Saturday, January 14, 2012

Dinner on the Fly: Octopus Potato Salad with Pancetta and Mint

Let's demystify octopus, shall we?  It is not that complicated, People.  You can make it for dinner on an ordinary day and it is no big deal.  So what are you afraid of?  It was fine when you ordered it in that Spanish tapas place.  Of course it was already cleaned, chopped, prepared and somehow artfully arranged on your plate.  But really you just can not imagine it on your kitchen counter as a blubbery, bulbous mass with purple, suctioned-cupped tentacles.  I am here to tell you that you can do this.

First here are a few of things you should know:
  1. You are going to buy it frozen.  I know what you are thinking and believe me I am not accustomed to buying fish or seafood from my local supermarket's freezer section.  First of all, I am willing to bet that your local supermarket is not selling octopus, am I right?  ( If you live in NY I have gotten mine at Sunny Fish Market in Queens or Buon Italia in Manhattan, but I am sure there are many other great places.)  Octopus actually freezes well and is almost always sold to a wholesaler frozen.  I have heard rumors of New York neighborhoods like Chinatown or Bay Ridge, where you can get fresh octopus but I have not made those outings yet to be sure. Anthing you buy fresh is a real treat but I am willing to bet that the wonderful pulpa you had at that Spanish Tapas Bar probably started out frozen.
  2. You are going to stick it in a pot and boil it.  Now does that sound hard? I haven't bought a frozen octopus that hasn't already been cleaned but I suppose it is still worth it to pose the question to your fish monger.  But boiling is pretty much the extent of preparing your octopus.  I have never had to beat it against a wall or put a cork in the water but feel free to try that if you feel so inclined.  Depending on the size of the octopus, you want to boil it for 45 minutes to an hour.  You should note that it will reduce in size by about a third.  It will be ready when you stick in fork in it and it is tender. Pull it out of the pot, chop it into attractive pieces and you are done.
  3. If you are not accustomed to eating octopus, try it.  It is surprisingly delicious.  And if the environment and sustainability is a concern of yours, as it is a concern of mine, octopus is one of the better choices at your fish market.  I can not say that it is certainly local but octopi are a short lived and fast growing breed, making them better able to withstand overfishing. 
Octopus Potato Salad with Pancetta and Mint
  • 1 octopus, prepared and chopped
  • 3 potatoes, boiled and chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • 1/4 of a cup chopped pancetta
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
  • 2 shallots, 1 minced and 1 sliced 
  • 1 stalk chopped celery 
  • 1/2 a cup of cooked (or from a can) chick peas 
  • pinch of red chili flakes
  • 5 tablespoons of olive oil 
  • 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar
  • sea salt
  • black pepper
In a small bowl, add minced shallot and vinegar.  Slowly drizzle in 4 tablespoons of the olive oil while beating the vinegar and shallot with a fork.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Chop your potatoes first and then boil them in salted water (they will cook faster that way). Let them cool for 10 minutes. In a large bowl combine celery, warm potatos (not hot), and chick peas.  Add some of the olive oil and vinegar mixture while the potatoes are still warm and toss.  Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet.  Add pancetta and sliced shallot and turn the heat to medium low.  Let cook until the pancetta and shallots turn golden brown on the edges.  This will render some pork fat and carmelize the shallots.  When they are almost done and the skillet is still hot add the red chili flakes.  Let cool for a few minutes then add to the potato mixture and toss.  Add mint leaves, season with salt, pepper and the remaining oil and vinegar dressing to taste.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Hungarian Stuffed-Under-the-Skin Chicken

I made this last month to bring to a Chanakah dinner and I have been craving it ever since.  Every year I am invited to my sister-in-law's family Chanakah dinner. We gentiles come bearing gifts but leave the traditional cooking to those who know it best.  However this year, I couldn't help feeling that the burden of cooking was unbalanced and that a little help was in order.  I could have reached for what I know of traditional Chanakah dishes but  I couldn't possible make something so traditional as latkes or chotlin without trumping my host.  So I searched the New York Times Archives for less well known but appropriate dishes for this holiday.  This dish was posted in 2006 as Hungarian Stuffed-Under-the-Skin Chicken  (click here to get the recipe and believe me you should) and was adapted from Mindel Appel.  Mrs. Appel is the Hungarian Jew who founded this dish and you should read about her in this beautiful article.  This article well describes the spirit of generosity that often comes with family cooking.  Or cooking for anyone for that matter.  It describes a long tradition of cooking as a way of giving and spending time with those you love.  There are some other great recipes there to boot.

Here's the thing about this dish.  There's no complexity in its flavors.  There is no zing of acidity, no kick of something spicy, no rounding of sweetness to contrast or balance another flavor.  It is savory, chickeny goodness with real and simple vegetables cooking in those juices.  The stuffing is made with onion, egg, parsley, mushrooms and good challah bread.  Simple and delicious but I mean, really delicious.  Not the kind of fancy night out good, but the kind of good that makes you glad that you are home.  I swear that if love were scent it would be that of this dish while it is roasting in the oven.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Wedding Cupcakes: Best Wishes to Greg and Olgu!

I love it when a couple ties the knot.  The rosy smiles and high held glasses makes me feel like the world is hopeful and warm.  I am not particularly affected by flowers, elaborate dresses or the fuss of arrangements.  Frills can feel like such an extraneous distraction.  It is much more romantic, let's say, for the couple to gather friends at the bar where they met as did our friends Olgu and Greg.  

Cake, however, is celebratory.  Conveniently I am pretty good at making cake (but less so at decorating it).  Besides, layers of brightly colored fondant is not delicious.

Vanilla Coconut Cupcakes

For the cake (adapted from Cupcakes by ShellyKaldunski):
Makes 20 to 24 cupcakes 

  • 2 eggs plus 2 egg whites
  • 2 cups of flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 sticks of butter
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar 
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2/3 cup shredded coconut plus more for garnish
Position your rack int he center of your oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

Chop the shredded coconut.  In a large bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and chopped coconut.  Using a stand mixer cream together the butter and sugar. It should look light and fluffy. Add egg, egg white and vanilla to the creamed butter mixture and beat until combined.  Add flour mixture in three additions mixing well in between each one.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.

Line your cupcake pan or muffin tins with paper cupcake liners.  Divide the batter equally.  Each  section should be filled about three fourths of the way.  Bake for approximately 20 minutes.  To test if done, stick a toothpick halfway down the middle and if it comes out clean it is ready.  Let cool completely before icing.

For the frosting (adapted from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything):
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 4 cups of confectioners sugar
  • 6 to 8 tablespoons of coconut milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
In a stand mixer cream the butter with the paddle attachment.  Add sugar gradually and ad alternate with coconut milk and vanilla.  Beat well after each addition.