprinkle feta with paprika and drizzle with olive oil.

Serve and enjoy!

Last Memories of Summer – Tomato and Mozzarella Open Face Sandwiches

The chilly arrival of this week was a shock to the system.  Surely summer was not already over?  Just this past weekend it was a balmy 90 degrees.  Indeed, this two-day break in the weather pattern seems to have been a short sneak peak of Fall’s arrival.  Thoughts of warm soups, pumpkins, and apples fluttered through my mind.

But it wasn’t quite time for that yet.  No, we were determined to suck the last vestiges of summer from the next few weeks.  There were outdoor dinners to be had, there was poolside reading to be done, there were walks, and markets, and festivals.  The ovens were not ready to be turned on.

Remember when summer started?  When a simple plate of tomatoes and mozzarella, drizzled with olive oil and accompanied by a few slices of crusty bread was the perfect meal?

As I might have mentioned before, summer [for me] = tomatoes and cheese.  What is your perfect meal?

In an attempt to preserve the memory of summer, a meal I had at the beginning of this summer…

Tomato and Mozzarella Open Face Sandwiches

Yield: 2-4 servings

This one does not really need a recipe, but here it is nonetheless.

2 ripe tomatoes (preferably heirloom or on-the-vine)

1 ball of mozzarella (the kind in liquid)

Crusty Italian bread or a French baguette

Kosher salt and an extra virgin olive oil (you can add or substitute olive oil for balsamic vinegar)

Slice the bread, tomatoes, and mozzarella.  Place the tomato and mozzarella slices on the bread.  Salt to taste.  Drizzle with olive oil

Palachinki (Crepes)

When I was little, summers were spent visiting my grandparents.  For breakfast, my grandmother would make us a tower of crepes and we would devour the entire batch, slathering it with layers of homemade preserves or brined cheese.

Initially, I would just observe as my grandmother carefully buttered the bottom of the pan, poured in a little bit of the batter, swiveled it around until it reached the edges, and then flipped it over with a fork at just the right moment.  Watching her do it with such ease instilled a confidence in me and I gradually began assisting with each of the steps.  I would butter the pan with the special device she had created for the job- a long, wooden stick with a ball of cheesecloth attached to one end that resembled a drumstick.  I would pour the batter in the pan, occasionally even being the one to swivel it around the bottom of the pan.

Amid all this observing and doing, I would ask every little question that crossed my mind about the task at hand.  How much do you pour in?  How do you know when to flip the palachinka?

At the end of the summer, when our parents came to pick us up and take us back to the city, I asked my mom if we could write down grandma’s palachinki recipe.  Unfortunately, our first attempt at recreating it was not very successful.

When I moved to live on my own, I asked my mother if I could take the page from her recipe notebook.

A few years after that, sitting at home, body aching with a miserable cold, on a gloomy fall day, I had the sudden resolve to pull out that recipe and try again.

For comfort’s sake, a little bit of research and preparation was in order before I began.  So, I read over the recipe, dusted off the memory shelf of making palachinki with my grandma and, for good measure, read “About Crepes” in The Joy of Cooking.

I felt confident.  I felt like I could do this.  In fact, I felt so confident as to attempt a flip of the crepe using the pan.  When else if not now?  The palachinki were coming out so wonderfully anyhow.  What did I have to lose?  If it fell on the linoleum kitchen floor, who would see but me (Julia was right)?  Holding the pan with both hands and with eyes almost squinted shut, I flicked my wrist and watched the crepe lift off the bottom of the pan, glide past the edge, and flip in the air at a modest height, landing unceremoniously back in the pan.  Success!  I did a little dance in the kitchen and repeated the whole motion with the next palachinka, and the next, and the one after that, until the batter was all gone and the stack of crepes stood tall on the plate.  None had ended up on the floor.  Not one.  Astounding, unabashed success.

Since those initial moments of elation, crepes have become a brunch staple in our household and an attractor for Saturday morning guests.

Palachinki 

 Adapted from Grandma (Version I)

 Yield: 10

1 cup milk

2 eggs

1 near full cup flour

a little bit of salt and butter

 

Adapted from The Joy of Cooking (Version II)

Savory Crepes (for sweet add 3 Tbs sugar and reduce salt to 1/8 tsp; though I add about 1 Tbs sugar and a pinch of salt)

 Yield: 12

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup milk

1/2 lukewarm water

4 large eggs

1/4 stick butter, melted

1/2 tsp salt

 

Combine the eggs, milk, flour, and salt into a smooth batter.  Let the batter sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes (The Joy of Cooking recommends covering in plastic wrap and letting it stand for 30 minutes or refrigerating the batter for up to 2 days.  If you refrigerate the batter, be sure to stir it up and let it stand at room temperature a bit before using it.).  Place a little bit of the butter in a small to medium skillet (this is about the only time I use a nonstick skillet), enough to coat the bottom of the pan with a very thin layer and heat it on medium heat until the butter begins to brown, but not burn.  Remove the pan from the heat and pour in a small ladle of the batter (for this, I use a 1/4 cup measure that is not quite full).  Quickly, but gently, swivel the pan around (tilting, rotating) until the batter reaches the edges of the pan, covering the entire bottom in a thin layer.  Return the pan to the heat.

The crepe will be ready to flip when the edges lift and small bubbles begin to form across its surface (a little over 1 minute).  To flip the pancake, gently slide a wide knife (such as a spatula knife or spreader) beneath the crepe and gently flip it, using whatever combination of knife, fingers, fork works best for you.  If you’re feeling particularly brave (and you should be!), remove the pan from the heat, and hold it in your dominant hand (you can use both hands too).  Take a deep breath and gently, but quickly, flick your wrist down first and then up in a strong motion.  The pancake will land right back into the pan.  Sometimes it’ll land perfectly, another time it’ll do a 360, and sometimes it’ll land with the edges folded under.  To correct this, either flip again or use a knife/spatula/fork to adjust it.  Return the pan to the heat and allow the crepe to cook on this side as well (a little over a minute again).

Slide the ready crepe into a plate lined with wax paper and pour in another ladle of batter (my grandma recommends sprinkling a drop or two of melted butter on the stack of crepes once in a while).  Repeat the above until the batter is all gone and the pile of crepes is stacked high.  Every once in a while, you may need to rebutter your pan or, if the butter contains too many burned bits, you may have to replace it.

And remember, the first one or two are practice.  In fact, I find that if I put too much butter in the pan, the first crepe is perfect for absorbing the excess, and I toss it.

Serve warm with an array of available preserves.  Try it with feta too!

Isn’t it always entertaining… Baked Salmon with a Warm Mango Salsa

They say you should stick to the familiar when it comes to entertaining guests.  I don’t really know who they are, but I always do just the opposite.  You see, for me, the occasional dinner party equates to the perfect opportunity to try something new.  It’s not typical that we exert that much effort on a weekday, evening dinner.  I’d like to, certainly, but I’m not quite there yet on this particular goal.  When else, but a dinner party to try that recipe that’s been staring back at you from the magazine on the  coffee table since the first of the month, tantalizing you with its luscious, full-size photos… so glossy, you can’t quite tell if it’s due to the egg wash or the magazine page itself.

Worried what people will think of the food?  Bask in the fact that you’ve turned the fantasy of that glossy recipe into reality.  And sure, the reality may not be quite so perfect… what with the smoke detector in your small apartment turning on every time you open the oven door and the dining room table that ambitiously sits only six people, or forgetting your own mental note to warn your dinner guests about the center fish bone until the sight of one of them attempting to discreetly pull one out of his mouth reminds you to “forewarn” them all, or your well-intentioned and simple crumble turning into a compote.  (If you don’t call it a crumble, no one will be the wiser.)  Because you see, in the end, everyone will think it was delicious when they go home with a happy, full belly.

So, there I was, Wednesday night, just back from work, and about two hours away from the arrival of five dinner guests.  The initial idea behind the dinner party was to prepare a traditional Bulgarian meal, but I got carried away by thoughts of ripe summer fruit (carried far, far away): spinach, blue cheese, strawberry, and walnut salad with an apple cider vinaigrette, baked salmon with a warm mango salsa over a bed of orange Israeli couscous, and strawberry-raspberry “compote” over vanilla ice cream.  Served with a citrusy Chenin Blanc we bought when we visited the Biltmore Estate in North Caroline last month, it was the perfect accompaniment to a summer dinner party.

(The menu I described about is a dairy one, but I’ve categorized the recipe below as a standalone, parave course.)

Baked Salmon with a Warm Mango Salsa

Adapted from Whole Foods

Yield: 7

The Whole Foods recipe calls for canola oil, but I prefer to use olive or sunflower oil when cooking.

7 (6-ounce) sockeye salmon fillets
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1/3 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 medium mango (Ataulfo, if possible)
1/2 or 1 fresh jalapeño pepper
1 large shallot
1 lime
(Chopped fresh mint or cilantro for garnish) – I skip this step

Peel and dice the mango; slice the jalapeño pepper lengthwise and remove its seeds, then chop it finely; peel off the outer layer of the shallot and chop it roughly.  Combine these in a medium bowl.  Slice the lime in half and squeeze each half over the bowl.  Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425°F.  Place the salmon, skin-side down, in a baking dish or on a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil or parchment paper.  Drizzle the olive oil over the salmon and then sprinkle the salt and pepper.  Bake for approximately 6 minutes.

Remove from the oven and with a spoon, sprinkle the mango and lime juice mixture over the salmon.  Return to the oven and continue to bake until the salmon is done.  Do not overcook.  This will take approximately 10 minutes.

Garnish with finely chopped mint or cilantro, if desired.

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