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.