As Seen At the Market

One of the things I assumed I would miss most when switching careers from journalist to cooking school owner was meeting interesting characters and walking into scenes you never dreamed you’d find yourself in, like walking up the steps of City Hall and interviewing Mayor Ed Koch during an election bid in 1981 at the ripe old age of 18.

 

 

Look at that hair....

 

But over the last two years, I realized my fears were completely and delightfully unfounded. If you really love to cook you can end up doing the same kind of research and probing as any journalist – you should see my library of cookbooks and magazine clippings!  Now, instead of hunting down subjects for a story, I’m hunting down ingredients and sharing recipes with people, from farmer’s markets to subway platforms. People always have a recipe to share, just like they had great leads to tell me in the past.

 

 

 

Of course you probably wonder how this relates to recipes and cooking, so I’ll step off memory lane and get to the point. Recently we started a new series of cooking classes called Spice Market, where we teach how to blend spices and herbs for exotic cuisines. Our first class took us to India, Morocco and Turkey, and we had to learn about ingredients even we rarely, if ever, used before, like asafoetida, preserved lemons and rosewater. Where do you get such ingredients? Some you can make yourself (come back soon and you’ll see a post on preserved lemons), but others, like rosewater, you may have to hunt for.

 

 

I googled preserved lemons and rosewater and was lucky enough to find a store called Sayad International specializing in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, not far from our house. The store was filled with exotically flavored ingredients, such as pickled wild cucumbers, Moroccan sardines, and dried hibiscus flowers. The store, which smells like Persian tea, dried fruits and spices was cramped and dark but full of discoveries. It’s the kind of place you say,  “I hope I remember this place next time I’m looking for [blank].” I can’t imagine we’d ever need Moroccan sardines, but I was thrilled to know that I wouldn’t have to travel long distances (or pay high shipping charges) if I did.

 

 

We’ve all passed over recipes because we don’t want to deal with finding a weird ingredient or an odd kitchen gizmo. Take these moments as opportunities for adventure. You can always order these things online, but your life will be so much richer if you jump in the car and track them down yourselves.

 

 

In honor of these adventures, I’m going to share a recipe inspired by the research I did for our first Spice Market class. The rosewater and mint really makes the watermelon come alive, and it’s the perfect, refreshing way to end a highly flavorful meal. So bring this tiny adventure into your home, and try to find mini food adventures where you live. You are almost guaranteed to have a great story to tell and maybe even a new recipe when you return.

 Enjoy!

Recipe!

Pomegranate-Watermelon Salad with Mint and Rosewater

Ingredients:

  • 1 small watermelon, weighing about 3 1/2 pounds (or a wedge of a larger watermelon)
  • 2-3 tablespoons of rosewater, depending on how strong a flavor you would like
  • 3 tablespoons pomegranate seeds
  • 4 tablespoons pomegranate juice
  • 1-2 tablespoons fragrant honey (such as wildflower)
  • 12-15 small to medium sized mint leaves, for garnish

Directions:

  1. Cut watermelon into bite-sized pieces
  2. Add the pomegranate seeds
  3. MIx rosewater, pomegranate juice and honey in a bowl
  4. Pour over watermelon and seeds. Mix well.
  5. Cover and chill for about an hour before serving.

Behind the Scenes

The slate hides behind the scenes while we wait to shoot.

It would be very pretentious for me to call myself a film buff, since that would imply I actually know something, but at the very least I’m a bit of a film junkie. I was blessed to grow up minutes from the most amazing video store in the whole world (seriously) so my childhood summers were full of movies. Before I realized how bad I am at acting (which took frighteningly long), I dreamed of being in one. I know every little girl dreams of putting on sparkly costumes, being on a red carpet and feigning surprise when she wins an Oscar, but I always thought being behind the scenes looked like more fun than all those things. When I was eight or so, my parents got me The Santa Clause on VHS, and a featurette at the end described how tough it is to make movies because, just like Santa’s Elves, filmmakers do so much work behind the scenes. It looked wonderful. And it is.

Sofia, our Cinematographer, sets up the camera

In this featurette, Bernard the Elf says filmmaking is full of waiting around. To a degree he’s right, but that’s a bit misleading. There may be a lot of time when the camera’s not rolling, but from what I can tell, it’s never dull. So much happens between takes:

Alex B. and Sofia (Camera) tinker with the 5D

This camera is a work of art in and of itself

Cyrus (Actor) stretches and warms up

Cyrus, or

Isabel (2nd Assistant Director) plays Jenga, so the actors have a perfect half-completed game every time

Our actors were brilliant jenga players. Brilliant. In one take, Cyrus turned the whole thing around, when it was almost entirely stacked up. It blew my mind.

Alex L. (Director) takes a break…

This was not typical

(just kidding)

… and I get to do my dishes! Ok, I know it sounds like I’m starstruck and trying to make this sound like more fun than it is, but from mistakes and mishaps – broken microphones and rogue ringtones – to last minute requests (I was the only person on set in possession of nail polish remover), to the quiet, exhausted thrill of finding the best takes at the end of the day, the process is full of awesome, exciting extremes.

It's just like in the movies...

But you didn’t come here to learn about film, you came to learn about food, and I’ve hijacked your time (sorry) (it’s for your own good, you know), so on to more important things. Cooking for the Cast and Crew was the most rewarding adventure I’ve had had since beginning college. Cooking for 15 people, no matter who they are, teaches the arts of efficiency and flexibility like nothing else, except perhaps making a movie. One actor turned out to be lactose intolerant, so I coordinated Banana Pancakes against dairy-free scrambled eggs, Cream of Broccoli Soup against dairy-free scrambled eggs, Bread and Butter against dairy-free scrambled eggs… you get the picture. Then, I needed to have dinner ready an hour early, and my puff pastry was still frozen, so I rearranged the recipe for  Caramelized Onion Squares with Blue Cheese so that the onions would be ready just as the puff pastry finished defrosting. Then, when I didn’t make nearly enough Caramelized Onion Squares I tossed an emergency salad to stretch dinner farther. As I cooked, I realized that these challenges weren’t unique to this job, or even to catering. Cooking nearly always comes with setbacks. This was just like throwing a dinner party.

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I remember a party where mom and I planned shrimp for dinner, only to find out, upon their arrival, that our guests kept kosher. Another time, on Thanksgiving no less, somebody (certainly nobody writing this post) pureed the mashed potatoes beyond recognition. But we found Salmon for our friends, and the mashed potatoes still tasted fine. And luckily, behind-the-scenes mishaps make great stories. Most importantly, they make the end – meal, party or film –  so much more satisfying. A lot goes into a finished product, just like Bernard the Elf said. But now I know, as I always suspected, that’s part of the fun.

See how much they're enjoying that soup? That's because I made it.

Of course, it never hurts when people thank you profusely and ask you for your recipes afterwards. Below is the recipe for Caramelized Onion Squares with Blue Cheese, my favorite of the day. It can be used as an appetizer, or as a main course aside a nice tossed salad (plan on 5-6 squares per person). Either way they’re addictive.

Below that you’ll find some final pictures of the shoot. And here is a link to the film itself [Rated PG for brief tobacco references], appropriately titled The End.

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Also, a big Thank You to Alex for inviting me on set, and to the entire cast and crew of The End for letting me join you on this project! You were all so much fun to work and talk with, and such a joy to cook for.

Yoni, producer, works out technical issues over lunch.

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(31) Crazy Nights

The holidays are a busy time for everyone. So, since I was off in the city taking finals and everyone else was so caught up with, well, Christmas preparations, it’s easy to see how an eight-day holiday might be celebrated on the 31st rather than the 1st. To be honest, we did light the candles. And we said a prayer over them. And Francesca explained the importance of the Shammash (it’s a big helper, just like her) as Isabella blasted Candlelight. But I had an English final to write, and so we were forced to neglect the most important part of the Hanukkah celebrations. The potatoes sat lonely and unpeeled, the oil remained in its container, and there was no mess on the stove or the microplane. Yes, our grand Potato Pancake Plans had been foiled by the cruel march of time. It was a real snub to half my heritage.

That night as I nestled all snug in my bed, visions of latkes danced in my head. And over the following weeks I couldn’t shake the sad feeling that something was missing from my December. The potatoes were calling to me. Honestly.

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I need therapy.

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But when New Years Eve finally rolled around and mommy was planning a menu for our quiet New Years evening of Munchies and Mad Men, I seized my opportunity. “Yes, of course I’ll grate the potatoes, Mommy!” I promised. “I’ll do the whole thing myself!” And so she agreed. Because I said I’d do it.

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In my head I was a bit terrified. Grating is so labor intensive, and I have a slight fear of deep frying. But with the strength of the Maccabees behind me (they certainly didn’t have microplanes…) I charged on. And to my surprise and delight, it wasn’t that hard!

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You do have to grate the potatoes on this setting.

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And you’re *supposed* to grate the onions on this setting…

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But you could also just put them in one of these…

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And go until they look like this…

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And so once you’re done with that, all you have to do is mix them with the potatoes, flour, egg and salt to get this beautiful batter.

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And you get these heavenly Hanukkah (or rather New Years) miracles!

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Obviously, you don’t have to be any part Jewish to fall in love with these. Pancakes this style are ubiquitous throughout Europe, and I like to think there’s nobody in this world who doesn’t love fried potatoes. They’re the finest form of simplicity, and they’re great all year round, particularly for celebrations. And yes they make a bit of a mess… but they’re entirely worth it.

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Joyous New Year! We are so happy to have you all as readers, and we can’t wait to share even more with you in 2011.

 

New Year Latkes (Potato Pancakes)

From: Gabrielle Siegel, Adapted from Leah H. Leonard’s Jewish Cookery (1949)

Ingredients:

  • 6 Medium Potatoes
  • 1 Medium Onion
  • 2 Eggs
  • 1/2 Cup Flour
  • 1 Teaspoon Salt
  • Vegetable oil

Directions:

  1. Peel potatoes and grate into a large bowl.
  2. Squeeze out the liquid. This is very important. I speak from experience. Recent experience.
  3. Peel and finely grate the onion. Or just puree in an immersion blender.
  4. Add onion to potatoes, and mix in eggs, flour and salt, and stir to blend.
  5. Add enough oil to a wide, heavy frying pan to fully cover pancakes, and heat on high. Drop in a tiny bit of batter as the oil is heating. When the batter begins to sizzle, you know it’s hot enough.
  6. When oil is hot, lower stove temperature to medium-high, and drop in batter with a spoon to make pancakes approximately 1/2 inch thick, and 4 inches wide (give or take, it’s all a matter of personal preference)
  7. Fry, flipping every few minutes, until both sides are golden brown
  8. Lift out with spatula onto plate with paper towels on it. Pat dry and serve immediately.

Fig Season is Here!

People often ask me if we sell figs or only teach classes that feature dishes made with figs. It’s fair question considering the names of this blog and my business, The Fig Cooking School, LLC. The truth is that the name was actually inspired by my three charming daughters, Francesca, Isabella and Gabrielle. But we also happen to adore figs and love cooking and baking with them when they’re in season, which is, sadly, oh so fleeting. We are now fortunately now in the height of fig season here in Connecticut and we’ve been cooking up a storm with them.

We thought we’d share with you one of our favorite recipes for honey roasted figs that is extremely versatile. Roasted figs on French bread paired with cheese and a bit of arugula and nuts make elegant hors d’oeuvres. They can also be used in a salad made of mixed greens, French string beans and fruits, or as a side dish with any roast in the early fall. Enjoy these recipes and tell us what you think. We’d love to get your feedback!

 

Honey Roasted Figs with Haricots Verts and mixed greens in a Shallot vinaigrette dressing

From: Heide Lang

Ingredients:

  • One batch of honey roasted figs (see above)
  • 1 pound of string beans
  • 2 cups mixed greens
  • 2 cups arugula
  • 4-6 ounces goat cheese, dolce Gorgonzola, or blue cheese
  • 1 large apple or pear sliced thin
  • ½  cup toasted walnuts or almonds
  • 1/3 cup dried apricots, cherries or cranberries (optional) or another favorite fruit
  • 3-4 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
  • ¼  cup balsamic (either traditional or white) or champagne vinegar
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • ¾  teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½  teaspoon pepper

Directions:

  1. Cut the ends of the French beans and place into pot of boiling water for just two minutes (do not overcook)
  2. Quickly drain string beans into pot cold water with ice. Let string beans cool completely in the ice water in order to prevent the string beans from cooking further.
  3. When cool, dry the string beans in a tea towel or paper towels
  4. Place walnuts on a cookie sheet and bake at 350 for 5-7 minutes until just slightly browned. Put aside.
  5. Wash arugula and mixed greens and place in a large bowl or platter along with the string beans.
  6. Add the fresh fruit, dried fruit and nuts; toss gently
  7. Mix in a small bowl or measuring cup the shallots, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Pour over mixture and gently toss again.
  8. Arrange the figs on top of the salad along with the cheese, making sure that each guest receives some figs and cheese when served.

Basic Honey-Roasted Figs

From: Heide Lang

Ingredients:

  • 14 figs (about a pound)
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 2 teaspoons of finely chopped fresh rosemary or thyme (optional)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees
  2. Slice figs in half and place cut side up on cookie platter lined with foil and lightly greased with olive oil
  3. Brush figs with honey and sprinkle rosemary or thyme evenly over them (herbs optional)
  4. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper
  5. Place in the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the honey begins to caramelize. Let figs cool to room temperature

Honey roasted figs with French bread

From: Heide Lang

Ingredients:

  • One batch of honey roasted figs (see above)
  • 28 thinly sliced slices French bread
  • 6-8 ounces of your favorite goat cheese, dolce Gorgonzola, blue cheese, St. Andre, or mascarpone
  • ¼ cup coarsely coarsely chopped toasted walnuts
  • 28 arugula leaves

Directions:

  1. Spread cheese on the French bread and place one arugula leaf on each one.
  2. Place one honey roasted fig on each bread slice and top with a few pieces of chopped walnuts