Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Cooking from Babette's Feast: A Movie Review and some Easy Aioli

Every month the hosts at Food 'n Flix pick a movie and participants then cook up something in its honor. This month the film is truly wonderful: Babette's Feast, an Oscar-winning 1987 Danish movie based on an Isak Dinesen short story. I won't give away any plot spoilers (a great synopsis and film commentary can be found here), but it is a fantastic film on so many levels. The acting is superb, the cinematography makes even the most desolate Nordic shoreline or humble kitchen scene seem fascinating and inviting, and the costumes and sets of the 19th century Danish estates and humble cottages are splendid. Babette, the French live-in servant to two elderly Puritan spinster sisters, has the most fabulous hooded cloak designed by Karl Lagerfeld, which shields her from raging seaside storms and adds a mysterious allure to even the most mundane of her household chores.

It is a period drama and yet full of humor. The Danish sisters Martine and Philippa that take in the French Civil War refugee Babette seem to subsist on reconstituted outdoor-dried flounder and a horrendous concoction, Ale Bread, that involves more reconstituting, this time of dried bread hunks, into a unappealing porridge. The household cuisine gradually takes on more flavor and variety when Babette enters the scene, a change which is most eagerly welcomed by the shut-ins that Martine and Philippa bring food to as one of their charitable good works. When Babette leaves for a short time at the end of the film, the look on one of the invalid's face when he sees Ale Bread back in his house is priceless.

And then there is the metaphor of food and feasting as a way of celebrating life and good friends and even honoring God, as the sisters and their fellow elderly congregants find out at the end of the transformative meal that is the centerpiece of the film. I loved the change in the diners' faces as they go from grumpy to positively ecstatic (certainly the multiple glasses of fine wine helped) by the end of the meal. One of them, a pink-cheeked, bright-eyed woman named Solveig, steals the scene in this regard, taking a sip of water to refresh her palate before knocking back another glass of burgundy, taking care to lick every drop from her lips.

Scene stealer Solveig is third from the left

For my culinary tip of the hat to this outstanding film, I wanted to make something French. Babette is the wise heroine that has found peace in her new homeland and with gentle Martine and Philippa, and wants to give them the gift of a fine meal to honor their dead father and religious leader. She spends all that she has to give them this present, brushing aside the sisters' protestations when they learn of it, with a simple declaration: "a great artist is never poor."

Husband Dan has recently discovered an insanely easy way to make homemade aioli, which we have been slathering on our sandwiches, dolloping on top of salads, and love alongside steamed artichokes.

Dan makes it in a drinking glass using an immersion blender. The trick is to choose the right glass. You want something with tall sides and that is just a little bit wider than the immersion blender so the tool can go up and down easily and you can see that the aioli is emulsifying and getting to the right creamy consistency. Here's his recipe:

Dan's Easy Homemade Aioli

1 egg yolk
1 Tbsp. water
Juice of one small lemon (about 2 tsp.)
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 cup canola oil
2 cloves roasted garlic (peeled)
Salt to taste

Place all ingredients except salt in your glass. Blend with immersion blender moving slowly up and down the glass until all ingredients have been mixed together and it is a creamy consistency. This takes a minute at most. Season with salt to taste.

Makes 1 cup aioli. Store tightly covered and use within a week or so. Not a problem in our house.

That's it!  A remarkably easy recipe and one which adapts to other mix-in flavors, like Chipotles in Adobo sauce (that's the red in the photo above) , roasted red peppers, curry powder or fresh chopped herbs.

Many, many bravos to Babette's Feast! Thanks to Culinary Adventures with Camilla for picking this great film for Food 'n Flix. Stop by later this week to see the roundup of other Babette's Feast posts.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

An Indian Inspired Vegan and Gluten Free Feast

The North Wind just keeps on blowing this winter here in upstate New York, but rather than feeling housebound here at the Crispy Casa (and watching too many icy sports in the Sochi Winter Olympics) we've warmed up with books, films, music and foods focused on more sultry climes.

The subcontinent of India has beckoned with the wonderful travel memoir by Tahir Shah "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" about his days learning the tricks of magic and illusion in Calcutta. I've also devoured two of the four witty mysteries by Tarquin Hall featuring chubby Delhi private investigator Vish Puri and his motley gang of operatives.

India was the theme of a recent dinner and a movie date with one of our favorite couples, Joe and Lisa, last week. Joe's a vegan and Lisa, like my husband Dan, must dine gluten-free, so there was some planning involved in getting a menu for a delicious feast for us all. I consulted with my cookbook library (Madhur Jaffrey was most helpful, as was Isa Chandra Moskowitz) and found some great recipes and inspiration. We had recently had a trip to the Asian markets in Albany to stock up on edible supplies, so our menu came together very nicely:

A Vegan and Gluten Free Feast

I buy these packaged chickpea (or gram) flour disks and then puff them up individually in the microwave for about a minute and a half, rather than frying them in oil, as the package instructs. They come in a variety of flavors and brands, but be sure to read the ingredient labels to make sure no wheat flour is added.

Spicy Eggplant in Tomato Sauce
I adjusted a great recipe I found in beautifully illustrated coffee table cookbook. "The Food of India" (Bay Books, 2002) which called for fried wedges of those cute little round Indian eggplants simmered in a tomato sauce redolent with ginger, garlic, fennel, and coriander.

Steamed Basmati Rice
I sauteed a handful of curry leaves in oil for a few minutes before adding them to the rice cooker.

Punjabi Cabbage
Another riff off a recipe from "The Food of India", very similar to this recipe link here. Basically, you saute chopped cabbage with your whole spice cabinet.

Tamarind Lentils
I used the recipe from Moskowitz's epic "Veganomicon", linked here. The recipe recommends that the regular brown lentils not be used as they might get too mushy, so I used horsegram, which is a kind of legume popular in India that is lentil-y but remains very firm after cooking. My guests liked this recipe a lot, remarking that it was sort of like Indian Baked Beans.

Chopped Cucumbers with Coriander, Salt and Lime

Mango Pickle and Apple-Raisin Chutney
Mango Pickle was store-bought and extremely salty. Just need a little dab on the plate. Apple-Raisin Chutney was homemade from my recipe here.

Baked Curried Tofu
Veganomicon's recipe used here. Very easy to make with the added bonus, that unlike with a meat marinade, one can pour off the marinade from the tofu before baking to reuse as a  base for another sauce or salad dressing.

Chopped Fresh Mango Cubes

I wish I had remembered to take a picture of our beautiful feast as it lay unmolested on our dining table, but alas, I was in full entertainment mode, and only remembered to snap a photo of our leftovers. Just imagine some brightly colored table linens, bhangra music in the background and the smell of exotic spices wafting over us.

To cap off our "trip to India", we all snuggled into the couch to watch a DVD of "Today's Special", a charming foodie flick about an impatient young first generation Indian man who learns how to cook great food, not from being a sous chef in a fancy Manhattan restaurant but from learning how to passionately appreciate life when he helps his ailing father reinvigorate their Indian restaurant in Queens.

I am linking this post up with Weekend Cooking over at Beth Fish Reads, where each Sunday great cooks share their foodie musings and recipes.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Eating our Way through Albany, New York on a Cold Winter's Day

Playing tourist in our own backyard during this interminable winter is one way to beat the cabin fever blahs. It was also the perfect cover for my ruse to lure my husband to a surprise birthday dinner with his favorite loved ones.

The epic journey started with two hours of snow shoveling at home and wrapping up orders at the bookstore, but then finally got our day underway around 1 pm. I told the old man that I would have a bunch of surprise events all day long, nothing expensive, or wild like hot air balloon ride, so he wasn't too suspicious.

We started with lunch out at Casa Dominica (260 Central Avenue), which offered just the sort of soul-satisfying food that rewards a morning of snow drudgery. The restaurant is bright, clean, and welcoming. We didn't speak Spanish like most of the other patrons that day, but we warmly welcomed and then each item in a steaming hot lunch counter was explained to us, always a good thing when you must dine gluten-free. I had cautioned Dan that I had made dinner reservations to cap the day but both of us couldn't help ourselves as we nodded when the proprietor heaped our plates with pork chops, baked and stewed chicken, rice, sweet plantains and roast pork. The latter was particularly wonderful with a wonderful CRISPY crust, all served with a spicy garlic and cilantro sauce on the side.

Leftovers were cheerfully wrapped up (we knew spoilage was no problem in our refrigerated car) and the owner was most gracious to offer his tips about making the roast pork at home: 400 degrees F for three hours covered with foil and then uncovered for an hour more. Water should be added to the roasting pan and replenished as needed to keep it moist. We plan to be back again and again to try all the other tasty-sounding things on the menu (Alcapurrias (Stuffed Plantains), (Mofongo de Pollo (Mashed Plantains with Chicken), Majarete (Corn Custard). Two big thumbs up for Casa Dominica!

Then it was time to walk off some lunch. We headed over to the Historic Albany Foundation's Architectural Parts Warehouse (89 Lexington Avenue) and spent a great time perusing buckets of old doorknobs and porch spindles, bathroom fixtures in a range of styles and hues, tons of old doors and windows and some other intriguing bits of old buildings.

A lot of the most beautiful and unusual items already had SOLD stickers on them, including a magnificent, wall-sized wooden commercial ice box, circa 1910s-20s with great old brass fittings, an entire Victorian interior staircase with ornate carvings, and great chunks of old carved stone.

The Parts Warehouse also offers

but I settled for a kiss from my beloved near some buckets of stair parts.

Our next stop on the Albany Tour was going to be Dnipro Deli, a Russian-Eastern European market on Central Avenue in Colonie that I have shopped at and reported on before, but they were closed and I've since discovered that they have moved to yet another location in Latham. So, we redirected our efforts to checking out Parivar Spices and Food (1275 Central Avenue), where we had never shopped. We stocked up on a ten-pound bag of basmati rice, curry leaves, besan (chickpea flour), and some packaged snack mixes of roasted beans, chickpea "straws" and spices that we like to sprinkle on our curries and rice dishes. The produce selection is not as great as at the nearby India Bazaar, but the owners were helpful and friendly and noticed that I had picked out basmati sella (a yellowish parboiled short-grain rice product) instead of regular long-grain basmati, so I was pleased that they were looking out for me. There's also a cafe in back which we hope to return to in the future. We were there in mid-afternoon, so there were only a handful of folks knocking back the delicious-looking and -smelling plates of food, but it is apparently a local hot spot for Indian food.

The Asian Supermarket (1245 Central Avenue) was the next stop to replenish our supplies of fresh tofu, kimchee, peanut oil, various kinds of gluten-free noodles and other ingredients. Dan was super-psyched to find some gluten-free ramens and we always have fun perusing the massive selection of fruits and vegetables. They had pomelos as big as my head, squeaky fresh bags of snow peas, beautiful round Indian eggplants, and my favorite roasted seaweed snacks. We always buy a few new things, and the prices are so reasonable that it isn't a problem if we don't like them. I got a bottle of gluten-free dumpling sauce in hopes that Dan will whip up some of his great Thai veggie wraps soon and we will be trying to cook up a chayote and some yu choy soon in the Crispy Kitchen.

It was time to lure my husband out to dinner at New World Bistro (300 Delaware Avenue) where our surprise crew awaited. I had to kill some time by pretending I needed to use the restroom at a fast food joint and then insisting we stop at another store to stock up on the GF corn pasta that Dan really likes, so I was thinking fast on my feet. Our Chevy's dashboard lights are in an intermittent state these days too, so I couldn't keep tabs on the time there, so I had to keep surreptitiously flipping open my cell phone to monitor the countdown to surprise time. This is highly suspicious in my case, since I hate my cell phone--AKA pay-as-you-go electronic ankle monitor-- but Dan was oblivious to my actions and to the New World Bistro hostess who announced that our party of 8 was waiting at the bar when we checked in (Argh! This despite my instructions over the phone).

But it was all worth it to see my Dear One's face light up when he saw his buddies. We all had a grand time and enjoyed our meals (okay, my daughter didn't realize a garland of beet cubes would be draped over her scallops) and the cozy ambience and service. They also have an extensive gluten-free menu.

So here's to Staycations in Albany in mid-winter!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Lois' Versatile Vegetable Chowder Recipe: A Gift from a Good Friend

My friend Lois is amazingly optimistic and happy. She's always in a good mood. Even when there's terrible weather or some health issue crops up, she's upbeat and always ready to envelope me in a welcoming hug. She's the kind of person that you gravitate towards because she just radiates warmth and happiness.

Lois is a terrific cook. She and her husband used to own the art gallery next door to our bookshop and when they would have one of their self-catered exhibition openings, Lois would bake and cook for days before. When the nibbles came out on opening night, her creations were always the first to disappear into hungry art lovers' mouths.

Recently, Lois gave me her handwritten recipe for Vegetable Chowder. It's a versatile recipe that she makes with all kinds of vegetable variations. I of course wanted to make up a pot during our unusually frigid recent weather pattern, so I made sure to stock the larder with broccoli crowns. And sure enough, when I made this satisfying and thick soup, it made me smile almost as much as I do when Lois is around.

Here's Lois' recipe below. I didn't have cauliflower around and didn't add in any meat, so bulked up on the broccoli (2 full stalks).

Lois' Versatile Vegetable Chowder

1 Tbsp. butter or olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 medium potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
5 oz. each broccoli and cauliflower, coarsely chopped
3 small carrots
2 cups milk
1 cup vegetable broth
1 cup light cream
1 Tbsp. snipped fresh dill (I used frozen)

*Mix-in Protein Options:  1 lb. of boneless chicken cubes, scallops or peeled shrimp. If using chicken, add in as vegetables are cooking. If using seafood, add it at the end and just cook until done.

Heat butter/oil in soup pot. Add onions after 5 minutes. Add rest of veggies, milk and broth and cook until tender. Transfer to food processor and chop to little pieces. (I used my immersion blender only briefly, as Dan and I like our soup chunky).

Return to soup pot and add dill and cream. Just heat up. Don't let boil.

Makes 4 hearty servings.

I'll be sharing this wonderful chowder recipe with another friend, Deb of Kahakai Kitchen. She hosts a weekly roundup of soup (and sandwich and salad) recipes at her Souper Sundays event. Be sure to stop by next Sunday to see what other wonderful cooks have in their soup cauldrons.