Saturday, May 31, 2008

Get Your Own Frittata

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: wasting food makes me cranky. Food is not cheap, for one thing, and I hate wasting money even more than I hate wasting food; when the two go hand in hand, I become apoplectic. And then there’s the environmental cost of food that doesn’t get eaten – it’s enough to give a girl a headache.

To avoid unnecessary trips to the compost heap, I obsessively take stock of the refrigerator to see what needs to be used up. I often get myself into this mess, of course, by buying unusual ingredients for recipes that I want to try, but then having small leftover quantities of said ingredients that end up languishing in the refrigerator while I scrounge for another use for them.

Yesterday though, it wasn’t entirely my fault that I found myself with a head of bok choy from our CSA box that was entirely too small to really do anything with. I desperately wanted to use it, and I’d never used bok choy before, but seriously, this thing had about 10 palm-sized leaves on it, and I had three adults and a midget to feed. Plus there was one lonely miniature organic bell pepper rolling around in the bottom of the crisper drawer, the lone unused member of a three-pack that I had purchased a week or so ago.

It is at times like this that I rely on one of my clean-out-the-fridge-recipes. These instances are perfect for pizzas, calzones, pasta salads, frittatas or quiches. And since I had no time for pizza dough or pie crusts, I stuck my entire torso into the nether regions of the fridge and started digging for more frittata fillings.

A frittata is essentially a quiche without a crust, or an omelet that isn’t folded. I love these things. They are the perfect meatless entrée, marry well (unlike my mother) with all manner of side dishes, and best of all, any recipe for a frittata is essentially just a framework by which you can make do with what you’ve got. I come from a long line of women who say things like, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,” and “Waste not, want not.” Frittatas were made for people like us.

To make a perfect frittata, you need 8 eggs, a little bit of cream, half-and-half, or milk; two cups of cooked vegetables, a pinch of aromatics, a small handful of herbs and some cheese. In my experience, no combination is a bad one. Yesterday’s fridge-diving quest yielded the afore-mentioned bell pepper and bok choy, along with some blue cheese, flat-leaf parsley, and leeks that were on their way to becoming casualties. I wasn’t entirely sure these ingredients were going to play well with each other, but our options were few, and besides, I also had a giant head of lettuce from the farm and I was going to be serving a large salad alongside the frittata, so my bets were safely hedged.

Of course, if it hadn’t turned out fabulously in the end, I wouldn’t be sharing it here. But there were some bumps in the road. First, I wasn’t entirely sure how to cook the bok choy and I hadn’t a clue as to how much of the base of the head should be used. Normally, I would check online, or peek through one of my cookbooks, but I felt like living dangerously. And this is about as reckless as I get these days. So I lopped off only the bottom-est part of the bottom, where the leaves are attached, and kept the thicker, white part of the base of the leaves (which ended up being a good decision, thankfully).

Then, I had decided to cook the frittata differently than usual. Where I would normally sauté the veggies and the aromatics, then pour the egg/dairy mixture over the top and cook for a few minutes on the stove, finishing the whole thing under the broiler, I had been running into some difficulty with the interior not cooking fully, so I tried a quick baking method that I had read about in Fine Cooking some time ago.

But the real rub was at the absolute end, when I poured some grated Parmesan on top of the whole thing and ran it under the broiler for 30 seconds or so to brown the cheese. See, the grated Parm turns into this incredible crispy, salty crust and provides great texture to what would otherwise be mostly a soft dish, and I’ve tried that particular technique numerous times with perfect results. Then again, I didn’t burn the crap out of it all those other times.

I don’t know what happened. Everything was going swimmingly, and then I popped the pan under the broiler for a few seconds and turned my back and inexplicably decided that was a good time to re-arrange my recipe binder. So I indexed a few new recipes, walked into my office to grab a pen and a hole-puncher, drank a glass of water and then, I guess, pondered the meaning of life for a bit until suddenly I wondered why, oh why, the room was filling with smoke.

Utterly absurd.

Twenty-foot ceilings in the kitchen and yet I still managed to fill it with smoke. With total calm, I turned the oven off, put on a pot holder, and retrieved my fully-blackened entrée from the stove. After a wee bit of head scratching and what may have sounded like a curse word or two (you would have to ask the four-year-old who was hanging on my every word), I called The Carnivore and put him on alert that he might have to pick up a pizza to bring home for dinner. But then my inner Grandma kicked in and I narrowed my eyes at the offending dish. So I poked. And I prodded. And lo and behold, I discovered that only the Parmesan crust was burned. The rest of the frittata was salvageable. Maybe with a quick haircut…

So I shaved the top layer off of the frittata with a paring knife and then dumped on a new topping of Parmesan. And, naturally, ran the newly shorn dish back under the broiler (because I just really didn’t want to give up on a good crust). This time I didn’t move from my position in front of the stove, and when I pulled the pan out after maybe 45 seconds, it was perfect. Well, as perfect as it could be after undergoing emergency surgery. I mean, it did look a little uneven there on top.

But what about the taste, you ask? We all agreed it was my best frittata yet.


DESIGN YOUR OWN FRITTATA (serves 4 as an entree)
  • 8 eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk, half-and-half, or heavy cream
  • 1 Tbs all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups cooked vegetables, exact quantities unnecessary - but no more than 3 different things (steamed chopped asparagus, roasted or sauteed chopped bell peppers, sliced sauteed leeks, boiled or sauteed hearty greens (drained & chopped), chopped sauteed onions, or whatever else you might fancy)
  • 1/4 cup fresh herbs, chopped or thinly sliced (flat-leaf parsley, basil and chives work with almost anything)
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes, or 1 tsp minced and sauteed garlic, or 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheese (feta, fontina, goat cheese, ricotta, or blue cheese - again, use what you like)
  • 3 Tbs grated Parmesan
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, the milk or cream, flour, salt and pepper.
  3. Into the egg mixture, fold the cooked vegetables, the aromatics and the shredded cheese (but not the Parmesan).
  4. Heat 2 Tbs olive oil in an oven-proof skillet (this is where cast-iron really comes in handy). Add the egg mixture to the pan, making sure it is evenly spread.
  5. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook the frittata on the stove for about 10 minutes. The top will still be quite runny, but you should be able to see the bottom of the frittata looking opaque underneath the runny part.
  6. Uncover the pan and put the skillet in the oven, cooking for about 15 to 20 minutes. It is finished when the whole thing looks puffy and the eggs are completely set in the middle.
  7. Remove skillet from the oven and preheat the broiler.
  8. Dust the top of the frittata with the grated Parmesan, and put the skillet under the broiler for 30 seconds to a minute, until the cheese is browned (but not black).
  9. If you have burned the frittata beyond recognition, see instructions above about how to hide your moronic mistake (not that I would have any experience in that).

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Out of Season

Honest to goodness, it has been with much effort that I have not been sharing dessert recipes lately. Now especially, with it being late in Spring, and with the opening of Farmer’s Markets and the start of the CSA season, it would be irresponsible of me to not be putting pen to paper about all the recipes I have found for Swiss chard and kale and collards and all of the other lovely greens that are so fresh and flavorful right now. I mean, look, eating locally and seasonally is one of the best things we can do for the environment, and it certainly makes additional sense with food costs rising all around us.

Seriously, everyone has a good recipe for pie, or for cookies or cakes and all of that other sweet unnecessary nonsense, right? You definitely do not drop by here to read yet another post about brownies. Recipes for green garlic, spring onions, these are the items everyone is struggling to find a use for. Not cookies.

And, after all, bathing suit season begins NOW. This is a time for diets, for salads, for cold finger foods. Not. For. Chocolate.

On Tuesday, the kids and I drove out to the farm to pick up our first CSA box of the summer. I was downright joyful about the whole thing, especially the unexpected early start to the CSA season, and The Big Boy was fairly vibrating out of his carseat with glee. Nine months after our last trip to the farm, this four-year-old had not forgotten a single detail. He noticed the new gates at the top of the driveway, the new sign, the fact that there were more cars parked than usual. And – my favorite part – he marched right up to the farmers with determination, ready to see what was in our first box. He and I both stuck our heads straight into the box, fighting for the first sniff before pulling out random leaves and taking nibbles. I love that kid.

Well, I say I love him, but truth be told, when I saw the bag of fresh-picked strawberries tucked into a corner of the box, I (oh, the shame) hid them from him. I probably even shouldn’t admit it, right? Wouldn’t a good mother share her fruitful bounty with her first-born son? Yeah, well, I didn’t. I waited until he went to sleep that night and then I ate every single one of them all by myself.

I have no doubt my own mother has done that very same thing to me.

But even though I have enjoyed some fabulous salads this week, and the first CSA meal I cooked was my favorite greens recipe from last summer, the Bitter Greens with Sweet Onions and Tart Cheese (using farm kale and farm onions and some leftover goat cheese I had in the fridge), and even though it was utterly delicious and I nearly swooned with delight, this isn’t at all what I want to tell you about. All those wonderful, deliciously healthy fruits and vegetables just weren’t the culinary highlight of the week.

I’m gonna have to go to the altar on Sunday. First I deceive my own son about the presence of strawberries and now I’m going to make everyone fat.

It’s just that I had a sweet tooth a few days ago (big surprise, that) and the last dessert recipe I had attempted had been an abysmal failure and my ego was still smarting. And it just so happened that the only recipe I still wanted to try in the last issue of Bon Appetit was one for dark chocolate cookies. I had already cooked my way through much of the magazine with great success, and if you happen to be sitting on the June issue and you haven’t tried the ricotta pancakes, I can’t speak of it highly enough. Oh, and make sure to not overlook the grits and onion soufflé, and the orzo salad with chickpeas and goat cheese which I also recommend, though not nearly as highly as those afore-mentioned cookies.

For pity’s sake. These cookies were a revelation. You know how everyone has their favorite cookie recipe of all time? These are better than that. With a chocolate batter, dotted with dark chocolate chips, and rolled in powdered sugar, how could they not be? They were like miniature little chocolate pies, dense and fudgy and chewy on the inside, and just a little crackly on the outside, sending out little puffs of sugar dust into the air with each bite. Oh, my. The Carnivore and The Houseguest and I ate them greedily, moaning with pleasure and leaving a trail of sugar everywhere we went (including all over Little Miss Piggy who was sleeping in my arms at the time). They were even just as good, if not better, the second day. I had been a little nervous that packing the leftovers into some plastic containers would affect the texture which is part of the allure of these little calorie bombs, but the worry was in vain. Our eyeballs still rolled back into our heads when we attacked them again the next night.

These will be worth the repentance. They are even worth the added exercise that will be necessary if I’m to continue to fit into my bathing suit. Maybe if I eat kale every night for the next week…


DEEP DARK CHOCOLATE COOKIES (from Bon Appetit), makes about 24
  • Nonstick spray
  • 1 1/2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips, about 9 oz, divided
  • 3 large egg whites, room temperature
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar, divided
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 Tbs cornstarch
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  1. Spray 2 baking sheets with nonstick spray.
  2. Melt one cup of chocolate chips in microwave, stopping to stir every 30 seconds. Set aside to cool slightly.
  3. In a large bowl, beat egg whites in an electric mixer to soft peaks.
  4. Gradually beat in 1 cup sugar. Continue beating until mixture is creamy and has thickened.
  5. In a separate bowl, whisk together one cup sugar, cocoa, cornstarch and salt.
  6. On low speed, add the dry ingredients to the egg white mixture.
  7. Stir the melted chocolate and remaining 1/2 cup of chocolate chips into the mixture.
  8. Place remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a small bowl.
  9. Roll rounded tablespoon of dough into a ball (does not have to be perfect) and then roll it in the sugar.
  10. Place on prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, putting balls about 2 inches apart on sheet.
  11. Bake at 400 degrees (convection ovens will give best results) for about 10 minutes, until dough is puffed and the tops have cracked.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A World Without Carnivores

I would not trade my life for anything. As a matter of fact, I’m hard-pressed usually to even imagine my life being any different than it is right now. Motherhood suits me (though it wasn’t that many years ago that this would have seemed entirely alien) and marriage to The Carnivore is, in fact, all it’s cracked up to be. I like it out here in the country, and I would rather stay at home with my children than go to the office every day.
But (you knew there would be a ‘but’, didn’t you?), I have my moments. When Little Miss Piggy is weaned, don’t think for a minute that I’m not going to get dressed up and go out on a date with The Carnivore, sans children. And there have been many times when I’ve packed an overnight bag in my imagination and gone to the beach for the weekend. Without the husband OR the kids. A girl could use some peace and quiet.
As much as I enjoy meal-planning and food shopping and cooking, I have wondered what life would be like if I didn’t actually HAVE to put dinner on the table for the family. Would I just make less elaborate meals or would I even bother cooking at all? Or, God forbid, what if I had married a fellow vegetarian? Would we just sit around congratulating ourselves for being so politically correct, living on tofu and dirt-covered vegetables from the garden?
Look, I stopped reading fiction and I never watch movies anymore. My imagination is all I’ve got left. And these are things that go on in my mind.
Last week, when The Carnivore announced he was going to go on a three-day fast, I side-stepped right into an alternate universe. I told The Houseguest he was going to be on his own for meals for the next few days (he has all sorts of packaged crap in the freezer anyway), and I scrapped the menu for the week, avoided the weekly trip to the grocery store, and gained, I swear, an extra five hours of free time.
At first, I planned to use the time to finish up some leftovers and get the refrigerator good and cleaned out. There always seems to be six or seven containers of dinner leftovers that The Big Boy and I use for our lunches, and try as we might, we still end up having to toss some things into the compost bin at the end of the week – and wasting food makes me terribly grumpy. But then, on Tuesday – day one of the fast, I was at my mother’s house and she offered me a bagful of Swiss chard straight out of her garden. I think I swooned. It wouldn’t have been enough to even serve as a side dish if we had all been sitting down at the dinner table that night, but since that wasn’t an issue, I jumped at the chance to serve myself what only I would want.
I went home, pulled out the skillet, tossed in the chard with some crushed garlic cloves and some olive oil and sautéed myself the quickest dinner in history. The Houseguest looked on with no small measure of alarm and put a frozen meatloaf in the oven. The Carnivore wasn’t even tempted to break his fast, and The Big Boy ignored me and slurped up some leftover pasta. “This is living,” I said, greedily chomping away on my bright green dinner.
On Wednesday, my grandmother handed me a bag of just-picked veggies from her garden: a head of butter lettuce, a head of broccoli, and a handful of spring onions. I grinned at The Carnivore when he came home from work, swung my bag of goodies in his direction, and said, “Now I know what my life would be like if I were single.”
I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings.
The lettuce and some of the onions went straight into a big bowl where I drizzled them with a quick homemade vinaigrette; I chopped up the broccoli and steamed it for a couple of minutes, just long enough to make it fork-tender, and then I tossed it with some olive oil, salt & pepper, and a dash of parmesan cheese. The Houseguest sat down at the table with me and watched with disgust as I chatted happily and exclaimed over the fresh flavor of the broccoli. The Big Boy ate an ear of corn left over from a few nights prior.
By Thursday, I started to get a little worried. I had run out of gardens to raid and the farmer’s market wasn’t going to open for the season for a few more days. And since I had been a little late on the uptick with our CSA membership this year, I had missed out on the four-week spring season and was still two-and-a-half weeks away from the first pickup of the summer session. At this point, leftovers weren't going to cut it for me. I was really enjoying myself.
Mom came through again though. As I squatted in her garden late on Thursday afternoon, picking strawberries with my back to The Big Boy so I wouldn't have to share, she off-handedly mentioned that she had some collards that needed to be picked. I pulled an empty tote bag from my diaper bag and handed it to her. “Dinner,” I grunted.
While The Carnivore bustled about the kitchen, planning what snack food he would break his fast with later that night, and The Houseguest grumbled about starving to death, I pulled the skillet back out, and chopped up the last of the spring onions from Grandma’s garden. This time, I sautéed the collards with the onions and a little bit more garlic, along with a pat of butter and a pinch or two of crushed red pepper. When the greens had wilted in the pan, I drizzled in some balsamic vinegar and a couple of crumbles of feta cheese. The Carnivore took a small nibble and said it tasted a little like dirt. I thought it was spectacular and wished I had enough for a second serving. The Big Boy ate half a quesadilla and still, after three days, didn’t question why he and I were the only ones eating dinner.
So now I know. Without a family to cook for, I would eat what I could con out of my mother and grandmother’s gardens. I would cook without recipes. I would have to go to the grocery store much more seldom, and then only for staples. But the dinner table would be mighty lonely.