Sunday, June 21, 2009

Tomato and Mozzarella (Caprese) Salad

With summer vegetables coming in, not to mention the temperature going up, its time to turn our thoughts to cool salads that can act as replacements for the lettuce and cucumber affairs of spring. With summer tomatoes starting to come in, you could try a Caprese salad. This simple, almost minimalist, salad really lets the fresh tomato and mozzarella flavors shine through.

For the best flavor, use fresh garden tomatoes, instead of those waxy flavorless ones you normally find in the supermarket. Fresh mozzarella is a must for this dish. You'll be sorely disappointed if you use the older processed crap we normally find in the cheese aisle. If you can't get fresh mozzarella, try this recipe with chevré (soft French goat cheese), instead.

Equipment Needed

Cutting board
Kitchen knife
Measuring spoons
Mixing bowl
Plastic wrap

5 small ripe tomatoes
9 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese
6 basil leaves (fresh)

for the dressing
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt

ground black pepper to taste
salt, to taste

Remove the stems from each tomato, halve them lengthwise, and cut them into wedges about 1/4 inch thick. Cut the mozzarella into slices around 1/4 inch thick, as well, about the same size and thickness as the tomato slices.

Arrange alternate slices of tomato and mozzarella on a serving dish. Sprinkle small pieces of basil over the salad, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for about 30 minutes before serving, to chill.

If you don't have fresh basil, that's okay. You can sprinkle it with a bit of dried basil, instead.

While the salad is chilling, combine the balsamic vinegar and a pinch of salt in a mixing bowl. Add the olive oil one tablespoon at a time, mixing in one thoroughly before adding the next, to make an emulsion.

When ready to serve, take the salad from the refrigerator and remove the plastic warp. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and sprinkle with ground black pepper to taste. Additional salt can also be added, if desired.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Cooking Food I Hate

Have you ever cooked food, even though you knew you'd a hate it? I have. Most of the time this stems from being given ingredients and not wanting to waste them.

For example, I hate cooked spinach. I like it raw in salads or on sandwiches. I can tolerate it in lasagna and a few other dishes where it gets covered up by everything else.

And yet a few months ago I went ahead and made a spinach curry when a neighbor gave us a ton of spinach simply because I knew it would go bad before I could toss all of it into a salad and didn't want to throw it away. I looked around for a recipe that would use a lot of it up. I thought, “Well, maybe this way it will be okay.” It wasn't okay. It was awful. I threw the remains of it, and there was plenty, out that evening.

It still makes me sick just thinking about it.

So, guess what happened? A neighbor gave us a bunch of spinach, yesterday. Organic spinach, no less. Two full pounds of it.

It gets worse. Two other things that, as a rule I avoid like the plague, are canned tuna and avocados.

Yes, I know. Shame on me. I've heard before, “You just haven't had them prepared right.” Guess what? Yes I have. I still don't like them. To me, guacamole is just spicy spackling paste. The only way I can tolerate canned tuna fish is if it's melted into a puttanesca sauce. Put it on bread with mayo? Forget it. Feed it to your cat, please, not me.

So, what was I thinking? What bit of madness overtook me tonight? I tried to make a California roll sushi for the first time. Instead of canned crab, which I didn't have, I tried using canned tuna. The recipe said that was perfectly acceptable. You know what else the recipe called for? That's right. Avocado.

What would go with sushi, and let me use up some of the spinach? How about a Korean side dish, spinach namul? I had a recipe for it and wanted to try it.

Why didn't I learn my lesson with the curry?

First, I couldn't get the rice to stick together well. That was frustrating but my wife and two of my daughters said the California rolls tasted great, even if they did have to eat them with a fork. My other daughter, who shares my opinion of avocados, at least gave it the college try, even though she's in elementary school.

The spinach namul? My wife said she liked the sesame flavors in it and had seconds. No one else did. I had one bite, noted the nice sesame flavor and the horrid cooked spinach texture and didn't take a second one.

I did eat three of the sushi pieces before giving up entirely on the meal. I drowned my taste buds in rooibos tea and left the table to go take care of my ever sickening stomach.

Something my Dad used to say kept running through my mind as I went to lay down:

“Try it, you'll like it,” they said. I tried it. I thought I'd die.

Now, where did I put the Alka-seltzer?

Picture by Susan Tito

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Syrniki - Russian Cheese Pancakes

My attempt at making syrniki, bite sized cheese pancakes topped with raisins, is a tale of frustration, confusion and the Fall of Man in the kitchen. It is a sordid tale, not for the faint at heart. An epic struggle worthy of Mother Russia, the source of his recipe. Tolstoy only wishes he could have written this novel.

Well, short story. Is there anything shorter than a short story?

Oh, yeah. Blog post.

Okay. You're right. Tolstoy would have done it much better than I could. I told you this recipe had driven me into madness.

When I read the recipe in my Personal Trainer: Cooking program for the Nintendo DS I thought, “This is basically a cottage cheese pancake. That's sounds good. I've got all the ingredients on hand. I'll give it a try.”

This is how it starts, you know. The decent into hell. A small temptation leading to larger sins. But my stomach was growling and my mouth salivating. I was weak, and plowed forward into this evil recipe.

Equipment needed
Mixing bowls
Silicone spatula
Frying pan
Kitchen scale
Measuring spoons

10 1/2 ounces cottage cheese
2/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons beaten egg
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon cooking oil
3 tablespoons raisins

The Sordid Tale

“Wait,” I thought. “10 1/2 ounces of cottage cheese? 3 tablespoons of beaten egg? Who thinks in these terms? Chemists, maybe, but cooks? Who came up with this recipe?” This would not be the last time I wondered about this.

First, as the recipe directed, I put the cottage cheese into a mixing bowl and broke it up with the rubber spatula. I don't have a kitchen scale so, I estimated how much cottage cheese actually made up 10 1/2 ounces. In retrospect, I probably should have separated more of the whey than I did. The recipe didn't tell me to, though, and I didn't think about it.

Next I added the sugar and lemon juice and began mixing them in. Gradually I added the egg, mixing well, and wondered again, “3 tablespoons? Who came up with this thing?” not for the last time.

I had a little trouble with this. The eggs slopped out of my tablespoon measure and onto the counter, quickly taking a detour to the floor. “@&$%!” I cursed, taking my first steps into madness. I cleaned up the counter and floor and then beat another couple of eggs into submission.

Setting that aside, and quickly repenting for swearing, I took another large bowl and combined the flour and baking powder. I made a well in the center and added the cheese and egg mixture all at once, mixing it all into a thin batter. “This looks pretty thin,” I thought to myself. “A lot thinner than any pancake batter I've ever seen. I wonder if I should add more flour?” Ignoring my instincts, I forged ahead into the darkness.

Next, I put the frying pan over low heat and added the cooking oil, as per the instructions. Five minutes later I wondered when the oil was going to heat up. “What's going on? @&$%!” I cursed, again. “Is my stove messed up?”

I turned the heat up to medium and waited a little longer, just so I could get the oil up to a high enough temperature that I could actually fry something, and then reduced the heat to medium-low.

Adding the batter, one tablespoon at a time, to the frying pan, I waited for the “happy sizzle” sound I am so used to. I didn't get one. “Rats!,” I cried, trying not to swear this time. “What's going on?” Still, I decided to be patient and see what would happen.

Next, I put a few raisins on top of each bit of batter. “These will look pretty,” I thought. Oh, no, my dear brothers and sisters. This was but another temptation along the way to the Fall.

Ten minutes later, the four pancakes I had poured finally were ready to turn over. Oh, I had checked them before. But no. These didn't “nicely brown,” as the pictures showed. Oh, no. “Nicely browning” these cakes were not. They went from white to white with near black caramelized regions in nothing flat.

As I tried to turn them over, they squished themselves together into a sausage like mass. “@&$%!,” I repeated, furthering my trek towards into the depths, and vowed to do better with the next batch. “Who the @&$%! came up with the recipe?” I wondered, not for the last time.

I also wasn't going to wait twenty minutes for four pancakes, so I turned up the heat.

After more failed attempts at 'nicely brown' and more cursing, I started getting better at turning them over. As the first two batches were done, I got daughters involved with the tasting.

“Oh, these are sooooo good Dad!” they said. I had to admit, they didn't look like the pictures in the recipe, but they were pretty good, if a little squishy when compared to normal pancakes.

After each batch was done, I started eating them out of reflex. These were good. I started to realize that I was eating them faster than I was sharing them. Once again, bad behavior had led me to even worse behavior. “Who came up with this recipe?”

After taking pictures of the last batch, I attempted to repent. “Hey kids, do you want any more of these pancakes? There's four left.”

“No thanks, Dad. But make 'em again sometime, will you?” the girls responded, sweetly.

Rats. Just like any other addict, I couldn't make myself feel good if they wouldn't partake of the addicting substance with me. I ate them all in a moment of guilty gulping.

Looking back at the last hour of my life, the troubles, the cursing, and my need to repent, I said, “I don't know if I'll make these again, sweetie. They were kind of a pain.”

I told myself I would repent of cursing and being selfish, and never dip into the depths of that particular tempting recipe again.


Who came up with this recipe?