May 20, 2012

rhubarb compote and polenta cake

All I wanted was a kilo of Rhubarb. It should have been an easy, and simple, just a two-sentence exchange that would leave me with a bag of bright magenta stalks to place in my bag before I headed off in search of my favorite dried figs and some oranges. But no, my "Ich möchte gern ein Kilo Rhabarber, bitte" was followed immediately by some throaty, guttural, loopy Swiss German that I could tell had nothing to do with "Yes, that will be 4 francs 80 please."
As it goes with most of my attempted German conversations I had to ask, "Sprechen Sie English?" to which the response was "ein bisschen." If I didn't know any better I might assume that ein bisschen means a lot, or yes of course, or I'm fluent, or even I can talk circles around your native English, don't you even worry about it. (Don't put it past German to have one word for that). It would be sensible to think this because those two little words, ein bisschen, are frequently followed by a fluid stream of perfectly accented English, wholly obliterating the definition of ein bisschen - ein bisschen, un peu, a little, un poco. 

My request for rhubarb followed this all-too-familiar ein bisschen pattern as the woman went on to ask me in English if I wanted thin or thick stalks or a mix of both, and what was I planning on using the rhubarb for? Sometimes I don't even know why I attempt to speak German. Ein bisschen followed by comfortable English sets the bar too high for those of us who would like to say that we speak a little German. I can't rightly say that I speak a little German when a little has come to mean a lot
In my push to learn a lot I have started sticking post-it notes on every conceivable surface, especially in the kitchen, so that I can remember that whisk is der Schneebesen (love that one), grater is die Reibe, and measuring cup is der Messbecher. The post it notes are color coordinated; green for der (masculine) nouns, pink for die (feminine) nouns, and yellow for das (neutral) nouns. It's like Reading Rainbow in our apartment right now, just without the butterflies. 

Don't you go assuming that it's easy to know when a noun is feminine, masculine or neutral. It's not. Fork, spoon and knife are a great example of how muddling the German language can be. I would assume that a spoon, with all of it's gentle curves and smooth scooping abilities would be feminine, but no, it's der Löffel. And fork with it's stabbing, aggressive, sharp tongs would be masculine, but it is feminine, die Gabel, while knife with it's typically masculine -er ending is in fact neutral, das Messer.
I'm willing to battle der Löffel and die Gabel because I'm eager to have a conversation in German about rhubarb and where it comes from and whether thin or thick stalks are preferable for jam, and what about for roasting with oranges and a vanilla bean? This is a good place to transition from my German rant to a melt-in-your-mouth rhubarb compote and crumbly polenta cake. Just so you know, these two go-together, don't think about making one without the other, they need each other, literally. The compote is strained and the sweet, slightly tart, juice is poured over the polenta cake, augmenting the buttery almond flavor and softening the pebbly polenta to a point of desirable sogginess. 

I probably lost you at "sogginess," but hold tight because the soggy, crumbly, nature of this cake, is what makes it special. The texture steps softly between cake and custard, but neither one edges out the other, instead they release their competitive edge and sink into one another. This "sigh" is evidenced in the concave shape of the cake, a perfect hollow for sweet rhubarb-orange juices. The vanilla bean, which roasted along side the rhubarb and orange, adds a faint whisper to the entire concoction, nestling it's way into the crannies of the polenta cake and only grabbing your attention when you go looking for it. Each flavor adds something - a little tang, twinge or crispy sweetness - to the cake, and the cake in turn takes on all of these flavors and melds them into something new, something largely unrecognizable, but notably unique and sensational. 
I like to think of this as the marriage of two very talented British chefs, brought together by one very keen matchmaker. The rhubarb-orange compote comes from Nigel Slater and the polenta cake comes from Nigella Lawson, and I'll take credit as the matchmaker who helped them find ever lasting love. Nigella's polenta cake called for lemon syrup, but with all of the rhubarb season at it's peak I couldn't justify not using rhubarb to flavor the cake, so in came Nigel's perfectly tart, perfectly sweet compote. May they live happily ever after. 

// Polenta Cake //
adapted from Nigella Lawson's Nigella's Kitchen

14 tablespoons / 200 g unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing pan
1 cup superfine raw sugar (or regular)
2 cups almond flour
3/4 fine polenta - instant
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
3 eggs
zest from one oranges (use orange for rhubarb-orange compote)

Preheat the oven to 350ºF / 180ºC. Line a 9" spring form pan with parchment paper and grease the sides with butter. 

Beat the butter until light in color. Add in the sugar and continue beating until light and fluffy. 

While the butter is beating mix the almond flour, polenta, and baking powder in a large bowl. Once the butter-sugar is the right texture slowly mix this dry mixture into the butter-sugar, alternating with an egg, until all the dry mix and eggs are in the batter. Beat in the orange zest. 

Spoon and scrape the batter into your spring form pan, smoothing the top with a rubber spatula. Bake for about 40 minutes or until a cake tester comes out cleanish and the edges of the cake have started to shrink away from the sides of the pan. 

Using a needle or narrow cake tester, poke the cake all over, from the center out to the edges. 

While the cake is cooling make the rhubarb compote. 

// Rhubarb and Orange //
adapted from Nigel Slater's Tender Volume II

1 1/2 lbs / 750 g rhubarb
4 oranges
raw or regular sugar
a vanilla bean

Preheat the oven to 400ºF / 200ºC. Rinse the rhubarb and cut off and discard any leaves. Slice the stalks into 2-3 inch lengths and place in an oven safe dish. 

Remove the peel from 2 oranges, cutting away any white pith, then slice the oranges and tuck them in amongst the rhubarb. Squeeze the juice from the two remaining oranges over the rhubarb. Sweeten with one heaping tablespoon of sugar - or a bit more if your rhubarb is very tart. Add the vanilla pod, pressing it between the rhubarb. Cover the dish with foil and bake until the rhubarb is tender enough to crush with a fork, about 30 minutes. 

Strain the juices out of the dish. Pour over the polenta cake, making sure to cover the entire surface, not just the center. You will not be able to use all the juice, but add as much as you think the cake can comfortably absorb and pour the rest back into the rhubarb-orange mix. Serve the baked rhubarb along side the cake.  
If you didn't realize, this cake is gluten free. I've taken up the habit of marking gluten free recipes and hoarding them until our friend Jess comes to dinner. It's good to have gluten free friends, they introduce you to wonderful foods like polenta and quinoa and macaroons. Find yourself a gluten free friend (it shouldn't be hard these days, seems to be the new wave), and make them rhubarb-polenta cake for dessert. 
It also doubles as a wonderful breakfast cake. I know, I ate it for breakfast three days last week. It also makes a great snack cake, I know that too, because I ate slivers of it every afternoon. 
All this cake will inspire you to go for a walk, a long walk so you can come back hungry for more cake. 

May 16, 2012

out and about: kafischnaps

While I regroup after a month of Italy posts I thought I'd share a Zürich favorite. Kafischnaps is a wonderful low key café. It is not a hidden gem - crowded during lunch and on weekends - but it is definitely worth a visit if you are in the area or are just looking for a quiet place to spend the afternoon (it is quiet after the lunch rush). I know because I was there yesterday afternoon writing this post...

Kafischnaps :: website
Kornhausstrasse 57, 8037
Bus #32 & #33 Rotbuchstrasse, Tram #7, #11, #14, #15 Schaffhauserplatz
outdoor seating available
reservations accepted

The energy is good here. There are flowers on the countertop. The light fixtures are like medusa's hair, only metal with lightbulbs where snakeheads would otherwise be, and even though they don't undulate or rotate they seem to pull the room together. So do the black and white check tiles that climb up the walls. The wood tables and chairs, white saucers and clear cups and glasses add a touch of simplicity to the atmosphere. But what I love most are the big pane windows that make sitting here all day both feasible and enjoyable. 

The food service is simple, but surprisingly tasty and quiet reasonable. There are always daily specials and soups, but the staple menu revolves around Uufklappti Brot. Served on hulking slices of french country baguette, these are a version of an open-faced sandwich unlike any open-faced sandwich you've had before. Piled on the bread, hiding its existence, are wonderful mélanges of flavors, such as hummus and grilled vegetables over salad, goat cheese with honey and tomato tapenade, chicken curry with salad, and a few others, one of which includes bacon. I had the hummus and vegetables (pictured above) and it was a delicious mix of smooth and crunchy with enough bread to wipe up the remaining hummus. And at just 13.50chf ($14.50) it was a heck of deal (they range from 13.50chf - 16.00chf). 
If you are still hungry for dessert, or perhaps jsut stopped by for a coffee and a taste of something sweet, there are always pound-cake esq loaves sliced up (Zach and I once shared a delicious walnut slice) and sweet dessert cakes in the case (I've seen chocolate more than a few times). There are also always croissants, plain and chocolate, and if you don't want to get a whole dessert then order a tea and they will give you a little cookie with it. 

In terms of drinking they cover it all, from coffee and tea to wine, bear and Aperol spritz. You could easily stay here and transition from coffee time to tea time to cocktail time because they are open from 8am to midnight everyday, and until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays. And everyday really does mean everyday - they are open on Sundays, almost unheard of in Switzerland. 

May 13, 2012

buon giorno!

"One doens't come to Italy for niceness," was the retort; "one comes for life. Buon giorno! Buon giorno!" bowing right and left. "Look at the adorable wine cart! How the driver stares at us, dear, simple soul!"
      - E.M. Forester A Room with a View

This quote from A Room with a View, when Miss Lavish is touring Lucy around Florence for the first time, aptly encompasses my feelings about Italy, in particular our trip to Apulia. It really wasn't that nice; it was gritty and it was real, with abandoned houses and a somewhat forgotten feeling. But within those quiet city corners and olive groves there was a lot of life, true authentic Italian life, being lived, and we got to live it too, even if just for a few days, "Buon giorno!"

This photo just happend. It was pure luck. We had heard the vegetable seller before we saw him, yelling "Carciofi! Finocchio! Arancione!" up to the apartments huddled around the little square. Instead of the customers going to the market, he goes to the customers. The woman on the second floor opend her shutters and yelled down to get his attention, she wanted some carciofi, all while we were standing right there just wishing we had a kitchen and reason to buy something off the back of his truck. I'm often self-conscious of photographing strangers, but I had to capture this moment, so I whipped out my point and shoot film camera, took the photo as fast as possible and then slipped it away. I didn't even realize he was looking at the camera until I got the photos back. It's my favorite photo from our trip. It so wonderfully captures everything that we loved about being in Southern Italy for a few days. 

...and now to get back to Zürich posts...or maybe we'll just have to go on another trip soon! 

May 07, 2012

sea bass and the sea

I wanted Zach to write this post, to wax poetic about fish, to convey how these scaly, slippery creatures captivate his imagination and his tastebuds. He loves fish - as pets and as dinner - and he often jokes (too seriously for my liking) about working on a commercial fishing boat. Once he's conquered the open ocean he wants to spend his days wading in a stream fly-fishing, with a grill a few steps away so he can throw his catch directly on to the fire and enjoy the fresh, flakey white fish while tying on the next fly. 

Initially he wanted the grill in the stream, but I reminded him that, 1) fire and water aren't the best of friends and, 2) it probably isn't allowed. I also reminded him that he doesn't know how to fly-fish, and that it's actually much harder than it looks. And that yes, I know Brad Pitt made it look easy (and incredibly sexy) in A River Runs Through It, but settling to that mesmerizing flick-of-the-wrist rhythm is likely more maddening that it is mediative for a beginner. 

I know I shouldn't crush his dreams, but when it comes to fish, I tend to be a bit of a dream crusher. They make me nervous, the scales, the beady slippery eyes, and the tiny translucent bones. I think it all stems from my hatred of tuna fish. Tuna fish has been my numero uno least favorite food for as long as I can remember. The thought of the slimy grey fish packed into a tiny tin can gives me the heebie jeebies. I have the heebie jeebies just typing this. I don't live by many hard and fast food rules, but I do believe that you shouldn't eat something if it smells bad, which in my book extends to tuna fish, hardboiled eggs, and stinky cheese, all of which leave me gulping for air at the nearest open window. 
Until recently I never made fish at home. I was too scared that the entire apartment would smell like fish for days. But Zach's love for fish and his persistent plea that we eat it for dinner eventually pushed me to the market where I bought salmon with the skin. I smeared it with herbs dotted it with butter and roasted it until just cooked through. We ate the salmon along side lemon risotto and roasted tomatoes and I swear salmon has never tasted so good. The blend of delicious fresh ingredients and the satisfaction of having conquered the unknown at home made for a particularly tasty meal. And best of all, the kitchen didn't smell, not one bit. Since then we have been eating salmon at least once a week, covered in herbs and yogurt, or herbs and mustard, or wrapped in parchment paper packages, or simply resting on a bed of basil with olive oil drizzled on top. 

Salmon was the first step, a baby step. I was happy to stick to salmon, but Zach had other plans, plans that involved a head, eyes, a tail, a spine, and gills. I panicked and made promises about maybe Friday, or perhaps next week, or next month. But then Zach got lucky and whole sea bass was on the menu at our cooking class in Italy. When Zach saw the fish waiting in a pan with tomatoes, potatoes and olives, he himself starting glistening like a sleeve of fish scales. The fish was excellent, wonderfully light and flakey, and cooked in the perfect company of juice sweet cherry tomatoes, soft comforting potatoes, and slightly bitter black olives. 
Half the fun of a cooking class is taking the lessons home. Inevitably you forget something (we forgot the wine) but the meal is memorable none the less, both because it is delicious and because you can reminiscence about where you were when you ate it/made it for the first time.

// Roasted Whole Sea Bass with Tomatoes, Potatoes, and Olives //

serves 4
* we learned in our class that a 1kg fish takes 30 mins at 350ºF // 180ºC
** our pan was clearly a bit too small, but we just made sure the body was in the pan with the head and tail peaking of the edge

1kg // 2.2lbs whole wild Sea bass
500g // 1lb cherry tomatoes
500g // 1lb fingerling potatoes
200g // 4 oz pitted olives (whatever color you like best)
a dash of white wine
a few healthy glugs of olive oil
vegetable broth

Preheat the oven to 350ºF/180ºC

Peal the potatoes. Place the potatoes in a pot and pour in water until they are just covered. Bring to a boil and let the potatoes cook until you can easily insert a fork into their center (timing will depend on size of potatoes). Once cooked, drain the potatoes and let rest until cool enough to peal. Peal, discarding the skins, and chop into slices

Chop the cherry tomatoes into four equal segments. In a large bowl combine the tomatoes with the chopped potatoes and olives. Pour in a few glugs of olive oil, enough so the vegetables are coated. Sprinkle in a couple pinches of salt and a few twists of fresh pepper from a grinder. Mix so everything is evenly coated. 

Now it's time for the fish. Ideally your fish monger cleaned the guts out for you, if not you will have to undertake this yourself (something along these lines). Place the clean fish in a pan. Spoon in the tomato-potato-olive mixture, as much as will comfortably fit. Pour in a dash of white wine over the vegetables and follow with the vegetable broth, so that the liquid comes just a fingertip up the side of the pan. 

Place in the oven and cook for about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and gently peel the skin off the fish, leaving the flakey filets underneath. Try to remove the filets without removing too many bones along with it. Serve with tomatoes-potatoes-olives. 
Paired here with the fish pictures are some of my favorite sea shots from our trip. It was amazing how quickly the color of the sky and sea would change. Funny enough it the weather has been somewhat similar and dramatic here in Zürich, from sunny one minute to rainy the next to thunderstorms and back to sunny. I was heading out for a run yesterday afternoon and I saw the clouds rumbling in and I knew I better turn around before getting drenched. 
I don't want to give you the impression that I was totally calm cool and collected about cooking our beautiful wild sea bass. I totally wasn't. I think I must have uttered a gazillion panicked  'what if.." questions in between taking photos and peering over Zach's shoulder. I was extra nervous that our fish which was too big for the pan would bubbly and goop over the sides and leave a stinky fish puddle in the bottom of the oven. (A makeshift aluminum catch-all on the rack underneath solved that problem). Generally Zach was Mr. Calm-Cool-&-Collected and just proceeded as we had been instructed during the class while I flapped around like a fish out of water. He assembled the ingredients, skinned the fish, and gently removed the tender filets. It's good to know that we each have our roles, he can handle whole fish and the grill, and I'll do everything else. 

Despite my flailing about, the fish was wonderful, perfectly cooked and lightly flavored. It's not a fishy fish, but rather a mild white fish. We ate it on the balcony, a wonderful start to a season of dinners outside. 
So back to my asking Zach to write this post. He was totally on board, ready to type and make his grand debut on House to Haus, but then Saturday slipped away and all the sudden it was Sunday and he left, headed back to the Adriatic for work, but this time to the other side. He is in Dubrovnik right now, and just sent me this picture (below) from his hotel room... 
...hmpf, a room with a view if I ever saw one. I think I'm going to have to start tagging along on his business trips. I'll just hang ocean side while he goes to meetings. I hope he's getting his fill of fresh Adriatic fish...

May 02, 2012

fava bean crostini - ostuni - olive trees

If there is one thing I can be sure of it is that somewhere – a second floor borwnstone apartment in Brooklyn, a clapboard craftsman cottage in San Francisco, a white washed home in Ostuni - there is a tablespoon, or perhaps a couple healthy glugs, of olive oil warming in the bottom of a pan, waiting patiently for it’s dinner companions to be stirred in. That earthy sweet scent that slips out of the pan just as the olive oil is getting hot, but before you’ve added any vegetables, is one of my favorite kitchen moments. More often than not that smell whips me out of my chopping trance and reminds me that I have hot oil on the stove and that I need to stop staring at my neighbors across the way, wondering what they are eating for dinner, and get back to chopping the onions. 

With all the olive trees in Apulia you would expect the air to smell like olive oil just before the onions are added, but it doesn't. (More often than not it smelt like burning olive branches. The trees are trimmed, and the branches burned, to ensure healthy growth in the season ahead, and sadly burning olive tree branches do not smell like hot olive oil in the bottom of a well seasoned dutch oven). There are some sixty million olive trees in Apulia, and a large percentage of those are trees are over 400 years old and some even three times that old. Olive trees are their schtick, like orange trees in Florida, except that the olive trees have been there for centuries, for millennia even, for so long that it is hard to think about just how long. There are a natures answer to the Pantheon. 

The blanket of olive trees over the landscape was most apparent from the hill town of Ostuni. Ostuni, also known as Città Bianca, is perched on a hill eight miles inland from the Adriatic and from it's privileged perch you can watch the olive trees spread over the flat, arid, earth, and seemingly drop into the sea. 
Ostuni was our favorite hill town in Apulia. We loved the warren of white buildings and the passageways that rambled willy-nilly between them. We loved the restaurant carved into the hillside and their menu full of simple Apulian food. We loved the cafe near the cathedral where we spent the pre dinner hours on a rainy night with a bottle of white wine. And we loved happening upon paths we hadn't walked, steps we hadn't climbed and tucked away views down to the sea that we hadn't yet seen. 

Somewhere in the blanket of olive trees between Ostuni and the sea, there is a Masseria (a traditional farm estate) called Masseria Il Frantoio, and at Il Frantoio there is a cozy dining room (where we ate the best meal of our lives) run by a man named Armando, Armando who thought we were German and told us about the "Fava Bohnen" in our first course. I can't think about fava beans now without saying silently to my self "fava BOHnen." 
Thankfully there is a stall at the farmer's market that specializes in Italian produce. I bought half a kilo on Wednesday and then another kilo this past Saturday and Zach and I set to work shucking them on Sunday. Fava beans, while not an ingredient for a quick meal, are a fun weekend project. They take time, but it is a relaxing, mediative type of time. You have to strip the beans from their pods, parboil the beans and then remove the tough light green shell that is hiding the bright green bean. It is a really satisfying process, grabbing the end of the pod and pulling off the thins strips that run along the edges, running your finger in the space left by the strip like your opening a letter, revealing the plump beans, sheathing them out of the pod by pushing your thumb down the furry middle, and then dumping them in the bowl where they will wait to be boiled. And then the process starts again with the boiled pods, using your nail to slice the skin and the forefinger and thumb of your other hand to pinch the beans out of their protective coating. 
The gnarled and twisted trucks of olive trees will be one of the visual memories I will carry with me from our trip. The trees twist, and lean, and sometimes reach down their trunks and branches to the earth for support. I couldn't help but think about how they harvest all the olives as we drove along roads that ran between olive groves. I knew they couldn't possibly pick all the olives, that would be insane, so I eventually asked and we found out that a net is hung from the bottom limbs and a vibrating/shaking machine is used to shake all of the olives out of the tree. Still it must take months for all of the olives to be harvested. 

I also couldn't help but think about how wonderful it would be to buy a piece of land strewn with ancient olive trees. And on that piece of land there would be an old Masseria and I could plant a kitchen garden....and keep dreaming....
Fava Bohnen and olive oil make a wonderful pair. You can pour your beans into a pot, add in a mixture of half water / half olive oil until they are just barely covered, add in some garlic and rosemary and saute for a few minute until soft and fragrant. Or you can keep it simple, honor the beauty of the bean and all that hard work you put into them, and eat them raw, mixed with olive oil and parmesan. 

Fava Bean Crostini
inspired by Food 52

3-4 pounds // 1-2 kilo of fava beans in their pods
a few glugs of olive oil (to taste really)
lemon juice (to taste)
a handful of parmesan for the mixture and extra to sprinkle on top
salt and pepper to taste
a few basil leafs chopped

sliced ciabatta bread

Shell the pods and collect the beans in a bowl. Boil water over high heat and add the shelled beans for about 1 minute. Drain them and immediately plunge in cold water. Using your thumbnail pierce the pale green skin and pinch the bright green bean out using your other thumb and forefinger. Discard the pale green shell. 

Set aside some of the whole beans to use as a garnish and place the rest in a mortar and pestle. Add in the olive oil, lemon juice, chopped basil, and parmesan and smash up, adding salt and pepper, more olive oil or lemon juice to taste. This is really a recipe about preference so taste as you go and adjust accordingly.

Grill or toast your ciabatta slices and top each with a couple spoonfuls of the purée and some whole beans and some grated parmesan cheese. 

These crostini taste like spring, so pack 'em up and bring them to the park for your spring picnic. 
It was beautiful here this past week, summer-esq, and we spent the entire weekend outside, shoes off, enjoying the sunshine.