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2.28.2006

A public display of chickpeas

Under normal circumstances, I try to play it cool. Sure, there’s this guy named Brandon, and I think he’s pretty dreamy and stuff, but most of the time, I try to keep my swooning behind the scenes. Few people look fondly upon public displays of affection—on the Internet or otherwise—and far be it for me, dear reader, to risk spoiling your appetite. But then this guy named Brandon came to town, and one afternoon, he bought me a quarter-pound of culatello.

Nothing makes a girl feel prone to public gloating like a present of cured pork from a very handsome vegetarian. And should he then, over the span of ten short days, churn from her kitchen a batch of whole-wheat pita, a bowl of silky-smooth hummus, a vat of fiery hot sauce, ten crisp and custardy cannelés,¹ two lunches’ worth of green papaya salad, rocky road candy with homemade marshmallows,² a quart of milk chocolate ice cream with cocoa nibs,³ a tart and tangy cilantro chutney, a softly sweet tamarind sauce, and the finest chana masala to ever flirt with her lips, she’s bound to start dishing—about the chickpeas, at least.

Mine is certainly not the first man to make chana masala, nor does he have any sort of pedigree—ethnic or otherwise—to lend him an air of authority in Indian cookery, but he does have a palate, and a very precise one at that. I may be the more orderly of our twosome, but next to his, my palate is a proverbial bull in a china shop, rubbing clumsily against a rabble of spices. I chew and swallow, but he concentrates, teasing apart tightly woven layers of flavor. So when he starts surveying the spice rack, I set the table, sit down, and watch.

All too often, restaurant renditions of chana masala are a show of alchemy gone astray. They pound the tongue with a heavy hand of tomato, smother the taste buds under a slick of oil, or tumble down the throat with a thud, the unfortunate result of unbalanced seasoning. Bold but delicate, Brandon’s version stands as a testament to the fine art of tasting, tweaking, and tasting again. It begins—as many good things do—with a pot of onions on the edge of burnt. Then comes a small but spirited parade of spices, a mess of tomatoes, cilantro, cayenne, and chickpeas, and a few studious spoonfuls for the cook. With a subtle sweetness and a soft rumble of heat, these are chickpeas worthy of a public display of affection—or a post, at least.


¹ Cannelé connoisseurs will note the unconventional shape of these. They were made in a mini Bundt pan and, all tradition aside, turned out pretty cute in this curvier incarnation.
² With, bien sûr, the help of David Lebovitz!
³ Ditto!


Chana Masala

When I’m not hovering next to him with a pen and paper, Brandon makes his chana masala by feel, tasting and tweaking, stirring and sniffing. The recipe that follows is our joint effort to make his rendition reproducible, and to make it user-friendly for those who love a good, prescriptive recipe, myself included. You should feel free, however, to taste and tweak as you see fit. It's the Brandon Way.

This chana masala can be served in two different styles: with a half-cup of whole-milk yogurt to smooth and soften the flavors, or sans yogurt, served with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of fresh cilantro. I prefer the former, but Brandon leans toward the latter. Either way, this dish is even better the second—or third—day.

Good-quality olive oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp ground coriander
¼ tsp ground ginger
1 tsp garam masala
3 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
1 tsp kosher salt, or to taste
1 Tbs cilantro leaves, roughly torn, plus more for garnish
A pinch of cayenne, or to taste
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
6-8 Tbs plain whole-milk yogurt, optional
A few lemon wedges, optional

Film the bottom of a large saucepan or Dutch oven—preferably not nonstick—with olive oil, and place the pan over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until it is deeply caramelized and even charred in some spots. Be patient. The more color, the more full-flavored the final dish will be.

Reduce the heat to low. Add the garlic, stirring, and add a bit more oil if the pan seems dry. Add the cumin seeds, coriander, ginger, garam masala, and cardamom pods, and fry them, stirring constantly, until fragrant and toasty, about 30 seconds. Add ¼ cup water, and stir to scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook until the water has evaporated away completely. Pour in the juice from can of tomatoes, followed by the tomatoes themselves, using your hands to break them apart as you add them; alternatively, add them whole and crush them in the pot with a potato masher. Add the salt.

Raise the heat to medium, and bring the pot to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, add the cilantro and cayenne, and simmer the sauce gently, stirring occasionally, until it reduces a bit and begins to thicken. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Add the chickpeas, stirring well, and cook over low heat for about five minutes. Add 2 Tbs water, and cook for another five minutes. Add another 2 Tbs water, and cook until the water is absorbed, a few minutes more. This process of adding and cooking off water helps to concentrate the sauce’s flavor and makes the chickpeas more tender and toothsome. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as necessary.

Stir in the yogurt, if you like, or garnish with lemon wedges and cilantro. Serve.

Yield: About four servings

2.24.2006

On the air!

Dry mouth. Clammy hands. Profuse sweating. This unholy trinity of symptoms can mean only one thing: I was on live radio!

Yesterday afternoon I sat down with Christopher Lydon, host of the public radio show Open Source, and several fellow Seattlites* to talk about our fair northwesterly city, or, more precisely, to try to tease apart the question, “What makes a city great?” If you’d like to hear me gush about salmon and doughnuts, lament the state of the local real estate market, and mull over Seattle’s love for the “missed connections” section of craigslist, hop over to Open Source for an mp3 of the show. My segment comes in the final third of the show, so please, be patient. Or skip ahead. I won’t tell.

*Also joining the party via a pre-recorded interview was our favorite local bonne vivante, Viv of Seattle Bon Vivant.

2.20.2006

Lost and found

Sometimes the best hidden treasures are the ones that I hide from myself. While it might be fun, in theory, to stumble upon a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow or, say, a wooden chest with a pirate’s cache of jewels and coins, there is a special satisfaction reserved for the finds that are familiar—the old, forgotten-about something that resurfaces, resplendent, when I least expect it.

Take, for example, that tube of Chanel “Vamp” lipstick, ten years old but barely used, unearthed last week from an early grave beside my bathroom sink. A color somewhere between blood and black, it made me feel daring and dangerous at seventeen, and at twenty-seven, dangerously nostalgic. Then there’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a plain white paperback with a title scrawled in color and a coming-of-age hero—a novel I read at age sixteen, then wedged on the shelf between Wise Blood and Beloved and nearly forgot until last December, when I found it again and devoured it whole for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And then, of course, there’s dessert: a slip of paper that fell not long ago from the dark, forgotten recesses of my recipe file, a sketch of ingredients for applesauce with a crunchy meringue cap.


Like a few other notable food finds, this one comes from the table of my host family in France. On the occasional lazy evening, my host mother would open a bottle of applesauce, set her beaters to a bowl of egg whites, and, in doing so, make her children very happy. She would spread the applesauce into a baking dish; smooth it with a sweet, pearly layer of meringue; and slide the whole snowy mess into the oven until its top was crisp and laced with fissures and fault lines. It cracked under the spoon like crème brulée, a crunch giving way to silken and soft.

One night, after a bowlful or two, I jotted the concept on a piece of paper, folded it up for safekeeping, and promptly forgot about it.

But six years later and five thousand miles away, it fell into my lap—as all the best things do—when I was looking for something else. And once flushed from hiding, it crawled free from the bars of its Clairefontaine paper and onto my kitchen counter. With a nod of gratitude to the recipe’s Gallic origins, I politely swapped the store-bought sauce for my own homemade stuff, a simple, softly tart mash of apples with a smoothing, softening slip of vanilla. Tucked beneath a blanket of meringue and sent away for a good, long bake, it came back sweet and sour, satiny inside and shatteringly crisp on top, at once old and new, a little retro, rustic-chic. Something tells me that I might have to hide it from myself, just for safety’s sake.


Vanilla Applesauce with a Crunchy Meringue Cap

Store-bought is alright, but by my watch, the time has come for a revival of good, old-fashioned, homemade applesauce. Not only is it remarkably easy and quick to make, but it has a lively, full-mouthed flavor that the vacuum-sealed stuff—even organic brands—can never match. And with a cap of sweet meringue and a couple of hours in the oven, it makes for a surprisingly sophisticated dessert. Should there be any leftovers, seal them airtight and tuck them into the refrigerator: although the meringue will soften to a more spongy texture, it still tastes delicious for a day or so.

For applesauce:
3 pounds apples, preferably a mixture of Granny Smith and Golden Delicious, peeled, cored, and cut into ½-inch-thick slices
½ cup good-quality apple juice or cider
1 Tbs fresh lemon juice
Scant ½ cup granulated sugar
½ tsp pure vanilla extract

For meringue:
½ cup egg whites (about 4 large whites)
A pinch of salt
1 cup granulated sugar

In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, combine the apples, apple juice, and lemon juice. Cover the pan, place it over low heat, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cook, stirring often, until the apples are tender and beginning to fall apart, about 20 minutes. Stir in the sugar, and cook until it dissolves, stirring, about 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat, and using an immersion blender, puree the mixture to a smooth sauce. Stir in the vanilla extract; then set the applesauce aside while you prepare the meringue.

Preheat the oven to 225 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pour the egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment—or, alternatively, a medium mixing bowl. Add the salt. Beat the egg whites at medium speed until they are opaque and loosely foamy. Increase the mixer speed to high, and add the sugar in a very slow, very gradual stream; do not rush. Beat until the meringue is glossy and bright white and holds very silky peaks.

Spoon and scrape the applesauce into a baking dish or several individual-size baking dishes; I like to use a 2-quart Pyrex bowl or about 10 ½-cup ramekins. [You may have a tad bit of meringue left over.] Using a rubber spatula, scoop the meringue on top of the applesauce, and gently coax it evenly to the edges of the dish. Slide the dish or dishes into the oven, and bake for about 1 hour and 45 minutes, or until the meringue is firm and feels crisp and dry to the touch. Cool slightly. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note: The applesauce can be made up to three days before finishing with the meringue.

Yield: 6-8 servings

2.15.2006

A stewy stepping-stone

By the standards of only a few decades ago, I am woefully unfit for marriage. I do not know how to cook a pot roast, or a pork roast, crown roast, standing rib roast, prime rib, slab of ribs, leg of lamb, brisket, beef tenderloin, or, really, most portions of meat larger than a single serving. Not long ago, I would have been laughed out of the kitchen, shooed away by potential mothers-in-law, and shunted off to spinsterdom with my steak knives still unused. Thank goodness I fell in love with a vegetarian.

But nonetheless, there comes a time in every young woman’s life when she must learn how to handle large pieces of meat. I am ready to rest on my laurels where roasted chicken is concerned, and I am confident that I can tackle a turkey—a twenty-pounder, even—but at the advanced age of twenty-seven, I can no longer ignore my ignorance when it comes to big, disembodied pieces of pork, lamb, and beef. Any self-respecting cook needs a good, solid repertoire, and the slow realization that mine is a little dainty suddenly looms very large. No amount of meatballs will do. Larb is for lightweights, and sausage is for sissies. I should be able to cook something substantial, hefty, even hulking, something calling for a carving set and a cutting board strong as a fortress and fitted with a moat.

A girl has got to start somewhere, so I stepped up to the butcher counter and bought a pork tenderloin. This was the stuff to make a wife of me: big, beautiful, and rosy, with a racing stripe of snowy fat running down its side. In fact, it was so impressive that just buying it, I decided, was progress enough for one day. So, with a contented sigh, I brought my large piece of meat back home and, handling it like the lightweight sissy I am, cut it instead into many small pieces. My date with Big Meat could wait. Before barbequed ribs, smoked butt, or Châteaubriand, this girl has found a handy stepping-stone, a stewy one with peppers and onions.


Cooked pork may not be the prettiest of meats, but it makes up in flavor what it lacks in beauty, especially when garlic, rosemary, and anchovies are involved. Sliced into slender strips, tenderloin is tailor-made for this dish, lean but not the slightest bit tough. Given a fast sear and a few minutes’ soak in a sauce both sweet and sour, it cooks quickly to delicate and toothsome. Between the resinous aroma of rosemary and vinegar’s complex tang, the sweet onions and the winy peppers, this is a plate that feels sturdier and far more substantial than the sum of its parts, no steak knives or carving sets necessary. For now, Big Meat can wait. Tomorrow, my vegetarian comes to town.



Quick Braised Pork with Vinegar and Peppers
Adapted from Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s Weeknight Kitchen newsletter

Lynne Rossetto Kasper is my kind of woman. This dish couldn’t be much easier, and it makes for great leftovers, the kind that get better with each passing day. Be sure to serve it with potatoes, bread, or even polenta for catching all the juices, and try slipping leftovers into a sloppy sandwich with good-quality provolone or bufala mozzarella.

A note about vinegar: the original recipe calls for ½ cup, resulting in a dish that is a bit pungent upon first tasting but that mellows pleasantly by the second day. If you prefer a less bracing flavor, try using ¼ to 1/3 cup instead.

Good-quality olive oil
1 pork tenderloin (about 1 ¼ pounds), cut into ½-inch slices and then into ½-inch strips
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/3-inch strips
1 large yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/3-inch strips
1 medium-hot chile, such as jalapeño, seeded and cut into very thin strips
½ medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
3 oil-packed anchovies, rinsed
2 bay leaves
¼ to ½ cup red wine vinegar (see note, above)
¼ cup white wine
½ cup water
4 whole canned tomatoes, drained and cut into ¼-inch slices

Lightly film a large sauté pan or Dutch oven—not nonstick—with olive oil. Place the pan over medium-high heat. In a large bowl, toss the pork with salt, pepper, and rosemary. Put the pork in the pot, and cook, stirring constantly to keep it from sticking too much, until the meat is just seared; it should still be pink inside. Remove the meat from the pan, and set it aside.

With the pan still over medium-high heat, add the peppers, chile, onion, garlic, anchovy, and bay leaves. Cook, stirring frequently, until the peppers and onion soften slightly, about 5 minutes. Add the vinegar, stirring and scraping up any bits of meat stuck to the pan. Cook until the vinegar boils away entirely; then repeat the process with the wine.

When all the wine has cooked away, add the water and tomatoes, and adjust the heat so that the sauce stays at a gentle simmer. Cook, uncovered, for 5-10 minutes; then add the pork and its juices, stirring to blend. Simmer the meat and sauce for 2-3 minutes, until the meat is cooked through. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Serve hot.

Yield: 3-4 servings

2.12.2006

A girl, a grocery store, a cake with glazed oranges

Human beings, I believe, come in two varieties: there are those who love to go to the grocery store, and then there are the rest. According to modern taxonomy, both varieties fit within the category Homo sapiens sapiens, meaning “very wise man.” According to me, however, those who prowl the produce section and dally in the dairy aisle are something else entirely. They are of the subcategory Homo sapiens sapiens sapiens, meaning “very, very wise man.” Or so I like to tell myself.

I am a glutton for the grocery store. I come by it honestly, inevitably, hereditarily: my father was an eager grocery store goer, as is my mother, and so is my sister. I remember the grocery stores of my childhood as though they were people: Skaggs Alpha Beta, clean and cold, with cardboard bins of potatoes and myopic cashiers; Safeway, with its Saturday gift of greasy donuts in waxed paper bags; and Crescent Market, its entryway smelling of smoked meats, its soft carpet, silver dish of butter cookies, and blue velvet sofa. For me, going to the grocery store is less about buying than it is about being there, less shopping than a sort of sensory steeping. The grocery store is not only a place for purchasing, but also for observing, for ogling, for stacks of crisp-smelling boxes, bright colors, and big ideas. It is a place of promise, neatly presented, aisle after aisle, edible and otherwise. There I have found, at one time or another, nearly everything necessary for modern life, including a job, a boyfriend, and, once, a friendly but fortunately one-night stand.

I love the grocery store.

These days, I find myself pulled to the produce section, where spring is sending up its first February shoots. Never mind winter and adverse weather: the artichokes have arrived, impatient for their bath in clarified butter, and the avocados wait eagerly to slip into a salad, a sandwich, or guacamole. The radishes are plump and ruddy-cheeked, the beets small and dirt-smeared. Even the early-season strawberries are fine, with their light, fuzzy coats and long stems. But the vedette of fruits and vegetables is surely the orange, the swath of gold that falls upon the produce section each February, and for all too short a time. I wait all year for them: the navel, the heirloom navel, the Seville, the blood, the Cara Cara, each heavy in the hand and juicy to the tooth, thin-skinned, sweet, and spicy. I snatch them up, six at a time, and back at home, I hoard them. I stand over the sink to eat them out of hand; I supreme them for salads, and I squeeze them into soup. And recently, I’ve been simmering them in syrup and serving them alongside a vanilla bean buttermilk cake.


This cake is plenty good on its own—moist, rustic, and rich with vanilla—but with a soak in citrus syrup and a few segments of sugar-swollen orange, it begs for a second serving.

A quick dip in a bubbling bath of juice and sugar turns the average orange from very good to glazed, glassy-eyed, and great. Though sweet, each slice still holds a measured shot of acidity, which jostles good-naturedly against the round, familiar flavor of vanilla. This is a Creamsicle for grown-ups in cake form, juicy, sophisticated, and slurp-worthy. It makes a good excuse for a trip to the grocery store, and if you’re wise—or very, very wise—a clean sweep of the produce section.


Vanilla Bean Buttermilk Cake with Glazed Oranges
Inspired by Alice Medrich’s Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts and Martha Stewart’s What to Have for Dinner

The components of this pairing come from two different desserts, but now that I’ve tasted them together, I’m loathe to ever separate them again. The cake is dead-easy; the oranges are even easier; and together they’re pretty drop-dead delicious. Be sure to choose a vanilla bean that is moist and plump, and make certain that the oranges feel heavy for their size and taste sweet, as they do in the peak of their season.

For the cake:

1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
A pinch of salt
3 large eggs
1 vanilla bean, about 6 inches in length
½ cup buttermilk
5 Tbs unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar

For the oranges:
4 medium to large navel oranges
½ cup granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and position a rack in the lower third of the oven. Grease an 8-inch round cake pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a small bowl, beat the eggs with a fork to break up the yolks and mix them thoroughly with the whites. Set the dry ingredients and eggs aside.

Using a sharp knife, split the vanilla bean from stem to tip, and use the back edge of the knife to scrape the beans from the pod. Discard the pod. Pour the buttermilk into a measuring cup or small bowl, and add the vanilla beans, whisking thoroughly to break up any clumps.

Cut the butter into a few chunks, and place it in a large mixing bowl. Beat on low speed for a minute or so, to soften. Gradually add the sugar, beating constantly for 2-3 minutes. The mixture may look a bit sandy. Add the eggs in a slow stream, beating on medium speed for 2-3 minutes, until the batter is emulsified. With the beaters on low speed, add the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the buttermilk mixture in two parts, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary with a rubber spatula. Beat the batter until the flour is just incorporated; then fold the batter lightly with a spatula to make sure that all the flour is mixed in. Do not overmix.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake the cake until the top is lightly golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 35-38 minutes. Cool the cake for about 10 minutes on a rack; then remove it from the pan to cool completely.

Just before serving, prepare the oranges. Using a sharp paring knife, peel 3 of the oranges, removing all of the white pith. Cut each peeled orange crosswise into rounds about 1/3-inch thick, and cut each round in half.

Squeeze the juice from the fourth orange: you should wind up with about ½ cup. Pour the orange juice into a medium heavy-bottomed skillet, and add the sugar. Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture bubbles and reduces to deep orange-golden syrup, about 10 minutes. Add the orange slices, turning and positioning them gently in the syrup, and cook until glazed, 1-2 minutes. Serve immediately, alongside wedges of cake.

Note: Wrapped securely, the cake will keep for three days at room temperature or a month or more in the freezer. Store leftover glazed oranges in the refrigerator for up to three days. To serve, reheat them slightly, or try them cold, which I find quite tasty.

Yield: about 8 servings.

2.06.2006

When fate sent me shopping

Like any half-hearted confession, mine begins with a defense: I am not a shopper. I love pointy shoes, of course, and pencil skirts, shrugs, frilly things, and half-off items from the Marc Jacobs 2005 holiday collection, but I’m not so into shopping, straight up. Though I have wildly expensive taste—which, I might add, I cannot afford—I have never been wild about exercising it. I go in pursuit of purchases only once every few months or so, and then with a specific item in mind and a single-minded purpose.

But within the wide world of shopping malls, boutiques, and bazaars, there is one type of store that cuts straight to the heart of this non-shopper. One step into the Bermuda Triangle of bakeware, cookware, and dishware, and all is lost. From City Kitchens to restaurant supply stores, Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, and the searing deals on The Mezzanine at Zabar’s, I am a crying, shopping shame. And the worst part, gentle reader, is that I kind of like it.

In times like these, I tell myself that no kitchen can have too many pastry brushes, shapely or newfangled spatulas, or silicone this and that. Those tiny fluted tart molds were cute, after all, curled softly into my hand, and there was no stopping the Bundt pan that leapt onto the counter in front of the cash register. Those mini loaf pans were an accident, but I took them home and loved them anyway. I’d be inhuman, surely, not to give a nod to the cheery Le Creuset display, its 5 ½-quart rounds, 6 ¾-quart ovals, crêpe pans, oval au gratins, and paté terrines. And the hours spent contemplating a set of highball glasses that leaned at an angle not unlike Charles de Gaulle’s nose were, I swear, served in solemn salute to the French Resistance.

But there’s no denying a certain something that crept onto my receipt and into my shopping bag one evening last December, when I was supposed to be buying candy cups to hold a batch of chocolate-dipped fruit-nut balls. It was an honest errand—for holiday gifts, no less!—until I saw that madeleine pan, slim, slick, velvety gray, and with curves in all the right places. I could blame it on after-work fatigue, I suppose, but this time, I dare say that fate sent me shopping. From the first batch, a few weeks later, of chocolate madeleines with toasted almonds and coffee, it was hard to imagine things having gone any other way.


Buttery, toasty, and deeply, darkly chocolatey, these little cakes melt on the tongue, crumbling away to a gentle crunch of almond. With a smattering of coffee for bitter complexity and a cockeyed milk chocolate cap,


these ruffly-edged sweets are worth a good swoon, or even a shopping excursion. It’s enough, really, to make a girl believe in fate—and occasional frivolity.


Chocolate Madeleines with Toasted Almonds and Coffee

These madeleines were declared “a religious experience” and dubbed “brownies of the angels” by one of my colleagues. But don’t be fooled by such lofty praise: despite their refined appearance, delicate texture, and outright deliciousness, they are astoundingly easy to make. This recipe, adapted from a family friend, doesn’t even require a mixer. A note for icing lovers: because these cakes are so rich, I tend to prefer my icing on the light side, with parts of the madeleine left bare. But if you want a good, heavy coat, you may want to double the quantities of the icing ingredients listed below.

For madeleines:
3 ounces raw almonds
12 Tbs (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into large chunks
5 ounces good-quality semisweet chocolate (not chips), chopped
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 Tbs unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tbs finely ground coffee (decaf works fine, if you prefer)
3 large eggs
1 Tbs whiskey

For icing:
2 ounces good-quality milk chocolate, chopped
1 ½ Tbs unsalted butter
1 Tbs heavy cream
½ Tbs Kahlúa

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Spread the almonds on a baking sheet, slide them into the oven, and bake for 8-10 minutes, or until toasty and fragrant. Set them aside to cool.

Increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees, and spray a nonstick madeleine pan (standard size, with wells three inches long) with a thin film of cooking spray. Place the pan on a baking sheet.

Put the butter and chocolate in a medium metal mixing bowl, and place the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. The bowl should not touch the water. Stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, melt the butter and chocolate. When the mixture is smooth and velvety, remove it from the heat, stir in the sugar, and set it aside to rest for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the cooled toasted almonds, flour, and coffee grounds in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse to grind to a very fine powder.

When the melted chocolate mixture is ready, add the eggs one at a time, stirring completely after each addition. Add the whiskey and then the almond mixture, stirring to mix well. Do not overmix.

Spoon the batter into the wells of the madeleine pan, using about 1 good tablespoon per well. Don’t worry about smoothing the batter; it will spread evenly as it bakes. Bake the madeleines for 14-17 minutes, or until the tops look dry and spring back lightly when touched. Use a butter knife to gently coax each cake out of its well and onto a cooling rack, scalloped side up. Allow the pan to cool slightly; then repeat with the remaining batter.

When the all the madeleines are baked and cooled, make the glaze. Place the milk chocolate and butter in a small saucepan, and, stirring occasionally, melt them over low heat. When the mixture is smooth, remove it from the heat, and stir in the cream and Kahlúa. Using a teaspoon, drizzle a spoonful of glaze onto the scalloped side of each madeleine.

Note: These cakes freeze beautifully.

Yield: About 20 large madeleines

2.01.2006

Sweet, sour, strip mall

Like many things of unassuming appearance and surprising worth, I first found tamarind in a strip mall.

I was nineteen, a newly minted college freshman and a recent arrival to California, when a friend proposed dinner at Amber India, a well-regarded restaurant in nearby Mountain View. My palate was then untested by tandoors, chutneys, vindaloos, and the slow rumble of Indian spices, and needless to say, I did not expect to make their exotic acquaintance under a neon sign in a slab of shopping center on El Camino Real. You can well imagine my surprise when, at that table on the old King’s Highway, I lifted to my lips a forkful of aloo chat, cold cubes of cooked potato folded with cucumber, banana, and dark, shiny tamarind, a soft, saucy mouthful more transportive than any loud, glaring street outside. The old proverb may proffer that the best things in life are free, but that night I decided instead that the best things in this life—or some of them, anyway—are in strip malls. Old adages are nice, but they have nothing on the pulp-filled, pod-like fruit of the tamarind tree.

In the eight or so years since that evening on El Camino, I have learned, of course, that tamarind isn’t native to roadside shopping centers, or even to India. Slow-growing, long-lived, and impressive in stature, the tamarind tree originally hails from east Africa, but it has long since taken root in tropical Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, the Indies, the Pacific Islands, and my kitchen, where it thrives despite the arid linoleum environment. Tangy, fruity, and sweetly sour, concentrated tamarind pulp is a natural in pad Thai or spooned into yogurt, and I’ve long suspected—but have not yet tested—its prowess in the realm of barbeque. It can be a condiment, glaze, dressing, or dip, and according to Brandon, it makes a mean sauce when spun together with roasted garlic, balsamic vinegar, lime juice, cilantro, and a salty dusting of Parmigiano Reggiano. But as of late, I’ve been slurping it down in a softly spicy soup with chickpeas and chard.

Tamarind’s delicate, high-pitched tang makes it a delicious compliment to mild, meaty chickpeas and a lucky foil to the flavor of chard, low and loamy, melted into slack, stewy ribbons. Filled out with herbs, tomato, and fragrant, toasty spices, this is a soup tailor-made for a chilly, drizzly day. I’ve been toting it to work almost daily, actually, as a warming noontime reprieve from the gray Seattle winter. If you listen hard, you’ll hear me, I’m sure, scraping the bowl, each spoon-stroke loud enough to turn heads all the way down in a strip mall in Mountain View.


Tamarind Soup with Chickpeas, Chard, and Spices
Adapted from Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s Weeknight Kitchen newsletter

This soup unites an unlikely combination of ingredients from Italy to India, and it does so almost seamlessly. It takes a couple of hours to prepare and cook, but it requires no fancy techniques or undue attention, and it tastes even better after a day or two or four. It makes an ideal do-ahead lunch or dinner and a perfect no-brainer project for a Sunday afternoon. A single batch is quite large, so plan to refrigerate half and freeze the rest for later use.

Good-tasting olive oil
3 medium yellow onions, coarsely chopped
3 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/3-inch-thick half moons
5 large leaves Swiss chard, ribs removed, coarsely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
½ cup tightly packed cilantro leaves, minced
½ cup tightly packed basil leaves, minced
1 generous Tbs ground cumin
1 generous Tbs spicy curry powder
2 Tbs sweet paprika
2 Tbs dry basil
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
3 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
3 Tbs tamarind concentrate
1 Tbs packed brown sugar
2 cups vegetable broth
Water
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Dried red chile or crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

Film the bottom of a large (8-12 quart) pot with olive oil, and place it over medium heat. When the oil is warm, add the onions, zucchini, chard, and generous dashes of salt and pepper. Cook for 8 minutes, stirring often. Add the garlic, herbs, and spices, stirring to mix. Cook for another minute or two.

Stir in the tomatoes, chickpeas, vinegar, tamarind, brown sugar, and broth, and add enough water to cover by 2 inches. Bring the soup just to a boil, and reduce the heat to keep it at an even simmer. Cook for about 1 hour, partially covered, adding water if necessary.

As the soup cooks, taste it for seasoning. If you like, add a bit more tamarind or salt, or drop in a dried red chile or a pinch of red pepper flakes. When the vegetables are very tender, remove the soup from the heat, and allow it to cool for about an hour. Purée half of it in a food processor, and stir it back into the pot. When you are ready to serve the soup, reheat it gently.

Yield: Depending on serving size, 8-12 servings