Cleaning out the Fridge

For the last four days I have been involved in a "secret project"-- one that has required lots and lots of cooking and food photography. Sixty-two photos to be exact! My days have begun at 5:45 a.m. and have lasted up to 16 hours, at which time, the dishes would be washed (we have no dishwasher!), the shopping lists made for the next day's shoot, and a final sip taken from a big glass of red wine. My house and kitchen, turned into a "studio" with simple lighting, an array of white plates, a cornucopia of fresh ingredients, and a very credible photographer whose work has graced the pages of magazines, books and food products for decades. Part performance art, part circus, it required the best of spirits and the steady hands of an assistant, and at certain times two! -- both of whom work as personal chefs. The rhythm to get so much done in a day was at times cool jazz and at other times a symphonic movement which could have been titled Heroica! (Beethoven). If the Marx Brothers had a theme song, that, too, might describe the mood, as we spliced and diced and chopped, steamed, broiled and sauteed, churned ice cream, and sipped and slurped the strongest iced coffee you can imagine. As a frame of reference, in advertising, getting three shots done a day is good work; in publishing a book, seven or eight shots is considered fabulous. We were pushing 16, if you do the math. The reward? Beautiful images and a refrigerator so full that it was getting warm. My fridge 'runneth over! Up again at 5:45 a.m. this morning to sort out the wheat from the chaff, and to re-jigger odds and ends into dinner. That is, dinner for a week! Ground meat was turned into a meat sauce (I had lots of fresh tomatoes, basil and red onion), my gratin dauphinoise was re-layered with thin slices of roast chicken and asparagus; a multitude of vegetables from the farmer's market were steamed and tossed with fresh fettuccine as a kind of room-temperature salad for lunch today; leftover poached pears, raspberries, fresh orange segments, roasted grapes and slivers of caramelized pineapple turned into a healthy dessert for tonight's meal.

But nothing topped breakfast this morning -- a slice of my husband's dense homemade rye bread spread with leftover scallion butter (used for a creamy corn soup) and sprinkled with salt. I encourage you to visit your fridge and to visit a website called "expendible edibles" for inspiration. You may want to fry the carrot tops lurking in the vegetable drawer and scatter them atop a nice carrot-ginger soup. It's time again to make lemonade out of lemons or better yet, make refreshing agua fresca from leftover watermelon, honeydew or cantaloupe. Recipe below (for carrot tops, too!)

Fried Carrot Tops

1/4 cup lacy green carrot tops 3 tablespoons olive oil

Wash the carrot tops and dry thoroughly. Heat the oil in a small skillet until hot. Carefully add the carrot tops and fry for 30 seconds. or until crispy and still bright green. Transfer to paper towels. Sprinkle very lightly with salt. Stays crispy for several hours.

Agua Fresca (adapted from Eat Fresh Food: Awesome Recipes for Teen Chefs) This doesn't require much sugar; just let the fresh fruit flavors shine through.

1/2 large ripe cantaloupe or honeydew (or leftover pieces) 1/4 cup sugar slices of lemon or lime

Remove any seeds from melon. Cut into large pieces and put in a blender with the sugar, 1 cup of water and a pinch of salt. Process on high until very smooth. You will have 3 cups of liquid. Put it in a pitcher and add 3 cups of cold water. Cover and refrigerate until cold. Pour over ice and garnish with lemon or lime. Add more sugar (dissolved in hot water), if needed. Garnish with pieces of melon, if you wish. Serves 4

The Rhubarb Dish

So here it is, slowly making its way onto supermarket produce aisles and into our local farmer's markets.  Rhubarb:  It's easy to love. Extra long rosy stalks of vegetable masquerading as fruit appear just when I covet transition from cold winter days to bright Spring effervescence.  In and of itself, it is a "tonic" food:  Defined as anything that stimulates or invigorates.   It is complete with acidity and antioxidants (anthocyanins) and is a cinch to prepare.  Not long ago, a neighbor told me about a memorable rhubarb dish she was served at a very recent dinner party.  The host of that dinner, David Burrell, kindly shared the recipe that made such an impression on our neighbor, Jerri Mayer (Her husband, a well-known bankruptcy lawyer, is an awesome home cook.)   You can imagine my delight when I found out that the recipe required only two ingredients!  Three, if you serve it hot over vanilla ice cream and consider ice cream an ingredient!  David says "take 6 to 8 stalks of rhubarb and wash them but do not dry.  Cut into pieces between 1 and 2 inches.  Place into a saucepan still wet with only the water they were washed in.  Cover with 1/2 cup of sugar and cook on low heat, stirring occasionally.  Keep an eye on them as it will eventually froth over.  Add sugar to taste. Serve hot over ice cream."   That's it! Rhubarb came to American kitchens in the 1820's.  Commonly mixed with strawberries in a pie, it came to be known as "pie plant," famously so, in an early book of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  In the Scandinavian countries, tender stalks of rhubarb would be dipped into sugar as an inexpensive treat for children.  Rhubarb generally appears in the market minus its wide green leaves which contain high amounts of oxalic acid.  Do not consume:  A lot of it will kill you.  But as charmingly put by "The City Cook" website, "With its big personality, rhubarb has been used medicinally, to color hair (brewed as a tea to add golden highlights), as a natural and non-toxic scrub to clean pots and pans, and by gardeners as a safe-to-humans insecticide.  All this -- and it can be dessert!"

I say, serve it for breakfast!  Try my Warm Rhubarb Compote with Walnut-Coconut Crunch.  Radically delicious, this complex-sounding fruit-and-yogurt dish is ready to eat in 15 minutes.  It can either begin or end a special weekend brunch and would be delightful this Easter Sunday. Warm Rhubarb Compote with Walnut-Coconut Crunch

4 cups rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces 2/3 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar 1/3 cup creme de Cassis or Chambord 1/2 cup walnut pieces 12/ cup unsweetened organic flaked coconut 2/3 cup plain Greek yogurt 3 tablespoons wildflower honey

Wash the rhubarb; pat dry.  Place in a medium saucepan with 2/3 cup sugar and the Cassis.  Bring to a boil.  Lower heat and cover.  Simmer, stirring often, until soft, 10 minutes.  Place saucepan in the freezer while you prepare the topping.  Combine the walnuts and remaining 3 tablespoons sugar in a medium skillet.  Cook over high heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the sugar melts and the nuts are crunchy, about 3 minutes.  Stir in the coconut and cook 30 seconds.  Transfer the rhubarb to 4 glasses.  Dollop with the yogurt and sprinkle with the walnut-coconut mixture.  Drizzle with honey.  Serves 4

The Best Arepas

At the Venezuelan Beach Cafe in Norwalk, Connecticut, arepas were flying out the door like hotcakes.  Weekending in Connecticut, we stumbled upon a tiny place across the laundromat on Main Street.  On a desolate block, on a sunny Sunday morning, stood small pockets of hungry people willing to queue up for almost an hour.  Including us.  I can't remember a time when my husband and I would have ever stood on line.  Our 14-year old daughter had the patience of a saint and we all enjoyed moving into the cafe to hug the wall and marvel at each plate that went by.  There were all shades of pastel batidos -- fresh fruit milk shakes -- that made your mouth water. On each table were two large squeeze bottles whose contents people were showering over their chilaquiles, arepas, empanandas, and some of the more newfangled dishes that were "specials" that day.  In one plastic bottle was a thick chipotle sauce that looked like chocolate ketchup (it was delicious) and in the other, a piquant avocado-cilantro sauce (even more delicious!) known as guasacaca sauce.  I will try to duplicate it today and share it with you tomorrow for it is completely new to me and something I'd like to eat often.  Apparently, this sauce is popular in Venezuelan steakhouses, but I am dreaming about it on steamed salmon, tossed with leafy greens, drizzled on grilled chicken, and spooned atop slices of thick, charred hanger steak.  But I digress.

Some of you may not know about arepas.  They are thick corncakes made from precooked corn flour, that are fried, grilled or baked and often filled like a sandwich.  They were originally made in Venezuela and Colombia and stuffed or simply topped with butter and cheese.  At the Venezuelan Beach Cafe, the arepas were about 5 inches in diameter, moist, and crispy on the outside.  I had mine filled with pernil -- garlic-and-parsley roasted pork which is ubiquitous in many of the dishes at VBC and in much of Latin and South America.   I have a recipe for arepas in one of my cookbooks from the mid 1990's -- before they were ever popular and certainly before little arepias hit the streets of Brooklyn and Williamsburg.  They are now the rage.  What I didn't know back then was the correct flour to use. I will try making them, more authentically this time, with masarepa, or masa precocida.   My daughter loved her "little piggy french toast" filled with pernil, OE eggs (over-easy), bacon and American cheese.  Oh my.  She then invented a batido of her own:  Pineapple-vanilla.  The waiter smiled when he served it to her.

The real name of the restaurant is Valencia Luncheria, although the hand-crafted sign on the front of the building said "Venezuelan Beach Food" or cafe.  Can't remember exactly. It is located at 172 Main Street in Norwalk, Connecticut.  It is, however, open for early breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Next time we'll bring a bottle of wine and try those gorgeous steamed clams with arepas for dunking.  Corkage?  $5 a bottle.  tel: 203-846-8009

Recipe Hijack

Last week when I was honored at New York University for donating Gourmet's cookbook library to the esteemed institution, the subject of a missing recipe came up. Zanne Zakroff Stewart, who was the executive editor of Gourmet magazine for decades, said that she was in possession of all of Gourmet's recipes -- except one. That recipe happened to be mine: Candied Ginger and Rosemary Squares that Zanne said she has loved for years but simply could not find in her extensive files.  The next day, I ransacked my office looking for the recipe.  I, too, could not find it, nor could I remember what issue it was in.  I did, however, remember some of the other recipes in that article.  It was a time of great creativity I suppose, for in that same article were recipes such as Curried Onion Baklava; a savory cheesecake made with feta and mascarpone cheese in a black and white sesame crust, and an Arabic orange salad.  I sent an email to Zanne hoping that would help her in her search. In the meantime, I went to Google.  I was curious whether the recipe had landed on Epicurious, as so many of my recipes have.  Well, there it was. My exact recipe.  Except it had someone else's name on it! Now they were called Paul's Candied Ginger and Rosemary Squares and they were submitted to Epicurious two years ago by a certain chef Paul Boyami.  I laughed. This happens all the time -- some cases more extreme than others. Once a chef plagiarized 13 of my recipes and sent them, with his own photographs, to a major newspaper in Miami!  And...the recipes were in the exact order that he copied them from my Recipes 1-2-3 Menu Cookbook.  That cookbook even won a James Beard Award.  What was he thinking?!  The issue of recipe theft and plagiarism in our industry is monumental and getting worse given the instantaneous kleptomaniacal nature of the Internet.  Zanne wrote to me later in the day.  With the hints I had given her, she was able to find the recipe.  It was from the November 1994 issue of Gourmet!  Here's the recipe and here's what they look like.  I made them yesterday, with great excitement, for my brunch guests -- for I haven't had them since 1994.  The photo was taken by my husband, Michael, who just popped one in his mouth.  Enjoy!

Candied Ginger and Rosemary Squares

1 3/4 cups sugar 4 sticks unsalted butter 1 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped (3 tablespoons if using dried) 1 cup candied ginger, chopped 1 tablespoon water 4 cups all purpose flour, sift with salt 2 each large eggs, beaten

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large bowl with an electric mixer beat together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Into a medium bowl sift together flour and salt and gradually beat into butter mixture with three fourths of eggs. Beat in ginger and rosemary and press dough evenly into a 13" x 9" baking pan.

In a small bowl beat water into remaining egg to make an egg wash and brush on dough. With back of knife score dough (about 1/4 inch deep) in a crosshatch pattern and bake in middle of oven 35 to 45 minutes, or until a tester inserted in center comes out clean. Cool pastry in pan on a rack and cut into 24 squares. Pastry may be made 5 days ahead and chilled covered. Let pastry come to room temperature before serving.

Garnish pastry with rosemary sprigs. Serves 16 to 20

Wrinkled Grapes

A few weeks ago, my husband brought home a rather large amount of seedless red grapes.  They were the size of marbles and looked like they would pucker your lips.  Instead they were delicious and sweet.  But they lingered in the fridge and began to wrinkle like the tips of your fingers after a long hot bath.  Didn't give it much thought until I got a Facebook message from Nancy at Expendable Edibles.  She and her partner are in the business of making sure people discover fascinating ways to use the odds and ends in the refrigerator:  the last dregs of vinegar, the dehydrated knob of ginger, two pieces of leftover soppressata, a gnarled carrot.  Nancy, who, after seeing the large photo of my Sauteed Chicken with Roasted Grapes (from Radically Simple) in the New York Times queried, "Hey, couldn't you use oldish, wrinkled grapes for that dish?  After all, that's the way they wind up after roasting?!"  I liked the question and the theoretical construct.  Using pre-wrinkled grapes already gave you a head start!  More importantly, though, not throwing those grapes away benefits the planet -- and stretches the family grocery bill.  "Of course the sun does some of this for us already," I thought, as I contemplated the inverse evolution of some of our favorite foods -- grapes into raisins, plums into prunes, ripe tomatoes into sun-dried tomatoes, botrytised grapes into Sauternes.  I'm certain there are others, some of them are lurking in your fridge.

In addition to that gorgeous chicken dish, however, is another splendid recipe that features grapes as a prime ingredient:  "Grape and Pignoli Breakfast Cake."  A huge hit from Eat Fresh Food, my cookbook for teenage chefs, no one (including adults!) can resist the pleasure of pushing grapes, one by one, into the batter. I will be using the last of my wrinkled grapes this morning with a nod to the girls at Expendable Edibles.  Look for my "live interview" with them tomorrow.

Grape-and-Pignoli Breakfast Cake Not too sweet, but full of flavor, this moist breakfast cake is an original spin on more ordinary coffee cakes.  My daughter, Shayna, is a grape freak and thinks the cake is "divine."  It lasts several days in a tightly-covered tin.  And yes, you can use slightly wrinkled grapes.

12 ounces red seedless grapes (not too large) 2 extra-large eggs 1/4 cup milk 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 teaspoon vanilla extract grated zest of 1 lemon 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar 1-1/2 cups self-rising flour 2 tablespoons pignoli nuts (pine nuts)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Wash the grapes and discard stems.  Dry well and set aside.  In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, 1/2 cup olive oil,vanilla, lemon zest, and 1/2 cup of the sugar.  Blend thoroughly.  Stir in the flour and mix well until smooth.  Use 1 tablespoon oil to grease a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom and pour in the batter.  Place the grapes evenly, about 1/4-inch apart, in concentric circles on top of the batter to cover the entire surface.  Press the grapes halfway into the batter.  Scatter pignoli evenly on the cake and sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of sugar.  Bake 45 minutes until golden and firm to the touch. Remove from oven and let cool.  Serves 8 to 10

Heavenly Hots

Yes, PANCAKES are numero five on Google's most-requested recipe list.  And while I always loved pancakes as a kid, we never ate them at home.  Instead we enjoyed my mother's crepe-like palascintas (she was Hungarian) and ventured out to IHOP as a special treat. (We also had Christmas brunch there this year!) My brother and I ate buttermilk pancakes (I'm sure I had mine with strawberries), but my mother ate IHOP's version of palascintas! -- elegant crepes drenched in a faux Grand Marnier syrup.  My dad ate hash, sausage and bacon.  As I recall, his cholesterol was surprisingly low.  But most people eat pancakes at home.  Only this year did I create a pancake recipe for Radically Simple, where the batter rises slowly overnight -- much in the way that a yeast-bread rises -- allowing for concentrated flavor and lots of air bubbles that result in supernal fluffiness.  These pancakes are the yin to the yang of Marion Cunninghams' "Heavenly Hots" -- my favorite pancake experience of all time.  I first had them at the Bridge Creek Restaurant one morning, in Berkeley, California, when I was alone on a business trip. John Hudspeth was the chef and owner and a dear friend of Marion's:  She was the original Fanny Farmer and one of the most loved women in the food world. (I later became of friend of Marion's and dearly enjoyed my time with her near her home in Walnut Creek, CA and when she visited New York.)  I recall the first bite of the aptly-named "heavenly hot."  I swooned.  Everyone did.  For these small delicate pancakes seemed to levitate, then slowly disappear on your tongue. Thanks to Marion's lovely book, "The Breakfast Book," signed to 'Michael and Rozanne' in 1987, (we had just gotten married), the inclusion of this special recipe makes it possible to eat them at home. In her sweet headnote Marion writes, "These are the lightest sour cream silver-dollar-size hotcakes I've ever had -- they seem to hover over the plate.  They are heavenly and certainly should be served hot."

Bridge Creek Heavenly Hots According to Marion, this recipe yields fifty to sixty small pancakes!

4 eggs 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/4 cup cake flour 2 cups sour cream 3 tablespoons sugar

Put the eggs in a mixing bowl and stir until well blended.  Add the salt, baking soda, flour, sour cream, and sugar.  Mix well.  All of this can be done in a blender, if you prefer.  Heat a griddle or frying pan until it is good and hot, film with grease, and drop small spoonfuls of batter onto the griddle -- just enough to spread to an approximately 2-1/2-inch round.  When a few bubbles appear on top of the pancakes, turn them over and cook briefly.  Makes 50 to 60 silver-dollar size pancakes