Friday, January 28, 2011

It's the little things - Taiwanese sesame cucumbers

This week I've been concentrating on appreciating the things I usually take for granted. It's been a long, cold winter, and it's not over yet. If I don't concentrate on ordinary miracles at least a little bit, the season creeps into my bones and my spirit, and I tend to take it out on myself and my loved ones.
This week, in no particular order, I noticed:
  • The true and unconditional affection of Fearless Fraidy Cat, as he snuggles up to me in a warm blanket of orange fur. I know that it's when he stops purring - completely at ease on my lap, totally asleep - he's truly at home. And I made that home for him.
  • Our comfortable bed, with its down comforter and nice sheets, and the husband who went out of his way to find those nice sheets, for us, because he loves the home we've created together.
  • The sharp air in my lungs as I run - each step longer than the last, heels pushing me along the pavement. The fact that it gets a little easier each time I run. I can climb Otley Road to the Cooperative grocery store now without looking at my watch every two seconds, hoping against gasping hope that time is up.
  • The brilliance of an orange peel against the glittering gray of the pavement, glowing in the evening light
  • A briefly, blindingly clean kitchen (which lasts about a nanosecond in our house - best to appreciate it while you can)
  • The quality of the early morning light on the plowed fields, as viewed from the train window on my way in to York
  • The City of York in general - the ancient mixed with the modern - the opportunity to walk, on my way to a training class, past the medieval city walls, over an 18th Century bridge, through Micklegate Bar, with a view of the 14th Century towers of York Minster.
  • Clean, pure water and the feeling of it as it hits my stomach
So it's with this spirit of appreciating the small things that I made the following, cribbed from the November 2010 issue of Food & Wine magazine, with thanks to Boston chef Joanne Chang for sharing her family's recipe. Serve this little pickle alongside just about anything - I found it especially good paired with pork. And later with tilapia. And again with a turkey sandwich. Nom.

I got lazy and didn't process the sesame seeds. It turned out fine, but looking back, I can see why they did it [picks bits of sesame seed and red pepper out of teeth]. I also halved this recipe, because with just the two of us, that would have been a lot of pickle.

3 seedless cucumbers, chilled in the freezer for 10 minutes (why? I don't know.)
1/2 cup toasted sesame oil (I used plain sesame oil, and I probably cut it by more than half - a little sesame oil goes a LONG way)
1/3 cup rice vinegar
Kosher salt
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
4 scallions, coarsely chopped (I didn't have scallions. Ah well.)
  • Cut cucumbers lengthwise into eights, then cut them crosswise into 2-inch-long sticks (In other words, make them into little spearses).
  • In a large bowl, combine the sesame oil, vinegar, and a large pinch of salt. Add the cucumbers and toss well. Let stand for 10 minutes, tossing a few times (for any English readers who are cringing at the thought of tossing in the vomitorious sense, just stir the damn things).
  • In a mini food processor, combine the sesame seeds, crushed red pepper and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt (that's a lot of salt. I recommend starting with 1/2 teaspoon and then up the quantity to taste). Process until the sesame seeds are coarsely chopped. (Or crush these ingredients in a mortar and pestle. Or skip this step altogether.)
  • Add half of the mixture to the cucumbers and toss (ew) well. Arrange the cucumbers on a platter (or leave them in the same bowl you're stirring them in, like I did. No need to get all fancy. It's a freakin' pickle). Sprinkle with the remaining sesame seed mixture and the scallions. Serve. With or without toothpicks.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Nordic Winter Vegetable Soup

I like soups. The Bald Guy probably gets sick of all the myriad variations of something-swimming-in-liquid dinners I prepare, especially in winter. Enter Food & Wine magazine - joy in the morning! Soups galore! I like to dissect each issue (that and Cooks Illustrated are my magazine candy). The January 2011 issue has an interesting section on Nordic food - I know, an odd juxtaposition of words there, "Interesting" and "Nordic," but as Trina Hahnemann, the chef on display in this article, notes, the natural diet of the Scandinavian region is "very healthy and could help people lose weight." I don't know about that bit, but this soup is pretty tasty.

This recipe is pretty much straight from the magazine - I didn't modify it much, other than substituting a chicken stock cube for vegetable stock and dried thyme for the thyme sprigs, because that's what I had in the house.

2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 leeks, white and tender green parts only, thinly sliced*
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup pearled barley
8 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
4 cups water
10 thyme sprigs (or 2 T. dried thyme)
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 pounds celery root (celeriac), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound baby spinach
1 t. grated nutmeg

Heat oil in a large (LARGE) pot. Add onion, leeks and garlic and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the barley. Add the vegetable broth and water, thyme, and bay leaves and bring to a boil. Add the celery root and parsnips and season with salt and pepper. Simmer over moderately low heat until the barley and root vegetables are tender, about 40 minutes. Stir in the spinach and nutmeg and simmer another 5 minutes. Season with a little more salt and pepper, to taste, and serve.

*I suspect that the American concept of leeks is very different from the British version, which tends to be a couple of inches in diameter, with thick, tightly wound concentric leaves. If you have robust leeks, you may want to slice lengthwise down them and then slice thinly crosswise. Or do as thou wilt. You have been warned.