31 October 2012

On Book Covers and Crème Brûlée

They always say "don't judge a book by its cover." As a person who loves books and anything related, I've often wondered about this. I judge books by their covers all the time, especially since I know editors pick book covers in order to say something about the book or appeal to a certain type of reader. When you know the codes, it can become pretty easy to tell if it will be to your taste or not.

I've had a version of this conversation with a caviste (wine seller) in my neighborhood. He assured me that if you know nothing about wine - or at least about any of the wines you have in front of you - choosing by the label is not a bad idea. The domain who makes the wine also chooses the label and it tells you something about their taste. For example, if they make their labels classic, he says, they probably make their wines that way too.

Not only do we judge by covers but we get attached to the outer appearance as well. On, Shelfari, a book website where people can create their own personal shelves, there are often twenty or so cover-options for a single book and you can even upload your own. I mean if you've read the book, you know what's inside. Why should the cover art matter? But it does. I recently uploaded MY cover of the edition of Le temps retrouvé. Because, yes, after starting in a moment of craziness and talking your ears off about it again and again and again, three years later, I've FINALLY finished Marcel Proust's many-volume novel. (I'm not here to go on about it, but let me just say that if I never used French again it would have been worth learning the entire language just to read Proust in the original text. Ok, melodramatic moment over.)

So why do we do it? Why do we judge "covers"? I think, because it saves time and because it's efficient. Maybe because we're often right. We know what certain things look like. We recognize them. Or we extrapolate based on given knowledge and known codes. Mind you, judging by the cover becomes MUCH less reliable when we're outside of our culture. Just go into a bookstore in another country if you don't believe me. In France, every book looks like a dense philosophical essay to me. In England, the colorful covers look like cheap chick lit.

That said, I think we have the expression because we need to be reminded that judging a book by its cover doesn't always work. It has to be a working hypothesis at best. Because life will surprise you. Sometimes things look simple from the outside and when you get closer you find them to be subtle and infinitely complex. Recipes with few ingredients are like that: Poor Man's Soup, Pesto, Shortbread, even Cucumber Salad. Culinary magic.

But the opposite is also true. Sometimes things that look complex from the outside, turn out to be straightforward and simple once you get to know them better. Crème brûlée falls into that category. It intimidated me so much that, even though I got a crème brûlée torch for my last birthday, it took me a whole year to try it out. I got a taste of the bain marie technique when I made Pot de Crème and that's really the only tricky part. Otherwise this recipe is a piece of cake - or, shall we say, a spoonful of crème brûlée?

(serves 4 or 6, depending on the size of your ramekins)

6 egg yolks
80g sugar (about 1/2 cup)
375ml (about 1 1/2 cups) heavy cream
1 vanilla pod
1 Tbsp castor sugar per ramekin

Preheat the oven to 250ºF (130ºC).
Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until light and fluffy.
Pour the heavy cream into a saucepan. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds out into the cream - you can throw the bean in as well - and bring to a boil.
Strain over the egg/sugar mixture. Mix well and pour into ramekins.
Place the ramekins in a large baking pan and pour boiling water into the baking pan until it comes about halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
Cook for about 30 minutes until just set. Remove from the oven and take ramekins out of boiling water. Let cool, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours - overnight is best for the perfect texture.
Right before serving, sprinkle 1 Tbsp of castor sugar over the top of the custard and fire with a crème brûlée torch until sugar is evenly caramelized. If you don't have a torch, you can put your ramekins under the grill setting in the oven for a couple minutes. Watch carefully so they don't burn.
Serve immediately for the perfect warm crunchy topping with cool, creamy custard,

It's not nearly as hard as it may sound. Give it a try and enjoy one of life's surprises!

05 September 2012

Indian Spiced Eggplant with Peas

Yesterday was official "back to school day" or la rentrée here in France. I've blogged about this phenomenon before. For the past week or so people have been little by little coming back from August vacations and getting back to work routine. Businesses have been opening again, neighborhoods have been filling back up with Parisians and people have been getting together with friends they missed over the summer. Although I hit the ground running with last week's 14-hour-days full of theater rehearsals, this week marks a return to the usual routine: some babysitting, teaching a few theater classes and continuing rehearsals for this year's plays.

It's also back to making delicious food from whatever the CSA throws our way week to week. Recently, I got a bunch of eggplants, both the classic purple kind and the white kind - I can only assume this is how the veggie got its name because they actually do resemble eggs. I'm not a big fan of eggplant and neither is D. (Send your delicious recipes my way, please.) My usual response when I don't like a vegetable is to put Indian spices on it. I mean, I'll eat pretty much anything once you add cumin, turmeric and eggplant is no exception. I discovered this recipe four or five years ago on the blog Orangette and it's been my go-to eggplant recipe ever since! And to top it off, it has peas in it and I LOVE peas.

(makes about 4 servings)

2 large eggplants (or 3-4 small)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. cumin seeds or ground cumin
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 small jalapeño, seeded (or not depending on how spicy you want it) and finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 ½ Tbsp. minced fresh ginger
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
4 or 5 curry leaves (optional)
3 medium tomatoes, finely chopped (out of season, canned tomatoes work too)
½ tsp. paprika
¼ tsp. turmeric
1 cup frozen peas
 ¾ cup chopped cilantro (I leave this out and sometimes garnish w/ chopped scallions at the end, but if you like cilantro, go for it)
1/3 - ½ cup whole-milk plain yogurt (if you're feeling fancy, you can also use cream or coconut milk. I've tried both and they're delicious variations)
Salt, to taste
Garam masala, for serving

Preheat the oven to 500° F (250ºC). Put the eggplants on in a baking dish, and pierce them all over with a fork or knife. Bake for about 1 hour, or until the skins are blackened and the eggplant is soft when pressed. Set aside to cool slightly. Then slice open lengthwise, scrape the flesh from the skin and mash coarsely. (You can do this part a day or two ahead and refrigerate it.)

Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large frying pan. Add the cumin seeds (or ground cumin) and cook until they begin to sizzle and pop, about 10 seconds. Add the onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is soft and beginning to brown, about 5-10 minutes. Add the jalapeño, garlic, ginger, cayenne and curry leaves (if using) and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook until the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Add the paprika and turmeric, and cook, stirring, for another 2-3 minutes. Add the eggplant and peas and cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, and stir in the cilantro (if using), yogurt (or cream or coconut milk), and salt.

Serve sprinkled with garam masala.

29 August 2012

Refreshing Lemon-Limeade

Today marks the first official day of a new project, a week of physically and emotionally intensive rehearsals at a theater that has basically turned the keys over to us for a week to do as we please. Yes, they're crazy. But then again so are we - and anyone who throws themselves into something they are passionate about and just trusts the universe will provide.

I guess what I'm saying is that a certain healthy level of insanity is required to live life to the fullest. Marie Forleo - inspiring business woman living out her dreams - says in this interview that ambition is always unrealistic because it hasn't happened yet. I'm paraphrasing but it's a comforting thought because it means that if your dreams and desires are not based in "reality", then you're doing something right, you're on an adventure towards changing that reality into something else.

Of course those of us that cook know all about that.  The history of cooking is full of unrealistic ambitions from "let's eat this big round red fruit of the nightshade family in the hopes it won't actually be poisonous," to "let's break down the molecules of this food, turn it into foam and serve it in a restaurant." You start with some random ingredients, or a list of constraints, or just a wild desire for something particular and off you sail out into the waters of culinary invention perhaps with a recipe or two for guidance -- or not.

In this case, I was looking for a nice before dinner drink that was cooling and non-alcoholic. Enter Lemon-Limeade. I took what looked like a super simple recipe from Food & Wine. Don't be fooled. There are few steps and no special equipment, but unless you have a juicer (I hope you do), you're going to be squeezing lots of lemons and limes by hand. However, this delicious recipe is worth it (as long as you don't have any paper cuts).

1 cup sugar (I used raw sugar, which gave the lemonade a nice rich color)
4 3/4 cups water
3/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
3/4 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
slices for garnish

In a saucepan on high heat, stir the sugar into 1 1/2 cups water until dissolved. Remove from heat BEFORE mixture comes to a boil. Pour into a pitcher and stir in 3 1/4 cups of cold water and lemon and lime juices. Refrigerate until cool. Serve over ice, garnished with lemon or lime slices. Good with appetizers before dinner or to cool off in the afternoon.

22 August 2012

Home from Vacation and Homemade Vanilla Extract

Unlike last year when my US Road Trip made the blog nearly every day, this year's vacation was shorter, much more family-filled (think fourteen people to organize for dinner every night) and involved much less culinary creativity. Then again, why get creative when you can grill every night to this sort of view.

Yeah, that's what I'm talking about. However, as someone who doesn't have a grill for most of the year, I always find recipes where you need one frustrating, so I will spare you the (amazingly yummy) details and head back to recipes you can make with little or no special equipment.

I had marked this recipe on the defunct blog Antics of A Cycling Cook a few years ago (yes that's how long the turnover is in my bookmarked recipes file) and finally got sick of paying lots of money for tiny tiny bottles of vanilla extract and decided to give it a try. Hands down the easiest recipe in the world, cheap in the long run, and made my baked goods so much better. I topped it off and gave it a good shake before vacation and came back to amazing vanilla extract. I highly recommend doing it yourself!

One small bottle of alcohol 
(I used a 20cl bottle of cheap Armagnac from the supermarket. Sam used cheap vodka. Anything will do - brandy, light rum, etc - but you don't want the alcohol flavor to overpower the vanilla so I would avoid dark rum and stuff like that.)
5 vanilla beans 
(This is the expensive part but worth the investment because you can use the same beans to make lots of vanilla. Sam suggests buying vanilla beans online because it's much cheaper.)

Split the vanilla beans almost all the way down lengthwise, leaving the base intact. Put them in your chosen bottle of alcohol. Shake well and let sit in a cool, dark place for 8 weeks. Shake every once in a while. 

I just top off the Armagnac every so often and give it a shake. You can replace an old bean with a fresh one every once in a while to keep the vanilla flavor strong. Et voilà!