Nice…it’s nice!

My uncle Larry’s favorite joke. And the origin of one of my favorite dishes: salade Niçoise. According to Martha Schulman in her cookbook, Mediterranean Light, there are infinite variations and just as many arguments about the proper ingredients. Tuna is the base of all versions, the pure use anchovies, too. As it’s one of the few things the Husband truly loathes, I usually omit the eyebrow-looking fishie. Also delicious is a pan bagnat, which is just Niçoise as a sandwich. Here’s our version, as had for dinner the other night:

mixed greens

steamed haricot verts

steamed baby yukon taters, quartered

hard boiled eggs, chopped fine (the Husband used the potato ricer)

tomato, quartered

cucumber, sliced


can of imported tuna, packed in olive oil (drain it!)

crusty bread

herby mustardy vinaigrette (dijon mustard, lemon juice, salt, pepper, olive oil, basil, tarragon)

Sunday supper

Often on Sunday nights, the Husband and I don’t feel like a big dinner. Sometimes that means cheese and crackers and olives. Or a salad with scrambled eggs (will do a post on that recipe soon). Tonight’s light meal was inspired by a recent trip to Hopleaf: I’ve been obsessing over their CB&J sandwich. Fortunately, we had fresh figs on hand! Spread a small ciabatta loaf with chunky almond butter, sliced figs, and slices of comté and popped it into the toaster oven. While the cheese was melting, I did a quick saute of the haricot verts and one of my scorned purple onions, dressed with a little balsamic vinegar and cracked pepper. Husband poured glasses of a Torrontes/Chardonnay blend, and we sat down with our plates to watch the season premiere of Mad Men. A perfect end to the weekend!

Mayhem at the farmer’s market

Today I had the pleasure of watching my friends’ beautiful, sweet, fun, chatty, active gals. Aged six and three and a half. Lord help me, I took them to the farmer’s market, promising the playground as our first stop and gelato afterward. With the playground deemed unworthy, “too many babies,” I hustled the gals through the first produce stand we came to. Rows of bins at the perfect height for grabbing and tossing tomatoes, á la Bozo’s Circus. A small corn mountain, ready to be shucked on site. Grabbed the little globe eggplants right before liftoff. Tried to make a game of filling a bag with haricot verts and selecting ears of corn. Was scorned for buying purple onions. Bought a blueberry muffin from Celestial Kitchens to appease the hungry urchins. No wonder everyone else had their kids locked down in a stroller. Got the hell out of there as fast as we could. Spent about $15, but I can’t be sure.

Out on the town

The intention was a quiet dinner in our neighborhood at a BYOB sushi place we like. The Husband grabbed a bottle of Albariño we’d picked up at the Cellar Rat. Had a nice slow stroll north toward Bucktown, a chance encounter with our friend, Julie, and a good look at the gardens and dogs of Chicago’s near northwest side.

I wasn’t prepared for the see-and-be-seen scene nor the pulsing house music. Valet parking for SUVs? Women so Botoxed, one couldn’t tell who was mother and who was daughter? A 45-minute wait for being a lowly walk-in? I’d brushed my teeth and put on a skirt. The Husband had put on shoes. Clearly, we’d underestimated the changes in our neighborhood.

Okay, so we’re snotty. Sorry, but it’s not fun to live in a neighborhood that years ago, friends were afraid to come to, and now is home to tear-downs, local businesses closing their doors, and frat boys barking into their cellphones that they “live in the ghetto.” Only the current administration gets the Husband more riled.

Anywho, we were eventually given a table in a quiet corner. The food was as good as always. The people who work there are sweet. Accessible sushi, true, but super tasty, very fresh, and made with care. And they have fresh wasabi. You can’t blame a restaurant for succeeding. So hie thee to Coast Sushi, but make a reservation or do take-out.

I don’t like chocolate chip cookies

Strange, but true. Think it’s because they’re always way too sweet. And often, underdone. And then the chocolate is usually milk or semi-sweet (I’m a deep, dark chocolate gal) and infrequent at that. When I was baking for money, guys always asked for them, often adding, “just like my mom used to make.” Aside from not being dumb enough to risk wrecking some dude’s Proustian moment, I just never felt inspired to make them.

Until I read an article in last Wednesday’s New York Times by David Leite about a quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie. Holy patron saint of baking, he had gone to Shirley Corriher, Dorie Greenspan, Jacques Torres, and a host of New York bakeries for answers. The Christmas tree lights in my brain’s cookie room lit up. I had to try this recipe.

Made the dough the next day…with 2 variations, as usual based on what I had on hand. One: I had no bread flour and very little cake flour, so I used all-purpose. Two: I used an 11.5 oz. bag of Ghirardelli 60% Bittersweet Baking Chips and about 8 ounces of finely chopped unsweetened chocolate. That’s right: unsweetened. I used Belcolade Noir Absolu Ebony discs (96% cacao) from Belgium, which I buy wholesale but I think is for sale at the Chocolate Source. I suggest using the highest quality you can find and afford. And when you think you’ve chopped it finely enough, chop it some more.

After chilling the dough for the suggested 24 hours, I baked them off last Friday morning. Absolutely delicious. Not too sweet. Super chocolate taste throughout. Deep caramel taste, which was offset perfectly by a sprinkling of sea salt. I simply could not stop eating them; thank goodness we were having a party that night. To get them out of my house, I offered the entire batch as a prize to the first guest who could release the salad fork that had been stuck for days in our dish rack. It took the winner exactly 30 seconds to claim his cookie trophy.

Another week, another batch. What would the cookie taste like with nuts? This time, I added very finely chopped toasted pecans to my adulterated version of the NYT’s recipe. And I waited 36 hours to bake off the dough. Definitely worth the wait….

The dough was drier, so the cookies didn’t spread as much, which played right into my preference for smaller cookies. The pecans added a deep, toasty accent. The sea salt was fairly singing. Hey, I like chocolate chip cookies! Now to pawn them off on the neighbors before the husband and I eat them all.

By the way, the patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs is Honorius of Amiens.

Kitchen-palooza Tuesday

Tomorrow, friends are returning from a 3-week trip to Brazil. I figured after too much cachaça and fejioda, they’d appreciate something healthy in their fridge. So lucky me, I cooked for 6 today: us, our friends and their two kids.

Using the cauliflower from the market, I made a quinoa salad, which lends itself to infinite variations. For the uninitiated, quinoa is a fabulous pseudocereal that provides complete protein. The following recipe is great on a bed of greens for a light dinner or goes well with grilled sausages, as it lends a virtuous component.

Quinoa Salad

2 c. quinoa, toasted

2 c. low-sodium veg or chix broth

2 c. water

1/4 c. olive oil

1 small red onion, diced

1 head cauliflower, cut into small florets

juice from 1 lemon

1/4 c. apple cider vinegar

1/2 c. roasted red peppers, diced

1/4 c. minced parsley

1 c. pinenuts, toasted

8 oz. ricotta salata or feta, diced

salt & pepper to taste

Bring quinoa, stock, and water to a gentle boil. Stir occasionally until all liquid is absorbed. Dump the quinoa into a large salad bowl and let cool to room temperature. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in sauté pan and add onion until softened. Remove from heat and add onions to salad bowl. Using the same pan, sauté cauliflower until just starting to brown. Add lemon juice, then cover until florets are cooked but still have some crunch. Add cauliflower and remaining ingredients to quinoa and onions, toss well with salad tongs or two large spoons. Serve at room temp or chilled. Makes approximately 8 servings.

Boneless skinless chicken breasts were on sale at Dominick’s, and while I usually buy meat from Whole Foods or Bari, I went for the Xtreme Pack at $1.99 a pound. From Epicurious, I found a recipe for Chicken Breasts Provençal. Okay, I typed in “chicken breast” and “olives” because that’s what I had on hand and this was one of the first good-sounding recipes that popped up. I subbed a can of San Marzano tomatoes and used up the rest of my garlic scapes from the previous week’s farmer’s market run. By more or less doubling the recipe, we all have plenty of chicken to go around.

Finally, I reached way back into the recipe archives and made my Grandma Gattie’s Hot Milk Cake. A simple yet delicious family staple that can be made into layers, cupcakes, mini loaves, etc. Today I opted for a fluted tube pan. A while back a friend pointed out that when the cake gets a bit stale, it can be toasted, spread with jam, and called, “Breakfast.”

Grandma Gattie’s Hot Milk Cake

4 eggs

2 c. sugar

2 t. pure vanilla extract

2 c. flour

2 t. baking powder

1 t. kosher salt

4 oz. unsalted butter (that’s 1 stick, people)

1 c. whole milk or heavy cream

Using a stand mixer fitted with the beater (or a hand mixer), beat the eggs and sugar at high speed until thick and pale yellow. Mix in the vanilla. In a small pan on the stove or in a glass measuring cup in the microwave, heat the milk and butter until the butter is completely melted.Sift together the flour, powder, and salt into a small bowl. Switch to the paddle attachment and add the dry mixture to the egg mixture. Beat well. Add the hot milk mixture and slooowly beat in. Give it a good beating, then pour into a greased, floured pan. Bake at 325F until tester comes out clean. Let cool, then wrap and store on the counter. Can be frozen.

Dinner with the Husband in mind

The Husband loves scallops. Living in the Midwest, we just don’t get em fresh. So, I buy them frozen, in a bag, from Whole Foods. Not perfect for one’s carbon footprint but it’s not like we eat them every week.

A major coup was discovering a container of shrimp stock [shrimp shells, bay leaf, and water] in the freezer. I’d made it a few months ago and plumb forgot all about it. One of the tomatoes from the farmer’s market, a leek, the remains of a lonely bottle of white wine that’s been banging around on the fridge door, and aforementioned stock made a lovely broth for our sea scallops.

I made a salad of mixed greens, shaved slices of the baby beets from the market, shaved fennel, and dressed it with a vinaigrette and squeeze of an orange. A crusty loaf, a bottle of Torrontes (had not tried before, liked it), some candles…and we had a nice dinner to kick off the husband’s week-long staycation. Please don’t judge our early-90s sponge-painted dishes too harshly.

This week’s haul from the farmer’s market

As I didn’t have my act together enough this winter to sign up for a weekly farm box, I’ve tried to roll up to the Wicker Park Farmer’s Market every weekend. Which also fits in nicely with my physical therapist’s directive to walk as much as possible after February’s foot surgery (hence not having act together this winter).

Because I can go crazy with all of the additional farmer’s market booty—pastries, salsa, jams—I limit myself to produce only and in the interest of thrift, ten dollars. This weekend’s haul contained a couple of juicy tomatoes still on the vine, a gorgeous head of cauliflower, and an adorable bunch of golden baby beets. Total spent: $ 9.25

[Just what is it with baby vegetables? I can’t resist them. Last week I fell for tiny yukon gold and red skinned taters. So wee, so cute, so very babyish. If I plunged them into a cauldron of boiling water, would DCFS come calling? Opted for a quick steaming, which felt much less violent, and a gentle bath of browned butter.]

No corn to be had, but I have hope…despite predictions that we Midwestern lovers of the cob are doomed.