Archive for My Test Kitchen

Hummus Wars, Part I

Hummus Masabacha from Food & Wine Magazine

As I paged through the May issue of Food & Wine last week, I came across a hummus recipe in an article about the food of Israel. I had always wanted to make my own version of this Middle Eastern chickpea spread in order to see how it compared to the store-bought stuff, so I flagged the page and started planning my upcoming weekend around this experiment. 

Imagine my surprise when Cook’s Illustrated arrived at my door a few days later, also offering a recipe for the best hummus this side of the Atlantic Ocean. There was something in the air last week, and I have to say, it smelled of chickpeas. 

A more intrepid blogger might have spent the weekend testing both recipes, then triumphantly declaring the winner in a decisive post. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I just couldn’t do it. Too much hummus, too little time. So this past weekend I worked on the Food & Wine version, and this coming weekend I’ll try the Cook’s recipe.

On Saturday morning I wandered into Sahadi’s, the Middle Eastern specialty foods store on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Even though I only needed dried chickpeas and tahini for my hummus cook-off, I spent some  time browsing the shelves filled with various types of ground flour, couscous, beans, nuts, and olives. After making my purchases I headed next door to the Damascus Bread and Pastry Shop for some homemade pita bread, also indulging myself with their sweet, sticky baklava. I need to find projects that bring me to Atlantic Avenue and its Middle Eastern shops more often.

Upon my return home, I focused on making my hummus. I put 1/2 pound of dried chickpeas and baking soda in water to soak, and by the next morning the chickpeas had expanded and softened. Some cooking time on the stovetop, a few whirs in the food processor with olive oil, lemon juice, and cooking water, and I had my chickpea spread. In Food & Wine’s recipe for hummus masabacha, the hummus is garnished with some whole chickpeas, a few sprinkles of cumin and paprika, and enhanced with a separate lemon-spiked tahini sauce.

The hummus, while creamy and nutty on its own, definitely improved with the lemon tahini, which I had spooned into the center. As I dragged the tahini sauce into the hummus with my pita bread, it infused the spread with a lightness and intense lemon flavor missing from the chickpea mixture. The Food & Wine article explains that authentic Israeli hummus is not as strongly flavored with lemon and garlic as Americans might be used to, and the masabacha variation is a little fancier than what one might order everyday.

I’m interested to see how the Cook’s Illustrated recipe compares. I’m also wondering how much hummus I can eat in a week. I guess I’m about to find out.

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Smitten Kitchen’s Spring Panzanella

Like almost everyone else I know, I am ready for spring. The past few weeks have been so grey and dreary, with the sun peeking out from behind the clouds for just a moment before ducking back behind them again. For whatever reason, spring is not ready to be sprung.

But on this past cold and sleepy Sunday, spring did enter my home for a little while, in the form of Smitten Kitchen’s Spring Panzanella. I had seen the colorful photograph and recipe on their website at the end of last week, and I just knew that I had to make this salad, as soon as possible.

Smitten Kitchen\'s Spring Panzanella

The mixture of asparagus, tangy leeks, white beans, and crispy toasted bits of leftover bread, combined with champagne vinegar, red onion, olive oil, and a bit of Dijon mustard simply proclaimed spring with every bite. The flavors were clean, fresh, and alive, providing me with a burst of positive energy during a day of lethargy. Jim is already looking forward to the next time I prepare it. I need to do a better job cutting the leeks though; I left them a little too thick this time around.

On Monday morning I proceeded to send this recipe to 3 of my friends. I needed to spread the news to my fellow cooks that spring had finally arrived, at least in the form of a recipe. It’s all we’ve got until the sun comes out.

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Lessons from the Dinner Club

Jamie Oliver\'s Stuffed Leg of Lamb

With everyone leading such busy lives, I’ve found that months can go by without seeing certain friends. So, in an effort to maintain our ties to each other, Jim and I and 7 of our close friends decided to meet once a month to enjoy a home-cooked meal together. Jim and I hosted the inaugural dinner club gathering this past Saturday night.

I had never cooked a meal for such a large group of people before. As I expected, I learned many things from the experience. Here’s a rundown of the night:

Appetizers: We started with a loaf of No-Knead Bread, some soft, briny olives, and taleggio cheese, accompanied by fruity olive oil from my mother’s hometown in Italy. Jim’s fizzy Pomegranate-Champagne cocktail helped get the night off to a festive start.

What I learned: People love homemade bread. And fizzy drinks.

First course: Because of our previous success with Cook’s Illustrated’s Ricotta Gnocchi Jim and I thought they would be a perfect first course for the party. We made them a week earlier and froze them. An hour before cooking them, I took the gnocchi out of the freezer to rest at room temperature, as per the recipe. But when I finally added the gnocchi to the boiling water, the delicate squares of cheese disintegrated, their breadcrumbs trickling to the surface of the water.

As Jim and I stared at our melted, soggy gnocchi, we were faced with a Top Chef-like decision: Did we dare serve them? Since Padma wasn’t around to expel us from our own kitchen, we did. We were among friends, after all, and we all shared a laugh over the still-tasty, herb-infused cheese topped with a simple tomato sauce.

What I learned: When you have the oven going at full blast, plus 2 burners aflame on the stovetop, do not defrost ricotta gnocchi at room temperature. The kitchen was too warm to let the little guys rest on the counter, and they were doomed from the start.

Second course: We all know who I turn to in times of food-related need: Jamie Oliver. This time we went with his rustic leg of lamb from Jamie’s Italy, stuffing it with green olives, anchovies, bread, pine nuts, and an amazing amount of fresh herbs. We roasted it over potatoes, sweet parsnips, and fennel for two hours, pausing every so often to baste the meat with red wine. While Jim carved the lamb, I quickly sautéed some fresh brussels sprouts leaves with garlic and olive oil. Far more successful than our ricotta gnocchi, this second course saved the night for us. Jim even hit a home run with the wine pairing, serving a lovely, rich Bandol that we all enjoyed.

What I learned: As I had heard in the past, anchovies don’t taste fishy when mixed with other foodstuffs. They simply add a salty depth that you can’t achieve with regular salt.

Dessert: After a few rousing rounds of Guitar Hero (yes, we’re all in our 30s), we returned to the table for panna cotta with wild berry coulis. Luckily I still had a photograph from the first time I made this sweet, creamy delight of a dish, back during my struggles with homemade ravioli.

What I learned: When 6 of the desserts are served in regular glassware, and 4 in heart-shaped ramekins, everyone wants to know why they didn’t get a heart-shaped ramekin.

A few other things I learned from the evening:

  • If you are hosting a dinner party, don’t plan to take carefully-composed photos of the food. It’s just not going to happen.
  • Meals can indeed be enjoyed while sitting in a rocking chair.
  • I stink at Guitar Hero.
  • If you don’t have a table large enough for 10 people, borrow a portable card table from a friend. Thanks, Diego! If not for you we would have been sitting in a circle on the floor.

So our first dinner party was a total success. We ate, laughed, and relaxed. And I even learned a few culinary lessons. That’s what I call a good night, and I can’t wait until the next meeting of our Dinner Club.

The only recipe I modified from the original was for the panna cotta with wild berry coulis. I doubled the recipe to serve 10, but I’ll provide you with the basic recipe for 6 (generous) servings.

Recipe for Panna Cotta with Wild Berry Coulis (adapted from the Gourmet Cookbook and the America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook):

For the Panna Cotta:

  • 2 3/4 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
  • 2 tablespoons cold water
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, scored down the middle, seeds scraped from the pod
  • a drop of vanilla extract

In a small bowl, sprinkle gelatin over the water, and let it stand until it softens, at least 1 minute. Combine cream, half-and-half, and sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until all of the sugar is dissolved. Once the cream mixture starts to boil, remove it from heat. Stir 1 cup of the cream mixture into gelatin mixture, then stir the cream and gelatin mixture back into the cream. Stir in the vanilla bean seeds, as well as a small drop of vanilla extract.

Pour an equal amount of the cream mixture into 6 glasses of your choice. Cool to room temperature for 30 minutes. Cover each glass with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before you plan to serve them.

For the Wild Berry Coulis:

  • 10 ounces frozen mixed wild berries (1 bag of frozen fruit)
  • 1/4 cup sugar (adjust according to your preference)
  • 1 squeeze of lemon juice
  • a pinch of salt

While your panna cotta sets in the refrigerator, turn your attention to the wild berry coulis. Place the frozen berries in a saucepan. Cover. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Stir often for 10 to 12 minutes. Add sugar, turn heat to high, and boil for 2 minutes.

Strain berries through a strainer, using a spoon or spatula to push the berries through into a bowl. Discard the berry seeds that are left in the strainer. Add lemon juice and salt. Cover and refrigerate until chilled.

When you are ready to serve your panna cotta, top each one with a generous serving of the berry coulis. Serves 6. Enjoy!

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Goan-Style Shrimp Curry

Maybe it was that rather ascetic dinner of red peppers with quinoa and goat cheese. Or maybe it was because I was halfway through Michael Pollan’s new book In Defense of Food, and I was struck by his point that many of us are so confused about our diets that we have lost the pleasure in eating. Anyway, all I’m trying to say is that this weekend I wanted to make something rich, fun, and exotic for dinner. And I satisfied that craving with a Goan-Style Shrimp Curry recipe from the New York Times’ One Pot column.

Goan-Style Shrimp Curry from the New York Times

The recipe is adapted from chefs Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur of Devi, an Indian restaurant on 18th Street in Manhattan. I’ve never been there, but after making this amazing curry, I’m definitely putting Devi on my list of restaurants to visit.

A historic city located on the west coast of India, Old Goa was the capital of Portugal’s once vast Indian empire from 1510 until the 1960s. It is located in Goa, India’s smallest state. Because of its proximity to the sea, it enjoys an abundance of fresh seafood; fish curry is one of the area’s most popular dishes. Goa’s cuisine is often strongly flavored with coconuts, red chilies, and vinegar.

The New York Times recipe uses two out of these three ingredients. A tomato-based sauce is quickly simmered with smoky red chilies, fragrant coriander, turmeric, curry, and fresh ginger to impart a mild, mysterious heat. Sweet, rich coconut milk tempers that warmth and slowly creates a gorgeous pink hue as it joins the tomatoes in the pot. A handful of chopped cilantro at the end adds a welcome breath of freshness.

I followed the recipe and used solely shrimp in the sauce, but this curry would work well with a myriad of food combinations, including vegetables, lobster, or scallops. Served over an ample portion of brown rice, my seafood stew emitted hints of warm chili in one bite, the strong presence of ginger in the next.

In the small article accompanying the recipe, Saran recounts how he discovered this addictive dish a few years ago while visiting friends in Old Goa. My most memorable meals are often ones that I have cooked and shared with friends and family. I’m starting to think that it’s the best way to put the pleasure back into eating, whether cooking with quinoa or coconut milk. I’ll have to see if Michael Pollan agrees in the second half of his book.

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Adventures in Focaccia and Parchment Paper

Luisa’s Focaccia di Patate

Sometimes I just have to learn things the hard way. Take, for example, my experience this week while making Luisa’s wonderful focaccia di patate.

While reading Luisa’s recipe I noted that she lined her baking pan with parchment paper, in order to keep the dough from sticking to the pan. I have to admit that I rarely use any sort of pan liner when I bake. That’s probably why a look at the top of my refrigerator, where my various boxes of sandwich bags, aluminum foil, and cereal reside, revealed wax paper but not parchment paper.

I stared at the roll as I asked, “Jim, is there a big difference between wax and parchment paper?”

“Yes, there is,” he called back from the living room. “You’re not supposed to bake with wax paper, just parchment paper.”

A few days later on Sunday afternoon I stood in the kitchen, surrounded by flour, yeast, a boiled potato, grape tomatoes, oregano, and salt. I had everything I needed except I had forgotten to purchase the parchment paper. Jim was away on a business trip, his cautionary words long forgotten. Should I walk the half block to the bodega for the parchment paper or just throw caution to the wind and use the wax paper? I decided to take a risk and forgo the stroll. Come on, what could go wrong?

After two hours of rising time for the dough and another forty minutes of baking time, the pan emerged from the oven at 8:30 pm. The browned bread, dotted with cheerful grape tomatoes and spirited flecks of green oregano, looked perfect, but then I tried to separate the bread from the paper.

The wax paper had melted into the bottom of the focaccia. Suddenly it all made sense. I mean, candles are made from wax. Candles melt at high heat. Nice one, Christina. Anyway, I couldn’t save the focaccia, no matter how carefully I tried. With one swift movement, it landed in the trash. 

But I couldn’t let this recipe meet such a sorry end. On Monday night I bought some parchment paper on the way home from the subway. After another three hours the bread was done, and this time it slid off the paper with ease when I transferred it to a plate.

As for the focaccia itself, its yeasty, chewy goodness will accompany me to work as lunch for the rest of the week. Many thanks to Luisa for a wonderful recipe, and for teaching me the difference between wax and parchment paper. It took six hours, two tries, and one waxy focaccia crust, but now I’ll never forget the lesson.

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