Saturday, May 16, 2015

Aztec Salad

A few week ago, I threw open my storage closet—with the frenzied excitement of a child going to Disney World—in hot pursuit of one specific item located in the very back of the top shelf.  It had been sitting there for one year, almost to the exact date, and would soon meet an unapologetic fate of many a weekend spent blanketing the earth: grass stains, damp dew, and one too many rose spills than I care to admit. Have you guessed? My animation isn't exact discrete. It's picnic season!
We're in the heart of spring, and the city is blossoming and alive with blushing flowers, trees, and so, so many people. I feel like the picnic is almost a respite from the crowds: we all laze in our own privatized space—emphatically partitioned by the four corners of our respective blankets—to enjoy the boundless fresh air, fair-weather temperatures, and long days spring so generously offers. A departure from our everyday bustling schedules, these idle, lounging hours feel so luxurious; made only more so in the presence of good company, and of course, good food.  I can't help you with the former (well, I am generally free most weekends) but I sure can with the latter. I present to you Aztec Salad, the perfect picnic prandial. 
When I think picnic, my mind goes straight to potluck. I’ve definitely had some misses (cue the 4th of July sangria which leaked from its cooler, leaving me drenched in sticky wine with only a bowl of boozy fruit and rinds to boot.) Not this time, though: our mesoamerican salad is terrific in transit. Not only can you serve cold or at room temp, but its vegan nature makes the salad virtual un-spoilable, so it can sit out, even on a hot day, for hours.

But most of all, its tasty and easy, simple as that.  I have such fond memories of eating this salad (my mom's recipe) at picnics and barbeques growing up, awed by the sophisticated flavors and vibrant colors of the dish, and how surprised I was when I finally learned how effortless it is to make.  Guided by a southwestern ethos, freshness, flavor, and spice are guaranteed: black beans, corn, peppers, and tomatoes compose the bulk of the salad, plenty piquant from the addition of jalapeno, coriander, cumin, and cayenne pepper. The ingredients bask in a tangy, acidic dressing of freshly squeezed limes and two types of vinegar; finished off with herby vim and vigor due to a hearty helping of chopped cilantro.

Another great thing about this salad? All that acidity from the lime and vinegars lends almost a pickling quality to the dish—if you keep it for a few days—which preserves it really well. I often make a large batch to eat for lunch for the week, and the fresh ingredients are totally intact by the time Friday rolls around.

Aztec Salad (from my mama)
Serves 4-6 sides

For the salad:
15 oz can black beans, rinsed and drained
15 oz can corn, drained
2 large tomatoes, diced
1 large green pepper, diced
1 large red or yellow pepper, diced
1 jalapeno, seeds removed, diced
½ cup chopped red onion
¾ cup chopped fresh cilantro
½ cup chopped or shredded carrot (optional)

¼ cup green olives (optional)

For the dressing:
2 Tbsp seasoned rice vinegar
Tbsp  apple cider vinegar
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
pinch of cayenne
½-1 tsp salt

juice of one lime

Mix the salad ingredients together in a large bowl. Set aside. In a small bowl, combine all dressing ingredients. Pour over large bowl and mix thoroughly.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Rosemary-Cucumber Gin Fizz

As Spring takes its sweet-ass time rolling into New York, and produce of the season anew is on the forefront of our minds but not yet in our hands, I would like to remind you of one warm-weather phenomenon that we can count on for punctuality: cocktails! While we patiently await for asparagus, peas, and sun; bartenders, busy behind counters, work their dexterous magic to revive cocktail menus for the season of rebirth. Get ready for fresh herbs, spritely citrus, and vibrant vegetables to whip mimosas, gimlets, and Pimm's cups into seasonal shape! But locking up those mulled wines and hot toddy's with your winter puffer is only the first step— do not underestimate the serious thought required in creating your ultimate springtime imbibement. Luckily, I've given it lots.

Many factors must be weighed in the making of a solid springtime cocktail. Is it light enough to feel warm-weather appropriate, yet suitably flavorful to hold your interest? Does it acknowledge the juices, spices, citruses, and other edible accouterments of the season, yet boast an ingredient list that is common and pantry item plenty? Finally, does it taste fair-weather nectarous, without screaming sugar hangover in the morning? Answering a firm "yes" to each of these questions, I introduce to you a Rosemary-Cucumber Gin Fizz to sip into Spring.

A quick tutorial on our spirit of the hour. While many associate gin with the English, its origins actually trace back to 16-century Holland, where it was used mostly for medicinal purposes. Gin's blend of herbs and aromatics were believed to "guard against all the ills to which flesh was heir." Chief among those aromatics is juniper, its Dutch translation, genever, is the linguistic root of the word gin. But for gin's distinguishing strong perfume, juniper cannot take all the credit— licorice, dried citrus peel, caraway, and coriander seeds also contribute to the spirit's unique bouquet.

So, what do all all of these herbs and aromatics mean for us? Basically, versatility is the name of the game—we can blend our gin with all sorts of liquors and fruit juices! But remember, our libation is a marathon, not a sprint, so subtly is key.

Aside from gin, this drink has only five ingredients —lemon, sugar, seltzer, rosemary, and cucumber—and each component plays an essential role. The first three comprise a classic “fizz” base; combining sour with effervescence to kick-start our taste buds. Rosemary brings an herbal twist; infusing woodsy, evergreen notes into the simple syrup that nod to the gin’s natural aromatics and also quell the tartness of the lemon. The finishing touch is a cucumber slice, a tangible token of ubiquitous refreshment. Lightly herbal, revitalizing, and delicate: it's quite spa-esque, and it's quite delish.
I've provided a recipe for one (strong) cocktail and enough simple syrup for about twenty—really, this drink begs to be made as a pitcher. If you enjoy rosemary, let the sprigs steep in the simple syrup for a few hours to achieve maximum flavor. (The syrup can be prepared ahead and chilled for about 1 week.) Also, feel free to experiment with your herbs and citruses: consider swapping the rosemary for basil, or lemon for lime, a la gimlet.
Rosemary-Cucumber Gin Fizz (adapted from Sassy Radish)
Makes 1 drink and 2 cups rosemary syrup

¼ cup (2 oz) gin
½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice
½ cup sugar
Ice cubes
Cold club soda
Cucumber slice
4 rosemary springs +1 extra sprig for garnish

1. Make the rosemary syrup: Combine 2 cups water, the sugar, and the 4 rosemary sprigs in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then simmer over moderately low heat for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and let steep for 10 minutes. Strain the syrup and chill.
2. In a tall glass, stir the gin, lemon juice and 1 ½ tablespoons of rosemary syrup.
3 Fill the glass halfway with ice; top with club soda. Add the cucumber slice. Garnish with the rosemary and serve.

Reference: Walton, Stuart. The Bartender's Guide to Mixing 600 Cocktails & Drinks. London: Anness Publishing Ltd, 2009. Print.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Spice Merchant Cauliflower Couscous with Shrimp and Snow Peas

Okay cauliflower, let's talk about you and your fancy facades. First, you masqueraded as a large, beefy steak.  Now you’re tiny and mighty, disguised furtively as couscous!? Proving once again that our cruciferous friend is indeed the most chameleonic vegetable out there, I hereby present to you this recipe for Spice Merchant Cauliflower Couscous with Shrimp and Snow Peas.
The concept of cauliflower couscous is plenty enchanting on its own. Ten seconds of food processor pulsing creates uniform kernels, which are then pan-sautéed for a mere 7 minutes to produce a soft, fluffy grain that’s indistinguishable from real couscous—except that it’s one-tenth the calories. But the remarkable couscous is just the first of many surprising standouts in this dish. Next we have the Middle Eastern spices, featuring newcomer za’atar; on top of that, adorning jewels of sultanas and cashews. Maybe it's because I just saw Aladdin on Broadway, but the phrase "spice merchant" is running wild through my imagination... I totally picture these spices, dried fruits, and nuts at Aladdin's marketplace—bartered but more likely stolen, of course—for this dish, worthy of the Sultan of Agrabah! The spices feel almost luxurious, so distinctly Middle Eastern that you immediately feel transported (to a whole new world? Ok I'll stop), but really, the departure from everyday spice is really special.
If you are not familiar with za’atar, here's the scoop. A za'atar spice blend features thyme, sesame seeds, sea salt, and sumac (the least known but most integral part.) Sumac is biting and tart, lending piquancy to this herby delicious melody of flavors.  Because I had all of these spices on hand, I made the za'atar myself following this recipe from 101 Cookbooks, although it's readily available at any specialty food store (and from what I've been told, some Whole Foods as well.) 
This dish was designed as a side,  so I added in shrimp and snow peas for some protein and gusto to transform it into a dinnertime main. The cauliflower couscous so closely also resembles rice, upon completion the dish looked deceivingly Asian—shrimp fried rice! But of course, the flavors were anything but: here, tart, tangy sumac and lemon zest & juice are equipoised by grassy olive oil and earthy cauliflower, sweet yellow raisins and crunchy cashews offer bites of new flavor, and juicy shrimp and snow peas contribute their substantive punch.  Yes, it's a hodge-podge of tang and taste—but one that works brilliantly at the finish line.
Spice Merchant Cauliflower Couscous with Shrimp and Snow Peas (adapted from QueenSashy. In addition to adding shrimp and snow peas, i greatly reduced the amount of olive oil and doubled the serving of za'atar.)
Serves 4

1 large cauliflower (about 1 ½ pound of cauliflower florets)
5 ounces raw cashews
3 ounces sultanas (gold raisins)
1 ½  tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 teaspoon za’atar
½ teaspoon cumin
1 garlic clove, crushed
¼ teaspoon finely shredded lemon zest
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 lb shrimp, cleaned and deveined
6 ounces snow peas

1. Place the sultanas in a bowl and pour warm water over them. Leave for about 15 minutes, until sultanas are plump. Drain and discard the water.
2. Heat a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium low, add the cashews and toast them for about 8 minutes, until lightly golden. Stir frequently to make sure that cashews do not burn. Let the cashews cool, then chop into small pieces.
3. Break the cauliflower into florets, making sure to leave behind as much of the stem as possible. Chop the florets into smaller pieces. Transfer the cauliflower into food processor in batches, and pulse until the pieces are finely chopped and resemble couscous. Be careful not to over-process.
4. In a large sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the cauliflower couscous to the pan and cook for about 7 minutes, stirring frequently.
5. Remove the couscous from the heat and let it cool. In the same pan, flash-sauté the snow peas until just soft, 2-3 minutes.
6. To the couscous, add the snow peas, sultanas, cashews, za’atar, cumin, parsley, garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, and the remaining two teaspoons of olive oil. Season with plenty of salt and pepper.
7. Leave the couscous for about 15 minutes for the flavors to combine. While the couscous is sitting, cook shrimp in the pan (1-2 minutes on each side; more if frozen).  Add to couscous.

8. Serve at room temperature.

Za'atar Spice Blend Recipe (from 101 Cookbooks)
Makes about ¼ cup

4 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, stripped from stems
2 teaspoons ground sumac
scant ½ teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste

1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

1. Place thyme leaves on a baking sheet in a 300F oven until dry, just ten minutes or so—long enough that they'll crumble between pinched fingers. Let cool.
2. Use a mortar and pestle (or back of a spoon) to grind the thyme leave finely. If your thyme is at all stem-y or fibrous, sift to remove any larger particles. Transfer to a small bowl, and aside.
3. Crush the sumac finely with the mortar and pestle/spoon, add the salt and crush with the sumac. Add the thyme back, and grind together a bit. Stir in the sesame seeds, taste, and adjust to your liking, perhaps with a bit more salt, or sumac, or sesame seeds. Any za'atar you might not use in the coming days keeps best refrigerated (or in the freezer) if you make a double or triple batch.