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Maybe They CAN Cook: Mrs. T’s English Roast Potatoes

Bland, industrial, cooked-to-death, greasy, occasionally tasty… but only when it’s chicken tikka masala. I think that covers the waterfront on English food jokes, yeah? Despite a significant renaissance on the British food scene, the associations with droopy chips and sad boiled dinners tend to cling like sulfurous fumes to overcooked cabbage. National pride wounded, however, Mr. T does insist that English food, cooked in the home, is a very different and delicious beast.

And these roast potatoes, courtesy of his mom–excuse me, “mum”–Mrs. T, fall firmly into that different and delicious category. Indeed, everything that I’ve eaten at home on our visits to London has been quite delicious. Both Mrs. T and her sister, Auntie T, are very accomplished home cooks. (I am currently on the hunt for Auntie T’s uh-mazing chocolate apple cake.) His brother, Artsy T, spent time as a restaurant chef; and even his sister, Dr. T, has significantly upped her game since the arrival of the niecelet.

In any event, roast potatoes. I imagine that these accompany the big, juicy Sunday roasts that one reads about in Charles Dickens novels–generally only towards the happy ending, though. They’re basically what would happen if French fries and potato chips had illict, delicious babies. Crack their crisply burnished, golden brown crust to reveal pale and creamy potato innards. People, particularly those who have never had a traditional roast dinner, flip the bojangles OUT when presented with these. English expats are similarly thrilled. For Mr. T, who is quite the potato connoisseur, these represent the acme, epitome, the ur-potato experience. In short, they pretty much make everyone ridiculously, deliriously happy.

They’ve even replaced mashed potatoes at the Thanksgiving table. The traditionalist martinet in me (oh yes, I’ve got one of those) was not pleased at first, but EVERYONE is just totally taken with them. The mash just can’t hold a candle to these golden beauties.

Said potatoes require a screaming hot oven, some time, and a lot of lubrication. Since the roast dinner is not something that gets a lot of play these days, certainly in the US at least, allowances have to be made. We use a mild olive oil rather than more exciting goose fat or beef dripping. That said, for extra-super delicious bonus points, Team Goose Fat is the winner. You’ve go buckets of that floating around, right? I’ve only made them once with goose fat–for obvious reasons–but, damn, they were really, really good. So, next time you’re roasting a goose, save those um, “juices”!

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Samak Yemeni: Spicy Yemenite Fish Stew

So, I’ve been making this lush and rawther exotic fish stew for years, but it took a recipe request from one of Mr. T’s colleagues for me to get my act together and write it down. The dish is really quite special–simply TEEMING with flavor, but it manages somehow to maintain its coherence under an onslaught of warm spice, bright herbs, and tangy lemon.

My first intro to samak Yemeni was in a Jewish diaspora cookbook, given to me by a friend with the injunction that I was not to make fun of her bubbie’s wallpaper until I could make knishes better than hers. (In my defense, the wallpaper in question was a glossy optic white with velvet burnt orange foliate patterns.) I’ve not yet managed to make any knish, but this stew is something I keep coming back to. Also, obviously, I am a bad person, but who else gets a cookbook for cracking wise about wallpaper?

In doing further research for this post, I turned up another version from The Splendid Table, hosted by the always delightful Lynn Rossetto Kasper, but suffice to say, the much fiddled-with version below is the one that I like best as it is delicious and does not require fish stock, making oddball spice blends, or other such tomfoolery.

Even with such rich cultural antecedents, I’m still not quite sure why it all works–but it does. Even the fishiest fish is tamed–but not drowned out– by the richly spiced sauce, which in turn is enriched by the fish’s umami-y juices. The dish is spicy, but not threateningly so, with a flavor that’s at once deep and envigoratingly bright. Its captivating scent is the very definition of appetizing.

Being quite easy and very quick, it’s also perfect–served with a quick cous-cous and some salad greens–for a weeknight dinner requiring a little pizzazz. There’s no pre-sautéing of the aromatics; everything just gets dumped and simmered together. It took me some time to get over this, but having been OCD enough to have done it both ways, I can say that sautéing the onions and spices in advance makes no real difference to the recipe. There are so many strong flavors at play already that a brief simmer is all that’s required for everything to come together and get happy. Hooray for uncompromising shortcuts!

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A Sweet for All Seasons: Indispensable Almond Cake

Yes, hello. Hope everyone’s doing well in the calm between storms. I’m still not sure which one’s likely to do more damage–Sandy or the election–but hopefully the latter will go better than the former. Given, however, that I am neither meteorologist nor political pundit, we shall now return our discussion to cake. Thank goodness.

And this is quite a cake. Super simple and yet totally sublime, this moist, intensely almondy number comes from the Chez Panisse Desserts book by way of Francophile (well, MOST of the time) blogger, raconteur, and food guru David Lebovitz. So long as you’ve got a food processor, the batter is very much of the dump n’ buzz variety. Very easy.

And people, I cannot overstate how delicious this cake is. The almond flavor is rich and intense. The crumb is tight, bouncy, and so moist that it makes a crackly noise like a damp sponge when you poke it. It is just… toothsome, and inspires a desire that borders on the unseemly all on its own.

That said, for all its barefaced virtues, it’s also quite amenable to being tarted up a bit. Split and schmeared with a tiny bit of very tart jam and you’re in ur-tea time territory. A bit of bitter ganache and you’re dressed up for dinner. Some fruit compote and creme fraiche on the side and you’re rustically seasonal. Or, just all by itself, still blissful. Basically, there’s no excuse for you not to be making this right now. I’m sure you could find some occasion to celebrate. Monday, for example.

Some tips, though, before I send you on your way. DO use a 9″ springform pan. It’s just easier all around. DO be sure you buy almond paste and not marzipan. The latter has a higher proportion of sugar and is more pliable for making shapes and decorations. Here, you want the hi-test almond paste for flavor. Also, for whatever reason, the packages sold in the US are seven ounces, while the recipe requires eight. Not to worry, the cake will come out perfectly well with just seven ounces, which makes shopping a bit less painful.

Go here for the recipe.

The Txting Chf: Quick Garlic Bread for Tweens

Recently, the following text appeared on my phone:

“Garlic bread. Should I just make garlic butter and spread it on the bread and then bake it? If so, how do I make the garlic butter? :D

While I’m used to getting weird food questions and recipe requests from friends this was a new country heard from–my brother, WonderTwin1, who generally doesn’t know enough about cooking to muster a reasonable question in the first place. Interesting.

Of course, about a week before this particular text, WonderTwin1 started his new job manny-ing for a family on New York’s Upper West Side: three tween boys to corral, and on some occasions, feed. This is amusing on several fronts, but most immediately because WonderTwin1, unlike his brother WonderTwinA, can’t really cook. Garlic bread question notwithstanding, though, I’ve gotten far fewer frantic calls than I expected to…

But it’s early yet, and I’m hoping that WT1 will be able to give me a little bit more notice next time he needs to know the best way to reheat sliced flank steak (quickly, with some sort of sauce, and hope that your tweens are hungry and have good teeth) or easy garlic bread directions. I’ll spare you the txt version of the recipe I came up with on the fly, but here’s a slightly more formalized one in case you have a bunch of hungry boys fresh from soccer practice and are looking for some garlic bread.

Basically, we’re making a quick beurre composé, aka compound butter, aka butter with flavorful things smooshed into it. Here, garlic and herbs take the day, but the sky’s the limit. If you don’t want to make a full loaf of garlic bread, still go ahead and do the full batch of butter. It’s something that you’ll find any number of uses for… saute some spinach with it, or take a pat and rest it atop a hot steak… or even some of that sad leftover flank steak. Garlic butter will make ANYTHING better.
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Operation Birthday Cake: A New York City Black & White

When tapped recently to help out with a good friend’s birthday party, my thoughts immediately went–as they generally do–to cake. The birthday girl is something of a tough cookie herself, though, and tends to get more excited about chopped liver than confections of the sweet variety, so I had my work cut out for me.

But in thinking about cookies, tough and otherwise, reminded me of the hundreds of tiny black & white cookies I’d made for her bridal shower several years ago. She’d loved the tiny versions of the New York City bakery staple, which are really just small, lightly lemony cakes with chocolate and vanilla icing.

I thought that since I’d gone tiny once, I could go HUGE this time. Like, four layers huge. So, I baked off a pale yellow cake, rubbing lemon zest into the sugar to give the lemon flavor in the cookies. (Which I still think is bizarre, but then I’m not a New Yorker.)

I vacillated for quite sometime about the icings. Part of me–the part of me that thinks confectioners’ sugar icings are a cop out–really wanted to get all fancy and do chocolate and vanilla Swiss meringue buttercreams. But, the traditionalist in me managed to intervene and I stuck with the fondant-y icing that crowns the cookies and sets hard and crispy. I was still worried that the cake/cookie to icing ratio would be way off, but ultimately, the ratio was perfect. Just like biting into a black and white cookie, but times four!

Be sure to rotate your icings unless you you have a fiercely partisan vanilla/chocolate household. I find getting a little of everything in each bite to be much tastier.

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Better than the Bulk Aisle: Crunchy Sesame Sticks

Those little crunchy, salty sesame sticks one can buy in the bulk bins at health food stores are absolutely one of Mr. T’s very favorite snacks. While undeniably tasty, however, they’re probably the least healthy thing one could buy in a health food store. So oily, so salty, so probably full of preservatives. Problematic. Of course, I tend to view anything that doesn’t really seem to have a homemade analogue that is superior as something of a challenge.

So, obviously, I’ve been mulling how to make these at home for some time, and that time ended up being last weekend. Several thousand sesame seeds and five versions later, I am quite happy with what we came up with.

No preservatives, less oily but still crunchy, and still salty but not throat-searingly so. Still not health food, but better. And with a more pronouncedly sesame taste, what with the tahini, sesame oil, and two kinds of sesame seeds. Imminently nom-able with your favorite bevvy, and perfect for whatever sport you’re watching this fall.

As you’ll see, the mix of plain and black sesame seeds adds a bit of visual interest. Black sesame can be found in Asian markets, particularly those catering to Indian and Japanese clienteles. In the former, though, be sure you’re getting black sesame and not kalonji/nigella, which looks very similar. Squeezing the sticks out onto the gets a little wrist-breaking after a while, particularly as the batter stiffens, so it might make sense to do batches of this size one at a time if you want to make lots.

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Feel the French Mountain Breeze with a Zephyr Gentiane

Our vacation souvenirs tend to be fairly minimalist. Without much space at home, we don’t have room for a vast collection of snow globes… which, to be honest, no one’s that busted up about. Local candy and booze, however, do always seem to find room in our homeward-bound luggage. Our recent trip to Spain netted us a ton of delicious turron, a jar of anchovies, and a bottle of gentian liqueur.

Both the nutty delicious nougat and the anchovies were from the area we were staying. The gentian liqueur, however, actually came from France and was just bottled in Spain–much to Mr. T’s irritation. Given that we were practically in France anyway, I told him it didn’t really matter. And, in any event, we now had a big bottle of liqueur to do something with.

This doesn’t seem like much of a challenge as the flavor is a quite fascinating one: green and grassily bitter with notes of artichoke first and foremost, but there’s a definite sweetness as well, with hints of vanilla and butterscotch. It is an aperitif, though, so those green bitter notes predominate. Not so much, though, that it couldn’t be drunk on the rocks by itself–which it is.

Sipping on the rocks, though, while simple and lovely, is just not the PassionFruits way. And, aside from offering a recipe for a white Negroni, in which the Campari is replaced by the gentian liqueur, the Internet didn’t have much to say, though I did learn that gentian is also a key ingredient in several types of bitters and other aperitifs–Aperol, for example. This isn’t terribly surprising given their flavor profiles and general uses. Several gentian liqueurs–Salers, Suze, and Avèze–are available in the US, if something of a challenge to locate.

We tried the white Negroni and found it a bit robust for these waning days of summer. We then fiddled around with sparkling wine and various citrus juices and garnishes. But for all our experimentation, a light combination of liqueur, a splash of syrup, club soda, and an orange twist seemed to be just right. Go easy on the syrup at first as the soda seems to mute the bitterness and allows more of the liqueur’s sweetness through. 

If bracing long drinks like the Negroni or Campari and soda appeal, then you’ll like the Zephyr Gentiane–named after the soft, west winds–very much. It’s a bit lighter, sweeter, and greener, which can all be good things.

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Seasonal Produce Watch: Figs, Figs, Figs!

Having had some divine figs–right off a ginormous old tree–on vacation, I was debating whether or to write about the arrival of this fall’s fresh figs back here at home–totally worthwhile, yes–but necessary? And then I remembered that I’d never had a fresh fig until Mr. T brought some home one day not so many years ago. They were so novel and delicious I ate the whole pint myself… and spent the next two days in very close proximity to the potty. But the less said about that, the better.

So yes, anyway. On the off chance that anyone else is, like I was, not clued in to the manifest delights of fall’s fresh figs, let’s dish. A yielding, velvety skin surrounding lush, honeyed flesh? Yes indeed. While there are tons and tons of fig varieties, we’re most likely to see Black Mission, Brown Turkey, or green Calimyrna in markets here in DC. And, providing that you don’t eat them all at once, they’re as healthy as they are tasty; full of all sorts of needful vitamins and nutrients in addition to, *hem*, lots of fiber.

Regardless of variety, key to picking good figs–is to look for soft, yielding, fruit. If they’re a bit beat-up looking, that’s often a good indicator that they’re ripe. Also an excellent indicator is if they’re oozing a bit of sticky juice from their bottoms. This makes the best tasting figs frequently not the best LOOKING figs, particularly if you’re not plucking them, sun-warmed, from the tree yourself. Get over this, as I had to, and you will be rewarded.

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