Imposter salad

Imposter salad

I’ve been struggling hard with imposter syndrome lately – to quiet the voices in my head that scream what what I write and cook isn’t good enough, isn’t traditional enough, isn’t mine enough to justify publishing it here. If I’m honest, that’s why I don’t update very frequently, and why this very post has been sitting in my drafts folder for almost a week, waiting for edits.

Maybe that’s why I like this salad so much. It’s a bit of an imposter too. Like salad niçoise, this one has its fair share of summer’s bounty – ripe tomatoes, high-season green beans, olives and eggs. But unlike its restrained French cousin, this version swaps chicken for tuna and grills the vegetables into something loud, brash and infinitely more satisfying.

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Boiled red potatoes become crispy grilled steak fries with shatteringly crisp edges and charred notes of smoke and caramel. The tomatoes are grilled with red wine vinegar until they slump into jammy pillows whose juicy insides could serve as a salad dressing on their own. The green beans are cooked in a perforated pouch until they’re crisp-tender and smoke-kissed. The chicken is cooked until it is just barely charred. With briny Kalamata olives, a few boiled eggs, and some tweaks to the dressing, you’ve got a summer salad that truly feels like a meal.

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The best part? You never heat up your kitchen, and since everything goes on the grill the only things to wash are your cutting board and dressing bowl.

So yes, I guess this salad is perhaps aspiring to the name niçoise, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious or worthwhile.

Maybe I can take that as a lesson.

Imposter Salad Niçoise
Dressing adapted from Food Network Kitchen
Serves 4

For the salad
4 medium red potatoes, cut into 1/4 inch wedges
1/2 lb green beans, ends and strings removed
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes
1 t red wine vinegar
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
olive oil
salt and pepper
1 small head romaine lettuce, cut into 1 inch strips

For the dressing
1/2 shallot, minced
1/4 c red wine vinegar
2 T grainy brown or spicy brown mustard
1 T thyme leaves, minced
salt and pepper
1/3 c extra-virgin olive oil, or to taste (I like my vinaigrettes VERY vinegar-y, so if you don’t, just add more oil. The original recipe recommends 3/4 c)

Dump a generous amount of charcoal into your grill (my pile went up almost to the top grate) and get that lit so it’s ready by the time you need it. Alternatively, preheat your gas grill on whatever setting you normally use to grill chicken.

Start the salad prep by making a little aluminum foil boat large enough to hold the tomatoes. Toss in the tomatoes, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and a bit of oil, and roll everything around to coat. Set aside.

Put the green beans on a sheet of heavy-duty foil, and toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper. Fold the foil into a pouch around the beans and poke both sides full of holes with either a fork or a paring knife. Set that aside too.

Toss the potato wedges with salt, pepper, and olive oil, and salt the chicken.

Once your grill is ready, spread the coals into a relatively even layer across the entire bottom surface of your grill. Put your two pouches of veggies off to the side, your chicken in the middle and your potatoes in a single layer around the remaining edge. You should find the hot and cooler spots quickly, so keep the potatoes moving so they don’t burn (a little burning is ok. Charcoal is not). The potatoes may not all finish cooking at once, so keep a bowl handy to pull off the ones that are nicely browned and give slightly when squeezed with tongs. Try not to eat all of these. It will be very tempting.

Shake and flip the bean pouch occasionally and make sure you stir the tomatoes every so often. Let them cook until the beans are crisp-tender and the tomatoes are just starting to burst and slump – with where they were on my grill with my charcoal on this particular day, that took about 15-20 minutes, but you should keep an eye on yours and check on them occasionally.

The chicken should be cooked through after 6-8 minutes on each side. You’re looking for an internal temperature of about 160 °F. It should gain the additional five degrees in carryover heat during the rest.

Bring everything inside and tent the chicken with foil and let it rest for 5-10 minutes before cutting it.

While the chicken is resting, whisk together the shallot, red wine vinegar, mustard, thyme and salt and pepper. Then, slowly whisk in the oil – you’re looking to form an emulsion, and dumping all the oil in at once will make that much harder. Also, tip: move your whisk back and forth in a straight line, rather than in circular motions. This creates more shear forces under the surface and means your emulsion will form more quickly and hold longer.

Slice the chicken however seems best to you and arrange everything on a platter. Drizzle with the dressing and serve either warm or at room temperature.

 

 

Aish Baladi

Aish Baladi

Right about the time I hit fourth grade, I decided a career change was in order. Instead of being a construction worker, I was going to be an Egyptologist.

So, I did what I normally did. I went to the library and checked out all the age-appropriate books on Egypt I could find. And when I ran out, I moved on to the age-inappropriate ones in the adult non-fiction section. Long story short, by the time we got to the chicken mummification project that year, I felt pretty confident that I knew the material.

Obviously I’ve grown up some and the realities of Egyptology are no longer so appealing – largely because I’d be forced to live and work so far from my home and family – but my fascination with Egypt’s culture hasn’t waned much over time.

Case in point: I watched the first episode of A Cook Abroad on Netflix the other day and suffered an intense and immediate desire to experience Egyptian breads.

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The flatbreads especially looked delicious – as much staple food as eating utensil, but with a simple elegance that begs to be eaten unadorned. This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Egypt is, quite literally, the bread basket of civilization. Without them, we would still be eating unleavened bread.

And man did they get it right. Crunchy-crisp crusts yield to a deeply nutty, fragrant interior that manages to straddle the line between pillowy and pleasantly chewy. The ratio of crust to crumb is perfect, so neither overwhelms the other. And every bite is punctuated with crunchy pieces of bran or germ that underscore the sweet earthiness of unadorned whole wheat flour.

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If you can resist them plain and warm from the oven, these loves are perfect for scooping up juicy piles of cucumber and tomato salad, or dipping into hummus alongside bright summer veggies. Or you can do what the Egyptians do and dip them into soups, dollop them with spicy beans, or fill them with fava falafel.

Even better, they take just five ingredients and 36 minutes of actual work to throw together in your own kitchen.

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What could you possibly be waiting for? After all, in Egyptian the word for bread, Aish, also means life.

Aish Baladi (Egyptian Flatbread)
Adapted, just barely, from Saveur

1 T active dry yeast
2 1/2 c warm water
5 c whole wheat flour (plus a bit for dusting your counters)
1 T kosher salt
1 T vegetable oil (plus a bit for greasing the bowl your dough will rise in)
Wheat germ or cracked wheat bran for proofing (this is optional, but nice)

In a large bowl, whisk together the yeast and water until the yeast dissolves. Let stand 10 minutes, or until you see foamy bubbles starting to form on the surface.

We’re going to be making a sponge here, so add 2 1/2 c of flour to your yeast mixture and stir it until it’s smooth (I just used my hands). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let everything sit until your water/flour mixture has risen a bit and looks bubbly. This should take about half an hour.

Once your sponge has risen, stir in the salt and oil, then add the rest of the flour and mix until everything is incorporated. Your hands are unequivocally the best tool for this job. This dough will be on the loose side for bread doughs, and it’s very sticky.

Turn your dough ball out onto a floured countertop and knead it until it is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Don’t be afraid to add a bit more flour if the dough is sticking to you or the board. Because that will happen.

Once your dough is kneaded, grease up a large bowl (I rinsed out the one I used to make the dough in) and drop in your dough. Cover the whole thing with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. This should take about one and a half hours, depending on how warm your kitchen is.

Pop a pizza stone or heavy baking sheet into your oven and crank it to 500°F (or as high as it will go). You’re going to want to let it preheat at least half an hour.

While the oven is preheating, divide your risen dough into 16 balls, and flatten each ball into a round about 5 inches in diameter, although this dimension isn’t super important. You just want your disks to be less than 1/4 inch thick.

Spread out the dough rounds onto parchment-lined baking sheets (dusted with wheat germ or bran if you’re into that), cover them with a towel, and let them rise until they’re lightly puffed. This should take about half an hour.

Once your rounds are risen, bake them a few at a time on your pizza stone or baking sheet until they are puffed, deeply browned, and even charred in spots. In my oven, this took about 9 minutes, but you’ll want to watch yours and see how your oven does for the first few batches.

If you can resist, let the loaves cool for five minutes before devouring serving.

Into the breach

Into the breach

It is snowing in Georgia.

For those of you who don’t live here, let me explain exactly what this means: My university closed at 2:30 (at the time, it was sunny and 38°). People have suddenly forgotten how to drive. The grocery store looks like a zombie horde fixed on bread and milk went through. There is absolutely no snow on the ground.

Now, I’ve been living here my whole life. I KNOW this happens. And yet, not 15 minutes after the sleet started, I gathered up my grocery bags and headed off to Kroger. This, unsurprisingly, was a mistake.

I should have known this when I got into my car and realized all the water on my windshield was, in fact, frozen. Maybe I should have guessed it when I realized I didn’t know which button on my dash worked the defroster. Perhaps the fact that I left my list at home should have clued me in to the utter stupidity of my course of action. It didn’t. Undeterred, I sallied forth into the breach.

It’s best that there’s as little said as possible about the number of people in that store. Fortunately, two things are true:

One. There’s not much call for butternut squash in a snowstorm.

Two. I had hot chocolate when I got home.

Unfortunately, I forgot to buy tomato paste. I’m not going back to get it.

 

 

The Intelligentsia

The Intelligentsia

I went out in Chicago this morning, handling the ferocious -20° wind chill in the best way I knew how – by huddling up in a somewhat pretentious coffee shop with my friends and teammates.

Now I’m somewhere between here and there, 36,000 feet above the surface of planet Earth. It’s not a bad place to get some perspective.

That coffee shop wasn’t a place I would go normally, and it was certainly not a place I would have picked out on my own. Full of chromed coffee equipment, fancy origin cards, and lots of sleek wood, concrete, and industrial metal, it’s the kind of place that makes you feel like you should sip your coffee alongside painstakingly compiled tasting notes rather than a crumbly muffin and a good book. I’ll freely admit it – I’m not a coffee person, and I don’t enjoy feeling like I need the caffeinated version of a sommelier’s degree to properly appreciate what I’m drinking.

But it is nice, sipping something carefully prepared and presented, especially when it’s an experience shared. Then it’s not so much about the coffee – the coffee becomes a gateway to something more.

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The freezing wind kept most people off the lakefront – though it didn’t stop Ayman, Caroline, Nancy and Kenzie. Or the guy we saw walking from the top of the tower.

My friend Caroline and I were talking, sitting there in the warmth of the shop. She was nursing a vanilla mocha while I sipped oolong tea from a tiny ceramic cup without a handle. The conversation meandered  from the competition this weekend, to my graduation plans, and finally to food and cooking. We talked food, restaurants – reviews we’ve read and meals we’ve shared. We talked about the culture of food.

Not food culture in the culinary sense; not deep-dish pizza, or hot dogs “dragged through the garden,” or caramel and cheese popcorn, or any of the wonderful regional idiosyncrasies that make this the city that it is. We talked about the way food bridges cultural gaps and brings people together in a way that both fosters and forges relationships in a way nothing else can.

For me anyway, food is viscerally tied to memory. Arguing with my mom over the proper texture for biscuit dough. The warmth and bustle of my grandmother’s kitchen just before Thanksgiving dinner. Explaining the smell of stale beer in a jacket after the guy behind me spilled at a baseball game. No matter who you are or where you come from, everyone has a story about food.

Maybe slowing down long enough to refuel our bodies makes us vulnerable, or maybe sitting down across the table from another human being to share time and break bread is inherently intimate. Either way, that table has the power to break down walls and make connections, whether you’re serving Kraft mac ‘n cheese on paper plates or a standing rib roast on your wedding china.

I love cooking for my friends and family, partly because they’re excellent guinea pigs who tolerate my experiments, but mostly because I love the warmth of a shared table – and I love making space for others to enjoy it too. Because, although good food is always the goal, the meal is never really about the food. It’s about using my time and the gifts I’ve been given to return at least a small part of the love that the people at my table have given me. It’s about respect, and about sharing, and about connection. And, yes, it’s at least a little about the food too.

My kitchen island in Athens is definitely a far cry from the wooden table in Intelligentsia near Millennium Park, but they share much of the same DNA. That’s exactly as it should be. Because when I think about the meals that have been most important to me, I almost never remember exactly what I ate – I remember the people and places and stories that made that particular table special.

What about you?

Dashing madly

Dashing madly

In some ways, I’m a terrible college student. I’ve never been to a frat party. I didn’t sneak into bars underage and make out with cute boys I’d never see again. I never kept Ramen in my dorm and I didn’t order pizza until my junior year.

The pizza thing isn’t out of snobbishness – like everyone, I’ve got a soft spot for mass-produced dough, perfectly crunchy pepperoni, and those magical little puddles of grease I can never quite manage at home. It’s the Hamburger Dilemma. A solid inch of hand-ground angus topped with aged bleu cheese, arugula and red onion might be the be-all-end-all of burgers – but say what you want, I’m always going to have a soft spot for McDonald’s double cheeseburger (only like twice a year, though. They stay with you).

But for me, there’s a sense of deep satisfaction in watching the simple chemistry that can completely transform a handful of raw ingredients. That process is something I’m loathe to give up, even on nights when I’ve got a million things on my plate and dinner becomes little more than bites snatched in the space between tasks.

So tonight, when I was prepping crêpe batter and cremé pâtisserie and pie dough for tomorrow night’s party in between doing my homework and studying for Monday’s biochemistry exam and trying to find the section of the case problem that laid out the elements of an entrapment defense, I can’t say making dinner was exactly a priority.

I just slammed potatoes and tomatoes and some softened goat cheese on frozen puff pastry, showered it in Herbes de Provence and tossed it in the oven while I worked on other things, but taking the time to cook for myself allowed me to carve out time to do something I enjoy. It’s a way of respecting myself enough to do something that makes me feel special and cared for.

And hey, puff pastry tarts are basically pizza, right?

Busy Night Tarts

These tarts are what Alton Brown would call “refrigerator velcro” – just throw on whatever have that you think would be good together. Ricotta, onion, and summer squash with thyme or rosemary would be lovely, especially drizzled with garlic oil. As would sauteed mushrooms with garlic and roasted chicken dotted with bleu cheese. Or maybe charred corn kernels, green onions, and grape tomatoes smothered in sharp cheddar. Get creative! The only limit here is your imagination.

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, defrosted
2 or 3 oz goat cheese, room temperature
heavy pinch garlic powder
A handful of small waxy potatoes, boiled and cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 roma tomato, cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 egg, beaten with a tablespoon of water
heavy pinch dried Herbes de Provence, or other herb blend
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat your oven to 375°F.

On a well-floured board, lightly roll the puff pastry into a 11 or 12 inch square. Cut one inch strips from all sides, doing the two vertical sides first and then the two horizontal sides. Set the strips aside.

Place the square of pastry on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and spread it with the softened goat cheese, leaving a 1 inch border on all sides. Sprinkle the cheese with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Place the slices of potato across the cheese in a single layer and sprinkle with salt. Add the tomato, again, in a single layer, then sprinkle the whole thing with the Herbes de Provence

Dip a pastry brush in the egg mixture and brush the two vertical sides of the exposed dough. Place two of the strips of dough you cut earlier over the egg mixture. Repeat the same process with the horizontal sides. The strips should overlap on the corners. Basically you’re making the first layer of one of those popsicle-stick houses, using dough as the sticks and the egg mixture as the glue. Paint the tops of the dough with the egg mixture so it’ll come out of the oven nice and brown.

Pop it in the oven and bake until the pastry is puffed and the top is golden, 20-30 minutes.

The magic of squeeze corn

The magic of squeeze corn

Have you ever seen something on the internet and been like, “Nah man. There’s no way that works.” Something like the stay-at-home mom making $5,000 a week by sitting on her couch. Or the “one simple trick”that will end wrinkles. Or most Pinterest craft projects.

Enter squeeze corn.

It’s something that came into my world on Easter, courtesy of my Aunt Debbie. She was standing at the microwave, whisking ears of corn in and out in four-minute increments. This was vaguely confusing.

I am not a microwave person. I like leftovers cold and have a habit of melting butter in a small bowl in the preheating oven. I have one, since I have a nasty habit of forgetting to get meat out of the freezer to thaw until it is far too late to let it defrost in the refrigerator, but its largest function is as a glorified fruit stand.

So, I asked what she was doing. She told me that she’d seen this video for what seemed like the easiest method for making corn ever. A few taps on her iPhone later, and I was watching this:

A few seconds later, I watched her lop the end off an ear of corn and pop out a perfectly cooked, silk-free cob, just like magic.

This I filed away for later. But it wasn’t squeeze corn. No. For squeeze corn you need the Hoovers.

A few weeks ago, Mom, Mrs. Hoover and I were standing in the kitchen at the lake making dinner. Mom was all set to perform the magic of microwave corn, but, like me so many months ago, Mrs. Hoover was skeptical. Mom explained the method and then I jumped in.

“It’s like squeeze corn!” I said.

“Squeeze corn. I love it!” said Mrs. Hoover.

The name stuck.

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Squeeze Corn
I feel a little weird writing this up as a recipe since it’s more a method than anything. 

However many ears of corn you want

Microwave each ear of corn on high for 3.5 to 4 minutes, depending on your machine. You can do multiple ears at once if you want to. Once it’s done, grab the corn with a towel or pot holder (because it is SCREAMING hot), and cut off the fat end, where it was connected to the stalk.

Using the towel or pot holder (did I mention that the corn is HOT?), squeeze the tapered end like a tube of toothpaste, pushing the corn out the cut end. If all has gone well, it should pop out perfectly cooked and completely silk free.

Just like magic.

Beer (can be) toast

Beer (can be) toast

Let me set the scene for you. It’s a little over a month into my second semester of college and I’m sitting in a hotel room in Houston, Texas, with 10 other people. The sounds of slightly overserved twenty-somethings mix with fragments of Jay-Z and Kanye’s “Ni**as in Paris” pouring out of a jailbroken iPod Touch. I’m wearing a screaming green ballcap from a sorority date night  because one of the boys put it on me and I was too tired to do anything about it. A couple people are swing-dancing in the sitting room-cum-office that meant we were allowed to call the room a suite.

I am 19 years old, and have not yet learned the futility of arguing with drunk people. So when Ross came out with the now-infamous argument that “beer is toast,” I didn’t leave well enough alone.

“What?” I said, putting all the incredulity I could muster into my voice.

“Beer is toast,” Ross said. “Beer is made of wheat. Toast is made of wheat. Therefore, beer is toast”

“No, it’s not,” I said. I then went on to explain all the ways in which beer and toast are different, up to and including the maillard reaction and the fermentation processes that turn the sugars in wheat into ethanol.

“Beer is wheat. Toast is wheat. Beer is toast because reasons” was the reply.

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The argument is ongoing.

The repertoire has expanded into both bread and salad, and despite the fact that bread is probably the closest edible analogue to beer we have, beer is not, nor will it ever be, toast or anything else. Beer is beer. Toast is toast. Drunk arguments, bless them, are drunk arguments.

That doesn’t mean that beer doesn’t make great bread (and, by extension, great toast). Googling “beer bread” turns up 10,400,000 results that range from quick breads to beer-scented yeast loaves.

But if I’m going to turn beer into toast, I have some very specific requirements. One, beer should be prominently featured in the flavor profile. That means the bread should be malty, dark, and maybe just a little bit bitter – which drives me towards the whole wheat end of the spectrum. Second, the recipe better use a whole bottle, because I can’t stand having tail-ends of beer lying around going flat in my refrigerator. It shouldn’t be sweet or cakelike. I’d also like to be able to whip it up in the same amount of time it takes to grab a cold one from the ‘fridge, which pretty much knocks yeasted doughs out of the running.

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I’m pretty sure this hits the spot. It took a little tweaking, but I think I’ve got the balance right – dense and not too sweet, with the pleasant chewiness of whole wheat and a hint of bitter salt from the baking powder. Best of all, it takes about 5 minutes to throw together and goes from thought to table in less than hour. And it makes the house smells amazing.

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Whole Wheat Beer Bread
Inspired by Ali’s Honey Beer Bread at Gimme Some Oven

168g (1 1/2 c) all-purpose flour
170g (1 1/2 c) whole wheat flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt
2 tbsp honey
4 tbsp butter, melted
12 oz. (one bottle) beer, preferably something malty. I used an amber my roommate and I brewed a month or two ago.
rolled oats, for sprinkling (optional)

Preheat your oven to 350°F.

This is a quick bread, which means that devotees of Alton Brown (like Ross and myself) will be unsurprised to discover that we’ll be employing the muffin method – the wet and dry ingredients will be assembled separately, then wet is added to dry and briefly mixed to combine.

So let’s start with the dry ingredients. Combine both flours, the baking powder and the salt in a medium mixing bowl and whisk thoroughly to combine. You could also sift everything together, but I find that the wheat germ and bran can get stuck in the sifter mesh, which sort of defeats the purpose of using whole wheat flour in the first place.

Melt the butter in a small bowl, then add the honey. If you want, you can microwave the honey for a few seconds so it pours more easily. Mix the two together, then add the beer (if you’re like me, you’ll open it with the back end of a paint key because you lost your bottle opener in the move). If your beer is cold, the butter might solidify again. You’ll be able to tell if the mixture looks a bit curdled. Don’t worry about it – it won’t affect how the bread comes out.

Pour the beer mixture into the dry ingredients and mix them with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until they’re just combined and no dry pockets of flour remain. Pour the batter into a greased 9x5x3 inch loaf pan (or whatever you have around – quick breads are pretty forgiving), and sprinkle the top with rolled oats if you want to.

Bake for 40-60 minutes, until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the fattest part of the loaf comes out clean. You’re supposed to let the bread cool to room temperature so the proteins can set before you cut into it, but so far I haven’t managed it.

And yes, this bread makes fantastic toast. I love it glazed with orange marmalade or thickly spread with salted butter and honey.