Smugness Salmon

January 23rd, 2013 § 2 comments § permalink

J. came over for dinner last week — unfortunately, the night before I had to catch a bus out of town for the weekend. I could have planned that one better. But I had a trick up my sleeve: J. doesn’t cook. Her fiancé does (we’ve had a few conversations about how much we both want a KitchenAid stand mixer in a pretty color while J. looked on bemusedly), but J. herself doesn’t.

Which meant I could cook things which I can make in my sleep and it would seem impressive. Yes! I am a master of the kitchen! I, um. Do magic with knives! I labor to provide you with an elegant experience!

In reality? I had broccoli in the fridge. I stopped at the grocery store on the way home from work and bought a couple of salmon filets, which were on sale, and a fresh loaf of bread. When I got back to my apartment, I shoved the salmon into a ziplock bag, added some soy sauce, honey, a chopped garlic clove, and a sliced half-lemon I had hanging around, sealed it and stuck it in the fridge. When J. came in, I made a quick batch of popcorn for us to nibble on and poured some hard cider to keep her busy while I preheated the oven to 400° F and chopped the broccoli.

Salmon Dinner-4

photograph by gkdavie, licensed under CC BY

The salmon came out of the fridge and onto foil in a roasting pan, which went into the oven. A little less than ten minutes later, I put the chopped broccoli into the microwave for two minutes with a damp paper towel on top. When the broccoli was done, I drained it and added butter and salt. The salmon was pretty much done at that point, conveniently (demonstrating the Canadian Rule), and within the squeezing of a lemon (as Elizabeth David said), we were sitting down to bread and butter, steamed broccoli, and roasted salmon.

And yes, J. did say what I quoted at the outset of this post. I think I can be forgiven for feeling smug.

Like warmed-up cabbage served at each repast, The repetition kills the wretch at last. -Juvenal

November 9th, 2012 § Comments Off § permalink

It was Vietnamese food that taught me to love cabbage.

I had always looked on cabbage with suspicion — cooked, it smelled funny; it was associated with sauerkraut, which I didn’t like; and was always used as a byword for abject poverty in novels. (Look, I never claimed not to be overly influenced by literature.)

But then I learned how to make do chua at home, and while I would probably be willing to live off that for a good long while, I don’t have a food processor, and chopping all those carrots and radishes is kind of hard on the wrists. (I spend all day on the computer at my day job. I worry about my wrists.)

And I realized that the packages of shredded red cabbage in the grocery store would be perfect for this treatment. Vegetables! That I did not have to go after with a knife! Purple vegetables! What was not to like?

Answer: nothing. This stuff is delicious. I have been eating quick-pickled cabbage with approximately 90% of my dinners for an embarrassingly long time, and have found virtually nothing it does not complement. It is fabulous with every kind of flesh-based protein I’ve made, red meats and chicken and fish, crunchy and acidic and sweet, and was also surprisingly good next to black beans and rice.

Plus, it is seriously pretty.

Red Cabbage Love

photograph by geishaboy500, licensed under CC BY

I am not qualified to decide if this is do chua or a bastardization thereof; there’s a northern Vietnamese pickled cabbage recipe, dưa muối, made with mustard cabbage, which this might resemble as well. Martha Stewart has a red cabbage slaw which I found recently and which has a lot in common with this. Calling this a sauerkraut variation isn’t quite accurate, I think, because sauerkraut takes weeks to ferment properly, as I understand it.

I use the packaged, pre-shredded red cabbage because ow, my wrists; shredding your own cabbage is not actually that difficult and is definitely cheaper. (There is a lot more cabbage in a cabbage than there is in a package.) Either way, once you have acquired shredded red cabbage, put it into a container which can be covered (I tend to repurpose plastic takeout containers, but that’s because I am not as classy as I often pretend to be). Combine two parts rice vinegar to one part water, roughly enough to cover the cabbage. Err on the side of more vinegar. When I am low on rice vinegar, I do half rice vinegar, half standard white vinegar, and it’s fine if a little less complex and interesting. Add a couple of tablespoons of sugar (white or brown is fine; honey tends to continue tasting like honey even after it’s all combined, so I don’t recommend it), a couple of tablespoons of kosher or sea salt, some black peppercorns if you have them, maybe a chunk or two of ginger, a couple of sliced garlic cloves. If you like chilis, a sliced-up jalapeño would probably not go amiss. Dump this mixture over the cabbage, cover, and ignore for a few hours. A day, maybe. If you have followed my lead and made a small batch in a sealable container, it can be a lot of fun to pick up the container every now and then to shake it: pretty! and it also makes sure that all of the cabbage comes in contact with all of the pickling solution.

I keep my container of quick-pickled red cabbage in the fridge because I am paranoid about food safety. You probably don’t have to do that. You can add more cabbage as you chip away at what you’re already made, just make sure to mix it in thoroughly.

Late August, by Margaret Atwood

August 25th, 2012 § Comments Off § permalink

This is the plum season, the nights
blue and distended, the moon
hazed, this is the season of peaches

with their lush lobed bulbs
that glow in the dusk, apples
that drop and rot
sweetly, their brown skins veined as glands

No more the shrill voices
that cried Need Need
from the cold pond, bladed and urgent as new grass

Now it is the crickets
that say Ripe Ripe
slurred in the darkness, while the plums

dripping on the lawn outside
our window, burst
with a sound like thick syrup
muffled and slow

The air is still
warm, flesh moves over
flesh, there is no


Stoned Fruit
photograph by jitze, licensed under CC BY

[vegetables, seaweed, herbs: the foam of your dreams. -Neruda]

August 15th, 2012 § Comments Off § permalink

On a visit to Ye Olde Family Homestead recently, I managed to eat pesto, not once, not twice, but three times. In one day.

Look, it was a short visit. I didn’t have much time.

And then I had a container of ziti with pesto for the train ride back to New York.

Yes, I like pesto. A lot. Basil is probably my favorite herb, and when you combine anything with olive oil, cheese, and garlic, it is, as I have noted before, very hard to go wrong.

So now, the basil-addiction centers of my brain having been activated, I made some basil simple syrup and am drinking lots and lots and lots of sparkling basil lemonades, basil-and-vodka-tonics, watermelon basil martinis — suffice it to say if it’s alcoholic, there has been basil involved in it for the past few days. When I get fruit at the farmer’s market this weekend, strawberries or blueberries or peaches, I will be tossing the fruit with the simple syrup and having it for a basil-y dessert.

The word basil no longer looks like a real word.

photograph by Skrewtape, licensed under CC BY-SA

Basil simple syrup is really easy. Combine water and sugar in a two-parts-sugar, one-part-water ratio (e.g., one cup of water, two cups of sugar; a half-cup of water, one cup of sugar) in a small saucepan. Don’t go overboard with how much you make — this stuff packs a pretty intense flavor, and since it involves a fresh herb, I suspect it wouldn’t keep especially well. (I wouldn’t know since it never survives long before being finished, in my life.) Add one part washed-and-patted-dry basil, and bring the whole thing to a gentle simmer over low-to-medium heat, stirring occasionally.

When the sugar has dissolved completely, remove from heat and allow to cool. Strain and store in the fridge.

Disappearing Zucchini Orzo

August 9th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

I am honestly not sure if the “disappearing” in the name of this dish — hat tip to Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral — is due to the amount of zucchini it uses up, or because the zucchini is very little apparent in the final dish. Either way, it is a useful way of putting a small dent in the squash which annually makes gardens the locus for terror, and it is also a useful way of getting vegetables into one’s system. Everything is palatable with garlic, pasta, and cheese.

first harvest
photograph by anathea, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Cook a half-pound of orzo until al dente. Drain well. Keep warm.

While the orzo is cooking, shred a couple of zucchini. Two, maybe three. (I recommend a food processor, but the big holes on a box grater also work. Careful with the knuckles.) Salt and let drain in a colander. While the zucchini are draining, chop a yellow onion and a couple of garlic cloves, and sauté in olive oil over a medium flame, in a large pan (trust me on this one, you’re going to be adding the shredded zucchini, you want the largest pan you’ve got) until pale golden. Press as much water out of the shredded zucchini as you can, and add the zucchini to the hot pan. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until lightly golden.

Combine the drained orzo and the zucchini in a large bowl. Add a half-cup (minimum, you may want more) of grated parmesan cheese. Mix thoroughly. Salt and pepper to taste.

I happen to like this hot, but it’s also good room-temperature, and some crazy people have been known to eat it straight out of the fridge. It reheats well, is filling, and all in all, I find that making extra and using it for office lunches is a good life choice. (Far better than resorting to pizza.)

Obviously, this is vegetarian/vegan, probably kosher, and will be better if you use fresh zucchini. This should not be hard, as it is currently the midst of “oh holy crap, I have HOW many squash?” season.

Things I Would Like to Eat In the Near Future

August 3rd, 2012 § Comments Off § permalink

a partial list.

  1. Chai Honey Cupcakes with Honey Whipped Cream Frosting
  2. Pelmeni
  3. Gyoza
  4. Toblerone cookies
  5. Spinach watermelon salad
  6. Avocado, strawberry, and goat cheese sandwich
  7. Pita bread with hummus
  8. Oatmeal pancakes
  9. Egg and Cheese Hash Brown Nests
  10. Spinach Pesto Pasta with Grilled Shrimp

What’s on your list?

Shrimp !Bouillabaisse

May 11th, 2012 § Comments Off § permalink

In a lot of programming languages, a bang, or exclamation point, is the symbol for Boolean NOT. I’ve been working with JavaScript a lot lately, where you’ll write stuff like the following:
if (!bouillabaise) { whatever }

So when I read Ming Tsai’s One-Pot Meals cookbook, and saw the recipe for what he calls shrimp bouillabaisse, I laughed a lot, and then renamed it shrimp !bouillabaisse for my own use. Because, okay: it’s a good soup, and I’ve been enjoying it whenever I cook it, but bouillabaise comes from a fairly specific tradition, and this recipe does not conform to that tradition. I’m all for remixing tradition, all for making recipes your own, but there’s pretty much no way you are going to convince me that this is not just a simple shrimp soup, and Ming’s name for it is false advertising. (The Wikipedia article is a reasonable introduction to the tradition.)

(The title of the book is also false advertising, frankly, and this recipe is one of the most egregious offenders. By my count, this recipe demands a soup pot, a strainer, a large bowl, and various mise en place containers, plus more if you make garlic bread to go with, as Ming suggests.)

Fresh Gulf of Maine Shrimp

photograph by johnnyd2, licensed under Creative Commons BY-ND


Peel a pound or so of shrimp (frozen is fine). Don’t throw out the shells. Coat the bottom of a tall pot with olive, grapeseed, or canola oil and heat over a medium-high flame. Add the shells and sauté until they turn that gorgeous pink. Pour in a scant cup of white wine or chicken stock (when particularly forgetful, I have used water and it was perfectly edible), deglaze the pan and reduce by half.

Add another quart of chicken stock. Simmer for five to ten minutes. Strain the liquid into a large bowl, and discard the shells.

Reheat the pot, and add a little more oil. Sauté a mirepoix of a chopped onion, one or two chopped carrots, a stalk of chopped celery — if you like fennel, include that; I hate fennel — and season the whole with a bit of paprika. When the mirepoix is soft, add the strained liquid and the shrimp you peeled. When the shrimp are cooked through, remove from the heat and whisk in a cup of Greek yogurt. Serve with toast.

[one man's poison ivy is another man's spinach]

April 1st, 2012 § Comments Off § permalink

Spinach gets a bad rap.

New Yorker cartoon: it's broccoli, dear. I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it.
“It’s broccoli, dear.”
“I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”
cartoon by Carl Rose, from the New Yorker, December 8, 1928

And sometimes it deserves it — there is little more disgusting in this life than overcooked spinach. But if you get it right, it is delightful. (Also, if you tend toward anemia, as I do, there are times when it tastes like manna from heaven because of the high iron content. Sometimes I’ll look up and realize I’ve been eating raw spinach by the handful, and it would probably be a good idea to take iron pills for a week or so.)

Spinach salad is also excellent, although I find it’s best with other greens — romaine lettuce, red-leaf lettuce, endive, butter or Boston lettuce, preferably all of them!. I generally add walnuts and cranberries and diced cucumber and sliced fresh strawberries if they’re in season (those tasteless, hard, ice-white things from California are worse than nothing), and a red wine vinegar dressing.

Lately, though, even spinach salad has seemed kind of like a lot of work. I’m apparently going through a lazy period, and so I am eating a lot of pasta-with-stuff. And spinach, as a “stuff,” is awesome. You don’t even need to caramelize onions, which is how I start a lot of my pasta-with-stuff meals. Boil pasta (frozen ravioli are an excellent, choice, not least because they cook in about five minutes). Sauté a chopped garlic clove in olive oil until golden; add salt and pepper. Combine rinsed spinach leaves with the pasta, garlic, and oil, toss to combine, let rest thirty seconds, eat all of it yourself. Feel absurdly proud of yourself.

This is a fabulous lazy dinner because it tastes great, requires very little cleanup, and has nutritional content (dark leafy greens! good and good for you!). It is a fabulous dinner for people who are suspicious about spinach, because it is really hard to overcook the spinach if you add it only after everything has come off the heat, but it also doesn’t taste raw because the heat in the olive oil and pasta wilt the leaves.


February 15th, 2012 § Comments Off § permalink

Several months ago, I spent a weekend at the Wellesley College Sustainablity Co-Op, aka SCoop. I was well-fed there, and well-conversationed; one of the meals which lingers is the late tea of sliders and, well, tea.

I pulled together a quick batch of buttermilk biscuits, and while those were baking, we made patties out of the seitan in the fridge (Faithful Minion J., whom I was visiting, made a disapproving face when she saw it and muttered dark statistics about the collateral impact of such fake-meat products), sautéed them lightly on the stovetop, and grabbed ketchup and shredded cabbage (no lettuce, it wasn’t the season yet, the greenhouses on the campus hadn’t finished baking the mesclun, so to speak), before spending the next few hours engrossed in chat and discussion that covered everything from childhood books we have known and loved to the topiary on the Wellesley campus to the various glaciers around the world.

Which is really my point: I don’t think anyone needs to be told how to make hamburgers, which is really all sliders are, only miniaturized, and if they do, I am not the person to tell them. There are some people who are very good at teaching the basics, at breaking down recipes. But it’s not my thing. What I can do is talk about the resonances of food, the context (historical, especially, but also political and otherwise) of what we eat, how we decide what to eat, and other things. The power in that late tea, the reason I remember it, wasn’t in the food itself, wasn’t in the consumption of calories, wasn’t in the baking powder or the heat of the oven. It was in the feeling of friendship, the shared jokes, the sense that nobody at that table had anywhere else they wanted to be.

simple sandwich bread

November 22nd, 2011 § Comments Off § permalink

I probably shouldn’t admit how quickly this apartment goes through loaves of bread — we eat the stuff as fast as I or B. can bake it. (Our record is three loaves of pretzel bread, which is B.’s specialty, demolished in less than twelve hours. Almost no loaf makes it more than 24 hours, or 36 at the outside, around here.) So when I was on vacation a while ago, and had some spare time, I made some extra batches of a basic white loaf and stuck most of the dough in the freezer. It’s all gone now, and I’m going to settle down to some serious kneading and shaping again so I can stick to the habit of thawing the dough in the fridge overnight and baking it while I’m drinking my morning tea and catching up on RSS feeds. (You do know you can get A Very Uncommon Cook delivered to your virtual doorstep in a feed, right? I am just looking out for your welfare, folks!)

bread dough

photograph by timlewisnm

(This recipe, I should note, is adapted from King Arthur Flour.)


1 ½ cups warm milk
1 heaping tablespoon honey
2 ¼ teaspoons yeast
1 ¾ teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons soft butter
around 4 cups all-purpose flour


2 mixing bowls
1 nine-inch loaf pan
baking rack


Pour the warm (not scalded! just warm) milk into a large mixing bowl. Add the honey and yeast, and stir to dissolve. Let rest two to five minutes. Add salt and butter, and stir to distribute. Add three cups of flour and mix. Add the last cup-or-so of flour gradually, kneading in between additions, until you have a smooth, elastic ball of dough.

Oil or butter another large mixing bowl and put the ball of dough in. Roll the dough around so the exterior is a little greasy. Cover with a hand towel or plastic wrap (loosely, in the latter case; don’t make it entirely airtight). Leave in a warm still place (I like the top of the refrigerator) for up to an hour and a half.

Grease a nine-inch loaf pan. When the dough is puffy, deflate it gently. There’s no need to slam your fist into it like it’s done you personal injury; if you want that, I suggest a boxing gym. Shape it into a log that will fit in the pan. Cover the pan with the towel or plastic wrap, and leave it in the warm still place for another hour or so. After an hour, turn the oven to 350°; when it’s preheated, remove the towel or plastic wrap and put the bread in.

Bake for twenty minutes, and then drape some aluminium foil over the top. Bake another ten to fifteen minutes, or until golden brown, and cool on a rack.