Because a bare cupboard and an empty fridge are sad sights to behold, the Urban Forager hunts through food & wine shops bringing home tasty morsels that make your kitchen table the best place to eat in town.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pea Soup - Not Just for Winter Anymore

When you have a small kitchen, choosing which tools and gadgets deserve a drawer or cupboard or spot on the counter involves ruthless triage. A toaster, coffee maker, food processor and KitchenAid mixer are the only large items that make the cut in my kitchen. The crockpot (I miss it) and microwave (don't miss it at all) had to be banished to the garage. I gave the breadmaker away and the ice-cream maker is in my bedroom closet (which doesn't inspire much hope that I'll suddenly start churning ice-cream every week. Anyone want an ice-cream maker?)

Smaller items I give a little more leeway to. Certain kitchen tools stay in one of my three kitchen drawers not because I use the tools all the time, but because they do one specific job really well. Like a tiny sieve I use to make Summer Pea Soup with Cardamom. Whenever I make this soup I am reminded how much I love this little sieve, even though I honestly don't remember how or when it even ended up in my kitchen. From where does this love spring? From the silky smooth texture of the soup, that's where.

This soup involves three steps: simmer the peas, puree the peas, push the peas through a sieve. This third step traps the chunky insides and skin of the peas and releases their essence, a liquid form of pure flavor. Do not try this soup without a sieve - both a colander and cheese cloth will result in a soup texture that is unappealingly babyfood-like. But when the soup is made right, it's hard to believe such a simple process can yield such a lovely soup.

Summer Pea Soup with Cardamom
3 cups fresh peas or a 16 oz bag of frozen peas
3/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1/8 tsp cardamom or more to taste (but don't overdo it - the cardamom should be very subtle)
Optional garnish: fresh parsley and a swirl of creme fraiche

Simmer the peas in the broth for five minutes or until just soft. Puree in a blender or food processor. Pour a little bit of the puree into the sieve at a time. Hold the sieve over a medium-sized bowl, or the pot you simmered the peas in. Push a spoon against the peas, mashing them so their liquid drips into the bowl. Discard the chunky remains of the peas (or eat them later with salt). Re-warm the pea soup, adding more broth if you want the texture to be thinner. Add the cardamom and a pinch of salt.
Garnish with parsley and/or creme fraiche.

Recipe by J.Meier

Monday, June 22, 2009

Dried vs Canned Beans

I have always felt a little bit guilty when I buy beans in a can. Granted, there are much bigger things in life to feel guilty about. But along with a degree from a culinary school comes a lifetime of guilt whenever you take shortcuts in the kitchen. Cake mixes? No way! Store-bought pie crusts? Never! (except for every time I make a pie...) Pasta sauce in a jar? Why, when I can spend six hours making my own? The same goes for canned beans. Real cooks use dried beans. Real cooks know that the hours of soaking and cooking dried beans result in a flavor that is far, far superior to canned beans. At least this is what always goes through my head when I buy cans of black beans and pinto beans and garbanzo beans each week.

But not this week. I reached for the can of garbanzos on the grocery store shelf, then paused. And right there in the bean aisle I made a decision to change my life. I was going to start buying dried beans.

But change is never easy. I began, of course, by using a shortcut; instead of soaking the dried garbanzos overnight the package said I could boil them for 2 minutes and soak for only 1 hour. After an hour of soaking I transferred the beans into a vessel (a crock pot) where they could slowly and comfortably cook into the amazing beans they were supposed to be. And while I went about my day, those little beans cooked and cooked and cooked. As they filled the house with an amazing aroma I kept thinking, cooking beans in a crock-pot is so easy! Why did I ever buy those pathetic canned beans anyway?

But seven, yes, seven hours later those canned beans weren't seeming so pathetic. I'm not sure if I was disappointed or pleased to find out that dried garbanzo beans, carefully cooked for seven long hours, tasted exactly like the garbanzo beans I'd been buying in cans all these years.

Eventually I'll give dried black beans and pinto beans a fair chance to prove their superiority and I'll let you know how it goes. But garbanzos? I'm back to buying them in a can, without the tiniest bit of guilt.

Curried Garbanzo Beans

1/2 onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced or put through a garlic press
1 can garbanzo beans, with liquid
1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
1/2 cup broth (or water)
2 carrots, sliced thinly (optional)
1 cinnamon stick, broken in half
1 1/2 tsp red curry powder

Saute onion in olive oil until soft. Add garlic. Just as garlic starts to brown add the rest of ingredients. Simmer on low until broth reduces and mixture is somewhat thick, about 25 minutes. Salt to taste. Serve over rice.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Best New Picnic Spot

I love picnics. I can't tell you the last time I went on one, but I love them. I think this stems back to a childhood book - I don't remember the title or most of the plot but what's always stuck with me is a scene involving a red gingham table cloth spread on the grass & a chocolate cake. They brought an entire chocolate cake to their picnic. How can you not fall in love with that?

If you happen to be in New York this summer, I highly recommend picnicking on the newly-opened High Line. I visited this weekend and even in gray, rainy weather I was amazed by this magical park set 30 feet above the ground. An elevated train line, abandoned for almost 30 years, has been transformed into what I think is one of the most impressive and creative new green spaces in a downtown setting. There are only a few tables (which may make it difficult to bring an entire chocolate cake) but there are plenty of benches and seats. I even spotted a City Bakery pastry cart, so if you don't pack in your own picnic, you won't go hungry. You can take in the views of the city, or pretend it doesn't exist. You can gaze at wild flowers or at views of the Hudson River. There are apparently similar projects being created in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Jersey City and Chicago - soon all of you lucky dogs will have no excuse not to go on a picnic in the city.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Dressing Up

My favorite salad dressing for a long portion of my life - ranging from the age when memories first start up until the end of highschool- was Ranch dressing made from the dry mix. It was the official Meier household salad dressing, sworn in by Mom, who said it tasted better than bottled Ranch (she was right.) This was long before olive oil and balsamic vinegar and flax oil made it into our kitchen and long before any of us knew to feel incredibly guilty about eating ingredients like Maltodextrin, Monosodium Glutamate,Modified Food Starch, Casein and Hydroxypropyl MethylCellulose (mixed with mayo and buttermilk, of course).

It pleases me, though, that whenever I go home there is still an orange Tupperware container in the fridge filled with Ranch dressing. With all due respect to the farmer's market shopping-healthy eating-locavore dining-Michael Pollan disciples out there, (I can say this, because I am actually one of them) sometimes modified food starch and maltodextrin mixed with mayonnaise still tastes really good. Standing in the kitchen late at night reading a magazine and eating summer lettuce and a grilled chicken drumstick doused in Ranch dressing is much more fun than doing the same thing while eating micro-greens and sprouts doused in lemon juice. This is an irrefutable fact.

But as they say, you can't go back. Ranch dressing made from a dry mix is no longer the official household dressing at my parent's house; it is an indulgence for meals when the body is so overloaded with healthy omegas from flax oil that it can't take any more. In my own kitchen, I long depended on balsamic vinegar to dress salads then turned to fresh lemon when I moved to a city where lemons grew on trees outside the door. But lately, I have grown salad weary. I simply can't eat another bowl of such plainly dressed greens. I need a salad with a little more style. I want something that tastes good but doesn't make me feel guilty. This search will continue all summer I presume, but for now I have been satiated by a Mango-Avocado dressing that's incredibly easy to make. This recipe makes a few cups of the dressing and after a few days in the fridge it gets a little thick, so eat it sooner rather than later.

Mango-Avocado Dressing

In a blender mix:
1 peeled mango
1/2 of an avocado
1 tsp dijon mustard
1/2 of a jalapeno pepper, minced
1 Tbsp cilantro (or parsley)
1 Tbsp lime juice
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

Monday, June 1, 2009

Eat Yur Bitter Greens

Bitter gets a bad rap. The dictionary doesn't do the word any favors (having a harsh, disagreeably acrid taste; grievous; distressful; piercing; get the picture).Neither does life (usually used to describe exes we never want to see again.) But bitter happens to be a flavor I often enjoy (talk amongst yourselves about what this says about my personality) and I wish for the word that its definition was a little kinder.

Because it isn't, though, wine sellers stoop to using words like "pleasing astringency" instead of bitter, as writer Evan Spingarn explains in his piece about Wine for Adult Tastes. The world "sweet" is often tagged on to "bitter" when describing chocolate to make it more palatable. And when it comes to bitter greens they're often simmered for hours and drenched in fat to smooth out the very thing that makes them great: bitterness.

It is because of this long tradition of cooking bitter greens beyond recognition that greens such as mustard, collard and kale are often thought of as winter food. But when cooked with a lighter hand - a quick saute, a drizzle of olive oil, a paper-thin slice of prosciutto - greens are as summery as any salad out there.

Mustard greens are for the hardcore. Kale is for a more-sensitive palate. Collards are somewhere in between. I'm willing to bet you've passed over kale every time you're in the produce section. This week, don't. Grab one bunch (it wilts down to serve 3 people), chop it roughly and give it a rinse and dry in the salad spinner. Heat some olive oil (add mushrooms, onions or garlic if you like. Add a little prosciutto or bacon if the dish looks a little too green for your liking) and throw the kale in. Saute until the moment the greens wilt and the bright green color fades to a darker hue.

In the summer months, I like serving sauteed greens with fish (salmon is especially good) and white beans warmed right out of the can with fresh herbs sprinkled on top.