Monday, August 8, 2011

Brenda’s Last Season

One of the reasons I loved Law & Order so much is because New York City, where the show was shot, was a character that was just as important as the ones perpetrating and solving the crimes. When I left New York City for Los Angeles, Law & Order, which was filmed quite often in my Upper West Side neighborhood, was a great comfort and helped somewhat to ease my unrelenting homesickness.

The Closer, which takes place in Los Angeles and stars Kyra Sedgwick, is the same way. The city plays an integral role in each episode. Like with Law & Order, it’s fun to figure out exactly which neighborhood or street all the (fictional) murders are taking place.

Sedgwick’s character, deputy chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, is a sugar-addicted cop from the South who dresses in florals, doesn’t like driving and mispronounces L.A. street names. I completely indentify with Brenda, save for her penchant for florals. It is because of Sedgwick (and the stellar supporting cast) that my affinity for Los Angeles increases every summer, when The Closer returns to TNT for its all-too-short season.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting G.W. Bailey, a veteran character actor who plays one of Sedgwick’s subordinates on the show. Bailey gets to work both his comedic and dramatic chops playing Lieutenant Provenza, a several-times-divorced detective and gentleman who is one of the elder statesmen of the special homicide squad.  Every time I’ve ever seen a famous person, I’ve kept my New York cool and didn’t even acknowledge the person’s existence. Even when I saw Robert DeNiro on Hudson Street once. And, kids, I don’t jest when I say that I spent ages 18–20 trying to figure out what I could do to make Mr. DeNiro fall hopelessly, helplessly in love with me. Okay, so I didn’t keep my cool that day on Hudson Street. I literally couldn’t talk, so I was smart and didn’t even try.

When I saw Bailey, I went right up to him and told him how much I dug him. I was in a restaurant in downtown L.A. celebrating a collective birthday with some friends, whose birthdays also occur in August. Bailey was in the next booth with a cute girl, and both couldn’t have been sweeter. He told us some cool stuff about what would be upcoming on the show—no spoilers, though—and that the cast had just celebrated Sedgwick’s birthday, which, it turns out, is the same day as mine! (She’s two years younger.)

This is Brenda’s last season. She and her amazing gang are leaving TNT for greener pastures, and maybe some of the actors will even get to play criminals on some other cop show. So, why not pay homage to Brenda and bake up a fruit crisp, top it with ice cream and chow down while watching the deputy chief work her sweet magic on the perps?

Nectarine-Plum Crisp
Serves 8

There are so many options in the crisp world! You can make it gluten-free and veganize it; you can add ice cream or whipped cream (dairy or no dairy). You can use virtually any stone fruit you like: peaches, plums, pluots, apricots or even cherries if you have the patience to pit them. I recently made a nectarine-blackberry crisp that was gone by the following day, and I’m going to work in a blueberry crisp during the next week or so.

The filling
 8 cups chopped nectarines and plums (this depleted my cache of 8 nectarines and 3 plums)
Juice of 1 lemon
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

The topping
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup almond meal
½ cup sugar
½ cup brown sugar, packed
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold, unsalted butter, diced into small pieces

Vanilla ice cream, optional (but why not?)

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. In large mixing bowl, stir together fruit, lemon juice, sugar, cornstarch and cinnamon. I usually let everything sit while I make the topping then I pour the fruit into a 9x13 baking dish, but you can pour the fruit into the baking dish as soon as everything’s combined.
3. To make the topping: In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, almond meal, sugars, salt and butter. With clean hands, work through until mixture resembles large crumbs.
4. Sprinkle mixture evenly over the fruit and to cover completely.
5. Bake until the topping is browned and the fruit is bubbling, 50-55 minutes. Serve warm, with vanilla ice cream. It’s what Brenda would do.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What Judy Benjamin Taught Me

One of my favorite movies of all time is Private Benjamin. I first saw it when I was 17, and it resonated with me for reasons I didn’t really understand.  As an adult I understand the liberating journey on which Judy Benjamin (brilliantly played by Goldie Hawn) embarks that brings her to the realization that she doesn’t need a man to be complete.

I have watched this movie probably 30 times, and it always makes me laugh out loud. There are so many great lines in Private Benjamin, but the one that is most vivid to me even now is said during the scene where Judy’s failed attempt to escape from basic training has brought punishment upon her entire platoon. As they march in a circle in the pouring rain weighted down with gear, Judy is whining about wanting to go out to lunch and wear sandals again. One of the girls snaps and turns to Judy and says she’s never met anyone as insensitive as her. Judy is aghast at this charge and denies it by saying, “I never go to someone’s home empty-handed!” I remember thinking, That’s a pretty good rule. I try to live by these words.

Whenever I visit anyone, I always make sure I have some kind of something with me—usually something I’ve baked. If baked goods aren’t appropriate (the only instance I can think of is when someone is on a diet), flowers suffice. Barring this anomaly, I usually show up with cookies, cupcakes or muffins in hand.

I sometimes use girlfriend gatherings to try out a recipe I’ve been mulling over but haven’t yet written or attempted. I made these carrot-coconut muffins to bring to a friend’s one day. We had not seen each other in a long time, and I wanted to bring her something sweet. I also wanted to see what she thought of a gluten-free muffin, since I was pretty sure she had not had many of them. She—and her kids—dug the muffins, so it was a swell visit on all levels.

Judy Benjamin also realized the importance of having girlfriends, and the relationships she develops with the other girls in basic are probably the only true female friendships she’s ever had. While I can guess she probably never made anyone homemade muffins, I know she put a lot of thought into choosing just the right gift to bring to a friend’s house.  And if Judy did wind up bringing something sweet, it would definitely be from the bakery—and be fat-free. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Carrot-Coconut Muffins
Makes a dozen muffins

These are excellent at breakfast or tea time. I prefer unsweetened coconut, but if you have sweetened in the cupboard, go ahead and use that. Blanched almond flour makes for a more cakey muffin, so I really recommend using blanched rather than regular old almond meal.

Canola oil spray (if not using baking cups)
1 cup blanched almond flour
⅔ cup GF Classical Blend flour, sifted, or your favorite gluten-free flour or flour blend
⅓ cup coconut flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon xanthan gum
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 eggs, beaten
½ cup sugar
½ cup crushed pineapple, drained
⅓ cup canola oil
¼ cup light coconut milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ cups peeled, grated carrot (about 3 medium carrots)
⅓ cup unsweetened shredded coconut

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Prepare muffin pan by lining with baking cups or lightly spraying with canola oil.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, xanthan gum and nutmeg. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, pineapple, oil, coconut milk, and vanilla. Stir dry ingredients into wet. Stir in grated carrot and coconut.
3. Spoon batter into muffin cups until ¾ full and bake 20 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Allow muffins to cool in the pan for 5 minutes or until you can comfortably handle them. Transfer muffins to wire rack to cool completely. These will keep in an airtight container for 2 or 3 days.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


The one thing I didn’t fully consider when I made the move west from New York City 14 years ago was the food situation. When I told my landlord in New York that we were moving to Los Angeles, he said, “Oy! No place to eat!”

I understood his viewpoint. Within a 10-block walk north or south in our Upper West Side neighborhood there was great Chinese, Southern, Kosher, Cajun, Mexican (several different kinds!), South American, pizza, bagels, and pretty much any other thing you felt like eating.

The first few years in Los Angeles were challenging, but I eventually found good bagels and decent pizza―the two things ex-pat New Yorkers most complain about. Szechuan Chinese is also elusive in Los Angeles, and notably absent is one of my favorite dishes, cold sesame noodles. I love cold sesame noodles so much, I should probably write an entire book dedicated to them, or at least a song.

When I got pregnant with Max, I had just started a staff job at an art-history magazine in Soho. Chinatown, Little Italy and the West Village were all within lunchtime walking distance, but for the first four and a half months of my pregnancy all I could stomach was blueberry Pop-Tarts. Then I flew to Los Angeles for work and something shifted. Maybe it was the warm ocean breeze in Santa Monica; flying over Sedona, Arizona; or a glitch in the matrix, but my appetite returned in full force.

Back in New York, lunchtime became an adventure. For the next 10 weeks, until the massive heartburn kicked in, I could eat anything. I would often walk up to a hole-in-the-wall Szechuan place near NYU and order my beloved cold noodles: no meat, no bean sprouts and extra carrots. Some days they’d be more peppery than others, but the noodles were always perfectly cooked and cold―nothing is worse than warm cold noodles―and the cucumbers and carrots were always crispy and refreshing.

When I finally found good cold noodles in Los Angeles (Pasadena, actually, at Yang Chow), after many heartbreaking tries, I knew I’d be hunkering down here for a while. I guess it’s no wonder that Max also loves cold noodles, with no bean sprouts or meat. Or vegetables.

I’d been trying for several years to make these at home. Each attempt was hotly anticipated, but always ended in misery, with Max pushing away his bowl, telling me, “These don’t taste anything like Yang Chow,” and me discarding the remains. Then I found a recipe for them in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I tweaked it a bit and finally came up with something both Max and I liked. When I make these at home, I make sure to eat some before Max is around because once he sits down to consume, it isn’t long before the bowl is empty and he’s asking when I’m going to make some more.

Cold Peanut-Sesame Noodles
Serves 4, or 1 if you are a teenage boy

I like crunchy peanut butter for this but smooth is just as good. If you want to add bean sprouts or chicken, feel free. You can also add some minced scallions as a garnish. The heat is a bit on the tame side, so if you like hotter sauce, add more cayenne or some chili oil. Whatever you do, don’t eat these warm. Really cool them off before combining with the sauce. Warm cold noodles put me in a foul mood, and I wouldn’t want you to think they aren’t worthy simply because you didn’t cool them off enough.

1 cup peanut butter
3 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon agave nectar
3 tablespoons soy sauce, or to taste
1 teaspoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon mirin
½ tablespoon rice vinegar
Dash cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound spaghetti or other long noodle
1 large cucumber
2 large carrots
Roasted sesame seeds for garnish
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt it liberally.
2. While water is coming to a boil, whisk together peanut butter, sesame oil, agave, soy sauce, ground ginger, mirin, rice vinegar, cayenne and black peppers. When water boils, before adding the noodles, take out ¾ cup water and whisk in to the sauce. Sauce should be the consistency of heavy cream. Taste it and add more of whatever you think it needs―ginger, soy sauce, agave, pepper. Put it in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.
3. Cook noodles per package instructions. Drain and run under cold water until the heat is gone. Drain again. Run under cool water again. Drain. Can you see how serious I am about getting the heat off the noodles?
4. Whisk sauce and toss noodles with it. Peel carrots and cucumber and shave off strips. Top noodles with them. Sprinkle a bit of salt onto the veggies. Garnish with roasted sesame seeds. Leftovers will keep in the fridge for a few days. Unless you have a teenager.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


A while ago, Max and I were watching TV and a Nutella commercial came on. The commercial, which I had never seen before, touted the nutritional benefits of the chocolate-hazelnut spread and said it was part of a healthy breakfast. When the commercial was over, Max said, “Is that a commercial from Saturday Night Live? That can’t be a real commercial.” When I told him I thought it was a real commercial he couldn’t stop laughing. Max wasn’t around when Cap’n Crunch was advertised the same way so he has no point of reference.

We pulled out the almost-empty jar of Nutella we had in the cupboard to see its nutritional benefits for ourselves. Per tablespoon there is 1 gram of protein, 6 grams of fat and 11 grams of sugar. Still waiting for the nutritional benefits? Me too. Okay, so it’s not healthy. It’s creamy, sweet perfection in a recyclable plastic jar.

I came to Nutella late in life. I had often heard people talk about it and I had seen it in the grocery store, but I abstained until a few years ago. I saw a recipe for crêpes in an old issue of Vegetarian Times. I’d wanted to make crêpes for a while, so I was happy to find such an easy recipe. The only filling mentioned that really spoke to me was Nutella. I love chocolate and I love hazelnuts, so, I figured, it was time to dive right into the crêpes and the Nutella.

I don’t think I could eat crêpes filled with anything else now. I’ve tried. Max prefers butter and raspberry jam, so I gave that a go. Not even close. I keep saying I’m going to sauté apple slices in butter and brown sugar for the filling, but I’ve yet to do that. Nutella has a hold on me that I think only a baseball bat to the skull can break. Nah, probably not even that.

Parisian-style Sweet Crêpes
Makes 8 crêpes
From Vegetarian Times, September 2009

Don’t feel boxed in by my Nutella habit, you can fill these with just about anything you want. The recipe calls for ⅓ cup of sugar, but I use about 2 tablespoons.  The batter keeps in the fridge for a few days, so if you want to make just a few crêpes at a time you can. After refrigerating, you have to mix it up a bit before you start crêpeing. I’ve used almond milk when I didn’t have regular milk, and it was quite tasty.

You’re supposed to dip a paper towel into some canola oil and run it over a nonstick pan for greasing. (Yup, you need a nonstick pan.) Sometimes I forget to do this and pour a little oil directly into the pan. I’ve lived to tell about it, so I think you can go either way.

1¼ cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 cup low-fat milk (or whatever milk you have in the fridge)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Canola oil

1. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar and salt. Whisk in egg; mixture will be shaggy. (This is Vegetarian Times speak. I looked for a definition for this, and I couldn’t find one. It means, I think, that it will look like you need to add more egg. You don’t.) Whisk in milk ¼ cup at a time. Whisk in vanilla.  Cover and chill 30 minutes or as long as overnight. (I do overnight all the time.)
2. Whisk ¼ to ½ cup water into batter to thin. (I use ¼ cup.) Lightly grease nonstick skillet pan with canola oil. Heat pan over medium-high heat.
3. Pour ¼ cup batter into hot pan, tilting pan to swirl batter so it coats bottom of pan. Cook 1 to 2 minutes or until edges begin to brown and center is dry. Flip (with or without the aid of a spatula). Cook about 1 minute more.
4. Transfer crêpe to plate, and repeat with remaining batter. Before serving: Reheat 1 minute in lightly greased skillet. Spread with whatever fillings you like, fold in quarters and feed people.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

I Heart the Soup Nazi

Years before Seinfeld immortalized the Soup Nazi, whose real name is Al Yeganeh, I spent many a lunch hour plunking down my money on Mr. Yeganeh’s counter as I placed my order and swiftly moved to the left to wait for the best soup in North America. Shrimp bisque, mulligatawny, cream of sweet potato and vegetable chili warmed me during several impossible New York winters. Hitting the Soup Kitchen International, the proper name of Mr. Yeganeh’s establishment, was usually the highlight of a day filled with deadlines, cranky writers and a Mac that was constantly crashing.

Mr. Yeganeh was never mean to me. Along with my soup, he would always give me a crusty hunk of French bread (my favorite), a bunch of sweet green grapes and a medallion of milk chocolate wrapped in gold foil. He would also smile at me more often than not. I found Mr. Yeganeh pretty easy on the eyes. Tall, dark, handsome and wearing a kerchief about his neck, he could easily have created his off-putting persona simply to keep the ladies from flirting with him so he could concentrate on soup. It’s just a theory.

One of my coworkers, Colleen, seemed to incite Mr. Yeganeh’s ire every time she visited the Soup Kitchen. She would often come back to the office without bread, fruit or chocolate and sometimes without even a spoon. This completely entertained me, and I looked forward to Colleen’s Soup Kitchen misadventures. Colleen is a freewheeling, loquacious chick, so I can see her trying to strike up a conversation with Mr. Yeganeh, not putting her money down as she orders and asking outright for bread and chocolate, all of which were forbidden.

There was a flavor in Mr. Yeganeh’s vegetable chili that I could never put my finger on. It was sweet and warm, and after years of creating my own variations of that chili, I think I finally hit on what it was: chocolate. Now, I could be completely wrong here, but I have come close to duplicating the taste of his chili by adding chocolate to mine.

Mr. Yeganeh’s Soup Kitchen closed in 2004, but he never gave up the lease. That’s a real New Yorker for you. When I was walking down West 55th Street in October, I noticed his store had reopened and there was a massive line once again snaking up the block. I was late for a meeting, so I didn't stop in. After a little digging I found out that although the shop had reopened, Mr. Yeganeh would no longer be working behind the counter.

It’s because of him that I keep my finger on the creative soup pulse. Maybe since he’s clearly conquered the East Coast, he can be convinced to open up shop somewhere on the Left Coast. I can dream, can’t I?

Chunky Two-Bean Chili
Serves 4

This chili recipe is all about options. If you don’t like kidney beans, swap them out for pintos or add more black beans. The heat on this is pretty tame, so if you want more, chop up and seed a jalapeño or two and sauté with the rest of the veggies. Chili powders have varying degrees of heat, so know how hot your chili powder is and adjust the amount accordingly. Nothing’s worse than chili that’s too spicy to enjoy. I have flown in the face of bean-cooking convention here by not soaking the beans beforehand and salting them while cooking. Follow my example. Live dangerously.
Black Beans
1 cup black beans
6 cups water
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large shallot, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
4 tomatillos, husked, cleaned and chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder (mine is a bit on the hot side)
1 (15 oz.) can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 (28 oz.) can crushed tomatoes
⅓ cup bittersweet chocolate chips or chopped bittersweet chocolate (Trader Joe’s 73% cacao rules)
Chopped fresh cilantro
Sliced avocado
Shredded Monterey Jack cheese
Sour cream or plain yogurt
Toasted corn or flour tortillas for scooping
1. Rinse and drain black beans and discard any rocks or funky-looking (discolored, wrinkly) beans.
2. In heavy soup pot, combine black beans, 6 cups of water, salt and bay leaf. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until beans are tender, about 1½ hours. Keep an eye on the water, and add more if needed, 1 cup at a time. Beans should have some liquid remaining, but they should not be overly soupy.
3. When beans are almost done, prepare the vegetables. In large saucepan, heat the olive oil and sauté the shallot, garlic, red pepper, and tomatillos until tender, 10-15 minutes.
4. When beans are completely tender, remove the bay leaf, and add the sautéed vegetables and any remaining oil, the salt, pepper, spices, kidney beans, crushed tomatoes, and chocolate chips. Bring chili to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until chili thickens and flavors meld, about 30 minutes. Stir occasionally. Remove pot from heat and let chili cool for about 20 minutes before pureeing two cups in blender. If you try to puree hot liquid in a blender, the people who move into your house after you will inherit the splatter, and they will curse you. Return pureed chili to pot and mix through. Taste, and add salt and pepper if needed. Heat through until warm, about 5 minutes.
5. Ladle into bowls and heap on whichever garnishes speak to you.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Eating

My editorial job at Mademoiselle did more than start my career in publishing, it broadened my culinary horizons. Thanks to working lunches, birthday gatherings and gut-busting company soirees, I became acquainted with fried calamari, vichyssoise, oysters Rockefeller, ratatouille, profiteroles, steak frites, and lemon bars and tuna sandwiches made by someone other than my mom. It was a heady time in magazine publishing: We worked hard and ate well, and the company footed the bill.

I had ratatouille for the first time at the Grand Central Café, which was then located in the mezzanine in Grand Central Station. Oh, God was that a great place to eat. My pals Nancy, Joanne and I would head across the street to the GCC, find a table and tear into the lightest, fluffiest, most delicious French bread this side of the pond. I don’t remember specifically what we talked about, I just remember a lot of laughing and withering stares from those who wanted a more subdued dining experience. I know, those seeking a more subdued dining experience should probably go somewhere other than Grand Central Station for lunch. I followed blindly into the ratatouille one chilly afternoon after Nancy ordered it. I figured, I like eggplant and tomatoes, so what could be bad? Besides, if it was gross, I could always fill up on bread and cheesecake and give Nancy the leftovers. I was happy to find it warm, comforting and acidic and sweet at the same time. It could be heaped with Parmesan cheese and scooped onto slices of French bread. It was perfect.

While Joanne was partial to the baked brie and apple, Nancy and I were major ratatouille fans, and we ordered it time and time again. Later that year, Nancy moved on to Rolling Stone, Joanne to a reporting job at a weekly, and I started the freelance life. We would meet for lunch when our schedules allowed, but I didn’t eat ratatouille again for a very long time.

When the hankering for ratatouille came over me a while back and I didn’t have anywhere to go to eat it, I had to take matters into my own hands and make it myself. I got the bright idea to roast the eggplant, which definitely makes it a more “meaty” dish―more like a casserole than a stew—which is very satisfying during this rainy cold spell we’re having in Los Angeles. Yup, it’s in the 40s. East Coasters, feel free to start laughing anytime.
Roasted Ratatouille Gratin  
Makes 4 main-course servings
Gird your loins, dear reader: This is a flavorful vegetarian dish that requires mucho chopping. I can assure you, when you taste the fresh herbs simmered perfectly with the veggies and wine, you will forget that your back hurts and that your kitchen looks like the men of the WWE have just passed through. Chop everything prior to starting. No kidding.
This is great with warm crusty bread and a green salad and tastes even better a day or two after you make it. If you’ve never cooked with leeks before, make sure you clean them really well. They’re very gritty, and nothing ruins the taste of food more than dirt.
1 medium red pepper
Canola oil spray
1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound), cut into 1-inch cubes
¼ cup olive oil, divided
1 leek, white part only, thinly sliced
1 large shallot, finely chopped
1 cup thinly sliced zucchini (about 1 medium)
1 cup sliced cremini mushrooms (about 5 medium)
1 teaspoon sea salt
Dash black pepper
½ cup dry white wine (sauvignon blanc is nice)
1 (28-ounce) can good-quality plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juices to make 2 cups
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon dry bread crumbs
½ cup chopped fresh basil for garnish
1. Seriously, cut up everything and set aside until needed. Do the eggplant last, as it turns brownish after being cut. Preheat oven to 425° F. Place whole red pepper on a baking sheet and roast for 20 minutes.
2. Spray another baking sheet with canola oil and place eggplant on it in a single layer. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil and toss to combine. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
3. Turn red pepper over after 20 minutes. Add eggplant to oven, and roast until both are tender, about 15 minutes more.
4. While the eggplant and pepper are roasting, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Stir in leek and shallot and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in zucchini and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until zucchini is soft, 6-8 minutes. Stir in mushrooms, 1 teaspoon salt, dash black pepper, and wine. Simmer until mushrooms are soft, about 8 minutes.
5. Remove eggplant and pepper from oven. Turn oven down to 400°. Cover pepper with aluminum foil. Covering it creates steam that will loosen its skin, making the skin easier to remove. Allow pepper to cool about 10 minutes before handling.
6. Stir in the eggplant, tomatoes and their juices, thyme, and rosemary. Bring back up to a simmer.
7. After pepper has cooled, remove the skin, core, and seeds. Chop flesh and add to the stockpot.
8. Simmer, covered, for 5 minutes to combine flavors. Taste, and add salt and pepper if needed.
9. Pour everything into an 8x8 baking dish. Top with Parmesan and bread crumbs. Bake until topping is browned, about 20 minutes. Allow ratatouille to stand 10 minutes before serving.
10. Garnish each serving with fresh basil. Make sure to have more freshly grated Parmesan on hand to pass at the table. Assign clean-up and shoulder-massage detail and to whoever didn’t participate in preparing this.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

World Peace

The situation in Egypt is gripping. I’m all for healthy protest, and I’m happy the Egyptian people have used their voices to create a change in leadership. What really has my attention with regard to the foment in Egypt is the photojournalism coming out of there. Photojournalism is an art form that I don’t think gets enough respect. With the advent of digital cameras and now the iPhone being used as a legitimate tool, I think our future will be rife with an abundance of stunning, horrifying, heartbreaking, and beautiful images from around the world.

I think if I could be anywhere in the world right now, I’d choose to be in Afghanistan with an iPhone loaded with camera apps. One of my favorite photographers, Damon Winter, works for the New York Times and has made some incredible photos in Afghanistan. There was a great post on the Times’ Lens blog this week about Mr. Winter’s work and the iPhone. When I was first learning about photography I railed against toying with photos after they were shot, whether in the dark room or on the computer. I have come to see that as a narrow viewpoint and have fully embraced any technology that will allow an artist rapid, meaningful communication and the realization of his or her vision.

Perhaps you’ll think I’m naive, but I truly believe art can change the world. And that means world peace is a possibility. While I may not see this in my or my child’s lifetime, thinking about it gives me some comfort.

Until I can trek to the far reaches of the globe and document others’ triumphs and tragedies, I will bake. I may not be able to kick world peace fully into gear from my Los Angeles kitchen, but I can bake the incomparable Dorie Greenspan’s treacherously delicious World Peace Cookies. I think you should, too.

World Peace Cookies
Recipe by Dorie Greenspan
Makes about 36 cookies

Dorie says this recipe yields 36 cookies, but I get about 30. I’m probably cutting them too thick, but since I’ve gotten no complaints, I’m going to keep cutting them the way I cut them. All hyperbole aside, these are the best cookies I’ve ever eaten. I find that making the dough and refrigerating it the day before I bake the cookies is the best way to go with these. Dorie’s recipe calls for ¼ teaspoon of fine sea salt, but I used ½ teaspoon. Also, make sure your butter is really soft. Really soft.

1¼ cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Ghirardelli)
½ teaspoon baking soda
11 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick plus 3 tablespoons), room temperature
⅔ cup light brown sugar (packed)
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
5 ounces dark chocolate, chopped in pieces no bigger than ⅓ of an inch (I used Ghirardelli 60% cacao)

1. Sift flour, cocoa and baking soda into medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat butter in a large mixing bowl until smooth but not fluffy. Add sugars, vanilla and sea salt and beat until fluffy, about 2 minutes.
2. Add flour mixture and beat until just blended. This sucker is going to be crumbly. Add the chopped chocolate and mix to distribute.
3. Knead dough gently into a ball. Divide dough in half.  Place each half on a sheet of plastic wrap, then form into a 1½-inch–diameter log. (I am not exact about this. I roll the dough halves into logs that are about the same shape. This doesn’t always work out as well as I’d like.) Wrap each in plastic and refrigerate until firm, about 3 hours. Dorie says you can do this 3 days in advance if you like. I find a day in advance the best.
4. Preheat oven to 325°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Using a thin, sharp knife, cut logs crosswise into ½-inch-thick rounds. (I estimate this and try my best. Heck, there’s not a test on this so just try your best!) Space an inch apart on the baking sheet. Bake 11 to 12 minutes, until cookies appear dry. They aren’t going to be firm or golden at the edges, so you’re just going to have to trust this timing, brothers and sisters. Transfer to a rack and cool. Repeat until the dough is all used up.
5. Store these in an airtight container, where they’ll be good for 3 or 4 days. They probably won’t last that long, though.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Apple Cake


The apple cake is a popular item with my family on the East Coast. My mother routinely makes it for my brother-in-law and nephew, collectively known as the Seths. Last year, she gave me the recipe she adapted from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook. She made a few changes—added nutmeg (brilliant!) and more walnuts—but she stuck pretty close to the original, which is one of the variations of Betty’s carrot cake.

In my West Coast home, however, apple cake is not nearly as popular. Max doesn’t eat cake, and Dan doesn’t eat hot fruit. I love both cake and hot fruit, and when I came back to Los Angeles from New York a few weeks ago I had apple cake on the brain. I dug out my mother’s handwritten recipe and got to work.

I altered her recipe mostly by cutting it in half. I knew I was going to be the only one eating this cake, so eating an 8x8 cake is far more tenable than eating a 9x13 cake. Her recipe didn’t specify whether to peel the apples, so I didn’t. (She later told me that this was assumed. I told her if it isn’t written it isn’t assumed.) I futzed with the spices a bit and used Honeycrisp apples instead of Granny Smith. I forgot that there were walnuts in the freezer, so I just left them out. I didn’t really forget the walnuts. I just don’t like walnuts. There. I’ve said it.

The apple cake that I pulled out of the oven was the best apple cake I’ve ever eaten. I don’t make this statement lightly. To make sure I wasn’t being too single minded, I made several other versions of the apple cake—one with walnuts, one with butter and almond extract—and each attempt brought me back to the first apple cake with the unpeeled apples.

Just to make sure I wasn’t getting goofy, I made the first version again. It was just as fine as I had remembered. The Seths enjoy their apple cake with whipped cream; I like a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream. That is, of course, if the apple cake is being eaten as a dessert and not a breakfast food. At breakfast, it’s fine all by itself. You don’t really even need a fork.

Apple Cake
Makes 9 servings
Adapted from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook

I recently baked with raw sugar, and I fell in love with it. If you just have regular granulated sugar, go ahead and use it. I like just a hint of spice here, but if you like more boldy flavored baked goods, please feel free to add more cinnamon or nutmeg. I think a little ground ginger might be nice here, too.

Canola oil spray
¾ cup raw sugar
½ cup canola oil
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 medium, sweet apples (Fuji, Honeycrisp, whatever’s in season), cored and chopped
Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray 8x8 baking pan with canola oil.
2. Beat sugar, oil and eggs with electric mixer on low until blended, about 30 seconds.  Beat in flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg and vanilla. Fold in chopped apples and cover them with the batter as best as you can. Batter will be very thick—kinda like peanut butter.
3. Scrape batter into prepared pan and bake until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 to 35 minutes.
4. Cool on rack and serve warm or at room temperature. (I like this warm with vanilla ice cream. No, I lurve it warm with vanilla ice cream.) Store remainder of cake in the baking pan, covered, for 2 days. I put this in the fridge, but you don’t have to roll that way if you don’t want to.