Monday, September 27, 2010

Book Review: Gluten Free Girl & The Chef

It took three days to pore through the entire book because I’d stop and savor the recipes and the stories. Or I'd have to go into the kitchen to check for ingredients of everything I was planning to make from the book.

But after cooking along with Shauna and Daniel through their blog, Gluten Free Girl and the Chef over the past years as they created this book, I almost feel like a proud distant relative as do many of their other faithful readers.

 That feeling of comradery shouldn't be a surprise to other people who also must eat gluten free. Gluten free people often feel a kinship when they meet others like themselves. It’s like showing up for the Bar Mitzvah and finding out that the special meal you had to special order was made for two other people too; you all end up at the same table, grateful for one another’s company.

But this book is so much more than that. They’ve raised the bar on gluten free cooking and baking, making it as mainstream and fresh as it can get. Each recipe is gluten free, but not taste free. Each recipe comes with a story, a background, and a history and through that you feel like you want to recreate it right now. I almost didn’t get past the first recipe – the baked eggs with taleggio cheese because I wanted to run right into the kitchen and bake that dish. It was ten o’clock at night and common sense won, but I still will be hunting down a good ripe taleggio this week for baked eggs this weekend.

For once, a gluten free book is not laden with recipes that try to imitate gluten baked goods or food. It is a book about real food including an introduction to all kinds of flours that go into baking and cooking gluten free. Shauna and Daniel introduce readers to a fabulous array of great flours and how to mix them together for different types of food.

They also introduce the concept of weighing ingredients for a variety of good reasons – not the least of which is that all flours are not created equal. One cup of superfine brown is not the same as one cup of sorghum flour and your results will suffer if you merely substitute cup for cup.
 But if you are no stranger to their blog, you already know this. I am grateful that all the recipes offer weights because I have given up the measuring cups for everything dry and most other ingredients. (Another proponent of weighing ingredients is Alice Medrich whose Chewy Gooey Crispy Cookie book is due out in November- she offers some gluten free recipes in that new book).

 The Ahern’s are also fans of fresh ingredients. Over the past two years in our house, we have been working to buy locally and as fresh as possible. I really like that they emphasize that in their book, and how to make choices about what to buy at the market just in case this is new to the reader. They lead gently with such kindness that any reader would feel confidence in following.
 This book certainly changes the landscape for any other gluten free cook books to follow. No one would feel deprived or feel like they were on a special diet when cooking from this book. Instead of looking for this cookbook in the special diets section, I would hope it is shelved in the mainstream cooking section under a category called something like, smashing success.

 I’ve already incorporated many Gluten Free Girl and the Chef recipes into my own cooking and baking. Gluten Free Flying Rocky Road Squares use Shauna’s gluten free graham crackers for the crust, and a gluten free adaptation of Alice Medrich’s Rocky Road Bars from her Cookies and Brownie book. Last night I par boiled some Yukon potatoes in an ocean of salted water with a little fresh thyme and garlic, drained them thoroughly and baked them until they were crispy on the outside, and soft and perfectly salty on the inside. All thanks to their instructions in the book.

Anyone gluten intolerant or living with celiac disease needs this book on their bookshelf, but I would also buy this book for anyone, living gluten free or not, who loves to cook and bake – it is that good.

I'm off to the kitchen to bake a one bowl wonder; chocolate peanut butter brownies from their book. After all, I still have a cupboard full of good chocolate to use up so I can make room for at least four new flours.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

School Night Chopped Salad

It isn't like when we were kids and the streets were jammed with marauding school children swarming down the sidewalks, metal lunch boxes in hand, dressed in new clothes heading for the first day of classes.
 These days the first sign that school is truly back in business around here is the monumental traffic jam early in the morning.  Lining up to spit out the kids are the mini vans, giant SUVs, and the ever more present limousine and Bentley, though the schools do ask parents to refrain from the delivering children in the latter. 
By the time I arrive, the coffee shop is packed with moms (and some dads) who have finished the morning drop-off and gym routine and are taking a java break before speeding off to the next errand.

My favorite coffee hangout, which always does a brisk business caffeinating the Geek Squad around here, is regularly jammed after school begins.  There are no solo tables available from 8AM to 10:00AM and everyone shares space. 

Recently hearing a collective murmur of “what’s for dinner” I replied with some smarty pants remark like ask Martha Stewart.   Forty one eyeballs (someone had an eye patch) turned to me and I’d be dust if those glares were lasers.  I never did that again – but I was ready the next time to win friends and influence mothers.

This time when they got around to the predictable dinner discussion, I said to no one and everyone, chopped salad with chicken.  This time, no eyeballs turned to laser me into dust and eye-patch-mom was fully functional again.  One cup of coffee later, I heard conversations around me mention salad fixings and that Trader Joe’s sells things already chopped, even the chicken.  I was not exactly winning friends, but I was influencing people.  One out of two isn’t bad that early in the morning.

Let’s try it here. 

What’s for dinner? 

How about chopped salad with chicken?  And don’t go buy those veggies already chopped – it is easier and less expensive to do it yourself on the weekend.  Roast a chicken on Sunday, chop up most of the veggies at the same time (after the farmer's market sojourn) and you can have dinner ready for Monday, a side dish on Tuesday and lunch on Wednesday.  That leaves only two more weekdays to worry about and that my friends, is success for a very busy household. 

Chopped salad used to be that oddity on the menu which usually meant the end of the ice berg lettuce with bits of tomato tossed in for color, and everything swimming in a sea of bottled Italian dressing.  No more.  These days chopped salad is making an improved appearance everywhere.   

There is a chopped salad that I wait for each springtime at a favorite restaurant and hope that it is on the menu once the early spring vegetables have hit the market.  It has a tiny bit of dill, some of those first baby peas that are actually green and sweet, some freshly blanched fava beans, and all kinds of other goodies.  Once I see it on the menu, I hit the farmer’s market or the best grocer’s produce section and buy a smattering of all the newly minted goodies. 

But other times of year I still crave a good chopped salad so we go with what’s ripe and local.  Sometimes we will have tiny pieces of freshly roasted beets, a little bit of blanched chard, and other times, just a variety of peppers, tomatoes, artichokes hearts, avocado, cukes, and herbs along with the freshly chopped varietal greens which always include nutty arugula, baby spinach and anything else that is fresh. 

Add in a little bit of leftover chopped roasted chicken and some hearty provolone or fresh mozzarella cheese sprinkled with grated asiago and it’s a meal.  A very pretty and very filling meal.
The key is to find stuff that is in season and local which is always cheaper, fresher, and way better tasting.  Take a walk around the weekend Farmer's Market to see what is in season right now.  Avoid produce from the grocery that is trucked from far away, if you can, because it is picked for shipping, not flavor or freshness.

Dressing?  Just a little bit goes a long way.  You want it to dress up the chopped stuff, not drown it.  I’d recommend your favorite homemade or artisanal vinaigrette.  Add an extra drizzle of your most special olive oil over the top and a smattering of freshly ground pepper and et voila! 

I'm patient.  Perhaps soon, instead of the dinner murmurs at the coffee shop, someone will start a conversation about dessert.  I have 750 different ways to mention chocolate.

Chopped Salad with Chicken

(Suggested) Ingredients
  • 1.5 to 2 cups of finely chopped leftover roasted chicken
  • 12 cups of mixed greens moderately chopped into ½ inch dice
  • Fresh or roasted red pepper ¼ inch dice
  • 1 cucumber ¼ dice (no seeds)
  • 2 tomatoes chopped (seed them) ¼ inch dice
  • 1 carrot peeled and ¼ inch diced
  • Jar of artichoke hearts cut into ¼ inch dice
  • 1 cup of cheese ¼ inch dice
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
  • Sprinkle of fresh thyme
  • Other favorite veggies, either ¼ inch diced or finely chopped
Prepare the chopped items and store overnight in the refrigerator separately (if you are working ahead).  To assemble, drop everything into a huge bowl and give it a good toss.  Add in tiny amounts of the vinaigrette until the salad just slightly glistens. 

Portion out four hungry person servings (or more not so hungry person servings) and add a sprinkle of grated cheese, a splash of really good olive oil and a dash of freshly ground pepper.  Croutons are nice but not mandatory.

Optional (diced) items
  • Charcuterie
  • Hardboiled egg
  • Other cheeses (goat cheese is great)
  • Cured olives
  • Other herbs
  • apple or pear
  • nuts
  • dried fruit

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Merci à Ma Belle-Mère with Rainbow Birthday Cookies

my college graduation: Ad Man, Step-Mom & future Rabbi 

As a half-orphaned 12-year-old, I grew five inches, several pounds, one or two shoe sizes along with a few other assorted things that branched out during the year I spent with the widowed Ad Man.   When my soon to be step-mother arrived on the scene I was ready for a makeover from gawky child to ever more awkward and sullen adolescent.  My shoes were way too tight, my clothes were slightly small, and my very first training bra had long since navigated past safety pin RX.

I am pretty sure the woman took one look at me, grabbed the Ad Man’s credit card, shoved me into her car, and took me to the best department store in the city.   The Ad Man had probably exaggerated his fairy tale wealth and so she assumed buying the best (read: expensive) stuff would be a no brainer.  Too bad he blanched to the shade of winter blizzard white when she showed him our loot.  

The outing was to buy a complete makeover ensemble for their nuptials – something that hopefully would not embarrass anyone.  The idea was to start with the first layer and move on out to the stuff people actually would see.  Until she took me to the department called foundations (which is now affectionately called lingerie) I had no idea that underwear came with so much hardware.  We left there with two complete matching sets of stuff with enough wire to build a bicycle.  But not before I was mortified beyond reason by someone called a fitter who actually makes you stand there naked and measures you from more angles than I thought possible on one teenage human body.  

We left the store that day with all the layers to completely transform me into a young lady, or a newly minted secretary as played by a giant 12 year old; the outfit was a tailored suit with little black pumps.  My face said kid, but my outfit said dictation.

Fortunately my step-mother also knew that stopping by the Snowflake Bakery on the way home to bring the Ad Man a special treat would probably soothe his shock at the final tab for all the fabric it took to make me presentable.  I was allowed to get some of my favorite things which amounted to a half moon treat along with their famous rainbow cookies.

Just to make sure I had my role in the newly formed family pretty well nailed down, I did what any self respecting hormonal teenager would do.  I perfected sullen.  Even on their wedding day, banished to the end of the one of the long tables, far away from the happy couple, I undoubtedly did my best pouting teen look for the audience of none.  Self involved teenagers rarely know that the world is not watching them, especially at an occasion where they are not the star of the show, like a wedding.

I am not even sure she remembers this early getting-to-know-you-through-undergarment-before-the-wedding shopping escapade.  But it was a beginning I’ll never forget, and have come to treasure as the years fly by.  It has been many decades now and today she celebrates a very big birthday that comes after 30 (plus four more decades).  If the old Snowflake Bakery were still in business I might buy her a little pastry and tell her that having her as my second mom is my lucky fortune, wired undergarments or not.
Judy's  Birthday Rainbow Cookies
  • 2 to 2.5  packages of (fresh) almond paste (about 16 ounces total)
  • 4.25 sticks of unsalted butter
  • 2 cups white (ultra fine works great) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons almond extract
  • splash of vanilla
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 teaspoons xanthan gum (for gluten free flour only)
  • 3 cups of gluten free flour or all purpose flour
  • 8 eggs
  • about 25 drops of red and green food coloring (each)
  • 1.5 - 2 jars of dark red jam (seedless is best)
  • pinch of your favorite liquor, Godiva, Cherry or whatever smells good
  • 12-15 ounces of really good quality bittersweet chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons corn syrup

Preheat oven to 350.  Butter and line three jelly roll pans with parchment that overhangs slightly.  Butter parchment.  Set aside.

Mix almond paste with sugar in a food processor thoroughly. 

In a stand mixer, incorporate the butter, almond/sugar.  Add eggs one at a time
Whisk flour, xanthan gum (for gluten free flour only) and salt in a bowl.  Add to wet mixture until incorporated. 

Separate batter evenly into three bowls.  Add green food coloring to one bowl, red in another bowl and leave one without color.  

Spread each batter in your prepared pans. Bake about 12 minutes total and rotate half way.  Let cool completely.

Heat jam until liquid.  Add liquors to taste.  Strain if necessary & cool to room temperature.

Loosen edge of green cake.  Lift parchment slightly so that it is free, but keep it in the pan. Spread thin layer of jam on top. 

Loosen edges of the layer that is not colored.  Flip layer onto layer with jelly using parchment to help.  Gently push it into place. Spread jam on that layer.  Place the last layer on top as evenly as possible.

Cover final layer with clean parchment. Wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap.   Place a large cutting board on top to weigh it down.  Set aside two hours or more. 

The Finish
Break up the chocolate and melt it in a double boiler over barely warm heat, stirring occasionally. 

When almost melted turn off the heat.  Stir in corn syrup.  Let chocolate cool slightly.

Trim the edges of the cake with a serrated knife.  Drizzle half the chocolate over top and spread.  Refrigerate about 15 minutes to set the chocolate.

Place a piece of clean parchment on a large baking sheet.  Place that on top of the chocolate coated side and in one movement, flip over. 

Peel off parchment.  Drizzle remaining chocolate to the edges.   Refrigerate until set.

Use a serrated knife or a very small sharp knife to cut the cookies into small squares. Tastes best the next day after liquor and other flavors fuse.  They keep well frozen, or at room temperature in a tin for about a week. 

Happy 36.8 Million minute birthday, Judy!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

It's Summertime and the Catalogs Are Caroling Their Wares: A little fun


hey WS, santa needs a vacation, too

The mailbox is beginning to overflow with holiday catalogs even while the temperature is a toasty 89 degrees outside.   While we are still eating freshly picked corn on the cob, summer berries, and enjoying perfectly vine-ripened tomatoes,  a faint fa la la la la  is dressing the covers of most incoming catalogs.
Perhaps the holiday catalogs are arriving earlier with hope that we will be fooled into thinking that gift shopping days are running out.  I've been peeking, and some of the most famous and once upon a time, sane cookware sellers have lost their ever loving collective minds.

It was always a treat for those who love cooking to see what new gadgets were emerging or what new pans might be available.  But I’m afraid that this year, we are seeing an entirely new beast.  This is the year of “say what the hell is that?” and holy craptastic.  And why would anyone want that thing in their kitchen taking up valuable real estate?
For the sale price of $99 you can own your very own monogrammed cutting board.  One of those giant wooden boards with a well around the edge to catch the meat juices now comes with your very own initial carved in the center of the board.  But does it come with a little brush to clean into the deep crevice of letter W?  Or perhaps Uncle Ernie is carving and he could give a rat’s ass about your hoity toity monogrammed cutting board and makes that fancy letter C turn into a somewhat awkward letter E?  So much for the sharp edge on that knife, by the way.  Monogrammed cutting board, Chuck?  Seriously.
The All Clad Deluxe slow cooker comes with an insert that is stove-top ready.  All that deluxe-quality for $300.  Rumor has it that they finally upgraded the stove-top deluxe insert so that it quit peeling.  Let’s have a little insert with our stew, shall we?  And here’s the part where it wins the stupid award; you can't brown anything in something with sides that tall.  If you drop stewing meat in the bottom, it will steam, not brown on the stove-top.  They sell the same slow cooker with a ceramic insert that can't go on the stove-top but it can go in the dishwasher. So for $100 less, buy the ceramic insert slow cooker, and brown the meat in a fry pan.  The ceramic insert may develop little hairline cracks (they say that was fixed, too) but at least it won’t peel.
How about a Staub cast-iron pot?  Used to be that in order to buy those you’d have to sell your firstborn, or take out another mortgage.  Seriously though, unless you have spent some time at the gym, or like to work out, Staub is way heavier than Le Creuset and twice the price.  They advertise that it is dishwasher safe, but guess what?  Hand wash for a longer life will be the saleperson's mantra or I am willing to give you my first born. 

 A couple of cookware stores began carrying the Technivorm Moccamaster coffeemaker.  If you can call it that.  It is more like a space age modern muse for the kitchen counter.  Technivorm drips very hot coffee into a carafe about 3 inches lower than the bottom of the cone drip and you could stand there and watch the steam vapors escape and freeze on their way into the carafe, dropping the coffee temperature by a fair amount.   I’m stupid enough to own one.  I’ve had it for a year now and every time I make coffee I shake my head in wonder at what possessed me to part with that much money for this machine aside from the modern art sculpture look on my counter.  They came up with a fix and mailed me a part.  It is a cover for the carafe that allows for the drip to drop, so to speak, but keeps most of the heat contained.  A fine fix, but not a remarkable remedy.  Still drinking tepid coffee.  You could own one of these useless, but artsy machines for the mere pittance of $300.  My French press thought it was destined for the useless appliance closet after I toted home the Technivorm, but it has yet to make the move to live next to the nonstick egg poacher insert. Technivorm might arrive there first.
And last, and especially least, we could not leave out the smoking gun.  Yes, it is called the Smoking Gun.  It is a gadget that spews some magical smoky flavor into your food through the attached tube.  Just don’t point it at anyone and certainly don’t answer the door with the smoking gun in your hand – no need to create a misunderstanding with the UPS guy.  It runs on batteries and if you  forget to smoke it up while cooking you can add it later.  The catalog says you can, so it must be true.  At only $99 with an additional $25 wood chip assortment to complete the package, I think this might be the perfect mother-in-law gift for this holiday season.  Imagine when you tell people that you bought your mother-in-law a smoking gun for the holidays – an instant conversation stopper if ever there was one.
Now, if they'd only start carrying the All Clad stainless 14 inch fry pan, I might actually buy something.  But until then, I'm eyeing that Miele rotary iron for just $2000.  Think of all the money I'd save ironing my own tableclothes, if only I had any.  

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Coming to America with Poppy Seed Cookies

Lina & sweet Izzy, circa 1914
Where my mom was raised, in the tiny apartment on South 2nd Street in  Brooklyn, the kitchen served as culinary school for mastering the art of our heirloom family recipes.  She had a permanent front row seat in the classroom in her mother’s kitchen because her bed, a cot really, was located next to the stove.  That kitchen was the first place in America where our culinary family history was carried forward, one recipe at a time.

There were no notes, no recipe cards, but there was a teacher and a willing pupil, usually covered in flour, speaking Romanian mixed with Yiddish at first, and then finally English.  Undoubtedly some information was lost in translation, but each recipe has survived well over 150 years looking remarkably the same. 

But those heirloom recipes had a long journey to get to where they are today. 

Leaving behind family, friends and their home, four of a dozen siblings crossed the European continent on foot one hundred and ten years ago.  During the great emigration from Moldavia in Romania in 1899-1900 they sought freedom from the overwhelming oppression of merely being Jews. Carrying only a few possessions that included precious woodworking and dressmaking tools, a couple of family heirlooms and photos, they walked alongside thousands of other Jews to Hamburg.  Almost accidental Americans, they had an opportunity to emigrate to a host of countries, but because a distant cousin in the United States offered sponsorship, they finally boarded a ship sailing to New York Harbor. 

Arriving in America, the siblings honored their new home by swiftly assimilating.  Moise became Moses.  Rosa became Rose.  Marim became Mary and Lienor became Lina.  Moses became a successful carpenter and with his new young wife, raised two boys in Manhattan, whose educations would never have come to pass in their old homeland because in Romania the law didn’t allow Jews to attend school or pursue higher education. 
Rose and Mary opened a dressmaking business in New York that specialized in copying couture.  They were enormously popular and specialized in creating one-of-kind wedding dresses.  Lina, the youngest sister, married a man who had emigrated from the same region of Romania.   Lina and sweet Izzy, as he was known, made their home in Brooklyn where they raised my mother and her brother. 

Lina and Izzy’s was the place where friends and family gathered for Shabbat dinner.  Lina spent the entire day cleaning, cooking and baking and followed the admirable European method of preparation – where every single morsel of food was used.  Chicken parts would turn into savory broth.  Extra vegetables and herbs would go into the soup pot.  A leftover potato might be the beginning of a knish.  The dried fruit would be split into portions for both tzimmes and strudel.  Chicken fat would be used to make gribenes (fried chicken skin).  Nothing was wasted or allowed to be wasted.  Food was expensive and precious and even after decades of living in America they never forgot what it felt like to be hungry. 

Because I lost my mom nearly at the beginning of my mentoring, I had only a partial concept of how to prepare those recipes.  Fortunately while she was alive, my mother, who was a gifted letter writer, often wrote down those top-dog secret recipes for distant cousins though she never saved copies.  And years later with a simple twist of fate when I was researching our ancestry, I was able to locate some of those distant cousins and reclaim some of the recipes that were almost lost to me.

I never met my grandmother, and I had very little time with my mother; finding my distant cousins who actually ate dinner in my grandmother’s kitchen and could tell me family stories was like finding a treasured heirloom hidden in the attic, long forgotten. 

I can still see one very special cousin, sitting across from me the day we met more than fifteen years ago, painstakingly writing down the poppy seed cookie recipe on a card for me.  From memory, she spoke aloud in a soft voice recalling the ingredients and preparation, carefully documenting all of it. 

I don't need the card these days to make the cookies, but I have it safely tucked away as a reminder to continue archiving all those recipes for the next generation.  Sometimes when I make the poppy seed cookies I imagine my grandmother standing in her mother's kitchen, over a hundred years ago in old Romania, carefully memorizing exactly the same movements I am doing.  Perhaps not exactly, since I can't help myself - this recipe is modified just a bit for a little extra kick, and can be prepared gluten free.
Culinary ancestry; it's almost better than 100 year old photographs.
Lina’s Poppy Seed Cookies
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • ¾ heaping cup of sugar
  • ½ teaspoon almond flavoring
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 heaping tablespoons poppy seeds
  • Grated zest of one lemon
  • 2 cups of almond flour
  • 1 cup regular or gluten free flour (add pinch xanthan gum for gluten free)
Preheat oven to 375.
Mix flour, baking powder in one bowl.  Set aside.  In larger bowl mix  egg, oil, sugar, poppy seeds, lemon zest and almond flavoring.  Add dry ingredients to wet and mix well. Pinch off small pieces and roll into balls (add a little more almond flour if necessary) about a half inch big.  Place on silpat lined cookie sheets.  Flatten with your hand or use the back of a spoon.  Let set for about 30 minutes.  Bake 8 minutes and rotate cookie sheets.  Bake about 8 minutes more or until lightly brown.  Cool.  Makes several dozen cookies.