Squash blossom season

“Hi,” says an eager 10-year-old boy behind a table of greens—lots of Asian veggies—at the Marblehead Farmers’ Market. “Can I help you?”

I spot the basket of squash blossoms, rubber banded in bouquets and know immediately that I’ll be stuffing them with goat cheese and having them for lunch.

“I’ll take these and any advice you have,” I say to the boy and his grandmother.

“Just dip them in flour and an egg,” the boy says, “and saute them in olive oil. I really like them on pizza.”

“How do you know how to cook squash blossoms at your age?”

“My mom,” he says. “Don’t forget to take out the stamen.”

I like this kid. Like that he knows how to properly cook these blossoms that is not in everyone’s repertoire, especially a 10-year-old’s. I like that he knows the word stamen.

“You thinking of becoming a chef?” I ask.

“Maybe,” he says.

“I think you should,” I say. “I would come to your restaurant.”

I recall from last year’s failed experiment that squash blossoms don’t last. They’re fickle little things. One minute they’re perky, they next they’re wilting. I take them home and plunge them in water and get to work on making a simple mixture of flour, egg (a blue one that makes me ridiculously happy) and a little water. I start with this recipe for inspiration and realize I don’t have seltzer water or cayenne pepper, and crab meat seem too much for these delicate flowers, and I certainly don’t want to use ricotta when I can use goat cheese.

I gently rinse the blossoms, letting the water open them up, dry them, then stuff them with goat cheese. I dredge them in the pancake-like batter and saute them for a few minutes until they brown. I go a little too heavy on the batter—a messy presentation that my 10-year-old friend would not approve of—but they’re crisp and delicious and I eat every last one.

A recipe that took as long as the Oscars

Even though I know you should read a recipe before you attempt it, I failed to follow my own advice and embarked on an epic communion with my kitchen Sunday afternoon to make this layered salted caramel shortbread in time for the red carpet action. By the time the Best Actor category rolled around, about seven hours into the show, it was done. Mostly.

But I couldn’t give up. The recipe and picture in Ready Made magazine were swoonable, no?

The goal

The first step involved my least favorite baking instruction: combine flour and cold butter to make a dough. Flour and cold butter do no like each other, but I force them to play nice and let the dough rest in the fridge for an hour. The dough hits the oven and emerges as shortbread; then I make caramel and layer that on the shortbread. Into the fridge for another hour. Next up: a stab at tempering chocolate—a complicated recipe in itself because temperature is key and my candy thermometer is vague. I taste the dark chocolate and it has an odd, fruity taste, and I start to regret buying cheap chocolate at Trader Joe’s. The chocolate (tempered?) gets spread on top of the caramel to set—another eternity.

In fact, it’s not humanly possible to wait until it sets, so I cut into it and it oozes all over the place and marvel at how unlike the picture it looks. It’s as if I entered the Ruin this Recipe contest. Winner!

Huh. Did I miss a step?

Gnocchi: the good, the bad and the sticky

Last week, I was excited to try a new recipe for sweet potato gnocchi that sounded well, not easy, but manageable. Three hours later, I was heaping abuse on the potatoes that I was too impatient to roast long enough. Why are you so hard? You stupid, stupid potatoes! All traces of my Irish heritage evaporated. It was a potato famine in my own kitchen. 

Salvaging the good potatoes, I mashed them till soft and added flour until it formed the stickiest, most irritating dough ever. Despite hills of flour, the dough stuck to the counter and my hands and attacked my clothes. The next step—rolling them into ropes—was no better. The sticky ropes broke and I broke down. It was 9:00 and dinner time had come and gone. I was hungry enough to eat the uncooked dough, which was convenient because by the time I gave up on forming them into gnocchi shapes with a fork, I just starting throwing blobs of dough into the boiling water for the gummiest pasta ever. Cooked? Uncooked? Who could tell?

So, this week, I rallied to redeem myself, trying The Wednesday Chef’s recipe for Gnocchi alla Romana that makes a bigger, circular gnocchi that required no rolling or dough. Instead, you mix the polenta-like batter with parmigiano-reggiano cheese and eggs, spread it out on a cookie sheet to chill, and bake it. You know what? Totally doable. 

These are the round, overlapping discs before they go into the oven:

And then, lightly browned, with some sauce:

No potatoes, no meltdowns. Dinner at 7:00.

These are hot tamales

Every time my brother-in-law’s mother visits him, she makes him a freezerful of pasteles that she carries with her on the plane. These pasteles are hot tamales (except they’re not, technically), but I was lucky enough to try one of the traditional Puerto Rican dishes while I was visiting at Christmas by digging around the freezer in the middle of the night. Well, it was slightly more above-board than that, but I would have . . .

Masa harina, the main ingredient, surrounds shredded chicken, olives, and spices, all wrapped up in a giant, glossy banana leaf. You warm the tasty little package in the leaf and unwrap it like a present. Here’s one recipe for the treat, traditionally served around Christmas. These little numbers take a couple of days to make; in fact, there was mention of an assembly line to crank out a batch. Best to have your pasteles hand delivered off the plane. 

Pork buns

Sometimes New York is worth the 4-hour trip if it means chowing on pork buns from Ippudo. But sometimes, you reason that 4 hours is a long drive and there might be traffic, and maybe you should just improvise at home. So, the beau and I glazed and slow-roasted a pork butt, shredded it, and paired it with delightful pita from Sofra, which are nothing at all like the dry pita you get at the grocery store but are in fact, mini sandwich clouds. Well, I’ll be a pork’s butt. It was delicious. 

Apple crumble minus the apples

I came home the other day to the aroma of Thanksgiving in the kitchen. My roommate had made an apple crumble, its cinnamon permeating the house in a demanding way. I can take or leave baked apples, but the crumble topping, courtesy of Mark Bittman, was nutty and perfect. I decided to make my own crumble, sans apples, as a granola-like snack. Tossing the oats and chopped walnuts with cinnamon, butter, sugar, and flour, I threw in some sliced almonds and baked away. Result: a dry, floury mess marred by burnt almonds. More butter didn’t help; apparently, the apple part is crucial. Alas, it was edible, so I paired a warm scoop of the crunchy concoction with vanilla ice cream, because ice cream makes everything better. So, there’s your take away. I know you thought it was Don’t make apple crumble without the apples. But it’s actually, When in doubt, add ice cream.

 

This crumble looks way better than mine.

This crumble looks way better than mine.

Suspicious brownies

I was at a yard sale recently with a theme: Kids for Obama, and while I felt certain the kids were induced to sell their toys to make some money unaware that their profits would be mailed to a political campaign, I felt compelled to buy a brownie 1) because I love brownies, and 2) because if eating brownies can help Obama win the election, I will devour a pan full of chocolate goodness. I will not shirk my civic duty. Of course, the $2 price tag for a minuscule brownie square was a bit steep, but it was a fundraiser so I paid up and ate my rich, chocolatey brownie, thinking they must have used some high quality chocolate in these brownie, Scharffen Berger perhaps? They kids were, after all, elitist Democrats.

Buying brownies from these unwitting political pawns reminded me of an ex-boyfriend who was appalled that I once bought food from kids at a lemonade stand—kids who charged a reasonable 50 cents for their brownies and looked at the shiny quarters as better than chocolate. You don’t know what’s in those brownies, my ex said. I suppose you are taking a leap when you buy food from a stranger, but the likelihood that the kids or their families would spend time organizing a yard sale only to spike the brownies with arsenic seemed low. Plus, it would be easy enough to trace the suspicious goods back to the address and have the evildoers arrested. That being said, I have cooked with kids and know that the real danger is that they’re slobbering little germs apt to lick their fingers and stick them back in the bowl.

My chef’s knife wants me dead

After spending 45 minutes recently cubing some sinewy pork with a dull knife, I decided to invest in a dreamy kitchen tool: a knife that cuts. After watching a fortuitous episode of Alton Brown’s Good Eats on knife basics and taking Cook’s Illustrated’s recommendation, I purchased the Forschner Fibrox 8-inch chef’s knife for less than $30. It worked so effectively that it sliced my finger before I even had it out of the packaging.

Mind you, the packaging itself—that unforgiving plastic aimed to maim—was no picnic either. After ten minutes of intermittent bleeding and chopping, I realized I had what amounted to a giant paper cut, a wound that looks a lot worse when your blood is dripping onto whitish celeriac (which turned out to be a veggie as bland as its color, by the way), and stopped hyperventilating. I must say, it’s a marvelous knife—a very smooth slicer even when battling the tough root, but now I’m afraid of it. I’m afraid to wash it, let alone use it again, and I’m especially wary of storing it until I have a proper cover. I suppose I’ll have to invest in a sharpener as well, but right now, I can confirm that’s it’s super sharp. To make it worse, it’s still sitting on the cutting board and looking not-at-all guilty.

This is the perpetrator: