Sunday, March 30, 2008

Almost no-Knead Bread

Last night, D and I hosted a most enjoyable dinner party. The company was terrific, and the menu was as follows:

Appetizer: homemade flaky pastry rounds topped with membrillo (Spanish quince paste) and melted Camembert.

Main: sundried tomato and harissa paella (a slight modification of Elisa’s recipe – it was so good; thanks, Elisa!); arugula, blood orange, chevr√© and pine nut salad; homemade bread (see above).

Dessert: raspberry sachertorte (a dense and rich Viennese chocolate cake soaked in raspberry – rather than the traditional apricot – syrup, and coated with a shiny dark chocolate glaze).

I was quite pleased with how most of it turned out. But the highlight for me, by far, was the bread. I’ve never attempted to make bread at home before. I think I was worried that it would be a lot of effort for a mediocre result, since it is hard to make good bread in an ordinary oven. But, honestly, this was some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted. The crust was crackly but light, the crumb pleasantly chewy yet delicate, and the flavour was complex and tangy. Topped merely with some good unsalted butter, a slice of this bread was an absolute treat.

But this was no ordinary bread recipe. Ever since Mark Bittman published Jim Lahey’s recipe for no-knead bread in the NYT in November 2006, home cooks have been raving about Lahey’s invention of a “a truly minimalist breadmaking technique that allows people to make excellent bread at home with very little effort.” (Full article here:

The idea is to take some ordinary flour, a tiny amount of instant (also known as rapid rise yeast) and some water. The dough is left to hang about for 18 hours, to get the gluten going (thus taking the place of a traditional kneading). Then the dough is shaped, and left to rise for another 2 hours. After that, you bake it in a dutch oven, so that steam will help a good crust develop (also, my understanding is that the dough would be too wet to shape, so the dutch oven prevents the dough from spreading out all over the place).

Apparently, though, this recipe produced a bread with a fantastic crust and crumb, but not quite enough flavour. A recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated promised to improve matters by introducing vinegar and light ale into the batter. Also, so as to improve the bread’s shape, this recipe calls for a decrease in the amount of liquid in the dough, and compensates for this by introducing a tiny bit of kneading (you knead the dough 10 – 15 times before the second rising). Whatever the case, it’s still incredibly easy to do, and the results are better than this clumsy, novice baker ever would have thought possible.

Since I made zero modifications, I will simply give you the link to the recipe, together with an entreaty to try this if you love good bread but didn’t think you could make a good loaf at home.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

(Almost) Rotten cantaloupe granita

A couple of weeks ago I was looking at cantaloupes in the store. I had never before bought cantaloupes (really), so I went for it and bought two.

Of course, yesterday afternoon I realized I had completely forgotten about the cantaloupes. There they were, hiding somewhere between our plants. The smell was there: eat me or I'll die. Or maybe: eat me, I'm almost dead.

I cut one up, ate some, got bored and put the rest back in the fridge, all nicely cut up and properly tupperwared. (K. opted for bread and mushrooms to get her daily amount of fruit.) I was proud of myself, for rescuing at least one of them. But I had no idea what to do with the other one: cutting it up would surely mean having it morph into some strange thing in the fridge instead. I thought of cryonics and the urban legend surrounding the late Walt Disney and looked at the freezer instead. But the thought of defrosted cantaloupe made me want to cry.

Fortunately, I have a nice blender, courtesy of my former roommates. Plus, again to my friends' credit, I have a fantastic bottle of grappa di nebbiolo (one of the most wonderful grappas I've ever tried). And there was room in the freezer. So I put the other canteloupe in the blender with some sugar (about 1/4 cup), a splash of grappa (anything more than a splash and I'd end up in the bottom of the Charles with cement shoes, I know), the juice of half a lemon, and a couple of ice cubes (optional, I'd say).

The whole thing has been in the freezer for a while in a plastic container. We just shaved some off the top and put it in a bowl after dinner. The result is icy and yet creamy (probably because of the alcohol). It hits you with a punch of fresh fruit, followed by a hint of grappa that leaves your mouth tingly (a true two-part taste experience). It's pretty good, if I may say so. But I blame it on the (almost?) rotten fruit.

(The inspiration came from a post by David Lebovitz. I adapted a recipe from Gourmet, August 2005, that didn't seem right to me.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Thai-style scallops-in-a-packet

Like the recipe below, this is from "Moosewood Restaurant New Classics", a predominantly veggie book which is just super. Feeling poor, I made it with Tilapia. It goes perfectly with the vegetables below.

Serves 4; preparation 35 mins; baking 20 mins

1/4 cup veg oil
1/2 cup lime juice
1 to 2 tsp chinese chili paste
3 tbsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups thinl sliced zuchhini / yellow squash
2 cups peeled & thinly sliced carrots
1 1/2 lbs sea scallops or tilapia
2 cups thinly sliced red bell peppers
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1 cup mung bean sprouts (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 450. For each fillet, fold a 12 x 24 inch sheet of aluminum foil in half to make a double thick 12 inch square. If you can find banana skins, this would be even better for the packets.
2. Mix together oil, lime juice, chili paste, brown sugar and salt.
3. Place 1/4 of the zucchini and carrots in the center of each foil square and drizzle a little sauce.
4. Lay 1/4 of the scallops / tilapia, top with bell peppers, and pour remaining sauce over.
5. Mix together herbs and sprinkle half of it over the packets, and reserve the rest.
6. Fold each foil square into an airtight packet, crimp the edges shut, and place on an unoiled baking sheet with sides to catch any drips.
7. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the scallops are opaque and tender. Careful opening the packets, as steam will be released.
8. Serve with the rest of the herbs, and serve mung sprouts on top if you like. ( I don't.)

Asian greens & spring vegetables

This is a smashing side dish to serve with the fish parcels above

Serves 4 to 6. Total time: about 20 mins.

6 oz snow peas or asparagus spears
4 cups sliced bok choi or 6 cups rinsed spinach leaves
1 cup carrot matchsticks
1/2 cup daikon matchsticks
1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
lemon wedges


3 tbsp dark sesame oil
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 1/2 tsp sugar
2 tsp grated ginger root
1/3 cup scallions, sliced on the diagonal

1. Blanch the peas for 1 to 2 minutes (or aspargus for 7 inutes)
2. Blanch the bok choi for 2 to 3 minutes (or spinach for 1)
3. Mix the bok choi with half the dressing, and carrots and daikon with the other half.
4. Lay carrots / daikon on top of the bok choi, garnish with the scallions and sesame seeds, and serve with lemon wedges.