Tuesday, July 27, 2010

spice it up

“variety is the spice of life”
to me, if variety is the spice of life, than spices create the variety in food. take a simple collection of standard stuff: chicken, peppers, onions, carrots and throw them into a wok for a stir fry. Pretty bland on their own, it’s the spices, herbs and other flavor carriers (such as chili peppers, lemongrass, etc.) that shape the dish into something other than a mere collection of ingredients. What I love is that the same ingredients can be fashioned into many different things, depending on the spices/herbs that are used. That’s sort of amazing, isn’t it? the flavor profiles of different cuisines are fascinating and so much of the differences are defined by two main things: the cooking method and the spices used.

if you watch enough cooking shows than you have probably picked up on the preference of chefs to use fresh herbs and whole spices. When it comes to whole spices, i wholly agree. spices that are ground when you’re ready to use them retain the subtle complexities of their flavor, while the already ground version does seem to lose some it’s more sublime flavor over time. The jury is still out for me on whether fresh herbs are always superior to dried, though. we know that using fresh herbs in long-cooking foods, like sauces, soups and stews, is not preferable because fresh herbs tend to get bitter and/or lose their flavor in dishes like that. if you ever added fresh basil to a moderate or long-cooking sauce than you know what i mean—the flavor of basil becomes tinny and bitter and basically ruins your dish, game over. now, if you’re making a fresh marinara, the addition of basil can be perfection. call me a rebel, but still i don’t think the belief that ‘fresh is better’ is even that cut and dry. i think, especially for new or inexperienced cooks, that fresh herbs can be tough. rosemary, despite the sweet name (have you ever known a mean rosemary?) can easily overpower a dish and render it nearly inedible. this is a case where a dried herb is actually a good thing. not to mention that, unless you have an herb garden, fresh herbs can be a pain—they don’t store all that well (although for some good suggestions for storage, see this page on the Chowhound site) and because you are often locked into buying a set amount it’s very easy to buy too much.

the one concession i am willing to make is in the case where dishes are not cooked at all, and then you need to tread carefully with some of the dried stuff. even so, if you’re dish contains a decent amount of acid, as in the case of a salad that will be dressed with an oil/vinegar or oil/citrus juice, dry herbs can still be used with success…again this is my opinion from my cooking experiences. as a matter of fact, my favorite salad dressing uses mrs. dash…this admissions would probably make my cooking idol, alton brown, roll his eyes and give me a shameful stare. however, mrs

so I share with you my simple, all-purpose salad dressing, from one spice dissenter to another.

rebel salad dressing

• 1 part oil (use something with a neutral flavor, fruity olive oil doesn’t work here)
• 1.5 parts of seasoned rice vinegar(you read it right—you are going to use more vinegar than oil)
• mrs. dash (the regular stuff with the yellow label)
• kosher Salt
• fresh Pepper

so, if you use ½ c of oil, you would use ¾ of a cup of vinegar and about 1 ½ tablespoons of mrs. dash. You can adjust the amounts until you find that perfect balance..and you will find it. salt and pepper the salad only after you taste it tossed with the dressing. the mrs. dash can be powerful and you may not need pepper at all.

Some notes:

1. preparing simple stuff, like this dressing, doesn’t mean it’s easy. Getting the right balance takes a few tries, don’t be afraid to adjust things as you go. the people you are cooking for are generally your willing guinea pigs ;)

2. use Marukan seasoned rice vinegar if you can get it. I’ve tried many brands and this one is, by leaps and bounds, the best i have ever used.

3. if you have a little time before you eat the salad and you are using hearty greens (romaine, arugula, etc.) add the vinegar and mrs. dash a few minutes ahead of the oil to allow the lettuce to absorb some of the really yummy vinegar.

4. when you get down to the end of the mrs. dash it is powdery. this powder is what i refer to as ‘super dash’ because the flavors are really concentrated. go easy when you get to the end of the jar, use less and taste as you go, or else you may end up with a salad that is too spicy to eat—no joke.

a few of my favorite things
like most people who cook with regularity i have my favorite things. i submit to you some of these as a resource for you. it doesn’t mean that my favorite things will be yours, but i hope you find it helpful.

• overall, some of the best spices I have used come from penzey’s*. penzey's herbs and spices are pretty economical; you can buy most spices in a range of sizes to fit your budget and need. I get the penzey’s catalog (it comes out about 6-times a year) and am always excited when I do. in addition, penzey’s has brick-and-mortar locations sprinkled around the country. check out their website for more information and to get a catalog. i will be visiting the penzey’s in Norwalk, CT. this weekend (yippee!) and plan to return with a booty (like a pirate’s booty, not a butt booty). if you do visit a store or place an order, here are a some things that I recommend highly:

1. the extracts very good, try the double-strength vanilla extract, it is pretty heavenly.

2. the cumin seed rocks, as does the maharajah curry powder

3. i like their spice blends (some more than others) - for a good bbq rub tr the northwoods seasoning. also you might like the english prime rib seasoning, i find a dash or two is great in beef stew and shepherd's pie.

4. the dried cilantro is great, particularly if you like to make salsa in the wintertime.

oh, and one other thing, penzey’s offers the ability to purchase many of their spices in bags instead of jars (although you can get the jars, too); which is cool on a lot of fronts.

the most economical, and high-quality vanilla beans that I have tried come from the organic vanilla bean company*. Their website also has good information on the different types of vanilla, vanilla flavor profiles, how to use vanilla bean, etc.

• if you happen to be near a trader joe’s*, see if you can get their Vanilla paste—it’s great in homemade ice cream and butter cream frostings for sure. But the uses are limitless. If you don’t already, subscribe to their ‘fearless flyer’ (which you can get in an online format) it is an entertaining and informative publication. I’m not sure why this list is so vanilla-focused, but hey, vanilla deserves our attention and reverence!

growing your own

i am not a gardener, my thumbs are far from being green and I have a serious phobia that relates to certain critters that like to hang out in gardens; however, i have had success growing herbs. It makes me feel a little less inept! basil, cilantro, chives, parsley, oregano, tarragon and thyme have all done well, even under my oppressive thumbs. i grow them in a window flower box on my front porch so they are accessible and ready when I need them. If you haven’t tried it, give it a whirl. If you are like me you will feel somewhat self-righteous when you can say, “oh yes, that’s fresh basil from my herb garden.” does that make me a bad person? nah.

*I am not the recipient of any free goods from these establishments…I wish I were, but I’m not. I recommend them because I like them, not for any profit

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

dreams, redefined

i'm special..and so are you..and so is that guy over there...
when i was young i knew that i was destined for something special. then i woke up, or more accurately, then i grew up. i found out that most of us held that belief about ourselves, and i think that is a wonderful thing, it says something about the wonderment and hopefulness that gives definition to the elusive concept of youth. eventually and without warning the wonderment fades as life deals blows to your ego and your psyche, and that's when we start to realize that the 'special' we saw for ourselves looks a lot like just plain-old-everyday life.  if you've ever uttered the phrase "i'm just not where I thought I would be" then you know it is generally followed by a pronounced whooshing noise as your dreams get sucked out of your sight line. this sounds depressing doesn't it? and at those times when we hear the whooshing, it is depressing.  many of us lose our footing at some point in our adulthood, it is one of those things they don't tell you in high school or even in college; however, there is no shame in losing your way. i lost my way, and like most things i do, i didn't just lose it, i obliterated any semblance of a path that may have been there.  i like to do things completely, always give 110% i always say.  i have started, at my advanced age, to rebuild the path.  some people like to refer to this process as 'finding their path' but, for me, it is a process of rebuilding. 

an important part of this process has been to recognize when i have actually attained a dream. this realization can only happen when i allow myself to dial down the self-flagellation and take a look at a particular dream with the open, somewhat clearer eyes of an adult.  like so many amateur chefs, when the food network began making stars of us common folk i thought that it was just a matter of time before i was discovered.  i used to always say "i can cook, i can teach...i want to get paid for teaching people how to cook" -- it sounded pretty logical.  the only problem is that while it sounded very simple behind the words was the vision of this dream I had created and that picture was anything but simple.  what i envisioned was becoming famous for my skills and charm (subtext: if rachel ray can be famous, then clearly I can be famous!). before long i would be: publishing best selling cookbooks and (eventually) an autobiography; featured at the south beach wine & food festival; hosting cool hybrid food/travel shows, winning a james beard and eventually retiring early to my own private island.  so what i said i wanted was simple, but what i really wanted was the equivalent to winning the megaball lottery: it was a recipe for disaster.

revising the dream

this week i received a check in the mail, the check was payment for a cooking class that i taught at different drummer's kitchen, a high-end kitchen/tableware store here in albany.  the check was small and not nearly enough for a down payment on the private island. as i looked at it i caught myself in a spiral of crushing self-talk: "this is your payday, lynne...this is exactly what your worth..$200.00...you will never do any of the things that you wanted..you are so lame..".  yup, that little voice inside was having it's way with me.  then the revelation came and shut that voice right down--this is what i said i wanted! i wanted to get paid for teaching cooking and in my hand was evidence that i had attained that dream.  so maybe i didn't knock it out of the park in the way that you see it play out in the movies, but i did do it.  it's ok that my paycheck for this class was only $237.00, it could have been $20.00 and it would still be payment for teaching a cooking class.  my dream wasn't silly, and it still isn't, but it did have a destructive element in that it is not attainable in the short-term. i would never tell anyone to give up their dreams, but i would recommend a renovation beginning with an examination of what you really want vs. the pictures in your head. let me know what you find as you renovate.

in keeping with the theme of the day, i present to you the following:
the dream dinner, redefined

i was fortunate enough to be in saratoga today and was able to hit the farmer's market before heading home. as i walked through the market agog at summer's bounty I dreamt of a dinner, no a feast, comprised of a myriad of multi-colored vegetable dishes each delivering an exquisite morsel of summer.  then reality set in:  it was already 4:45, i was tired, and it would just be me for dinner tonight anyway.  still i bought two pints of gorgeous tomatoes, two bunches of deep purple beets and a few bumpy-skinned cucumbers and headed home. as i carried all of my loot into the house what i really wanted to eat became clear: a tomato sandwich! i feel bad for people who don't like tomatoes--this time of year the humble tomato embodies the essence of summer.  one simple sandwich is my dinner dream redefined: beautiful produce + fresh ingredients = an amazingly delicious dinner.

the ultimate summer sandwich

  • 2 gorgeous, ripe tomatoes (preferably from your garden or a farmer's market!)
  • 2 slices of your favorite bread (go with something on the softer side or else the tomatoes will slide out when you bite it)
  • 2-3 cloves of roasted garlic
  • 1 blob of good quality mayonnaise
  • 5-6 basil leaves (if you don't have a basil plant, try the farmer who sold you the tomatoes)
  • kosher salt and ground pepper

Spread a thin layer of mayonnaise on one side of each bread slice.  take one of the slices and mash the roasted garlic into the mayo creating an even layer of garlic, and add the basil leaves. using a serrated knife, slice the tomatoes into 1" rounds and cover the basil leaves with those drippy slabs. salt and pepper liberally.  slice the sandwich into halves (or fours if you like), put on a plate and go sit down somewhere quiet (outside on a porch or deck would be great) and enjoy a dream dinner. 

this recipe can, and should be, doubled or tripled as needed!

yellow squash with a neapolitan complex


fun with squash
yellow squash isn't an ingredient that most of us think of as fun or interesting...most people feel similarly about it's cousin, zucchini. maybe it's because, if you have a garden or know someone with a garden, they become ubiquitous, and even that's an understatement. when july days are warm (and in the United States that's pretty much a given) and not too wet (this is more iffy) there is a bumper crop of summer squash. I used to live in oneonta, new york, a rural college town with lots of gardens. in august if you left you your car windows open you would, more than likely, find zucchini on your car seat--it was community farming in the most literal sense. It is amazing (read: very sad) to me to see sick-looking yellow squash and zucchini being sold in the supermarket for $1.99 0r more a pound, especially this time of year. Thankfully my mother and father-in-law both have productive gardens and I am the recipient of fresh vegetables, sometimes daily!

ok, so let me get to my point...no matter how clever we try to be, we probably end up making the same three squash recipes over and over until we (and those we cook for) are screaming "uncle" by the end of the summer. so I wanted to try and make something a little different from the usual, but also keep it simple so it has a chance of making it to your plate.

choosing wisely
the single biggest issue with squash grown this time of year is the fact that many are picked when they are overgrown and over-mature. squash that have been allowed to stay on the vine too long tend to have large, bitter seeds and tough skins. so what's too large? well to phrase it differently, what is the optimum squash size? websites on vegetable gardening suggest that squash that are between 9" and 12" in length and 3-4" inches in diameter tend to be a perfect size. so there ya go.
yellow squash neapolitan

This is a pretty easy and just plain pretty dish. using sauce that you have previously made and a few pantry stapes and this becomes super easy. who doesn't love easy this time of year?

  • 2 - medium yellow summer squash or zucchini
  • 2c - all purpose flour
  • egg wash (3 eggs whisked with 2 tbsp of water)
  • 1c - vegetable oil (and keep it handy you probably will need to add a bit more)
  • 3c - marinara sauce (your own, even your favorite jarred sauce)
  • 1-2c - good quality shaved Romano cheese (if you don't like Romano, use Parmesan)
  • fresh basil leaves (this time of year it is usually pretty common)
  • oregano
  • garlic powder
  • kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
  • optional: extra virgin olive oil OR balsamic vinegar glaze (be sure you have glaze and not just the vinegar!)

prepare the egg wash and put into a shallow bowl. Place the flour into a shallow bowl and stir in 1 tbsp of dried oregano and 1 tbsp of garlic powder.

cut squash into 1-1.5" rounds.

to flour the squash, dip the rounds into the flour, coating each side well, then into the egg mixture again coating each side and then into the flour once more. grab a cooling rack and place it on a sheet tray. place floured rounds on the rack, this will allow them to dry a bit before giving them their oil bath.
when you are ready to fry, heat the vegetable oil in a medium to large frying pan--you want to have about 1" of oil in the bottom of the pan, regardless of size). you will want a big enough pan where you can do four rounds at a time and have space in between each of the rounds. check the oil with a wooden spoon handle--place the handle into the middle of the pan, when the oil begins to produce small bubbles, the oil is ready.

as rounds become golden brown and soft in the middle (touch them with your finger to check doneness) remove them from the pan and place back on the rack to let them drain. sprinkle them liberally with salt and pepper as soon as they come out of the oil.

taste one, or two...they're good, no?

when you're ready to assemble the neapolitan, warm the sauce and have the cheese and basil leaves at the ready. place a squash round down on a plate, top with a tablespoon of sauce, a basil leaf and a piece of shaved romano cheese. repeat this three times (four if you're daring) and voila, you have a pretty and tasty neapolitan that lifts up the humble squash to something beautiful and delicious. drizzle each with a bit of balsamic vinegar glaze for a pop of acid. if you aren't fond of the acid drizzle, use the extra virgin olive oil--but only a little bit.

you can easily make the rounds ahead of time, allowing them to cool and then placing them in the fridge. you can warm them gently in the microwave (no more than 2-minutes) when you are ready to assemble the lovely stack.

if you don't feel like making a stack, you don't have to..but it is pretty cool.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010


"the best way to start is to just start.."

i dislike that expression, my disdain for it probably comes from the fact that it is a good, solid piece of advice and that alone is good reason for me not to like it. don't get me wrong, i don't have oppositional defiance disorder (more on that in a bit) but it does take me a while to take the counsel of others if I think I know the 'right' way. chances are you are nodding your head right now.

let me take a minute to explain my intentions behind creating the 'hungry heart' blog. i am regularly amazed by food and the power it has to heal, soothe, comfort, excite, even enrage and harm. food can be polarizing, yet it can unite. how can you not be amazed by something that is, to many, a physical necessity and a emotional touchstone? there is no place like the spot where a meal is being shared: it is a 'site' that can be created anywhere, anytime, and the only requirement is a couple of people and some shared sustenance. yet a meal, no matter how simple or humble, is so much more than the sum of it's parts. i love that there is a recognition of this today, or maybe a resurgence more than a recognition. cultures more ancient than ours recognized the power of a shared meal long ago; we all seem to be moving back to the table with the understanding that it is one of the most important ways to become part of something bigger than just ourselves.

so, this blog is a place to consider ideas, share thoughts, and discuss things that are part of our lives. the ideas i share with you are for your consideration, but not intended for your full adoption. feel free to adopt my ideas if you want, but i put them out there with the hope that you will share yours back. i envision this space as a place to think broadly and deeply, without feeling like you have to have a PhD to join in the conversation. the only requirement of membership is a ferocious appetite for ideas and, of course, for food. if there is one other requirement for membership it would be a sense of humor. while not everything we talk about will be "funny" there is always room for humor. if food is nourishment for the all parts of ourselves, then laughter is the medicine. it sounds hokey...but again, 'laughter is the best medicine' is one of those things we tend to shrug off as being too simple to be true. yet, the best endorphin rush i have ever had (and this is coming from someone who knows endorphins) has been brought on by authentic, unself-conscience laughter. much of the true laughter in my life has come at the hands of my family and friends and it is to them that i dedicate this undertaking. i would be nothing without the people who believe in me.

so, friend, please feel free to join, to read, to lurk, to contribute or any combination of those things. i do hope that you will find something on here so compelling that you have to respond and make yourself known. a blog is only as strong as the people who consider it relevant and important. i am deeply hopeful that you are one of those people.

until next time -  lynne

oh, here is the "more" on oppositional defiance disorder:

last night I was at a meeting when one of my peers mentioned that his child had been recently diagnosed with ODD or oppositional defiance disorder..my first thought was "they have finally done it, they have given garden-variety bad behavior a diagnosis. although i'm not sure i think there is medication that can be prescribed to combat ODD; my question: where does the line form to get some of it? seriously though, did we need a diagnosis that can further shield kids (and adults) from taking responsibility for bad behavior? i'm not saying that we should throw away the DSM, nor am I failing to recognize that there are good reasons (medical, as well as political) to take a collection of symptoms and call it a 'disorder' if it helps people get the care they need.  my worry is for the day that a child or adult escapes accountability because he/she is diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder. it is human to have some ODD--for some it is situational, for others it is a way of being--i'm just not sure when it becomes an illness. although i'm sure that has been the key question for those who sought to create the diagnosis (can you see my idealism shining through?).  i guess the impact of this remains to be seen; i know i will be waiting to see how it plays out.  you might be wondering, how does this relate to food? not to be trite but i have never seen children act badly when they are engaged in food preparation...have you noticed that? there is something powerful at work there...ODD or not.