Friday, July 17, 2009

sloppy joes

When it comes to food, I am a self-diagnosed split personality.

There is my Everyday Self, with her seasonal, produce-centric sensibilities.

And then there is my Other Self, anchored to a childhood of strip malls and state fairs. The self with an abiding loyalty to upscale chain restaurants and chocolate-dipped soft serve. The self who believes, irrefutably, that mint chocolate chip ice cream should possess a green, medicinal hue. The self who would voluntarily consume cheese from a can, or cool whip. Who has been known to request extra maraschino cherries... I could go on.

These sloppy joes are very a much a product of the latter Self.

Those with more refined tastes might balk at the idea of a dish that, in lieu of fresh vegetables and herbs, demands ketchup and steak seasoning. But these are, in their own way, marks of authenticity—a credit to a uniquely American archetype.

For me, this recipe is a tribute to my mother’s cooking, which, though narrow in scope, produced many memorable meals. Sloppy joes, cream of mushroom chicken, beef stew with ketchup, rice pilaf—these were among the few home-cooked dishes she kept in regular rotation.

Although her original sloppy joe recipe was lost, I culled together a basic blueprint from my own recollections (e.g. the requisite Worcestershire sauce) and a few online sources (I confess, Rachael Ray may have been consulted).

The results, cooked up for an al fresco dinner, were nearly as good as I remember. Refined? No. Attractive? Not really—though there is something beautiful about a potato roll nearly dissolved in beefy sauce.

But they were deeply nostalgic, and resoundingly tasty.

Sloppy Joes

I’ve revised the recipe below to reflect the changes we made (or would make, next time). As I said, it’s more of a blueprint; most of this should be done to taste. If you prefer to use fresh garlic over the faux version, sauté the minced cloves with the onion. Serve with coleslaw, tater tots—any of those classic comfort sides.

Serves 4

1 1/4 pounds ground beef sirloin
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped (optional)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder (or substitute 2 minced cloves; see note)
1 can (15 ounces) tomato sauce
1/2 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 potato rolls / hamburger buns

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion (and the celery, if using) and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the ground beef to the skillet. Cook, breaking up meat with a wooden spoon, until it is just past the pink stage, 6 to 8 minutes. (The goal is to cook it just barley through, so the meat doesn’t dry out.) Season with salt and pepper as you go. Add the brown sugar and garlic powder.

Add tomato sauce, ketchup, and Worcestershire sauce. Simmer until thickened, stirring occasionally, 6 to 8 minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste. Spoon meat mixture onto hamburger buns (buttered or with mayonnaise, if that's your thing) and serve.

Friday, July 10, 2009

carrot cake with cream cheese frosting

My relationship to carrot cake evolved in many stages.

The first stage, which lasted until around age 12, was one of total antagonism. To my mind, carrot cake barely qualified as dessert—it was just a poorly disguised effort to foist more vegetables on children.

In Stage II (my early teens), I discovered carrot cake as a vehicle for cream cheese frosting. Forget forks—my method of consumption involved sweeping an index finger around the cake’s perimeter, then excavating the sweet mortar between its layers. (The layers themselves went mostly ignored.)

Stage III marks a more holistic approach. In this stage, I finally accepted carrot cake as a middling member of the dessert kingdom. I respected the few proficient carrot cakes that crossed my path (mad props, Cafe Bernardo), but I didn't seek them out.

In Stage IV (the final stage?), I am born again. While I still demand a healthy ratio of frosting to cake, my love for a well-executed carrot cake now knows no bounds. Well-executed is the operative term here, because, despite my best efforts (and I promise, with no lingering emotional baggage to cloud my judgment), I still find it remarkably difficult to purchase a good carrot cake.

Now that I think of it, perhaps that’s been the source of my ambivalence (and the ambivalence of so many other carrot cake waverers) all along. It’s not that I ever (after age 12) disliked carrot cake in the abstract. It’s just that I so rarely met a version that I could truly support. Cream cheese frosting, for the most part, will always be good. But inconsistency in a carrot cake can have disastrous results, rendering the cake dry, or stringy, or worse. Go ahead and call me a fair weather fan, but I speak the truth.

That’s why it seems so important to have a competent carrot cake in one’s repertoire. And I’m pleased to report that this cake is exactly that.

I share credit for this cake with my friend, a self-declared carrot cake lover and first-time cake baker. It was she who volunteered the idea, and her enthusiasm that encouraged us to persevere sans electronic mixer. (“There must have been a way people did this before the standing mixer was invented,” I reassured myself.)

Two hours and two tiers later, this was the result: a delicious, deftly spiced carrot cake with just enough crunch. If my 12-year-old self had met this carrot cake, I’m sure even she could be convinced.

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Epicurious

The original recipe called for a three-tiered cake; we made a full batch for two 9-inch pans, discarding the leftover batter. I'm not ashamed to say that, without scaling down the recipe, we consumed almost all of the frosting—the cake still could have used more between the layers. (The heat was partially to blame, as the frosting seemed to melt a bit.) In case you’d like to improvise, I’ve recommended a few substitutions below.

For the cake:
2 cups sugar [I used a little less]
1½ cups vegetable oil
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon ginger
3½ cups finely grated peeled carrots
1/2 cup chopped toasted pecans or walnuts, plus more for garnish
1/2 cup raisins

For the frosting:
2-3 cups powdered sugar, or to taste
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
2-3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1½ teaspoons lemon juice

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease three 9-inch cake pans. Line bottom of pans with waxed paper. Lightly grease waxed paper.

Using electric mixer, beat sugar and vegetable oil in bowl until combined. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg into sugar and oil mixture. Stir in carrots, chopped pecans and raisins.

Pour batter into prepared pans, dividing equally. Bake until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean and cakes begin to pull away from sides of pans, about 45 minutes. Cool in pans on racks 15 minutes. Turn out cakes onto racks and cool completely. [Can be made 1 day ahead. Wrap tightly in plastic and store at room temperature.]

For the frosting: Using an electric mixer, beat all ingredients in medium bowl until smooth and creamy.

Place 1 cake layer on platter. Spread with 3/4 cup frosting. Top with another cake layer. Spread with 3/4 cup frosting. Top with remaining cake layer. Using icing spatula, spread remaining frosting in decorative swirls over sides and top of cake. Garnish as desired. Serve cake cold or at room temperature.

Optional additions:

• Toast the nuts.
• Decrease oil to 1 cup and add 1/2 cup of applesauce or one 8-ounce can of crushed pineapple.
• Add 2 tablespoons minced peeled ginger to the batter. (Omit the ground ginger.)
• Add the juice and zest of one lime to the frosting. (Omit the lemon juice.)

Monday, July 6, 2009

strawberry buttermilk cake

After Con Queso unveiled her perfect strawberry shortcake, I racked my brain for alternative uses for the strawberry. I considered a classic strawberry pie, or an Anglophilic Eton Mess, or a strawberry marscapone tart, but my heart just wasn't in it. You see, my affection for strawberry shortcake is such that to attempt any other strawberry dessert just felt self-defeating—a doomed race for the runner-up.

And so instead I decided to lower my expectations.

I chose this Strawberry Buttermilk Cake because it seemed like a cake comfortable with its own limitations. Between the virtuous composition (I know, only in the world according to Paula Deen and Ina Garten would half a stick of butter and one egg be considered virtuous, but they certainly don't scream hedonism) and the easy-as-pie preparation, this cake fell safely into the "everyday dessert" category. It seemed like the kind of cake you could snack on in the afternoon, or dress up with a dollop of whipped cream on a weeknight. The kind of cake that's not looking for any superlatives.

And indeed, having made the cake, I can confirm that it is all of those things. What I'll also say, and what I didn't expect, is that it's deeply satisfying, too. With its sunken strawberry craters and crunchy sugar coating, this cake certainly doesn't taste "everyday." I don't think it's usurped shortcakes on my strawberry hierarchy, but it's a pretty awesome substitute.

Strawberry Buttermilk Cake
Adapted from Gourmet

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar, divided use
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 large egg, at room temperature
1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 cup fresh strawberries, halved

Preheat oven to 400 degrees with rack in middle. Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.

In small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

With an electric mixer, cream butter and 2/3 cup sugar until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes, then beat in vanilla. Add egg and beat well.

At low speed, add flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with buttermilk. (Begin and end with flour). Mix until just combined.

Spoon batter into cake pan, smoothing top. Scatter strawberries over the top [I placed mine in concentric circles] and sprinkle with remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar. [I know, it looks like a lot. Just go with it.]

Bake until cake is golden and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack and cool to warm, 10 to 15 minutes more. Invert onto a plate.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

chermoula swordfish

This grilled swordfish, glistening with smoky chermoula marinade, marks the happy conclusion of two years of culinary purgatory.

I first tasted this dish at a friend’s house—a casual summer barbecue that became (because of the swordfish) a seminal life event. I did not request the recipe at the time, convinced that, with a little research, I could recreate the magical chermoula on my own.

Oh, what folly! You see, chermoula is quite mercurial. With no official recipe, this North African blend of herbs and spices is open for endless interpretation and extemporization. (“Every town, every family, has its own special combination,” says Claudia Roden.)

Over the next two years, I discovered chermoula in many new iterations, as a sauce for silky chicken tagine, in a salad of roasted cauliflower, or atop a filet of roasted salmon. The results were always more than satisfactory, but never revelatory—not better than the marinade of my memory.

Purgatory indeed. And my solution? I fear it was very much of the tail-between-my-legs persuasion.

My own efforts thwarted, I went back to the original source, emailing my friend for the recipe. (Did that seem desperate, two years after the fact? Probably.) Three weeks later, armed with some hearty swordfish steaks and a Weber Grill, wary but hopeful, M. and I put it to the test.

And lo, it was good.

It is rare that I discourage culinary improvisation, particularly with such a versatile recipe. But in this case, I'll make an exception. I do believe this is the ultimate chermoula experience.

Chermoula Swordfish
The combination of vinegar and raw garlic makes this marinade particularly pungent; don’t be discouraged.

6 tablespoons cilantro, coarsely chopped
6 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
6 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon cumin, preferably dry roasted and then ground
2 teaspoons smoked, sweet or hot Spanish paprika (preferably hot)
1 teaspoon cayenne
2 teaspoons coarse salt
Four six-ounce swordfish steaks, about 1 1/2 inches thick
Lemon wedges and chopped cilantro, for garnish

In a food processor, combine herbs, vinegar and garlic. With the motor running, add olive oil in a stead stream until the mixture becomes a thick green paste. Transfer to a bowl and whisk in salt, lemon juice, cumin, cayenne and paprika.

In a large Ziploc bag (or a covered bowl) marinate the swordfish in the refrigerator for 1 hour, turning occasionally. Be careful not to marinate the swordfish much longer, or it will begin to break down.

Preheat the grill.

Remove the swordfish steaks from the bag, discarding the remaining marinade. (No need to wipe off the fish itself.) Once the grill is hot, place the fish on the grate and cook approximately 4 to 5 minutes on each side, or until done. Remove and serve immediately, with fresh herbs and lemon wedges. [And preferably alongside Goan avocado salad.]

goan avocado salad redux

Con Queso already sang the praises of Floyd Cardoz’s Goan Avocado Salad, but its deliciousness cannot be restated often enough.

At this point, I have tweaked the recipe to my own liking, amping up the spices slightly. It’s a dip (the ultimate guacamole), a condiment (the chermoula swordfish + Tuscan onions + avocado salad trifecta was one for the ages), and, with some bread, a meal unto itself.

Goan Avocado Salad
Adapted from Floyd Cardoz

For a heartier variation, substitute halved cherry tomatoes.

4 ripe avocados, peeled, pitted, and cut into ½-inch pieces
½ cup finely chopped red onion, or to taste
1 plum tomato, cored and finely chopped
¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves, plus more for garnish
Juice and zest of one lime
1-2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1-2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place all ingredients except olive oil in bowl and mix well. Season to taste. Add olive oil and toss again. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2-3 hours (optional, but it helps the flavors develop). Sprinkle lightly with cumin and fresh cilantro before serving.