Saturday, August 29, 2009

Smoke and Mirrors (Fishy Restaurants)

I just picked up on this interesting article on NPR's health blog. I'm disappointed but not surprised to hear that there are restaurants out there that will switch the expensive fish you ordered (like grouper or red snapper) on the menu with a less expensive species like...wait for it...catfish. Geez.

My take? Eat out at restaurants that you trust and get to know your chef. Pick eateries that have a seasonal, local focus. Your fish many not come from a local source, but chefs that care about where their ingredients come from typically have a high level of culinary ethic and integrity.

Also...Learn To Cook Fish At Home. I know, I know. It's expensive and intimidating. But just try something simple like broiled fillets seasoned with a little olive oil or butter, salt and pepper. Notice texture, subtle flavors and aromas that different fish bring to the table. Get some farm-raised salmon and some wild-caught salmon and compare flavor, color and texture.

I'm not even going to try to delve into the ethics of eating seafood, because it's a totally convoluted nightmare and others like Mark Bittman handle the subject with far more expertise than I. Plus, I'm not one to preach food ethics. As a food writer, I eat good food when I'm out--not necessarily ethical food (ie: veal, fois gras). And as a home cook on a very tight budget I've been known to succumb to bags of frozen shrimp raised on farms in Vietnam rather than the wild caught ones that cost nearly twice as much. So there you go.

But when it comes to restaurants that swap out your order for something of lesser quality, hoping that you just won't notice? For shame, for shame! I guess your mama didn't raise you right.

(photo above: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Plum-Nectarine Buckle (à la Martha)

There may be no dessert I like more than the buckle. It is perfect for those of us who appreciate the juicy succulence of seasonal fruit, but demand that be delivered to us wrapped in cake and sugary crumb topping. Buckles are the ultimate hybrid for the indecisive—sinful cross-breeds of cobbler and crisp wrapped up in one.

And if you are going to make a buckle, why settle for just one fruit? This Plum-Nectarine Buckle is one of my all time favorites. The sweetness of the nectarines (or peaches, if you prefer) and the tang of red plums compliment one another in the same way that the under-layer of buttery cake gives a harmonious nod to the orange-scented crunchy crumble topping.

This recipe came from one of my many archived back issues of Martha Stewart Living magazine (August 2005). I started collecting them in 1995 when I was fifteen, and though I no longer have a subscription, I always pull out and have handy the issues corresponding to both the current month and the upcoming month. No joke—they are indispensible references for home, kitchen and garden. Don’t judge me. Martha is a goddess as far as I’m concerned. And this buckle is heaven-sent. Enjoy.

Plum-Nectarine Buckle
(Serves 8-10)

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (NOTE: I often cut the butter to 4 tablespoons and then supplement with 3 tablespoons of unsweetened applesauce; especially because I know deep down that I will end up scarfing down four of those “8-10” servings.)
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1 large egg
2/3 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¾ pound plums, halved, pitted, and cut into ½ -inch thick wedges (2 cups)
¾ pound nectarines, halved, pitted, and cut into ½ -inch thick wedges (2 cups)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Crumble Topping (recipe follows)

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Brush a 9-inch square cake pan or 10-inch cast iron skillet with 2 tablespoons melted butter; set aside. Whisk together flour, ¾ cup sugar, the baking powder, allspice, and ¾ teaspoon salt in a medium bowl; set aside.
2. Whisk together egg, milk, vanilla, and remaining 4 tablespoons butter in another medium bowl. Add egg mixture to flour mixture; stir to combine. Spread batter evenly into buttered pan.
3. Toss plums, nectarines, lemon juice, remaining ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, and a pinch of salt in a large bowl. Spread fruit mixture evenly over batter. Sprinkle with topping. Bake until a cake tester inserted into center comes out with moist crumbs, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Let cool in pan on a wire rack 1 hour before serving.

Crumble Topping

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup packed light brown sugar
¼ teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1 cup all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt

Combine butter, brown sugar and orange zest into bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed until creamy. Stir in flour and salt. Work mixture through fingers until it forms coarse crumbs in size from peas to gum balls.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

So Damn Lazy Dinner (Fresh Cucumber Ranch Dressing)

Ah, the joys of high summer. The garden is giving you baskets upon baskets of tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers and peppers. The farmers markets offer variety seldom found at the grocery store—wax beans, French Breakfast radishes and Ichiban eggplant.

Every year, I either overplant or overbuy summer vegetables…and then there they are, sitting in my fridge, impatiently waiting for me to get on the ball already and prepare them for the dinner plate. I always have good intentions, but then the inevitable happens; plans change, kids divert my energy, and suddenly it’s 6 p.m. and I have no cohesive dinner plan whatsoever. On top of that, it’s hot as hell outside and the thought of turning on the stove is, well, unthinkable.

That, my friends, is where crudités begin to make their appearances at the family dinner table. Screw the pork tenderloin. Screw the pilaf. Just a fresh baguette and a catch-all platter of all the vegetables that need to get eaten pronto….Oh, and a giant glass of chilled Reisling, if you please.

A freshly made dip, like this Cucumber Ranch dressing, comes together fast and makes you feel like you actually made dinner. (The recipe comes from the August 2005 issue of Martha Stewart Living.)

Cucumber Ranch Dressing

(NOTE: I used low-fat sour cream and low-fat mayonnaise to shave off some calories...Still rich, but refreshing.)

1 medium cucumber (peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, and grated on the large hole of a box grater)
1 Tablespoon finely chopped shallot
¾ cup sour cream
¼ cup low-fat buttermilk
¼ cup mayonnaise
3 ½ Tablespoons lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
1 ¼ Teaspoons salt
Pinch cayenne pepper
3 Tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 Tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives

Stir all ingredients together in a medium bowl. Season with additional salt or cayenne, if desired. Dressing can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.