Monday, December 30, 2013

New Year's Resolution: Cook More Fish

I love to eat all kinds of seafood and often order seafood in restaurants. At home, I frequently cook shrimp and salmon. But I shied away from cooking many other types of fish, mainly because I was not sure about my ability to choose well. This nagged at me, though, because it seemed as if I had given up before I even started. So I vowed to begin cooking more fresh fish. I've made a few great meals quickly and easily.

I lucked out when a fish market opened up in a nearby town. One day I went in, bought a piece of sole, and asked the owner, "How would you cook this?" He said that he would simply heat up some butter and olive oil, lightly flour the fillet and then cook it quickly without turning. Add a bit of salt and pepper plus a squeeze of lemon and I'd be done. So I tried it, and it was delicious. That emboldened me to branch out. Next time, I tried flounder and added some shallots and white wine to the pan juices. That too was excellent.

Now, when I go to a supermarket, I check out the fish, and I have found two local markets that always seem to have a variety of fresh fish that is reasonably priced. If I go in with a particular fish in mind, I'm apt to be disappointed, but if I keep an open mind and just select what looks good, I'm usually happy.

Last week I saw some gorgeous cod fillets, and when I asked the counterman, he said that they had just arrived. So I brought them home and looked up "cod recipes." I found many, and all suggested cooking fillets in a 400-degree oven for 18-20 minutes. Then it was just a matter of deciding how to flavor it. I went with a mayonnaise and parmesan topping, which I had enjoyed on chicken, and it was delicious. Next time, I'll add some breadcrumbs for some crunch.

Luckily, I had not looked up just plain codfish, because if I had, I would have learned about codfish worms, and that might have turned me off. The Internet is filled with questions about these parasites. However, once I did learn about them, I also learned that they are not a mark of inferior fish or unsafe fish handling; they are just a fact of life and pose no danger in cooked fish. So my resolution stands. Next year, I will cook more fish.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sticky Buns for Christmas

I did not grow up with sticky buns; instead, I had rugelah and babka. But when I was married, my husband really liked sticky buns, so I learned how to make them. Sticky buns are time consuming, because you have to make a yeast dough that rises, a simple filling, and then the sticky topping. The kitchen is usually trashed by all these steps, so it's nice to make this treat a day ahead. Although I seldom eat more than one myself, I still make these buns to give as gifts when I know someone likes them.

Recipes abound on the Internet, and these year I tried a new one. I liked the fact that it had a hint of orange in the dough. It worked well, so I'll probably make it again, although I will cut back on the sugar, since I found these extraordinarily sweet. Yesterday, though, I just followed instructions, although I did cook the buns in two round pans instead of one large rectangular one.

If you've ever made a pineapple upside-down cake, this is reminiscent because once you have made the various parts, you start assembling the food upside down; you place the topping in the pan first and then the buns. That way, when the pan is inverted, the topping is actually on top.

you can see a bit of topping on the left
One thing I liked about this recipe is that you make the dough, let it rise, form it, and then let it rise again in the refrigerator. You can have it stay in the fridge overnight and cook the buns up fresh for breakfast, although I let them rise for just a few hours so I could bake them, cool, them, and wrap them as a gift. The family I'm giving them to comes from Pennsylvania, where sticky buns arrived with the German immigrants.

For those of you who like sticky buns but don't really want to go to a lot of trouble, here's a tip I learned years ago. Buy Pillsbury cinammon rolls in a tube (the orange rolls are delicious) in the refrigerated section of the supermarket, but don't follow their directions. They tell you to add the frosting after baking. Instead, smear the frosting on before baking. It will turn into a sticky caramelized topping. You can even add nuts.

Merry Christmas, folks!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Bagel Famine of 1951

One of the shocks of my young life was moving to Massachusetts and discovering no bagels. I had grown up outside of New York City, where bagels were a staple, at least among Jewish families. These little breads even had their own trade union,  Bagel Bakers Local 338. According to Wikipedia, the members of this union were all Jewish, and their meetings were held in Yiddish.

Bagels at that time were hand-made but most were not made at home because the process is time consuming; instead, bagels were usually purchased from specialized bakeries or from Jewish delicatessens. For years, every time I left Massachusetts to visit my family, I would return with giant shopping bags filled with bagels, which I froze. I later learned that certain locales, such as Brookline, offered real bagels, but these places were far from where I was living.

I was not the only person perturbed by a lack of bagels. On December 16, 1951, Bagel Bakers Local 338 closed down all but two bagel bakeries during a NewYork labor dispute. What followed was the great bagel famine of 1951, dubbed that by no other than the New York Times. "Bagel Famine Threatens the City" read the headline. Not only were Jewish diners inconvenienced by this strike, but so were the delicatessens that supplied the lox that traditionally were served on bagels, as well as the truckers who delivered these foods.

The strike was settled rather quickly, but within two decades, the union lost its clout because of technology. A family named Lender began using machines to make bagels.  The good news was that bagels went mainstream and even started selling throughout Massachusetts; the bad news was that the bagels didn't really taste like the chewy old homemade ones.

History repeats itself, though, and today we are back to having specialized bakers create handmade bagels for those who crave them. Luckily, I have a friend who lives near one such bakery, and he knows of my fondness for this food. Occasionally I will arrive home to find a bag of bagels hanging from my doorbell (a real bell) or sitting on my porch. No note is needed, because I know only one person who delivers this special gift to my house, and luckily, the man knows his bagels.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Pears in Salad

Red Anjou Pear
As a kid, I was never a big fan of pears; something about the slightly gritty texture threw me off. As an adult, though, I am a real fan, although one bad pear will make me pear-averse for days. In the past, I ate pears mainly as a snack or as dessert, but more recently I have begun putting them into green salads.

This week, I made an arugula salad with pears, walnuts, and blue cheese, and it was so good that it was my entire meal. Today, the arugula looked limp, so I used mixed greens—mainly romaine—and left out the nuts, because I had eaten them all. I enjoyed this dish just as much as the first. There is something about the combination of creamy pears, blue cheese, scallions, and crunchy greens that steals my heart and delights my palate. I dress the salad simply: 2 parts oil, one part balsamic vinegar, a dash of garlic salt, regular salt, and a grind of pepper.

So far, I have used the juicier types of pears, such as Bartlett, Comice and a new type called Taylor Gold.  Next week, I'll try Anjou and Bosc pears. These are more commonly used for cooking, but who knows, maybe they too will be a good addition to salads.