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Monthly Archives: January 2012

Last weekend I finally broke in my copy of Nigel Slater’s Tender. I’ve had this book for a while now and it’s been entertaining enough to read through the recipes and look at the pictures -they’re wonderful. Over the course of a couple of days, I made three dishes from the book, including a version of baked brussels sprouts that might become a new standby recipe. I also went out on a limb and made a chocolate cake that called for red beets.

I know. Beets don’t sound like an appetizing addition to a cake, but before you close this page, let me try to convince you that this cake really is delicious and worth the effort.

First, the beets are barely noticeable unless you’re looking for them. They serve mostly to add a hint of texture – think of the occasional bit of carrot in a carrot cake. This one, however, is far more moist than any carrot cake I’ve tried. As long as you mince finely and mix thoroughly, you don’t run the risk of getting a mouth-full of beets.

The use of dark chocolate and hot espresso also mean that the batter has a strong earthy flavor already, in a good way. The addition of the beet simply compliments these two ingredients, endowing the cake with an unexpected warmth and even a subtle bit of spice that sometimes come with root vegetables.

I’d go so far to say that this is a grown-up dessert. It’s not too sweet and its flavor is more complex than the usual chocolate cake. This cake was made to be eaten with coffee or tea, on a cold sunday afternoon, and I think you will like it.

Notes: The original recipe suggests crème fraîche and poppy seeds as a garnish. I thought the cake stood fine on its own and didn’t bother with that part. The only other modification I made was to use a 1/2 cup of coffee instead of the 1/4 cup of espresso the recipe called for, because I didn’t have any espresso at hand. This worked fine, but if you have the espresso I’d stick with that.

Chocolate Cake with Red Beet (adapted from “An Extremely Moist Chocolate-Beet Cake with Crème-Fraîche and Poppy Seeds” in Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch by Nigel Slater)

Ingredients

8 oz (250 g) red beets

7 oz (200 g) dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids)

1/4 cup hot espresso or 1/2 cup hot coffee

3/4 cup + 2 tbsp (200 g) butter, cut into small cubes

1 cup + 2 tbsp (135 g) all-purpose flour

1 tbsp baking powder

3 tbsp cocoa

5 eggs, yolks separated from whites

1 cup (190 g) sugar

Directions
If you haven’t done so already, separate yolks from egg whites. Beat the yolks together and set aside. Beat the egg whites with a whisk until firm – this will take at least 10 minutes – and then gently fold in the sugar. Set this aside.First, boil the beets in unsalted water until tender when pierced with a fork (30-40 minutes). After they are done, cut off the stems and roots, peel and pulse in a food processor until coarsely minced.

Break up chocolate and place in a small, heat-proof bowl over a put of simmering water. Do not stir, but when the chocolate looks almost melted, stir in the hot coffee with one firm stir and then add the butter, pushing it into the hot mixture. Next, turn off the heat, and carefully remove the bowl for the water (I used a wide, shallow ladle to fish it out), and stir the mixture until the butter is completely melted. Finally, blend the yolks into the mixture. By this point, you should have the four main components of the batter (minced beet, melted chocolate mixture, dry ingredients and egg-whites) ready to go:

Now, combine the chocolate mixture and minced beets and mix thoroughly. Then very gently fold in the egg white mixture so that it doesn’t lose volume. The original recipe suggested folding the egg whites using a “figure eight” motion.

Once the egg whites are incorporated, mix I the combined flour, cocoa and baking powder, still stirring carefully so that the batter stays fluffy but is evenly blended. At this point, it should be a solid and even dark brown.

Pour the batter into the pan and put in the oven, reducing the heat immediately to 325 and cooking for 40 minutes. Remove the pan and let the cake cool for at least 20 minutes before taking the cake out and serving.

As I said above, this cake is ideal to enjoy with a hot cup of coffee.

So far this year I’ve managed to spend both of my weekends doing things unrelated to my dissertation. I’m going to try to keep this going. This may sound ridiculous, but when your work largely consists of self-guided research, it’s easy to stop following a schedule and to eventually erode the separation between work and play.

This might be my own hangup. Everyone who I’ve talked to at my stage in the process has a different style of working and I’ve come to realize that I’m a pattern-oriented person. I like to think that I have to be up at a certain hour, and I also need to feel as though I have the right to be done at a certain time. These times need to be fairly regular. I’ve always been envious of my friends with “9 to 5 jobs” who seem to be able to easily forget what happened the week before once Friday evening comes around.

I’ve decided to seriously try this out, because there’s no reason that we non-nine-to-fivers can’t do it as well. This means implementing some serious discipline during the week, but also making sure not to let things creep in on the weekends. It’s impossible, of course, to completely forget something you care about. Rather, what strikes me as important (and often difficult) is the ability to put mental and physical space between myself and the project and to gain some valuable perspective in doing so.

For me this means having something like a weekend. I’ll let you know how it goes. This kind of approach is definitely easier now that I’m taking a break from writing until I figure out what to do with the material I’ve been looking at for the last six months. In my experience, it’s the writing that tends to throw off my ability to stick to a regular schedule with built-in breaks.

As part of last weekend’s time off, Cesar and I made a true Sunday dinner. By that, I mean making a more-complex-than-usual meal and eating it in late afternoon, while the sun is still out but well after lunch time. The idea is to make something large enough so that actual dinner isn’t required- maybe some sort of snack late in the evening when you’re catching up on television. I hope this is going to be a lasting tradition, because it’s probably the best way I can think of to spend Sundays in rainy, cold Berlin.

To kick off the year, we made ragù. I’m not sure how authentic it is (we used pork shoulder instead of the traditional cuts used in Naples or the mince used in Bologna) but it was deeply satisfying and not a whole lot of work. It will definitely be making a return to the table before the cold weather is over.

Ragù with Pork Shoulder

Ingredients (Dinner for several, plus leftovers)

4 pounds or so pork shoulder, including bone

1 cup dry red wine, preferably Italian

1/2 cup fresh savory herbs (e.g. thyme, oregano, marjoram), minced

4 cloves garlic, minced

16 oz tinned whole peeled tomatoes

8 oz tomato purée

2 medium-sized yellow onions, chopped finely

6 oz (per person) of a broad pasta (e.g. penne, lasagnette, papardelle)

Olive oil

Salt and red pepper flakes or dried red chili to taste

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

First, prepare the pork shoulder by dividing it into 3 or 4 hunks and dusting them with salt and black pepper, if you wish.

Pour a few tablespoons of olive oil into a dutch oven or a deep roasting pan and heat it over a medium flame. Add the hunks of pork shoulder and brown them in the pan, making sure to do this to all sides. Once the meat has been browned on all sides, remove it from the pan and set it aside on a plate.

Next, add the chopped onions to the still hot pan. If necessary, add another splash of olive oil Cook the onions until they become translucent, add the chopped garlic and herbs and stir until fragrant. Then reduce the heat to low and add the cup of wine, stirring to thoroughly deglaze the pan.

Add the tinned whole tomatoes to the pan and crush them with a potato masher or fork, or in your hands as you remove them from the tin (this last way is messiest but works the best). Then add half of the tomato purée, reserving the rest for later. Stir, add salt and a few pinches of chili to taste.

Next, add the pork pieces back to the pan, skin side up, and then transfer the whole thing to the hot oven. If you’re using a dutch oven, put on the lid, and if you’re using a roasting pan, cover with tin foil. Set the timer for 2.5 hours.

At this point, your work is basically done, so it’s best to pour yourself a glass of the wine you used to deglaze the pan, or a campari and soda if you’re feeling like an aperitif. The longer you let this roast, the better. Check the mixture once or twice to skim any oil that might have come to the surface of the pot, and to add the other half of the tomato purée if you find that too much liquid is evaporating. About an hour before done, uncover the pan so that the skin crisps.

Half an hour before time, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the instructions on the box. Strain the pasta, and return it to the pot with a bit of butter, stirring to coat the noodles.

Serve this in two courses:

First course (pasta):  remove the pan from the oven, uncover and spoon some of the hot, meat-flavored sauce onto the pasta, stir well and serve with a bit of extra sauce. Re-cover the meat, turn off the oven and return the covered pot to the rack to keep warm until the second course.

Second course (meat and veg.): Slice the pork shoulder to get a cross-section (some of the crisped skin as well as the interior flesh) and serve with more of the sauce. Alongside the second course, it is absolutely necessary to serve a cooked bitter green like kale or rapini.

Hello folks. It’s Thursday night here in Berlin and I’m making soup from leftover roast chicken. I don’t have a recipe for this post since it’s been a frugal and a rather bland week food-wise.

Last weekend was spent in Madrid, so I’m currently in recovery mode from the series of pork and fish-based dishes that seemed to come in waves while I was in Spain. Being around so many delicious foods was a perfect way to spend the first weekend of the year.

There were many savory bites like these:

And I have to include a shot of one of my personal favorites – these simple but utterly satisfying fried green peppers (known as pimientos de padron):

There were also some delightful sweets, although I didn’t try the ubiquitous roscones de reyes – the soft bready cakes reminiscent of king cakes that were displayed for Epiphany:

I’m not saying that everything we ate was wonderful- there were some late-night tapas eaten out of sheer hunger at 2 AM that were pretty awful. But, what I appreciate about Madrid and other places I’ve been where food is enjoyed rather than just eaten, is the deep respect for tradition and simplicity that somehow doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s mostly really good and really exciting stuff.

On that note, I plan to fill the next few months with exciting recipes, and try to break out of my usual repertoire a bit. I’m looking forward to sharing some of them here.

When I returned to my Berlin apartment to find that the tiny shallots I left there in December had sprouted. I’ll take that as a sign of good luck for 2012.

Last year was a crazy one. To recap: I began 2011 by teaching my first course in the record-breakingly cold winter, and that was really fun. It makes me glad to think that teaching will be on the horizon in some form or other. April through June were trying: that was when I found out about research grants and had to decide how to approach the following 12 months based on work-related and personal needs. Then it was time to pack up my apartment and move abroad. London from July-September was fast and furious and it almost seems like it never happened at this point, although it was vitally important for the beginning of my dissertation. Berlin has gone by a bit more slowly, and at times it’s been more challenging. There have been more research-related problems, but also more growth professionally.

When I found out that I would be gone from Chicago for 12 months, the first thing I did (after having many talks with Cesar) was to install a series of social media apps. This was a way I thought I could keep in touch with the world as I moved around in it a bit more than I wanted to. Some didn’t quite catch. There was runkeeper (I don’t run much and have no GPS-enabled devices) and Folia (my windowsill garden was a flop this year, but I’m hopeful for next time around). Others did, like this blog and twitter, which I’m trying to use more often. It calms me down somehow to see what other people are doing every few minutes, and to share myself.

Looking back on it all, it was a good year, with a couple of bad, very stressful moments. I have a set of resolutions designed to fix those that I won’t go into here, but the act of typing it serves as an early reminder that I have my work cut out for me.

What will 2012 have in store? As far as graduate-student-related work goes, there are three major projects: an encyclopedia entry, a conference paper and another dissertation chapter. There’s also a potential move to Florence for six months. I’ll get to that in another post but it’s a distinct possibility.

Besides that, I hope 2012 brings more variety to my weeknight meals, more of the good life at an affordable cost, and less unnecessary angst over minor decisions (that has to do with those resolutions I mentioned). In two days, I’m going to Madrid with Cesar, who is then coming to Berlin- I’m really excited about those two things at the beginning of this year.

Many people in the southern U.S. eat black-eyed peas with rice (called Hoppin’ John) for good luck on New Year’s Day. I spent most of mine flying to Berlin, but once I got here I decided to cook them despite my fatigue from the flight. I didn’t have rice but used small noodles and onions that were left over in the cupboard and some bacon and thyme. It was a simple, hot meal that was rewarding after so much time spent in the airport, and really cheap to make. I guess it’s a graduate-student-in-Berlin version of Hoppin’ John.

Black-Eyed Peas with Noodles for New Year’s Week

Ingredients

1.5 cups of dried black-eyed peas, picked over and washed

2 cups of small pasta (I used tubetti and penne, but macaroni or shells would also work)

1 large onion, diced finely

Several strips (around 8 oz or 200 grams) of bacon or slightly more ham, cut into cubes

5-6 large sprigs of thyme

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 tbs e.v. olive oil

Water as necessary

Plenty of salt and pepper Hot vinegar (e.g. Tabasco) to taste

Directions

Brown the bacon in a deep pan over medium heat. Pour off all but around a tablespoon of the fat from the bacon and add the olive oil. Fry the onions until they become translucent and add the garlic and thyme, stirring until these become fragrant (hint: Don’t bother removing the thyme leaves from the stems, you can fish these out easily later).

Add the dried peas and cold water enough to cover the mixture by around 2 inches. Add salt and pepper and bring to a low boil, skimming off any grey foam that forms on the top. Let this simmer for 30 minutes, skimming any additional foam.

After 30 minutes, check the peas. If the water has reduced so that the peas aren’t covered, add a bit more to return it to two inches over the mixture- you want this to be a bit soupy. Adjust salt and pepper as necessary. At this point, bring another small pot of salted water to the boil. Add the pasta and cook until just underdone (around 6 minutes).

Strain and rinse in cold water immediately. Add the strained and rinsed pasta to the simmering peas and cook until the pasta is done – around 5-6 more minutes. Serve immediately and dress with several dashes of hot pepper vinegar. You may need to also add a bit of salt.

Happy new year to all.