Meringue Nests

These were a bit tricky, mostly because of contradictory information in my recipe sources. My friend Paige made meringue cookies for my wedding (along with many other food items, including my wedding cake — a delicious 3-tiered coconut cake with apricot filling — which proved to be challenging in several ways, to the point where she dreamt that the cake wielded a chef’s knife and chased her through the reception site, with malicious intent). Since meringues freeze well, I tried early-on to make a batch for my wedding, too, but could never get them to dry in the oven.

I’ve not tried any form of meringue since then, but it’s strawberry-pickin’ time again, and we were invited to dinner Saturday night (they served us incredible grilled ribeye steaks), and one thing led to another, and I found myself making strawberry frozen yogurt to take for desert. And, since David said that the yogurt is ideally served in a meringue nest, topped with whipped cream, well, I just HAD to try it. My hands were tied!!

I should say that, as I was finishing the egg-whipping process, it started to rain. I had a vague memory of a rule stating you shouldn’t make meringues on a rainy day; but after thumbing quickly through the three cookbooks I had dealing with the crunchy delights, I found no evidence for this fear, so I plunged on. The main recipe I was using was from The Perfect Scoop, since that’s where I got the idea to make them. The eggs whites whipped perfectly, and the folding in of the confectioner’s sugar went remarkably well. Shaping was a little difficult; I think it’s preferable to pipe them onto your baking sheet, but since I don’t have an arsenal of pastry bags and tips, I was left to winging it. They baked, they dried in the oven. And then it was time to see if they were ready… but a quick test showed them to be sticky and quite pliable still. So, I turned the oven back on, let them bake a little more, then dry a little more, then tested again. Same thing. I was running out of time, and in one final act of desperation, cranked the oven up from the specified 200º temp, to 300º. And I let them bake there for another 20 minutes or so. This time, when I checked them, they were no longer the pristine white mountains of fluff that I started with, but now had a golden-brown hue. The sugars were browning. I pushed those little suckers too far.

I quickly removed them from the oven, because obviously baking them longer was not an option. I messily transported them to a cooling rack (they were still quite sticky), and let them sit while I whipped cream and fed my children. Lo and behold, after cooling for about 20 minutes, they were dry, crispy, crunchy, and positively scrumptious. I ate one right there, giving one tiny bite to my husband so I could claim we shared it, boxed up four to take with us, stuck a couple in the freezer, and left one out for our generous babysitter.

An interesting thing: the ones that were in tupperware or the freezer stayed absolutely crisp. The one left for our babysitter went back to a state of sticky, gooey mess, within an hour or two of being left out. Who out there can tell me why? Was it the rainy day, the inherent humidity of the deep south, or do all meringues exist with a remarkably short open-shelf life?

Learning experience aside: THAT DESSERT. I think I could cry tears of joy right now, just thinking about it. Such textures! And flavors! I don’t think anyone else liked it quite as much as I did (no one else in the room appeared to be nearly-fainting), and it’s hard for me to understand how that combination could not change someone’s life, but although it’s a challenge sometimes, I do try and remember that not everyone likes what I like. And that’s ok. Because I can handle the thought of an entire batch of meringue nests, just for me.

Guilty Pleasures

We had friends over for dinner the other night, and ended up having a discussion about how enlightenment can ruin food. For instance, although I was never a huge fan of the Big Mac (I prefer other fast-food vices), I don’t think I’ve eaten at McDonald’s a single time since watching Super Size Me. Another example is my husband’s newfound distaste for deli lunch meat after finishing The Omnivore’s Dilemma (I’ve just started it, so you should fully expect some future thoughts to be centered on what I learn from Mr. Pollan); he can no longer suspend disbelief about the ramifications of industrialized, corn-laced food sources, both on our bodies and the environment.

But there are still those things. Those items of food that we choose, on occasion, to enjoy in blissful ignorance. For me, one item that comes to mind is the Krispy Kreme donut. Hot Now, baby; when I see those words on the neon sign, something visceral happens, and I find myself gripping the steering wheel to keep the car from turning into the parking lot. I rarely give in, primarily because eating a donut just makes you feel, well, like you just ate a donut. It’s not good. Also, because I’m now more likely than not to have two children in my car, and I’d just as soon keep them in the dark about Krispy Kreme for a few more years (I know — more fodder for their future long-term therapy, dealing with all the things I withheld from them; if only I really loved them!).

Yesterday, though, I enjoyed something that I allow myself to eat every time I make it to Ikea. There’s something about those Swedish Meatballs that I cannot resist (I actually did, once, and regretted my decision with every bite of the roasted red pepper and fresh mozzarella sandwich I chose in their stead). And let’s face it — Ikea food is cafeteria food. Somehow cooler, in all its Swedishness, but it’s cafeteria food nonetheless. The carrots are a bit too orange, the mac-n-cheese too salty. Nothing is really fresh, even the fresh food, but I just don’t think about it when I’m eating those meatballs. The gravy, the lingonberry jam, the side of potatoes (or delicious, chemical-laden fries, as I ate yesterday, after discovering that the kid’s meal has 5 meatballs and costs $1.99). It was cafeteria food heaven.

I feel I should disclaim here, once again — I’m not talking about fat. Or even sugar. I’m talking about food that, as is so brilliantly described in Pollan’s book, bears no resemblance to its origins. It has been so chemically altered, we are hard-pressed to trace it back to anything natural (think Twinkie here). So, fess up: what’s your weakness, your edible drug-of-choice?

Recession Meal No. 2: Lentil Salad with Bacon

I confess that in one past post I lamented the fact that our menu contained this recipe, inspiring the title “Summer Blues.” Which goes to show, when you find something cheap and good, it doesn’t mean you can eat it every day, or even every week, ad infinitum. And I can tend to try and do that, especially when something is cheap, easy, and relatively good for you. Love to beat the proverbial dead horse.

But we gave it a rest, and it’s now returned to acceptability. Even goodness. It’s adapted from the April 2004 issue of Everyday Food, and is a great spring and summer light dinner:

Lentil Salad with Bacon (serves 3-4, depending on appetite)

  • 1 cup green or brown lentils, rinsed
  • 4 strips bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp dijon mustard
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • your choice of salad greens, enough for 3-4 people (the original recipe called for frisée, and while I do think that would be a lovely choice, I never have it on hand, and to buy it would somehow negate the inherent money-saving attributes of this meal)

In a medium saucepan, combine lentils and 4 cups water. Bring to a boil; reduce to simmer and cook until lentils are tender but not mushy, about 15-20 minutes. Drain well.

Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp, about 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain.

Pour off all but about 1 Tbsp of bacon fat from your pan. Add onions and carrots to pan, and cook over medium heat until carrots are tender, about 10 or so minutes. Add the garlic, and cook until fragrant, about 2 more minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the vinegar, mustard, and olive oil, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Using about 1/4-1/3 of the dressing, dress your salad greens in a separate bowl. Add the lentils, onion mixture, and reserved bacon to the remaining dressing in the bowl, and toss to coat. To serve, divide the greens among serving bowls, and top with lentil salad.


Pick of the Month, April ‘08

This could be a short one. I’m realizing that, of late, my Pick posts have run long, due to the sales pitch I feel is required to convince a minority of readers that the ingredient of discussion is worthy of their grocery cart. But this month, I’m going with a sure-fire winner. A sexy veggie, if you will. Such a classic, it’s hard to resist; in our neck of the woods, when the azaleas start to bloom, you’re bound to walk into your local market and find a display of asparagus, front and center, bidding your menu’s attention.

What’s not to like? Well, there is that one thing. We might as well address the fact that about half the population will notice a certain off-odor to their urine after eating asparagus. (If you didn’t know this tidbit of trivia, you can safely consider yourself in the non-odor-noticing part of humanity. If you’ve noticed it, but have never mentioned the issue in public, you can rest assured that it is perfectly harmless, and has a genetic component, though it is debated whether the gene effects the way our bodies breakdown the asparagus or simply our ability to smell certain sulfurs.)

That one negative trait aside, let’s wax on about how wonderful asparagus is in all its other ways. First, visually: it’s a beautifully presented dish, all alone on a plate. It is altogether unique in texture and flavor, and though somewhat strong in both, tends to please a majority of people. It is also a “super green veggie,” meaning it’s really, really good for you. But the thing I like the most about asparagus is that it speaks Spring, in a similar manner as how the tomato speaks Summer. It is a delicious component of such equinox classics as Pasta Primavera or a Spring Vegetable Risotto (I made the version from the latest Cook’s Illustrated last week, and it was one of my all-time-favorite homemade risottos). Asparagus signifies a returning of our diets to things fresh, crisp, and green, after a long winter of stewed, cooked-down, and canned.

Last spring, I discovered a recipe from The Cook’s Bible, for Roasted Asparagus. I cooked my asparagus this way all season; it was incredibly easy and equally as delicious. One of the best attributes of this preparation was that I could make it in my Cuisinart Toaster/Convection Oven, meaning I didn’t have to heat up my large gas oven (and therefore my entire kitchen) during the warmer months. Like most roasting preparations, this method intensifies the flavor in a way unlike any other recipe I’ve found:

  • For a pound of asparagus, heat your oven to 400º. Wash your asparagus, and snap off the tough ends (the spears will naturally break at the point where the toughness turns tender). Place the spears in a shallow roasting pan, and brush with olive oil (or drizzle, then gently toss to coat). Sprinkle with salt to taste, and roast for about 10 minutes. Add ground pepper to taste, and serve.

I still plan to roast my asparagus this way more than once in the coming months. But I have also found a new way to prepare and serve it, discovered a few weeks ago as I perused through my new copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (the classic cookbook that thrust Julia Child into the American culinary spotlight). I took this version to a cookout, and it is safe to say that the plate was as good as licked clean. It is also a more practical preparation if you don’t have a small oven for roasting, and aren’t in the mood to turn on your oven on a day when the temps reach above 90º. You simply:

  • Prepare your asparagus (Julia recommends peeling the tough ends rather than snapping them, to save more of the vegetable), and tie the bunch together, using two pieces of kitchen twine (keep out one spear to taste for doneness). Boil a large pot of water (a large dutch oven or stockpot), and add about a tablespoon of salt. Drop the asparagus bunch and test spear into the boiling water, and bring the water back to a boil as quickly as possible. Boil for about 7-10 minutes, or until the asparagus is bright green, and the test spear is crisp-tender. Remove the bunch, untie, and spread out on a kitchen towel to cool.
  • As the asparagus cools, prepare a classic French Vinaigrette (3 Tbsp good olive oil, 1 Tbsp white wine vinegar, 1 1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice, 1/2 tsp dijon mustard, a Tbsp or so of fresh herbs, and salt/pepper to taste; shake all ingredients in a tightly-closed jar, until emulsion forms). When the asparagus has cooled to room temperature, arrange on a platter, and dress lightly with the vinaigrette.

If you have any vinaigrette leftover, save it to dress your next salad. Or, for that matter, chop up any remaining asparagus spears for the same purpose. The thing about asparagus is that it’s just not very cheap for very long; so get it while the gettin’s good, and use every last spear in a manner worthy of its pointy, green goodness.

Mmmmm… Mirko.

An all-purpose skeptic by nature, I am not one to try a new restaurant in town until I’ve heard a bit about it, from a trusted source. So when we saw a new place open in quaint Watkinsville, there not only wasn’t much to bid me to enter (I’d heard no first-hand experience), but I conjured up my own list of reasons why I probably wouldn’t like it. In short, I was judging a book by its cover.

All I knew about Mirko was that it was a “pasta place.” And that the pastas were homemade, and you “picked your own toppings.” These tidbits became negative fodder for me for entirely personal reasons; the first being that I generally don’t order pasta at restaurants — even restaurants I love. I find I’m usually disappointed, in a similar manner as when I order a risotto; the dish becomes too much, too repetitive, by the time I’m halfway through the bowl. The second notion I conceived was a bias against the nature of the you-pick-it menu. I imagined a Cheesecake-Factory-esque free-for-all, a democratic food society, where everyone has a vote, and the “chef” is at the mercy of the masses. People, good food is created when The Chef is a dictator.

But Tim had been wanting to try it — he’d heard somewhere that it was good. So a call was placed to our friends Dana and Alex, to see if they were up to meeting us there in, say, half an hour? Not only could they meet our spontaneous demands, but they mentioned that Mirko is one of their favorite eateries. My skepticism began to wane. Dana (my uber-talented painter friend, recently featured in American Art Collector magazine!!) and Alex are kindred spirits in the food world, and they have yet to steer us in a wrong restaurant direction. Oh, Alex said, the line is always out the door. We hoped the impending springtime tornadoes would keep everyone at home.

They didn’t. And the line was, in fact, out the door, the entire evening. If there is one drawback to eating at Mirko, it is the extremely limited seating. The way it works is that you order your food at the bar, then are directed to a table (there is bar seating available for parties of 1 or 2, which can get you in faster). Since we had a larger party (4 adults and 2 children), we waited a good 20 minutes. Which is normally not that inconvenient, in situations that are minus a hungry toddler and supplemented with glasses of wine. But we had the former, and not the latter, and were squeezed into a 4×8’entryway with 25 other hungry souls. Was it worth the sardine-like wait?

Indeed, it was. My first glance at the menu told me it would be; I knew from the paper-in-hand that we were dealing with a bona-fide Italian chef. “Off the boat,” in the words of Alex. You do get to choose your pasta and sauce; but what excellent choices they present. Homemade pasta, in a variety of shapes and colors, to be matched with fresh, classic sauces, created from many years of Italian culinary experience; starting as child, Chef Mirko di Giacomantonio began learning from his grandmother the art of his region’s cuisine, and then followed with years of work at restaurants in Italy. The list of starters speak of the same culinary history; my mouth was watering at the prospect of the Carpaccio Cipriani (thinly sliced raw beef with Worcestershire, capers, and shaved parmigiano) or Tartara di Tonno al Limone (classic tuna tartare with lemon, capers, red onion and olive oil), but I remembered that a pregnant state is not optimal for consuming raw meats and fish. So I “settled” for the Indivia con Mele e Pistacchi (Belgian endive, Granny Smith apples, raisin and pistachios with lemon and olive oil). Goodness, my, gracious. The slightly bitter endive, challenged by the tart apples and sweet golden raisins. It was crunchy salad perfection.

And then, the pastas. I couldn’t resist one of “Mirko’s Special Dishes:” the Tortelli di Zucca e Amaretti (butternut squash and Amaretto filled ravioli with radicchio, mascarpone and marjoram sauce). Beautiful, perfectly-formed ravioli, covered in a delicate cream sauce. The ravioli was exceedingly sweet, and would’ve been too much to get through on my own, but the half-plate I consumed before switching with Tim was the perfect amount, especially with such a light starter. Tim ordered the Fusilli with Gamberi e Zucchini sauce (he chose a sauce, and asked for a recommendation on a well-matched pasta). This was shrimp, zucchini, diced tomatoes, garlic, white wine and olive oil, with a little kick — we guessed from red pepper flakes. The shrimp were buttery and light, and the zucchini aptly cooked to the point of tender but not mushy. The seasoning was perfect, and the added heat kept it from being too mellow. It was nice to eat both entrées, with the slightly acidic and fresh shrimp sauce balancing out the richness of the creamy ravioli.

They offer a limited variety of secondi (entrées), including a seafood stew, a grilled tuna loin, and chicken scaloppine. Alex had the tuna, and raved about it, most specifically about how perfectly rare it was cooked. They also offer a small selection of desserts — we took home the Mousse al Cioccoloato, which was rich and divine — and of course your choice of espresso, cappuccino, or coffee.

But the very best part of all this? Well, the Mirko website clearly states that, “It is Mirko Pasta’s mission to bring delicious food to your table the real Italian way—homemade, simple, healthy and affordable.” And it is, really, affordable. My salad was $6, and our pastas were $9 and $8, respectively. The entrées were $12 or less, and desserts are $4. According to my calculations and tastebuds, that makes Mirko the cheapest, best meal in town.

I believe the menu changes every so often, making Mirko a place where you are likely to always find something new. There is a new location open on the east side of Athens, and the website states plans for one on Baxter, and one in Atlanta near the Aquarium. I admit I get nervous when restaurants start expanding, but we can only hope that Mirko stays loyal to the good food and mission that’s making it, right now, a great place to eat in Athens.