Monday, November 30, 2009

Ewww...ewww...ewww...ewww...Stayin' Alive

At a dinner party the other night, the conversation turned to the topic of unusual foods eaten in other cultures. It started with the Chinese eating monkey brains as a delicacy. Then we digressed, and from cow tongues to ox tails, pig feet to goat heads, sheep stomachs to camel humps, no organ went unexamined. Bats, bugs, snails, snakes, guinea pigs, dogs, kitty cats, bunnies and elephants were all disgustingly discussed and verbally dissected.

"If you’re going to sacrifice an animal, you should use all of it," I said. Why should any of it go to waste?"

“That’s so gross!” an indignant guest exclaimed. “I would never ever eat any of those things! But I wouldn’t have a problem eating a person," she added. "You know, like in that movie Alive, about the plane crash in the Andes. That wouldn’t bother me at all. You gotta do what you gotta do.”

The guy sitting next to me turned and asked if I would eat a human to stay alive. “Only someone with an 'A' rating," I said. "Preferably a germaphobe. But I’d have to look at the menu.”

Since that dinner, the prospect of polishing off a person has been gnawing at me. If I were in a dire circumstance like the plane crash of that soccer team in Chile, could I bite the bullet and chow down on a chum? Would I go that far to stay alive? Wouldn't that person just be going to waste? Granted, I would more likely be on a plane with the People Who Blog in their Undergarments team. But hey, if they’re foodies, they might be pretty tasty.

Note: I took this photo at a market in Istanbul.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Fig Crostata

With this dense, lattice-crusted crostata, I was thinking fig.
This ambitious figurative work is from this month’s (big sob) final issue of Gourmet Magazine. It was more labor-intensive than they let on, but it proved to be a crowd-pleaser at Thanksgiving. I had been wanting to try a fig tart for a while, and this deep, crostata variety was my debut. Like a lot of desserts, it was even better the next day.

A couple of notes: I used more than a tablespoon of cold water in the pie crust (but if you’ve made pie crusts, you know the dance). I also cooked it 10 - 20 minutes longer than it said to, but my oven temperature has been fluctuating more than a menopausal mama.


A rich filling is studded with walnuts and imbued with citrusy notes of orange, then packaged between a crust and a lattice top, both made from the cookie-like pastry dough known as pasta frolla in Italy.

For pastry dough:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup granulated sugar plus additional for sprinkling

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

2 large egg yolks

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 tablespoon cold water

For fig filling:

12 ounces soft dried figs (preferably Calmyrna), stemmed and coarsely chopped

1 1/4 cups water

1 cup fresh orange juice

1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar

1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 teaspoon grated orange zest

1 1/2 cups walnuts (6 ounces), coarsely chopped

Equipment: a 9-inch springform pan

Accompaniment: mascarpone

Make pastry dough:
Blend together flour, sugar, salt, and butter in a bowl with your fingertips or a pastry blender (or pulse in a food processor) just until mixture resembles coarse meal with some roughly pea-size butter lumps. Add yolks, vanilla, and water and gently stir with a fork (or pulse) until incorporated and dough begins to form large clumps.

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 4 portions. With heel of your hand, smear each portion once or twice in a forward motion to help distribute fat. Gather all dough together (using a pastry scraper if you have one), then divide dough in half and form each half into a 5- to 6-inch disk. Chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, at least 1 hour.

Make fig filling while dough chills: 
Simmer figs, water, orange juice, and brown sugar in a medium saucepan, covered, stirring occasionally, until figs are soft and mixture is reduced to about 2 cups, 15 to 20 minutes. Pulse in a food processor until finely chopped (mixture should not be smooth). Transfer to a large bowl and cool slightly. Stir in butter, eggs, vanilla, zest, and walnuts.

Make tart shell: 
Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Generously butter springform pan. Roll out 1 portion of dough between 2 sheets of parchment paper into a 12-inch round (dough will be soft; chill or freeze briefly if it becomes difficult to work with). Peel off top sheet of parchment and carefully invert dough into pan. (Dough will tear easily but can be patched together with your fingers.) Press dough onto bottom and 1 inch up side of pan, then trim excess. Chill tart shell until ready to assemble crostata.

Roll out remaining dough between 2 sheets of parchment paper into a 12-inch round. Peel off top sheet of parchment, then cut dough into 10 (1-inch-wide) strips and slide (still on parchment) onto a tray. Chill until firm, about 10 minutes.

Assemble crostata: 
Spread fig filling in shell. Arrange 5 strips of dough 1 inch apart on filling. Arrange remaining 5 strips 1 inch apart across first strips to form a lattice. Trim edges of strips flush with edge of shell. Sprinkle crostata with sugar.

Bake until filling is slightly puffed and pastry is pale golden, about 30 minutes. Cool completely, then remove side of pan. Serve crostata with mascarpone.

Cooks' notes:

•Dough can be chilled up to 3 days.
•Crostata can be made 1 day ahead and kept at room temperature.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ode to a Cow

This lavish life so rich in butter
Thrills me unlike any udder
As heaven sashays down my throat
I write this bovine thank you note

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Tri-colored Potato Salad Provencal

If only Van Gogh had used these colors in The Potato Eaters.
That bleak masterpiece would have been even more brilliant. And if he had painted with olive oils? Ok then. Moving right along...

In this vibrant, Provence-inspired version of potato salad, I use a Dijon vinaigrette instead of that heavy, old-school mayo. Three kinds of potatoes and a trio of bell peppers make for a truly palette-able dish. While the purple potatoes are native to Peru, they’re now grown in California, Oregon and Washington and can be found at farmer’s markets and even Trader Joe’s.

The zesty flavors of the vinaigrette, capers, shallots, peppers and dill work wonderfully together, but if dill is not your deal, you can use basil or flat-leaf parsley instead. A combination of all three herbs is delicious too. Roasting the peppers in olive oil gives them a rich, robust flavor, and I happened to have some on hand already, but if you don’t feel like going to the trouble, raw ones work well in a more traditional potato-salad way.

In a recipe-naming quandary, I struggled with using the stodgy term "potato salad." But when you serve the potatoes on a bed of greens and let the vinaigrette fall where it may, it is literally a potato salad. A Tri-colored Potato Salad Provencal, that is.


1 ½ - 2 pounds of combined red, white and purple potatoes

½ cup of combined red, yellow and orange bell peppers, chopped either raw or roasted

1 TBSP capers

Large handful of fresh dill, chopped

Dijon Vinaigrette

¼ cup olive oil

1 ½ tsp red wine vinegar

½ heaping tsp Dijon mustard

1 medium shallot, minced

Salt to taste

Pepper to taste

Makes about 4 servings

Cut the potatoes into quarters (leaving skins on) and boil in salted water until fork-tender. Drain and let cool. While potatoes are boiling, prepare the vinaigrette, cut the peppers and chop the dill.

When potatoes are cool, put all the ingredients into a mixing bowl, add vinaigrette and toss. Season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Refrigerate for several hours' minimum, but preferably overnight. Before serving, let it sit out at room temperature for a few minutes before plating on a bed of greens.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Travel Bite: Turkish Bagel Vendors

When I was in Turkey, I photographed an array of street vendors selling Turkish bagels called simit (see-meet). They’re made by dipping a ring of dough in grape molasses and sesame seeds before baking. The most eye-catching vendor I saw was walking around with simits on his head. I wondered if he slipped, would he simply pick them up and restock his cranium?

Despite all the mosques, cleanliness was not next to godliness. I saw a customer squeeze half the simits in this vendor's wheelbarrow before finding his favorite.

The most common simit vendors were similar to the ones I saw in Poland (see previous post—Travel Bite: Polish Bagel Vendor). As I noted there, the bagel was invented in Krakow, and one account says it was created in the shape of a stirrup to commemorate the victory of Poland over the Ottoman Turks in 1683. That explains the similarities between Polish and Turkish bagels. Now the story has come full circle, so to speak.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Grape Leaves Stuffed with Minced Meat

First I stuffed the grape leaves. Then I stuffed my face.
When I was in Istanbul, I took a wonderful Turkish cooking class called Cooking Alaturka. We made five dishes, and these beef and lamb stuffed grape leaves were one of the five highlights (don’t make me choose a favorite!). While I don’t eat red meat very often and am not a lamb fan, these were very good. With lamb being so prevalent in Turkey, I ended up eating it several times. Hey, when in the former Roman Empire…

I have some original ideas for vegetarian dolma fillings that I plan to experiment with, but I wanted to share this authentic Turkish recipe from Eveline Zoutendijk.


These stuffed vine leaves are often spiked with some hot pepper and tomato in parts of central and southeast Anatolia, but in Istanbul they are served like this, with yogurt on the side. Unlike the zeytinyagli dolma, which are rolled into long elegant fingers and served cold, these are short and stubby, more like a thumb, and served hot in some of the cooking liquid.

25–30 preserved vine leaves, soaked in a few washes of water for a few hours, or if you use fresh ones, blanched for a few minutes to soften.


12 oz minced lamb or beef or a mixture of both

2 onions, finely chopped

4 oz long-grain rice, washed, soaked and drained

Bunch of dill, parsley and mint, finely chopped

1 TBSP tomato paste

1 TBSP bell pepper paste (optional)

1 TBSP olive oil

1–2 tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped (keep the seeds and chop)

½ carrot, ½ onion to line the pan

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Cooking liquid

¼ pint water

Juice of ½ lemon (optional)

2 TBSP olive oil

Mix all ingredients for the filling in a bowl, except for the rice. Add (part of) the tomato seeds to the mixture for extra moisture (you want the moisture to be moist but not too wet). Fold in the rice carefully. Lay the leaves on a flat surface (always with the shiny side on the outside), and place a little of the meat mixture on the top of each leaf. Shape the mixture into your desired dolma shape to ease the rolling process. Fold the sides over (no need to close them—this is when you decide the length of your dolma and you want them to all be the same length), and roll the leaf up into a tight package (start pressing gently but surely from the very beginning).

In a wide saucepan, prepare a bed of sliced carrot, onion and garlic, the stems of all the herbs used in the stuffing, the stems of the leaves, some peppercorns, and if you have any, some meat bones. This serves both for aromatic purposes and so that the dolmas won’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Cover with a layer of (broken or small) vine leaves and place the ready dolmas on top with their opening, facing downwards. They need to be tightly packed together so that they won’t open while cooking. Pour some olive oil, and if needed, some salt over them and pour the tomato cubes over them, then cover with another sheet of leaves and lots of plates or other weights, to hold everything down. Now pour the water (and lemon if wanted) over the vine leaves (if you do this before the plates are on top, you risk the dolma floating to the surface and opening). Cover with a lid, and cook gently for 40-45 minutes. Serve hot in a bit of their cooking liquid. Decorate with the tomato cubes. Serve some yogurt on the side.

Serves 4

Monday, November 9, 2009

Conquering the Eat-oh-man Empire!

Ah, Turkey. That vast swath of land straddling Europe and Asia, once belonging to the Ottomans and now under my fork-gripping domain. Only an Aegean away from where the Olympics began, I wasn't just eating for sport—I was going for the gold. This fierce triathleater was conquering breakfast, lunch and dinner.

My training started in warm-up mode. There were stomach stretches. Double-chin-ups. Forklifts. Middle-body workouts. I honed my discipline at repeated trips to the breakfast buffets full of cheeses, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, yogurt, eggs, breads, jams and cakes. In the first 24 hours alone, I had eggplant three times. What a country! Eggplant stuffed with lentils. Eggplant stuffed with chicken and mashed potatoes. Eggplant stuffed with lamb. My inner carnivore didn’t know what hit her. And all those skewered meats? Sheesh. I kebapped till I dropped. But I got right back up. A triathleater goes the distance. There is no finished line.

Then there was that ubiquitous Turkish Delight candy made out of sugar, water, corn starch and any number of nuts, figs or flavorings. Who was I to deprive the Turks their delight? They made it to be eaten—am I wrong? And the baklava in all shapes and sizes? Who cares that some of it was odd tasting, unlike the honey-dripped Greek kind. Maybe the next one would be different. After all, they all looked so good. Joyner didn’t stop for a pebble in her shoe. Phelps didn’t waver from some water in his mouth. A triathleater goes the distance. There is no finished line.

There was canoe-shaped pide (Turkish pizza), all flavors of sweet helva (sesame seed halva), stuffed grape leaves, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and mushrooms, borek (savory-filled pastries), su boregi (cheese-filled Turkish kugel), Turkish ravioli with tomatoes and yogurt, pilafs, kuru (white beans in tomato sauce), lentil soups, amazing mezes, roasted chestnuts and fresh pomegranate juice on every corner, as well as all things pistik (pistachio). And like a triathleater, the list goes on.

Oddly enough, what I began to crave was hunger itself. That gnawing, aching permission to say to my inner glutton, “Hey Tubby, it’s ok to come out now. You’re on!” This eating-for-sport, baklavian bacchanal was becoming too...normal. Shouldn’t I actually feel hungry between meals? Shouldn’t some of this over-sustenance be going to the Ethiopian children with flies?

Now that I’m back and have reacquainted myself with hunger pangs, I panic, as if I should receive famine relief. But then I quickly replenish myself with a piece of pistachio Turkish Delight that I brought back and then another made with fig, walnut and coconut. I remind myself that once you've tasted gold, you'll always want to go back for another. For a triathleater, there is no finished line.