Everyone’s always on the lookout for holiday side dishes with a twist. Quite by accident, this year’s Thanksgiving table included sides that turned assumptions about certain ingredients upside down, offering savory bites where sweet was expected, sweet where savory is usually a given. It began with the cranberry sauce.
Cranberry Salsa —“What is this? I’ve never had anything like it,” asked one dinner guest. This simple-to-prepare alternative to the usual sweet, forgettable cranberry sauce combines bright flavors: cranberries, pumpkin seeds, cilantro, jalapeno, green onion and line juice. It tastes fresh, not hot, works well with a variety of menus, and there’s no cooking required beyond some toasting of pumpkin seeds. Mix it up.
Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Chipotle — “These sweet potatoes are great. They’re not sweet,” said another diner. The Three Points cooks have long wondered why most recipes take an inherently sweet vegetable and douse it with even more sugar/maple syrup/marshmallows. A touch of chopped, canned chipotles in adobo adds a smoky undertone to mashed sweet potatoes. There’s no real recipe needed here; chipotles are added to taste. But do proceed with caution, as the chipotle chilies are deceptively hot.
Carmelized Brussels Sprouts with Pecans — Who would have guessed that a bit of sweetness would turn up in the brussels sprouts? Shredding the sprouts makes the stovetop preparation quick and easy and maintains the color.
Marinated Beets with Horseradish — A vibrant dish that’s actually best made in advance. Oven-roasted beets (easy to cook, easy to peel) are dressed with olive oil, dijon mustard and horseradish.
Pumpkin-Thyme Dinner Rolls — And where’s the pumpkin? Why in the dinner rolls. (Also great for appetizers with a blue cheese spread.)
These gorgeous, jewel-toned dishes surrounded the centerpiece:
Roast Turkey with Pancetta-Sage Gravy — liberal application of a pancetta-butter blend with sage and Parmesan (or as we like to call it, bacon-and-cheese butter) infused the turkey with a slightly porky, umami essence. The wonderfully moist bird produced gravy so lip-smackingly rich that guests drained every last drop from the serving dish, thankful, each and every one, for the opportunity.
Thanks also to Chez Kate for the Unruly Cellars house red, from Spanish grapes blended with Spanish expertise.
After a slow start, the padrón peppers on my deck are producing–and then some. Twice we have cooked up a tasty pepper tapa for a fresh summer dinner, and it looks like we are in for a few more rounds.
Pimientos de padrón are not “boss” peppers, as their name would imply. Rather the hail from the town of the same name in Galicia, Spain. Brought back to the old country from the Americas, the pepper went mild. Mostly. The trick with these babies is, while the vast majority are nearly bell-pepper sweet, some bite back. Indeed, the fun of sharing a plate of peppers (along with an icy beer) is that someone is likely to get a mouthful of fire. Folks have called it Spanish roulette.
To prepare in the traditional manner, simply quick-fry the whole peppers in a bit of good, Spanish olive oil, allowing the peppers to char a bit. Remove from the oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Or, fry with a bit of chorizo and a healthy dose of crushed garlic. Sprinkle with sea salt. Serve with thin slices of baguette, and you will have a winning tapa or a lovely summer side.
The ice cream experiments were continuing when I encountered a startlingly relevant passage in The Book of Salt. The novel, by Monique Truong, is told from the perspective of a Vietnamese cook hired by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas for their Parisian household in the late 1920s. Evidently, it takes off from a real-life anecdote in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Miss Toklas wrote, “[He] came to us through an advertisement that I had in desperation put in the newspaper. It began captivatingly for those days: ‘Two American ladies wish to hire a cook. . . ’ ”
The novel intersperse the cook’s personal story with bits of kitchen wisdom he has picked up in his journey, including a description of “mes mesdames” tasting his best Singapore ice cream:
They both could taste the vanilla and the crystallized ginger, but only Miss Toklas could detect that there was something deeper, something that emerged as a lingering lace of a feeling on the tongue.
Peppercorns, Miss Toklas. Step the milk from morning till night with ten coarsely crushed peppercorns. Strain and proceed as usual. The “bite” that the peppercorns leave behind will make the eater take notice, examine this dish of sweet anew. Think of it as an unexpected hint of irony in a familiar lover’s voice.
Here it was. Just the solution for how to use the grains of paradise that had come into my possession, and for the ice cream I’d been pondering. A friend had passed along some of the spice, having purchased it for the interesting description alone, but saying, “I’m not sure what I’d do with it.”
I’d heard of grains of paradise, a spice native to West Africa, being used in beer brewing, and I seemed to recall a flurry of activity a while back, when it was discovered by chefs. Grains of paradise are described as having a peppercorn-like bite, but with a bit of citrus that some have likened to a burst of lemon in the mouth. Online recipes seemed to use them much like peppercorns — as a crust for fish, in salads or salad dressings — and the little dried berries do look similar. But I’d also found a Grains of Paradise Ice Cream, with a base of coconut milk. Aha! Still, while it was on the right track, it was not headed in quite in the right direction. Then, almost simultaneously, I came across The Book of Salt passage.
Sweet serendipity! Taking the fictional cook’s suggestion, I steeped a tablespoon of cracked grains of paradise in a standard vanilla ice cream base for about 8 hours, then strained the mixture, and churned in the ice cream maker as usual. The result is indeed evocative of the cook’s description. The effect is subtle, probably undetectable to most tasters, but the grains of paradise do provide an underlying depth of character, very much a “lingering lace of a feeling on the tongue.”
To gild the lily, the ice cream was paired with another recipe incorporating grains of paradise, Drunken Cherries. (How could I resist using the bounty of my favorite summer fruit?)
I’d long known that The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is a sought-after collectible (with its own infamous “food of paradise” recipe), which drew my attention to The Book of Salt in the first place. But I have no idea where the novelist gathered the cooking tidbits passed along by her protagonist. Perhaps if Monique Truong still lives in Brooklyn, as the book jacket says, I’ll have the chance to ask her in person someday, and offer a jar of Drunken Cherries in thanks.
July being National Ice Cream Month, it seemed our patriotic duty this holiday weekend to keep the granita and ice cream experiments going. Next up, a honey-fig variety with toasted pistachios we’re calling The Little Figgy That Could Ice Cream. The main ingredient comes courtesy of the figs from the spunky little tree that grows in my Brooklyn neighbor’s backyard. The last of the 2012 crop has been languishing in the freezer (fresh figs that have been washed and quartered keep well), waiting for the perfect moment. And here it is, using a recipe from Saveur magazine into which a handful of shelled, unsalted, and then toasted pistachios were folded.
Bonus points: the fig jam that forms the fruit base, made by cooking down fresh figs with some honey, brown sugar, and a touch of cardamom in place of the cinnamon in the original, would made a wonderful spread to pair with soft cheeses.
It’s that time of year again. On the sweltering sidewalks of New York, everyone is staying hydrated by keeping a cup of iced coffee within sipping distance at all times. But I’ve never been a big fan. Iced coffee only really tastes good with lots of milk and sugar, and I try to avoid the extra calories that involves; the melting ice dilutes the flavor; coffee shops in these parts charge more for an iced coffee, anyway; and then there’s the matter of all those extra plastic cups and lids generated by the fascination with summer’s icy brew.
No, I think there’s a much better way of taking coffee iced: in the form of granita. I was reminded of it while reading a chapter in The Man Who Ate Everything, in which Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten searches Italy for the perfect granita, stopping off in Palermo to join the local custom of breakfasting during hot-weather months on coffee granita into which pieces of brioche are dunked. Granita— differing from close cousin sorbet in the granular, yet fluffy texture of its ice crystals— is a perfect vehicle for delivering the punch of coffee or espresso in a truly refreshing manner. The ingredient list consists basically of coffee and sugar (with a dollop of whipped cream for serving recommended).
But the best thing of all is that it’s incredibly easy to make. Coffee granita calls for no special skills, no special equipment, and it’s a great way to use up leftover coffee or espresso. Mix it up, freeze in a metal pan, and stir with a fork every once in a while to scrape up the crystals. It takes a bit of time to develop the right texture, but the effort involved is little more than giving the pan a stir when you get up from the couch to grab a snack.
Once you’ve got the basic concept of granita-making down, the same technique can be used for other fruit and flavor varieties. We’ll be trying Watermelon Granita with Cardamom Syrup (also a good way to use up extra fruit), and Steingarten’s Chocolate Granita from Catania, which he turns into chocolate in garapegra, a “holy and noble elixir of fresh life” from the 18th-century, with the addition of some vanilla, orange zest, and a few drops of distilled jasmine.
I started a trend. After noticing that the mulberry tree on the corner a couple of blocks away was heavy with fruit, I returned with a container. In the short time spent plucking berries from branches hanging low over the owner’s wrought-iron fence and across the sidewalk, a parade of passersby stopped, gawked, and even joined in. Some were horrified at the very thought of plucking berries from a street corner in Brooklyn: “Mom, what’s that lady doing?” Others had never even noticed the fruit tree growing in their midst: “What’s that, a blueberry tree?”
The Book: Cuba Cocina! (1994)
My three years in Miami allowed me plenty of time to sample the wonders of Cuban cuisine–ropa vieja, picadillo, caldo gallego, pressed sandwiches like the medianoche. Nothing charmed me more, though, than pastelitos, the flaky, ubiquitous turnovers (sweet or savory) served at every Cuban coffee joint in town.
And the best of the pastelitos, by far, were guava filled.
Guava makes me happy. It tastes of sun and citrus and tropics. Tart and red, it sings at dessert. Except when subjected to the dessert found on page 227 of Cuba Cocina. This recipe, for Capricho Habañero (Havana Whim), was yet another dish discovered during our Three Cubed adventures that, despite the potential promised by its ingredients (homemade caramel custard, meringue and guava) looked off on paper. And it was in practice.
Basically the capricho is a strata. But the tiers of bread, covered with guava jam and custard, only makes a brief trip through the oven–to brown the meringue on top. The result is layers of stuff that do not meld, remaining in their constituent parts. And bread soaked in custard, no matter how good the custard, is still bread.
I was tempted to just bake this before topping with meringue. But then I would not have been following the recipe. And while I am kind of inclined to try it that way — or to make a caramel-guava bread pudding (!) — I think I would rather stick to perfect, flaky, triangle-shaped pastelitos.