“Big Three” Vichyssoise

Summer is a strange time for soup. Yes, the need for a vegetal base in most means the potentials for flavors are as wide ranging as your harvest (or, let’s be honest, your farmers’ market or produce section), but there’s that whole hot food in hot weather issue that sometimes turns us off. I know that I, at my most overheated, want only cold salads, grilled meat, and an adult beverage.

Fortunately for us, and for this project, there are some soups designed to combat the heat problem, in that they are traditionally served cold. It’s a strange sensation if you’ve never tried one – the first time I had a cold soup, I found myself blowing on the spoon a few times before tasting, because even though I knew it wasn’t a hot liquid, my body was so programmed to treat it as such that I couldn’t overcome the instinct.

It’s possible that the best known, or perhaps most popular, cold soup is gazpacho, but since we just talked about tomatoes, and since the tomatoes I’ve seen at the market in the last few weeks haven’t quite been at their peak, I’m waiting till September, our hottest month in Southern California and therefore the best time to have this cold, raw, bright blend waiting for me in the fridge. Instead, I’m taking us in an unlikely and humble direction: let’s talk leeks and potatoes. It’s a little strange that these two wintry vegetables are the star players in one of the best known cold soups, but maybe it’s a subtle nod to wish fulfillment: if you find you want things to be cooler, then you are lusting after a season half a year away. Vichyssoise, this chilled reminder of cooler times, is the creation of chef Louis Diat. While working at The Ritz in New York in the early 1900s, Diat made a soup that reminded him of a simple bowl his mother used to put together when he was a child in France, but decided to serve it cold with a sprinkling of chives on top. The resulting concoction can be served chunky or pureed, hot or chilled, but as Diat popularized, ice cold and velvet smooth is the most common.

Most recipes are very simple. So simple, in fact, that cooks tend to add and tweak and substitute to make the finished product… what? More interesting? More original? More publishable, I suspect, without leaving the same old classic, unadorned team assembled. Butter. Potatoes. Leeks. Broth or water. Cream. Chives. Sometimes onion bolsters the leeks, various combinations of seasoning are added, and one intriguing option I saw used buttermilk at the end for tang. Differentiations lie in the quantities of the two star players – is it leek-led, or potato heavy? – the amount of broth and of cream, and the thickness of the finished product. To make mine, I turned to the internet and found, among a wealth of potentials, three that looked straightforward, fairly traditional, and from recognizable names. Then I realized all three authors’ names started with B, and I was stuck – the wordsmith in me loves the “rule of three,” and when your sources are Brown, Bittman, and Bourdain, how can you alter course?

There are a few differences in quantities and in seasoning options between these “big three,” but the basics are there. Alton Brown suggests Yukon gold potatoes, which I was pleased to see, since so many other recipes don’t specify. The biggest difference, interestingly, was in cooking time and dairy additions. Bourdain and Bittman sweat their leeks for only a few minutes; Alton (I just can’t call him “Brown”) goes for almost a full half hour. I erred on his side, since really, it’s a lot of leeks, and there are so few ingredients that we need to develop flavor somewhere.

I debated for a few minutes deglazing the limp, pale pile of cooked leeks with a few glugs of vodka to play with the potato idea, but ultimately decided against it, and wound up with a pot of sippable silk that needed only the traditional sprinkling of chives to make it interesting (well, N. thought it also needed a few additional grinds of pepper, but that’s him).

Two possibilities if you wanted to fancy this up. As we ate, unsurprisingly, we noted how this soup is on some level just really, really loose mashed potatoes spiked with onion flavor. To that end, we thought about the possibilities of baked potato toppings: imagine a bowl of creamed potato velvet topped not only with chives, but crumbles of crisp bacon, shreds of sharp cheddar, maybe even a dollop of sour cream. This would add some textual interest as well as other flavors, since I’ll admit a small bowlful of this is all you need – more than that and it runs the risk of monotony.

The other option plays into my bibliophilic considerations above. Small bowls are one thing, but what if you wanted to serve this as, say, an hors d’oeuvre option at a summer soiree? Imagine a cold, very lightly spiked soup in tall shot glasses, served on a shallow, ice-packed tray. You would need only to add a half cup or so of vodka to the concoction, before the long simmer if you want to eliminate the bulk of the alcohol, after if you want this to be a boozy option.

Like many thick soups, vichyssoise is even better on day two than day one, and conveniently, it takes no additional preparation since you don’t even have to reheat it. That said, the onion flavor from the leeks gets progressively stronger as the soup sits, so by day four it is pretty allium-heavy. Also convenient, though this is traditionally a cold soup, it is also delicious served warm, so if you can’t handle the cognitive dissonance, or your last weeks of August are looking chilly, this remains a viable option.

 

“Big Three” Vichyssoise
Serves 4-6 as a main course; 8-10 as an appetizer
About 60 minutes, plus at least 2 hours to chill
4 tablespoons butter
1 pound leeks, white and pale green portions only, split vertically, cleaned, and sliced thinly into half-moons
½ teaspoon salt
1 pound potatoes, preferably Yukon gold (3-4 small), diced
1 quart low sodium chicken or vegetable broth, or water
1 bay leaf
pinch nutmeg
½ – 1 cup heavy cream
additional salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon very thinly sliced chives

 

  • Melt the butter in a pot over medium heat, then add the leeks and the ½ teaspoon salt. Turn the heat down to low or medium low and allow the leeks to sweat, not brown, until very soft; about 20 minutes.
  • Add the potatoes, the broth or water, the bay leaf, and the nutmeg, cover, and bring to a boil over medium or medium-high heat. Once boil is attained, reduce the heat to low and simmer until the potato cubes are soft; 30-40 minutes.
  • When the potatoes are tender but not quite disintegrating, turn off the heat and VERY CAREFULLY puree either with an immersion blender or in a regular blender. If you are using a regular blender, blitz only small batches at a time and cover the top of the blender with a kitchen towel as well as the lid – pureeing hot liquid can cause spurts and small “explosions.” Get the mixture very, very smooth.
  • If you are feeling fussy (I was), pour the pureed liquid through a sieve or colander back into the cooking pot and return the heat to low. Add the heavy cream (start with ½ cup – we found we didn’t want more than that) and heat through. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to your liking. Sometimes cold food needs more seasoning than hot food, so you can be a little aggressive, especially with the salt. Potatoes can take it.
  • Transfer the smooth soup to a mixing or serving bowl and serve immediately, if you want it hot, or chill until quite cold: at least 2 hours.
  • Just before serving, sprinkle with chives.

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Potato, Roasted Garlic, and Rosemary Focaccia

Are you as obsessed as I am with the Great British Baking Show / Great British Bake-Off? Originally aired on BBC, a few precious seasons have traveled across the pond courtesy of PBS (seriously, how great is PBS? Let’s keep it, even if that means making a few phone calls). I devoured the first season that became available in the U.S., then was forced with the second (which PBS called season 3) into consuming only in bite-size chunks, since I watched as it aired week by week. It was excruciating – all I really wanted was to binge. So when our friend D. told me she had bought season 2 (in Britain, season 4 [yeah, we’ve made the numbering all kinds of weird]), I couldn’t resist but do the same (and then, of course, it became available on Netflix a week or two later. Typical).

I won’t tell you who wins, in case you haven’t watched it, but I quickly developed some favorites, and one was Beca, the Welsh army wife who spun beautiful homey recipes into her bakes. One week, the bakers were asked to create breads with unconventional flours, to test their skills when gluten development was off the table. Beca made a focaccia using spelt flour and mashed potatoes, topped with rosemary sprigs and more potatoes, and I couldn’t hold myself back from the kitchen.

My version goes back to standard old bread flour, since when I wanted the bread I wanted it nowthankyouverymuch, and wasn’t willing to wander the grocery aisles looking for spelt. I’ve simplified just a touch, using the same kind of potatoes for both the dough and the topping, and I’ve replaced her suggestion of gorgonzola with whole cloves of roasted garlic. Upon consultation with another recipe or two, I bumped up the quantity of olive oil for a lovely oily crustiness that is a good reminder that focaccia really is just an extremely thick-crust pizza.

Including cooked and mashed potatoes in focaccia is not unusual, resulting in a dough with some heft and stickiness, but it bakes into such a satisfying, warm, golden rectangle that the clingy dough is ultimately worth dealing with, especially if you use a stand mixer to knead it. Unlike a regular loaf, this focaccia gets spread onto a well oiled baking sheet after its first rise, and prodded and stretched over the course of half an hour or so as it settles across the tray. As you persuade it to spread, you also aggressively stab at it with your fingertips to give it that classic dimpled look, which is somewhat satisfying if you’re, I don’t know, going through withdrawal because you don’t have any more episodes of a certain show to watch…

Since I ended up irregularly shingling the top of this bread with potato slices, I was a little bit concerned that it wouldn’t rise well in the oven, and that the moisture of the potatoes would make the spots underneath them seem a bit doughy and under baked (Paul Hollywood would not be pleased). Delightfully, the whole thing rose nicely, and yes, the surface underneath the potatoes did look a little anemic compared to the well browned exposed parts in between, but it was cooked through and made for a pleasant textural contrast with the crunch of the bread and the crispness of the baked rosemary sprigs.

Since it is – perhaps with the addition of some cheese – a near equivalent of a pizza, focaccia is practically a meal in itself. But it also pairs well with roasted chicken, or a bowl of soup, or a crisp salad. We even sliced the last few pieces horizontally, toasted them for a few minutes, and used them as the base for sandwiches. Much of the stress of shaping, scoring, and steaming associated with a boule or baguette is eliminated, making this a perfect project for a slow, easy day, and perhaps a glass of sparkling wine or an amber ale as an accompaniment for the warm, well-oiled square you can hardly wait to cut for yourself.

Potato, Roasted Garlic, and Rosemary Focaccia
Makes one 9x13x3 inch loaf, depending on how much yours rises
4 medium Yukon gold potatoes, sliced thinly (about ¼ inch)
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
3-4 cups bread flour
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary sprigs, divided
1 bulb garlic, bashed into separate cloves
1 cup warm water reserved from cooking the potatoes
¾ cup olive oil + 2 teaspoons, divided

 

  • Cook the sliced potatoes in plenty of boiling water until they are tender but not falling apart, 10-15 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water, and set aside half of the potato slices to cool. Mash the other half as smoothly as possible (I leave the skins on, so there will always be some shredded potato skin in there; that’s okay).
  • Once the potato water has cooled to just warm or room temperature (110F at the hottest), stir in the yeast and the sugar and let it sit about 10 minutes to dissolve and bubble.
  • Meanwhile, combine 3 cups of the bread flour, the tablespoon of salt, and 1 tablespoon of the rosemary leaves, finely chopped, in the bowl of a stand mixer. With the mixer running at low speed and the paddle attachment affixed, drizzle in ½ cup of the olive oil. Add the bubbling yeast mixture and 1 cup of the cooled mashed potatoes and mix with the paddle attachment to bring together.
  • Switch to the dough hook and knead until smooth but still slightly sticky, around 5-8 minutes. If the mixture is not smoothing out or coming together, or it looks impossibly wet, add more flour ¼ cup at a time, mixing well in between additions.
  • Once the dough has come together into a smooth, slightly sticky ball, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise at warm room temperature for about 1 hour, until it has doubled in size.
  • While the dough rises, heat the oven to 300F, put the garlic cloves in a small, oven-safe dish and drizzle them with salt, pepper, and 2 teaspoons of the olive oil, then cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake until the garlic cloves are soft and aromatic, around 20 minutes. Set them aside until they are cool enough to handle, and raise the oven temperature to 425F.
  • When the dough has risen, oil a 9×13 inch baking tray with the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil (I know, it sounds like a lot of oil, but this is that sort of bread. Trust me). Spread it out with your fingertips to evenly coat the tray, then tip in the risen dough. Stretch and push it out over the width and length of the tray, dimpling it with your fingers as you do so. It will be reluctant.
  • Let the dough rise on the tray for 30-45 minutes, stretching it and prodding it and dimpling it as it rises. Though it will spring back at first, after the first 15 minutes or so it will relax and stretch more willingly as it puffs. You want to encourage it all the way into the corners, and be aggressive with your dimpling, stabbing right through the dough with your fingertips, otherwise the impressions will bake right out and you will end up with a smooth loaf, not focaccia’s characteristic cragginess.
  • After 30-45 minutes when the dough has puffed and stretched to fill the baking tray entirely, peel the roasted, cooled garlic cloves and press the whole cloves into the bread at random intervals. Add the reserved potato slices, leaving some space in between them, then add the remaining 1tablespoon of rosemary in small sprigs or individual leaves. If you wish, a final drizzle of olive oil over the top and a sprinkle of coarse salt is a nice final touch.
  • Bake in the preheated 425F oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the focaccia is nicely puffed and a tawny golden-brown color in the spots between the potatoes.
  • Let it cool on a wire rack for at least ten minutes before slicing in.

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Green bean and roasted red potato salad with blue cheese

Food blog May 2015-0733As buried in pages as I am, it’s difficult to believe that I’m only one week away from “summer.” Well, four days of class and about 120 mixed papers and exams. This is difficult to bear – something about this semester has been more burdensome than usual. It’s hard to know how to feel when there is so little time but so much work between me and those glorious two and a half months of no work but also no paycheck.

Food blog May 2015-0705As if matching my own cloudy-with-a-chance-of-vacation feeling, our weather lately has taken turns back and forth between what looks like summer and what, for here, passes as wintry. Typically June mornings in Southern California are overcast such that they even have their own nickname: June gloom. We’ve hit this a trifle early, it would seem, with the last week sporting what my officemate helpfully titled “May gray,” and temperatures barely grazing 70F. This is, it would seem, an uncertain entree to summer.

Food blog May 2015-0707Speaking of entrees, let’s talk food. Specifically, let’s talk potato salad. It’s not summer just yet, so it’s a little soon to dive into a platter of mayonnaise-robed spuds shot through with crisp cubes of onion and pickle. But because I surely am not the only one longing for everything a good potato salad represents, this adaptation from The Bon Appétit Cookbook is a perfect compromise. Here, roasted potatoes provide warmth and comfort, all caramelized edges and creamy softness, but a sharp, tangy mustard vinaigrette and crisp-tender green beans push the dish salad-ward.

Food blog May 2015-0711To fill my yen for green vegetables, I’ve doubled the amount of green beans and reduced the quantity of oil from the original. I’ve also eliminated walnuts and changed up the herbs to suit my fancy, and gone with whole grain rather than dijon mustard, because I like the tart pop of the little seeds. This can be eaten at room temperature as well as slightly warm, but because a generous scattering of blue cheese adds a creaminess and funk to the party, you don’t want things too heated, lest melting commence.

Food blog May 2015-0717This is the kind of dish that contents me as an entree. I suspect it would happily welcome a handful of crisp crumbled prosciutto or diced hard salami, if you want a little meaty component. If you’re treating it as a side dish, I highly recommend sausages of any variety to round out the plate, or a nicely roasted or grilled pork tenderloin.

Food blog May 2015-0725As most things are, this was just as good on day two heated up just enough to take the chill off, and topped with a fried egg still runny enough in the yolk to offer a velvet golden cascade that turned the salad into something more like a hash, my own ideal of comfort food. It’s the very thing you need, when you know summer is coming but you can’t quite see the light yet.

Food blog May 2015-0738

Green Bean and Roasted Red Potato Salad with Blue Cheese
Adapted from The Bon Appétit Cookbook
Serves 6 as a side dish
For dressing:
¼ cup whole grain mustard
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
½ cup olive oil
3 tablespoons finely minced chives
2 teaspoons finely minced sage
For salad:
2 pounds red skinned potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks
16 ounces green beans, trimmed of stem ends and halved on an angle
⅔ cup crumbled blue cheese

 

  • For the dressing, combine the mustard and vinegar in a 2-cup measuring cup or a small bowl. Gradually whisk in the oil until well emulsified. Add the herbs and season to taste with salt and pepper, keeping in mind the flavor will be much sharper alone than when it’s coating the salad.
  • Preheat oven to 450F. Toss the potato chunks with ¼ cup of the dressing in a 9×13 inch baking dish. Roast for 20 minutes at 450F.
  • After 20 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 375F. Shuffle the potatoes around for even browning, then roast 30-45 minutes more, until tender. Stir and shake once or twice during the cooking process to minimize sticking and ensure even cooking. When potatoes are tender, remove from oven and set aside to cool slightly.
  • While potatoes cook, bring a large skillet of salted water to a boil and drop in the green beans. Cook until crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes, then drain and cool.
  • When the beans and potatoes are still warm but not piping hot, combine in a large bowl (or just keep them in the original baking dish, as I did), add cheese and ¼ cup of the dressing (you may need to re-whisk the dressing first, as it will separate as it sits), and toss gently. Taste for dressing and seasoning, and adjust to your preferences (I added about 2 tablespoons additional dressing and a bit of black pepper).
  • Serve warm or at room temperature.

Roots Latkes

Most kids, upon reviewing what they ate during college, will talk about late night burrito runs. There will be a fair share of ramen noodle stock-up stories, and an assessment of the school’s dining facilities. For a student who has moved off campus, such a topic is likely to provoke a discussion of microwaveable meals. I had my share of those as well, I’ll readily admit, particularly during the month after a stunningly disorienting and unexpected breakup during which I subsisted mainly on Coca-Cola, boxed stuffing mix, Godiva ice cream, and carne asada burritos to-go from a restaurant next door to the grocery store where I was buying the rest of my supplies.

Food Blog November 2014-0694Thankfully, that month or so was an exception. For much of my off-campus college career, I lived with one other girl in a duplex her mom rented to us, and we fed each other. Sometimes it was easy stuff: pancakes, omelets, pasta with jarred red sauce, sometimes something a bit junkier like Oreo milkshakes. But we definitely introduced each other to our classics. One of mine was a modification of an old Ghirardelli oatmeal chocolate chip cookie recipe. One of hers was a simple, lovely little roasted vegetable dish her family just called “roots.” Roots consisted of, well, roots. Russet potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, and sometimes beets got peeled, cubed, and tossed with salt, pepper, and olive oil. The first time she made it for us, K. said that she wasn’t sure how much olive oil to use, but that her mom said it should be just enough that the raw cubes of vegetables “glistened.” Then we loaded them into large glass casserole dishes and roasted them until they were done.

Food Blog November 2014-0681Roots comprised whole meals for us during those years. Sometimes there would be some kind of green side, but mostly we just sat down (never at the table, always on the couch) with big bowls of autumnal cubes, toasty and brown on the outside, starchy and pillowy soft on the inside, and inhaled them. It was reasonably good for us, it was filling, it was delicious, and best of all, it was cheap. The biggest disadvantage to the whole endeavor was getting a cashier at the grocery store who didn’t recognize “weird” vegetables like rutabagas and parsnips, and would take a long time looking up the codes to ring them up.

Food Blog November 2014-0682Over the years, I’ve made roots more times than I can count. They are a lovely comfort food dish: simple to make, hot and forgiving, and easily changed up depending on what vegetables and herb combinations you like the best. Over time, I’ve eliminated beets from the equation, and opted to add plenty of chopped rosemary to the requisite salt, pepper, and olive oil.

But recently, I got thinking about roots again and wondered what it would be like to turn these simple cubed, roasted vegetables into a latke. This would increase the ratio of crisp edges to soft interior, always a good thing, and cut down a bit on preparation as well as cooking time – you can just shred everything in a food processor before frying it up, rather than cubing by hand before waiting out the hour or more the original takes in the oven.

Food Blog November 2014-0687This was, as it turned out, exactly the right thing to do. I opted for potato, carrot, parsnip, and rutabaga as my key players. They whiz into a tangle of starchy threads. Half an onion joins the party – it’s part of a standard latke, and it’s a root vegetable too. As a nod to the common practice of serving latkes with applesauce, I added a tart green apple to the vegetable combination and was pleased with the sweet sharpness it contributed. And I preserved my own love of rosemary with a hefty tablespoon in the mix.

A few eggs, a toss with some flour, and salt and pepper to season, and you carefully drop-pour dollops of the sticky mixture into hot vegetable oil, preferably in a nicely seasoned cast iron pan. It sizzles, it browns, you flip it, and within ten minutes from your first addition of batter, you are passing out hot roots latkes to your delighted diners. Or, if you want to serve everything together, you can stow each batch in the oven on a rack in a baking tray to keep them warm and crisp.

Food Blog November 2014-0690What you are left with is a reasonably quick, reasonably easy (both provided you have a food processor with a shredding disk) meal that doesn’t cost much but tastes exactly right for the approach of chillier weather. The flavors are more complex than your standard latke – there’s a mix of sweetness from the addition of the carrot and the apple. The parsnip and rutabaga have a spicy, earthy flavor that reminds me somehow of incense, a feeling pleasantly intensified by the rosemary.

Since I’d already captured the applesauce element by adding apple to the batter, I served these with a dollop of sour cream as a nod to another classic pairing.

Food Blog November 2014-0695

Roots latkes
Makes about a dozen  3-inch latkes
1 yukon gold potato
1 large carrot, peeled
1 large parsnip, peeled
1 medium rutabaga, peeled
1 large tart apple, cored
½ large white or yellow onion, ends and papery skin removed (either color is fine, so long as it’s not a sweet onion)
1 tablespoon minced rosemary
1-½ cups all-purpose flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon pepper, or to taste
½-1 cup vegetable oil
Sour cream, for serving (optional)

 

  • Begin heating ½ cup of vegetable oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium heat – it will take a few minutes, but you are looking for it to just shimmer when swirled around the pan. If you plan to make the whole batch at once and need to keep them warm, preheat the oven to 300F and position a baking sheet with a wire rack on it inside the oven.
  • Fit a food processor with the shredding disk, or address the largest holes on a box grater with care for your knuckles. Cut the vegetables into the size needed to fit comfortably down the feeding chute of the food processor, and carefully feed the potato, carrot, parsnip, rutabaga, apple, and onion through the machine to create long, thin shreds of vegetable.
  • Dump the whole mess into a large bowl and mix them up a bit with your fingers to distribute evenly. You’ll be left with strands of vegetable confetti.
  • Add the rosemary and flour to the vegetable shreds and toss well with your fingers to combine. Then add the eggs and the salt and pepper, and mix well to combine. You could use a spoon or spatula for this, but I just use my fingers. They do a better job ensuring everything is evenly distributed.
  • When the oil is shimmering, plop ¼ – ⅓ cup dollops of the mixture into the oil. In my 10-inch skillet, I can fit three dollops of batter comfortably without touching – don’t crowd them. When they hit the oil, they should sizzle lightly. If the oil spits aggressively, it’s too hot. Turn the heat down or remove the pan from the heat for a minute to cool it down.
  • Sizzle the latkes for 4-5 minutes on the first side, until it is evenly golden-brown and crisp. Flip carefully (oil splatters) and cook for 2-3 minutes on the second side, until it too is brown and crisp. Move to the rack in the oven to keep warm, or directly to a plate for immediate consumption.
  • Repeat until batter is used up. If the oil level gets low or the latkes begin to brown unevenly, add additional vegetable oil to the skillet, giving it time to heat up before adding more batter.
  • Serve with sour cream, if desired, or applesauce, or just an anxious fork.

Grilled Potato and Radish Salad

In the last three years, I have had the incredible good luck of attending a wedding each summer. Two years ago, I had the great honor of making the cake. One year ago, I sobbed as I watched two women legally and joyfully exchange vows, then start perhaps the greatest dance party I’ve ever attended. And this past weekend my eyes welled as the bride – dressed in a frock she designed herself, alternating white and lemon yellow flounces – betrayed just a tiny quiver in her perfect, crimson lips as her sister read a toast: a poem she’d written herself.

Food blog June 2014-3913The poem was about the bride and groom, but it was also about older and younger sisters: the beautiful friend/family/learning relationship they have as they grow up together. It was, there is almost no need to assert, beautiful. Of course it was. It was about the things the girls had weathered, and how the groom had woven his way into their laughter and music, through music of his own. But it was also about what the bride had taught her sister.

Food blog June 2014-3907Sisters learn funny things from each other, and it is disarming and lovely to be allowed to see what things they consider most important. How to read, how to write, how to sing. And, somehow magically, “how to cook radishes.” Until five or six years ago, I’d never given much thought to cooking radishes. To be honest, I hadn’t given much thought to radishes at all. They were just there, all weird and pinkly peppery, flying saucers scattered through the occasional salad, or sharp and pungent and paired with butter and salt.

Food blog June 2014-3910But here’s a funny thing, about radishes, about weddings, about friends and family and learning: as you get older, you get to choose things. Weddings help us construct the families we choose. But so can friendships, and so can an experience like graduate school, and so, oddly enough, can radishes.

Food blog June 2014-3911When N. and I lived in Eugene, Oregon, we decided to grow a garden. It was easy, there. It was a matter of shoving seeds into a spare bit of dirt, and watching them grow. Until the height of summer, it rained so often you barely had to worry about watering. Peas were one of our first crops, and of course we were invested in our tomatoes. But I’d still never considered radishes. Until, at S.’s house, a friend who has now become family, I was handed a french breakfast radish, pulled from her own little vegetable plot minutes before, a pink and while icicle the neighborhood deer had left quite alone. “You can just eat the whole thing,” S. told me, and I did. And the mild crunch, and the crisp, juicy spiciness, all but made me a convert then and there.

Food blog June 2014-3912After that first year of gardening, I always bought a pack of radish seeds. And they will never not make me think of S: razor wit, funny and honest and lovely and brilliant. She’s a willing and gracious hostess, she’s a fantastic cook, and she’s the mom to my own dog-daughter’s canine BFF. She, like the bride and groom this past weekend, like J & HP whose wedding cake I made, the people I can barely wait to spend fourth of July weekend with, is one of that special and cautiously assembled group: the family I chose.

Food blog June 2014-3915And as the fourth of July approaches, and those lovely people you choose to surround yourself with, to learn from, to sing with and read with and cook with, begin to turn their thoughts to potato salad, let me offer a fresh take to consider. This is not your traditional mayonnaise-laden, pickle-and-onion-and-dusted-with-paprika barbecue offering. (If you are after one of those, may I humbly suggest this one?) But I like this different approach, because it is lighter and fresher, because it does not require stove or oven heat, and because it makes me think of S. Tiny fingerling potatoes and plump lipstick red radishes get quartered, salted and peppered and oiled, and grilled until tender and silky. And then a few green onions, just to get a gentle char. Meanwhile, an assertive vinaigrette gets overburdened with herbs and whisked within an inch of its life to be drizzled over a bed of greens. I like arugula. S. would tell you to use the radish greens (but wash them a few times first – they can be really sandy). Potatoes and radishes get tumbled in, and after a quick toss the greens are barely wilted and the dressing soaks into the grilled vegetables like sponges in a bath.

I don’t know if this is how my bride friend’s sister learned to cook radishes. I suspect not. But the point is, those lovely things we learn, and choose, and become, should be shared.

Food blog June 2014-3913

Grilled Radish and Potato Salad, for Sarah.
Adapted from Cuisine at Home
Serves 2 as a main, 4-6 as a side
1 pound radishes, rinsed well, tops and tails removed
1 pound baby potatoes – the smaller the better
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 bunch green onions or scallions, root ends trimmed off
¼ cup white wine vinegar or lemon juice
2 teaspoons dijon mustard
2 teaspoons finely minced dill
2 teaspoons finely chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste
2-4 cups loosely packed arugula, or a combination of arugula and well-rinsed radish greens

 

  • If you are using a gas grill, place a grill tray on the burners and preheat the grill to medium over direct heat. If you are using a charcoal grill, light the coals. As they begin to turn gray, add the grill tray to let it heat up. If you are using an oven, preheat it to 425F with a sheet tray inside.
  • Quarter the radishes and halve or quarter the baby potatoes. You want equal, bite-size pieces – they need about the same amount of time to cook.
  • In a large bowl, toss the potatoes and radishes with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer them to the preheated grill or sheet tray in a single layer.
  • Grill until tender, 10-15 minutes, agitating as required to prevent burning. If you are using an oven this may take more like 20-25 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette: in a large bowl (I use the same bowl as before), whisk the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil with vinegar, mustard, and herbs.
  • When radishes and potatoes are tender, transfer them to the bowl with the vinaigrette. Add the arugula (and radish greens, if using) and toss to combine.
  • Grill the green onions for 3-5 minutes, until the white bulbs are slightly softened and the greens are nicely charred. Chop and add to the salad, again tossing to combine.
  • Season the salad to taste with additional salt and pepper, if needed, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Homemade Mayonnaise and Toasted Potato Salad

Food Blog May 2014-3905My interests for some time have been food and bodies. Academically, as I’ve noted on my About page, I studied bodies. I’m interested in the way we represent them in literature, and increasingly, the way we represent them in our own self-presentation. This makes me a better teacher, I think, because it keeps me aware of my students as people – as living, breathing bodies who think and act and speak not always according to logic or reason, but to their status as physical beings ruled by whims and appetites. It also makes me, I hope, a better human being, since I recognize what this kind of embodiment means for my fellow beings.
Food Blog May 2014-3895Outside of academics, I love food (I’m sure you would never have guessed this). This pair of interests makes total sense to me. Bodies, after all, require food. It fuels us, it nurtures us, and it affords us pleasure of many sorts. The pleasure of a full belly. The pleasure of a silky custard against the tongue, or a thick hunk of steak between the teeth, dissolving into creamy fat at the edges.
Food Blog May 2014-3886All too often, though, our associations between food and bodies are negative. We use the slippery jiggle of jelly to describe a stomach or a bottom that we deem too ample or not sufficiently firm. Our brains are “fried” or “scrambled” when we feel tired or off our game. “Muffin top” is a newer construction thanks to the popularity of tight and midriff-baring wardrobes (deemed, interestingly enough, one of the most creative words of 2005 by the American Dialect Society). And of course there is the classic complaint of “cottage cheese thighs.”
Food Blog May 2014-3891I want to propose a new one, to break this concentration on the negative textures and attributes we give our bodies, and refocus attention instead on their strength and abilities: mayonnaise arms.
Food Blog May 2014-3889At first glance, this sounds just as negative as the others. The rich fatty consistency of mayonnaise calls to mind a sagging bicep rife with cellulite. But I’m not talking about a visual comparison. I’m talking cause and effect. Though she certainly has a more traditional exercise routine, after my weekend of making mayonnaise from scratch, you could tell me First Lady Michelle Obama’s amazing arms were forged whipping her own condiments and I wouldn’t be at all surprised. The sustained whisking mayonnaise requires, pulling egg yolk and oil together into a magical, fluffy, silky, creamy emulsion, has the potential to produce incredible toned limbs (and then sit down to a perfectly dressed BLT. Just saying).
Food Blog May 2014-3892This is my fifth installment in 2014’s Project Sauce,* and for the first time I have to admit I was quite nervous. Even the fussiness of last month’s hollandaise didn’t throw me off all that much, since I’d made it before. But the idea of whisking a raw egg yolk and some oil into a fluffy spread had me feeling tentative. First of all, despite understanding a bit about the power of emulsions, it seemed so unlikely those humble ingredients could even approximate something like the jar of Hellman’s hanging out on my fridge door. Secondly, even though I knew my chances of getting salmonella from my homemade spread were quite low, I still felt a little uncomfortable about what seemed like dangerous cooking.
Food Blog May 2014-3893However, there’s nothing like the internet for at once increasing and assuaging fears. Amongst articles about salmonella poisoning babies and questions about whether it’s safe to eat macaroni salad that has sat around on a picnic table for hours, I found a few mayonnaise recipes that suggested heating the egg yolk gently to 150F, at which temperature the bacteria that causes salmonella bites the dust. This is also the temperature where egg proteins solidify, but the addition of acid in the form of lemon juice or vinegar raises the coagulation temperature, so you still maintain a liquid yolk even while reducing the already minimal chances of food-borne illness. Other cautious suggestions offered using pasteurized eggs (this heating process is basically pasteurizing them), or washing the shell carefully before cracking (since the shell itself is where bacteria like to hang out). This gentle heating sounded like a reasonable suggestion to me, so using a combination of recipes and procedures (privileging Michael Ruhlman’s suggestions in Ratio, to which I find myself returning again and again), I whisked and measured and heated and cooled and whisked and whisked and whisked and ended up with a bowl of fluffy, creamy, pillowy spread that looked almost identical to the commercially produced stuff I’ve been buying and greedily applying to fried egg sandwiches for years! Several times, in between shaking out my arms as they screamed at the endless whisking, I said aloud, stunned, “It looks like mayonnaise! It actually looks like mayonnaise!” This was, apparently, one of those things I never really conceived of making myself.
Food Blog May 2014-3894So. Mayonnaise is possible. Though like the other sauces I’ve created, it needs a vehicle for consumption. As Ruhlman notes in a defense of fat-based sauces, “you wouldn’t want to eat a bowl of vinaigrette or a cup of mayonnaise or a stick of butter” (165). I laughed – in my deepest, guiltiest heart of hearts a cup of mayonnaise sounds attractive, though probably not without some kind of starch or vegetation to cut the thickness – but he’s right. It’s not a lone ranger.
Food Blog May 2014-3897With Memorial Day upon us and summer leaping ever closer, then, I went to one of my favorites: potato salad. In my version, fingerling potatoes are boiled and then crushed and lightly toasted in olive oil, so their skins get slightly crisp and they break apart gently when mixed with the other ingredients. Hard boiled eggs, capers, dill, garlic, and a generous scattering of green onions provide the colors and flavors for that beautiful blank canvas of potato and mayonnaise to play with. And I can’t resist a little squeeze of mustard. Creamy. Toasty. Fluffy. Perfect.
Food Blog May 2014-3905As summer gets ever closer, instead of complaining about our beer bellies or muffin tops or cottage cheese thighs, I vote we create, and celebrate, mayonnaise arms instead!

*Yes, mayonnaise is considered a sauce, even though the thick, creamy spread we most commonly envision when we hear the term is used primarily as a condiment. But think aioli: basically a thin mayo with garlic added. Even hollandaise is similar to a thin mayo, with the egg yolk heated and emulsified with butter rather than oil. In perhaps my favorite application, Belgian in inspiration, mayonnaise is used to sauce french fries, and what a glorious sauce it then becomes…

Homemade Mayonnaise
Makes a scant cup
Note: this is a quite lemony mayonnaise. If you aren’t fond of that flavor or want to dial back the citrus, use just one teaspoon of lemon juice, and a tablespoon of water instead. Alternately, you can use a vinegar of your choosing to create your preferred flavor of acidity.
Note #2: I strongly recommend you get everything ready for this before you begin the process. I’m talking various bowls, ice bath, oil measured, all that. You’ll be happier for it, I promise.
Note #3: Though this mayonnaise stores just fine in the fridge for a week, it may separate a bit as it chills. Vigorous whisking at room temperature, and in a dire case another dribble of water or squeeze of mustard feverishly incorporated, should bring things back together.
1 large egg yolk (save the white for a meringue or angel food cake or fluffy waffles)
1 teaspoon water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 cup (8 ounces) vegetable oil
  • Before you begin, start about 2 inches of water heating in a medium pot. You want to bring this to a bare simmer. While it heats up, fill a large bowl with ice and water and set it in the sink. We are heating the egg yolk in the unlikely event it is harboring bacteria, but mayonnaise is a “cold” sauce, so we will need to cool the yolk quickly once it has reached the appropriate temperature.
  • In a medium, heat resistant mixing bowl (I used glass), whisk together the egg yolk, water, and lemon juice (or vinegar, if you’re using that instead). Set the bowl carefully over the pot of simmering or near-simmering water, being careful not to let the water come to a boil or to touch the bottom of the bowl.
  • Whisk the egg yolk mixture constantly but slowly over the pot until the yolk registers at 150F on a kitchen thermometer, about 4-5 minutes. You don’t need to whisk with particular determination here – we are not looking to change the consistency as we would with a hollandaise; just to keep it moving so it doesn’t scramble.
  • At just under 150F, the yolk will thicken a tiny bit. At first when this happened I thought the whole thing was ruined. It’s not. Don’t worry. The addition of the acid and water will prevent the protein in the yolk from fully coagulating.
  • As soon as you hit 150F, remove the bowl from the heat and carefully float it in the ice bath, continuing to whisk constantly until the yolk mixture cools to room temperature, and taking care not to let any ice water into the mix. You don’t want it to be cold – cold ingredients are reluctant to emulsify (think of bottled salad dressing and the way it separates). Just room temp will do nicely.
  • Once the yolk has cooled, take the bowl out of its ice bath and set it on a counter, wrapping a twisted kitchen towel around the base of the bowl to prevent spinning.
  • Now, add the salt, and begin to drizzle in the oil slowly. You want to add just a few teaspoons at a time, whisking like a madman through the whole process. At first you’ll just have a greasy mess, but slowly as you add more oil, the mixture will get pale and fluffy and creamy, and suddenly will start to look suspiciously like, well, mayonnaise.
  • Continue to drizzle the oil in slowly, whisking the whole time. If your arm gets tired, switch to the other one! If the mixture suddenly starts to look extra shiny or like it might separate, stop adding the oil and whisk extra hard for a minute or two. It should come back together.
  • Once your mayonnaise is fluffy and creamy and stable, taste for salt (this is much, MUCH less salty than a commercial mayo), and use immediately, or store in the fridge for up to a week.
Toasted potato salad with homemade mayonnaise
Serves 1 generously, or 2 as a modest side
10 baby potatoes
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 hard boiled eggs, chopped
4 green onions, thinly sliced on a bias
1 tablespoon capers, chopped
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh dill
1 clove garlic
¼ teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Black pepper to taste
¼ cup homemade mayonnaise (or more, to taste)
  • Boil the potatoes in salted water until they are fork tender (times will vary depending on the size of your potatoes. Check them after the water has been boiling for 6 minutes, then determine for yourself). When they are done, drain them, remove to a flat surface, and use a potato masher or the back of a fork to lightly crush them. You are looking to split their skins and just flatten them a little bit.
  • In the same (now empty) pot, heat the 2 teaspoons olive oil over medium heat until they slick and shimmer around the pan. Add the crushed potatoes and fry for 3-4 minutes, flipping them over halfway through to reveal golden brown toasted bottoms. When both sides are toasty, remove from heat and let cool.
  • While the potatoes cook, prep the other ingredients, tossing the chopped eggs, green onions, capers, and dill into a medium bowl.
  • To prepare the garlic, smash the clove with the side of a large knife, and remove the peel. Then chop the garlic into a fine dice. Sprinkle the ¼ teaspoon coarse salt over the garlic, and make it into a paste by firmly dragging the flat of the knife across it. The abrasive salt crystals will break down the garlic, making it easier to mix into your salad evenly. Add the pasted garlic and mustard to the bowl.
  • When the potatoes have cooled a bit, add them to the other ingredients, toss together, and add the mayonnaise. Mix gently to incorporate, taste for seasonings, and add black pepper to your liking. If you wish, add additional salt, mustard, or mayonnaise to suit your palate.
    Eat immediately, or chill, covered, in the refrigerator until ready to serve.