December 2008

Tonic and limes make fine cocktails, but for ushering out the final hours of the Old Year I like to raise the bar a little.  These fruity, simple syrups will keep in the fridge for weeks and are very versatile:  you can mix them with tonic or club soda and the liquor of your choice, or with sparking wine (we like cava, prosecco, and a Portugese wine called vinho verde as affordable alternatives to champagne), or just with seltzer for a festive, non-alcoholic drink.

Blackberry-mint Syrup

1 quart fresh or frozen blackberries

1 1/2 c. sugar

1 c. water

1/4 c. fresh mint leaves (about 12)

Combine sugar, water, and berries in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.  Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until liquid is slightly thickened and berries begin to break down.  Remove from heat, stir in mint leaves, and let steep 15 minutes.
Strain mixture through a fine-meshed sieve, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible, then refrigerate.  Serve chilled.

lemonsyrup2Simple Lemon Syrup

Yield: about 2 cups

1 1/2 c. sugar

1 c. water

1 c. freshly squeezed lemon juice

Bring sugar and water to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar.  Strain lemon juice into a heat-proof bowl, pour in sugar syrup, and stir to combine.  Let cool at room temperature, then refrigerate.  Serve chilled.

We have some cranberry-ginger shrub leftover from Christmas that we’ll be serving, too.  Happy New Year!


I got a new cookbook for Christmas: Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, by one of my favorite chefs, Ana Sortun of the restaurant Oleana in Cambridge, MA.  I love Greek and Turkish food, and have already dog-eared a dozen recipes to try in the coming weeks.  I made these simple pickles, as Sortun suggests, to accompany her spinach falafel.  The combination of crisp, garlicky pickle and creamy, earthy chickpeas and greens is a refreshing spin on traditional winter ingredients.  Lightweights, beware:  these pickles are bracingly sour, pungent, and intense.

Pickled Pears

Adapted from Spice

Yield: 2 quarts pickles

pickledpears22 lb. firm pears (I like d’anjou), peeled, cored, and sliced 1/2″ thick

1/2 c. kosher salt

1 c. white wine or champagne vinegar

2 bay leaves

1 tbsp. brown mustard seeds

2 tbsp. black peppercorns

1/2 c. whole peeled garlic cloves, lightly crushed

1 bunch thyme

Combine salt, vinegar, herbs, spices and 8 cups of water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.  Put pears in a large, nonreactive bowl and pour brine over them.  Cover the bowl with a clean dishtowel or a piece of plastic wrap (poke holes in plastic to let steam out), and let sit at room temperature for 3 hours.  Refrigerate pears in brine.  Pickles are ready to eat after 24 hours, and keep in the fridge for 2 weeks.  Best served at room temperature.

I love going Out To Eat.  Not just out to eat, we do that often enough.  We have a really good Szechuan place, a really good Mexican place, a really good BBQ place, and it’s always a treat to let my in-laws wrangle the kids through dinner, bath, and bedtime while Andy and I enjoy some grown-up conversation over a tasty meal cooked and served by someone other than me.  But there’s eating out, and then there’s fine dining, and the latter is the greatest pleasure I know.

I truly love fine restaurants.  I love gracious hosts and servers and bartenders and coat checkers and their relaxed, welcoming smiles and their easy manners.  I love quiet dining noises, low voices and clinking silverware and the rustle of napkins and servers gliding back and forth, in and out of the kitchen.   I love the gleaming orderliness of table settings, glasses and soup spoons and salad forks placed just right.   I love an artful menu, bound in leather and printed on pretty paper, its words carefully chosen to be as beautiful and elegant and concise as the dishes they describe.  I love the moment a big, heavy, white plate is set in front of me.  I love those dazzling first few seconds while my eyes take in the composition of the dish and my head feels light as my nose catches the first whirl of steam off the plate and I try to remember what exactly it was that I ordered.   I love the thought and consideration and chopping and simmering and searing and plating and even dishwashing that goes into my dinner.  I love the cooks in the kitchen who stand and sweat and concentrate and turn out flawless filet after flawless filet, night after night.  The restaurant is my temple, a quiet, beautiful place to contemplate the skills and artistry of others and to give thanks for my own good fortune and good company.

We have not been Out To Eat in nearly four years, not since our son was born, not since we left New York.  We’ve been too tired, too pregnant, too busy, too strapped for cash.  Tonight, we remedied that.  We ate at No. 9 Park in Beacon Hill, and it was exquisite.

I ordered the parsnip and sunchoke veloute, studded with rich, sauteed sweetbreads,  which was smooth as satin and barely sweet.  The pekin duck breast was perfectly cooked and tender as the best filet of beef, and had a crispy, salty skin.  Wilted Chinese broccoli, delicate roasted garlic ravoilini, and a rich concoction of duck liver and confit were well-balanced accompaniments.  Andy had ricotta ravioletti with chestnuts, honey, and sage (only quibble: the sliced, toasted chestnuts that garnished the dish were tough to chew), and Colorado lamb three ways (medium rare saddle, braised shoulder, merquez sausage) with a fresh chickpea cake.  Delicious!

glasscork1I took a gamble on a wine I’d never heard of, and it was a winner:  Heinrich Blaufrankisch from the Burgenland region of Austria.  Light like Beaujolais but with more character, like pinot noir, it was a perfect match for my meal.  And it had a glass cork!

For dessert we shared a persimmon cake, which was spicy and slightly bitter like a good gingerbread, served with a quenelle of carrot sorbet.  A lovely finish to a wonderful evening.


Buttery, sweet yeast breads are the essence of winter holidays for me. When I was growing up, my mother would devote an entire Saturday in early December to baking her mother’s Dresden stollen, a traditional German Christmas bread made with rum-soaked raisins, almonds, and a whopping pound of butter. To my utter agony, she’d immediately freeze the loaves, saving two for Christmas morning and two for New Year’s Day. Now our son’s dairy, egg, and nut allergies preclude us from carrying on this particular family tradition, but my quest for an equally wonderous and wintery sweet bread ended with the quintessentially American cinnamon roll. This recipe is egg-free, so it’s easy to make vegan or adapt for the dairy-allergic by substituting soy or rice milk for the cow’s milk and a non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening (I like Earth’s Balance) for the butter. As with all yeast breads, these rolls are time consuming, but most of that time is spent just waiting for the dough to rise.  Believe me, they’re worth the wait.

Egg-free, Dairy-free Cinnamon Rolls

Adapted from a terrific recipe found here.

Yield:  Makes 12-14 rolls

For rolls:

2 c. cow’s or soy milk, or 1 3/4 c. rice milk

1/2 c. safflower or canola oil

1/3 c. granulated sugar

1 envelope active dry yeast

4 1/2 c. all-purpose flour, divided

3/4 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

For filling:

5 tbsp. butter, melted (or use Earth Balance Buttery Sticks, or dairy-free margarine, or even palm shortening)

1/3 c. brown sugar

cinnamon, to taste

1/3 c. raisins, soaked in hot water to plump, then drained

For glaze:

2 c. confectioner’s sugar

2 tbsp. milk, any kind


If you’re using soy milk: In a medium saucepan, combine soy milk, oil, and granulated sugar.  Warm over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar, until scalded (meaning just below a boil – don’t worry if it starts to simmer, just add a few minutes to the cooling time). Remove from heat and leave to cool until lukewarm, about 40 minutes.

If you’re using rice milk: In a medium saucepan, combine rice milk, oil, and granulated sugar.  Warm over medium heat, stirring, until sugar is just dissolved (no need to scald).  Remove from heat and leave to cool until lukewarm.

When soy or rice milk mixture cools to lukewarm, sprinkle in the yeast.  While the yeast settles into the milk, measure 4 c. of the flour into a bowl.  Add the flour to the saucepan with the milk mixture and stir to combine. Cover lightly with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel and leave to rise for an hour or two, or until doubled in volume.

To the risen dough in the saucepan, add the remaining 1/2 c. flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and stir until incorporated.  Let the dough rest while you measure the filling ingredients.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Use half the melted butter to grease two 9’’ round baking pans. Generously flour a work surface and press the dough with your fingers into a rectangle. Roll rectangle out to roughly 12’’ by 24’’, adding a bit more flour as necessary to keep dough from sticking. Brush remaining butter over dough, then sprinkle evenly with the brown sugar, cinnamon, and raisins.

Roll the dough lengthwise into a long log, cut in half to make two shorter logs, then cut each half into six or seven equal pieces. (Here’s a tip for slicing the rolls without squashing them: slide a length of thread or dental floss under the roll, cross the threads over the top of the roll and pull quickly.) Divide pieces between the two buttered pans, arranging them cut-side up. At this point, you can cover the pans lightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate them overnight, cover tightly with foil and freeze, or let them rise at room temperature for 30 minutes, then bake for 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned.

When rolls come out of the oven, make the glaze. Stir the confectioner’s sugar and milk together until smooth. Drizzle glaze over rolls while still warm.

To bake rolls from the fridge: Let them come to room temperature before baking, or at least let them sit on top of the stove while it preheats.

To bake rolls from the freezer: Let them thaw in the fridge overnight. Continue as above.

shrubglassMy friend Sarah gets credit for this ingenious gift idea.  A sweet-tart combination of fruit juice, sugar, and vinegar, the shrub is a versatile drink mix that’s easy to make.  To serve, fill a glass with ice, add a splash of shrub, and top off with carbonated water or club soda.  Add a shot of rum or brandy, if you like.  Or mix the shrub with sparkling wine instead.  Any way you fix it, it’s awfully refreshing.

Cranberry-ginger Shrub

Makes about 1 quart.

1 1/2 c. water

1 1/2 c. sugar

1 quart fresh cranberries

1 thumb-sized knob of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced

2 c. cider vinegar

shrubcook3Bring water and sugar to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar.  Add cranberries and ginger, simmer 15 minutes.  Add vinegar, simmer 5 minutes more. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve set over a bowl, pressing on berries to release as much liquid as possible.  Transfer to a glass container and refrigerate up to a month.  Shake or stir before using.

Stumped by what to give a relative who has everything?  Strapped for cash?  Homemade edibles make thoughtful, useful, and affordable presents.  How about granola?  Everybody likes granola.  With two kinds of seeds and no butter, this recipe makes a nice gift for a family with nut or dairy allergies.


For-the-birds Granola

Makes about 2 quarts.

4 c. rolled oats

1/2 c. sesame seeds

1/2 c.  raw or roasted sunflower seeds*

1/2 c. wheat germ or shredded, unsweetened coconut

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 c. safflower or canola oil

1/2 c. maple syrup

1 tsp. vanilla

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine dry ingredients in a mixing bowl.  Combine wet ingredients in a measuring cup.  Slowly pour wet into dry, stirring to coat evenly.  Spread granola on a large sheet pan and bake for about an hour, stirring every 20 minutes or so, until nicely browned.  Let cool on tray (will dry out and crisp as it cools).  Store in an airtight container.


You can substitute honey for the maple syrup, but watch it carefully while it bakes — honey is quicker to burn than syrup.

To make it wheat-free, use shredded coconut instead of wheat germ.

To make it sesame-free, use shredded coconut instead of sesame seeds, or use an extra 1/4 c. each wheat germ and sunflower seeds.

* Read ingredients carefully:  some roasted sunflower seeds contain peanut oil.

cannedtomatoes13Summer’s tomato bounty is a distant memory, especially here in snowy New England.  So unless you blanched, peeled, sauced, and stockpiled your heart out in August (I didn’t — I was too busy sweating and complaining about the humidity), you’ll be relying on the canned version for the next six months.  I use canned plum tomatoes constantly in my winter cooking.  Here are my three favorite brands.

Best Value

In culinary school, we learned that the best canned tomatoes come from Italy, and the best Italian tomatoes are from San Marzano.  In general, it’s a good guideline.  So I was delighted to find them at Costco, in a whopping 6 lb. 10 oz. can, for just over $3.  The brand name is Nina, which I’ve never seen in a regular grocery store, and the tomatoes are sturdy and pleasantly acidic.  They’re canned in a clean tasting juice, which is especially good for braises.

cannedtomatoes21Best for Sauce

(Also, prettiest can!) Joseph Russo: they are Italian, though not from San Marzano.  The tomatoes break down well during cooking and they’re canned in a thick puree, making them perfect for marinara.


California’s own Muir Glen makes tomatoes so sweet you could eat them straight from the can.  They are petite, firm, easy to dice, and organic, too.  Take that, Italy!  They’re expensive, though, and hard to find around here (unless you want to go to Whole Foods and spend 6 million dollars per can, which I do not) — hence the lack of photo.  But they are awfully good, and I buy them when I see them.

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