Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Spring Vegetable Soup

In our front yard, a growing patch of vegetables started three springs ago is showing signs of fullness. Cherry tomato vines clamber up the sides of the rock wall, basking red and yellow fruit in the sun. Potatoes send tendrils from the soil beneath the baby palm, where they live as the good neighbors we all are on our block. The bean plants will need staking for the first time, and a black pepper plant that I thought had passed on has made a surprise, and welcome, reappearance.

Nothing makes a kitchen happier than fresh vegetables, and never moreso than those you grow yourself. Something visceral happens when you pick, clean, prepare and eat vegetables from plants you have grown. It connects to our own ancient souls; those lines of ancestors who kept themselves and their families fed before grocery stores, refrigeration, vendors, bazaars, traders, hunting and gathering, and so on back to the dawn of agriculture.

We can't all be gardeners, and not everyone wants to be, but for those who are interested, urban gardening is rewarding and, once you are into it, surprisingly easy to do. It's as if the plaintives we commonly put up against the very idea -- not enough room, not enough time, have to take kids and pets into account, don't know where to start -- suspend themselves as the first tendrils poke out of the soil (often after a few failed attempts). There are numerous resources to learn which food plants are suitable for home growing in your area, techniques to create a healthy environment for these living beings including space even when that is at a premium, and groups to meet with to learn, to share, and, most importantly, to garden together.

Once our garden starts yielding, the question arises what to do with our harvest. Canning and freezing preserve summer bounty, but often spring vegetables are so fresh and tender that we want to utilize them right from the garden. Fresh lettuces enliven salad bowls from a luncheon Cobb to a side salad with Manchego and dates, from cherry tomatoes to chopped greens. We simmer green beans with tomatoes, lemon andoregano and sprinkle potatoes with sumac. We serve vegetables with pasta hot and cold. But perhaps the ultimate use for fresh spring vegetables is grandma's vegetable soup.

Veggie soup is one of the ultimate comfort foods, and so it should be. The ingredients are put forth by Mother Earth with a love matched only by that of the kitchen chef putting them into a pot. Veggie soup is cooked slow to allow those bright, fresh flavors to develop in mellow concert. This soup takes advantage of produce common to the home garden, but all of the ingredients will be available at a farmer's market or supermarket. This soup is full of traditional flavors, but once you start making vegetable soup, you will find yourself experimenting with the mix of veggies that go into it. Because this is a master recipe, it will withstand almost anything you add to it, from turnips to escarole, from red bell pepper to Swiss chard, based on what you and your family grow and like to eat.

Veggie soup is the ultimate lunch whether dished into wide bowls for a table set with fresh linens or poured from a thermos at a worksite. The classic accompaniment for vegetable soup is grilled cheese, but in our urban home, in deference to my grandmother whose recipe this is adapted from, we often serve our veggie soup with squares of date nut bread spread with honeyed cream cheese. However you serve it, vegetable soup is a pleasure to prepare that gives the gift of anticipation as it slow simmers on the stovetop throughout the morning. From anticipation proceeds gratitude, and that is the ultimate lesson, responsibility, and blessing of the springtime garden and the meals that result from it.

Spring Vegetable Soup
Use safely home-canned tomatoes if you can. Other than the onion, cut the vegetables to reflect their natural shape: carrots are round, zucchini and celery are moons, etc.

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4" coins
2 ribs celery, rinsed and cut into 1/4" crescent moons
1 medium zucchini, rinsed and cut into 1/4" half-moons
1/2 pound fresh green beans
1/2 pound fresh baby potatoes, such as Yukon Gold or French Red
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 pint canned tomatoes or 1 14-1/2 can diced tomatoes in juice
1 cup chicken stock or vegetable stock
1/4 cup dried pasta, such as broken spaghetti, alphabets, or little stars,
2 teaspoons dried parsley
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
  1. Pick through the green beans and snap off any vines, rough ends, or dark spots. Roughly chop the green beans into bite-sized pieces. Remove any eyes, brown spots, or sprouts from the potatoes. Cut the potatoes into rounds. Add the potato rounds into the colander containing the green beans. Rinse the potatoes and green beans under cool water.
  2. Lightly sprinkle the green beans and potatoes with salt, toss to coat, and place in the sink to drain.
  3. Cover the bottom of a large soup pot with a five count of olive oil. Heat the oil over medium-low heat until shimmering, approximately 2 minutes.
  4. Carefully add the onion to the olive oil and stir to coat. Cook the onion over medium-low heat until it starts to turn translucent, approximately 4 minutes.
  5. Once the onion starts to turn translucent, add the carrots and celery to the onion in the pot. Lightly sprinkle the vegetables with salt. Gently turn the vegetables to mix and cook over medium low just until the vegetables start to sweat, approximately 5 minutes.
  6. Open the tomatoes and gently pour into the soup pot. Measure out the stock and pour a bit into the tomato jar/can. Swirl to get all of the canned tomatoes and pour into the pot. Pour the remainder of the measured stock into the pot.
  7. Stir the vegetables and stock together.
  8. Gently shake the colander containing the green beans and potatoes to express any collected water. Gently add the potatoes and green beans to the mixture in the soup pot.
  9. Gently pour cold water into the soup pot to cover the vegetable-stock mixture by about an inch. Add several grindings of black pepper to the mixture in the soup pot.
  10. Place the lid on the soup pot and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, approximately two hours.
  11. After two hours, add the corn, pasta, parsley, and oregano to the soup pot. Stir the mixture together. Add more water or stock if warranted; the mixture should be thick and fragrant but not thin.
  12. Cover the soup pot and cover over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally and adding water or stock as needed, until all of the vegetables are tender and the soup is fragrant, approximately 1 hour.
  13. Turn off the burner. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, pepper or dried herbs as warranted, and serve the soup while hot.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Urban Bar: Blood and Sand

Photo: Eric Diesel
On that first, fateful trip to Los Angeles six years ago, one landmark we knew we would visit was Rudolph Valentino's crypt at Hollywood Forever. To this day, I remember every moment. We left behind the graceful, gaudy pastiche of the great lawn, where soaring palms stood sentinel as peacocks patrolled the grounds, to enter the sepulchral chill of the mausoleum. Here reverence was commanded by sunlight filtering through stained glass, statuary respectfully mute, chalk white marble cool to the touch. Rudy's crypt is around a far corner, halfway up a wall about eye level. It's next to a stained glass window, with a lone bench placed for remembrance. Another mourner had already placed a spray of orchids and baby's breath by the plaque bearing his name. I placed my red rose on the bench in commemoration and communion.

When Rodulphus Alfonso Petrus Philibertus Rafaele Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguella arrived in the Hollywood movie colony during the height of the silent era, everyone from Jesse Lasky to Nazimova took notice of the dashing young man with the black patent-leather hair and the indecipherably thick accent. He was originally cast in bit roles as an "exotic," the inherently if unknowingly racist practice of the time of casting Caucasians as people of other ethnicities. Rudolph Valentino rose to prominence because audiences reacted passionately to his graceful, compelling screen presence. He was a very skilled dancer, which infused his image with a balletic quality that contrasted with the prevailing two-fisted masculine ideal of Teddy Roosevelt and Douglas Fairbanks. And if he had always been known as jaw-droppingly handsome and in fact had survived on his looks, he was ever so much moreso when his image was captured on film.

The intersection of cultures is the crux of Rudy's personhood, tracing back to his beginnings as half-Italian and half-French, a lad sensitive and intelligent but also ill-behaved and troublesome. His ability to inhabit dichotomy was his stock in trade as a film actor. He was a white man whose greatest success was playing an Arab; his audience's ideal romantic male even though all that made him that was the very opposite of the manhood of the time. We would rightly call it gendered thinking nowadays, but the fundamental paradox in Valentino's legend is the masculine/feminine one: seductive but romantic, of a time and generation that so beatified women that society couldn't reconcile the adoration with the realities of sexual congress. His magic, even to people who are not attracted to men, is undeniable, and if there was a threat, that is where it resided. 

Blood and Sand was released in 1922, just as Rudy was ascending the height of his career. The Sheik had been released to an avalanche of ticket sales, capitalized upon in the Hollywood way by the successful pairing of Rudy with Gloria Swanson in Beyond the Rocks. Blood and Sand was the first picture Rudy was expected to carry himself, not with the wait-and-see receipts of his earlier films but as a bona fide movie star who was expected to deliver big numbers at the box office. In Blood and Sand, Rudy played a bullfighter, and the title referred to both the danger of the profession and the arena in which it was played. Paramount Studios -- the very studio built on land donated by Hollywood Forever, just on the other side of the fence -- had a hit, and one of the ways blood and sand became elements of a night on the town was by rendering the symbolism of the title into the contents of a cocktail glass.

The Blood and Sand is rightly reckoned as a Prohibition cocktail, for it speaks to the speakeasy just as eloquently as it speaks to the silver screen. Doctor Cocktail gives it a place in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, and no less an authority than Dale DeGroff includes it in his pivotal The Craft of the Cocktail, where he notes that it is one of the few cocktails built with Scotch. But my favorite, and to my knowledge one of the earliest, draft of the recipe for the cocktail comes from the venerable, leather-bound chapbook Old Mr. Boston De Luxe Official Bartender's Guide. My copy dates to 1935, and the Blood and Sand is included, as matter-of-factly as the page numbers and the line illustrations of hooch bottles, between the Blarney Stone (whiskey, Absinthe, Curacao, Maraschino and bitters) and the Blood Bronx (gin, French vermouth and blood orange juice).

If you want the truest of Blood and Sands, your destination is The Dresden Room, where it has been the house cocktail for as long as anyone remembers. One rumor, or, if you prefer, myth, has it that the Dresden started featuring the Blood and Sand as a response to a Brown Derby and a silent movie theatre being just up the street. As befits the space, the Dresden's Blood and Sand is the classic, ultimate version, sweet and smoky at the same time, swathed in doxie's rose-gold and arriving in a crystal coupé.

If a cocktail can be dapper, seductive, and mythological, it is the Blood and Sand. It is the very soul of the Jazz Age, created to honor one of silent cinema's most mythological presences. Rudy's legend lives today, in public and in private from film festivals to ceremonies at his crypt. He is the paradox redoubled, an immortal of the screen whose mortality guaranteed his legend. In our urban home, we celebrate Rudy's birthday with a red rose at the cemetery, a screening of one of his films, his favorite meal of long spaghetti, and a toast of blood and sand.

Blood and Sand
Cherry Heering is a cherry liqueur available at most liquor stores; you also need it to build a Singapore Sling. Blood orange juice is truest to the cocktail, but fresh orange juice is fine. Serve your Blood and Sand in a stemmed cocktail glass that showcases the drink's gorgeous rose-gold hue.

1 shot blended Scotch, such as Ballantine, Cutty Sark or Dewar's
1 shot Cherry Heering
1 shot orange juice
1 scant shot sweet Vermouth, such as Vya or Maurin
  1. Fill a cocktail shaker with crushed ice.
  2. Measure the ingredients into the shaker in the order listed.
  3. Place the cover on the shaker. Shake the cocktail until the shaker is too cold to touch.
  4. Strain the cocktail into a cocktail glass.
  5. Garnish with a preserved cherry and serve.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

May at Urban Home Blog

Here are our plans for the blooming month of May at Urban Home Blog:
  • Attend May Day celebration at Plummer Park. Musts: children's art show, Russian Bear photo ops, caviar tasting.
  • Celebrate Beltane by serving late lunch outdoors. Leave offerings of fresh fruit and vegetables on the ground, and share the first pour of wine with the roots of the California laurel tree.
  • Take visiting father-in-law out for a night on the town in Hollywood.
  • Attend SHARKS! exhibit at Taschen Gallery on Beverly Boulevard.
  • Attend Reigning Men exhibit at LACMA.
  • Celebrate Rudolph Valentino's birthday by attending ceremony at Hollywood Forever. Place roses at his grave as well as Lady in Black's.
  • Have annual Valentino Wake/Dumb Supper after cemetery visit. Serve Blood and Sands, Pasta Puttanesca, and Caesar Salad. Screen Son of the Sheik and Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
  • Visit Larry Edmunds Bookshop to see if they have any Valentino titles or collectibles that I don't already have. 
  • Can strawberry-balsamic jam and Habanero Gold.
  • Brush up on palm tree gardening as baby palms exhibit annual new growth.
  • Rotate and flip mattress.
  • Clean and condition leather furniture.
  • Set up new printer stand in home office.
  • Bundle up the last of the winter/summer magazines and take to local elder care facility.
  • Teach mobile-making class at local Michael's.
  • Finalize Pride Month plans in order to get best travel deals. Secure tickets to LA Pride, decide whether returning to New York for NYC Pride.
  • Drive to Ventura to spend the last quiet day before Memorial Day at the beach

Reading List: Valentino Forever, Tracy Ryan Terhune; Lost Recipes of Prohibition, Matthew Rowley; Earth Power, Scott Cunningham

May, 2015: steak sauce
May, 2012: decorating, Weeknight Dinner, salad, dessert
May, 2011: Wines for Steak, baking, sewing, canning and preserving, Weeknight Dinner

May, 2010: From the Vault, cooking, Urban Bar, Weeknight Dinner

Friday, April 22, 2016

Dragonfly Mobile

If there is any certain sign of springtime, it is the emergence of insects as they crawl, skitter, hover, buzz, zoom, slink and otherwise propel themselves into delicate new light. Many insects hibernate. As earth turns towards sky in days of increasing warmth, insects awaken in response to the quickening of nature. Once able, they emerge to seek air, light, warmth and most importantly, food. Like any hibernating animal, insects are somewhat fragile upon first flight after torpor, and if they don't feed within the advanced schedule dictated within their tiny metabolisms, they will not survive.

Curiously if understandably, humans have a love-hate relationship with bugs that most entomologists will tell you is not reciprocal in that, overall, insects intend no harm to our species. That said, it is admitted that some bugs such as termites, mosquitoes, bedbugs, and ticks, can do harm to humans or to our habitats. Still, that is nothing compared to the harm we do to the most plentiful species on earth - the tragic, if somewhat improving, fact of colony collapse disorder alone proves that. So while no one could in good conscience advise not to protect your family and home from harm, please think twice before swatting that housefly or squashing that centipede.

Due primarily to their physiology, and the fact that by definition they sneak up on us, insects touch off something primal in humans. For many, that expresses itself as fear, revulsion, the instinctive reaction to pull away in response to being startled. For many more, that expresses itself as fascination, study, respect, protection, and the other elements that equal advocacy. It is important that we not let our instinctive reaction to bugs -- or any other species -- mutate into an indifference to the importance of their  lives. Resources from programs at schools and museums to local garden clubs educate about bugs, and many titles are in print to learn about this incredibly diverse and mostly benevolent class. Some of the favorite books on the conservation shelves in our homekeeper's library are Maria Sibylla Merian's Insects of Surinam, The DK Bee Book, and a vintage treasure unearthed in a favorite used bookstore in Solvang, Cynthia Westcott's The Gardener's Bug Book.

As I've written before, as unpopular as insects can be, they are awfully popular as design inspiration. In a practice that goes as far back as the ancient Egyptian scarab, jewelers bejewel dragonflies and butterflies for brooches and enamel grasshoppers and beetles for trinket boxes. Home designers decorate the kitchen with ladybugs or bees. Even the Mason jars of twinkling lights that dot patios and nestle upon dining tables recall childhood summer evenings of catching fireflies.

In our urban home, dragonflies are welcome visitors to our patch of yard as they dart among the grass in stained glass shades of orange and red or blue and green. Dragonflies are fleeting visitors for they mind excessive heat and can never stray too far from a healthy water source, but their visiting season is all the more beautiful for its brevity. Every time one stops by, it is beatifying us with its friendly hello of cellophane wings and vibrant color. They buzz around for a few moments of friendliness, curiosity, even kinship -- and then they buzz away, their visit as poetic, breathtaking, and short-lived as these days of early spring.

To celebrate Earth Day, and insects and our conservation of them, here is a springtime craft project: a dragonfly mobile made of pretty paper, cellophane, and wire. Scrapbook paper works well for this craft; it is a good weight and you can use multiple patterns. This project incorporates many crafting skills including decoupage, wirework, even sewing. Don't be put off by the number of steps or the supplies list: this is a simple craft and all of these supplies are available at a crafts store such as Michael's. The staff at the crafts store can teach you how to use any of the tools or techniques you're not comfortable with, such as bending or stringing monfilament or safely using (and overseeing the usage of ) a craft knife.

Click here for a free printable download of the craft instructions and templates.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Honey Cake

Photo: Eric Diesel
The rites of spring range from spring cleaning to the urge to bake that is surpassed, seasonally, only by autumn; from spring planting to getting our homestead ready for outdoor living during the light half of the year. Conservation is a core value of homekeeping. Groundhog Day signaled the shift from gruff old winter to tentative early spring. As we move outdoors during this magical time, we take time to care for our reawakened and returning neighbors. In our urban garden, we refresh the topsoil, clear old growth from the bromeliads, palms, gardenias, and tangerine trees, have a gardener trim and feed the California laurel. We check on our bat houses, fill feeders with nectar for hummingbirds, set out offerings of food for returning ravens and Jethro the opossum. And we make certain there is access to plenty of budding blooms for buzzing bees.

A common concern for conservation homekeepers is whether buying a jar of honey equates to harming bees. As long as it is pure honey, harvested by qualified beekeepers such as those contracted to provide honey for human consumption, buying and eating honey do not harm bees. Colony Collapse Disorder, which is at the root of the question, isn't about honey production; it's about bee mortality. A healthy hive, not to mention the dozens of them that professional beekeepers maintain, will produce the same overflow of honey that drew humans to start collecting it to begin with. A responsible beekeeper will not collect honey from a hive that doesn't have excess. Buying responsibly sourced and harvested pure honey helps bees by helping beekeeping.

To save bees, turn to advocacy. Support such organizations as Greenpeace or the Bumblebee Conservation Trust with resources of time, funds and learning and teaching. Stay informed of the politics of buzzing, and hold elected officials responsible for safeguarding not only the safety and health of bees and bee colonies but all of the species we share the planet with. Vote officials with good conservation records into office and then keep them accountable for that good record while they are serving, and vote officials with bad conservation records out of office -- and be sure that they, your community, and the media know that it was negative impact on conservation that got them fired. If you find a hive in your yard and you can't leave it there, don't call the exterminator -- call the county extension office. They can deploy a beekeeper to safely remove the hive and guide it, and its inhabitants, to a safe new address. Often that is a community garden, where the benefit is to all concerned, not least of all the bees.

In our urban home, honey is one of the favorite flavors. Yes, we drizzle it on our toast, but one of our favorite recipes to use -- and celebrate -- liquid gold is honey cake. Honey cake is a sweet snack cake that's somewhere between a tea cake and a quick bread. It's akin to another bugged-out house favorite: Nana's Bug Cake. We frost our honey cake with the same honeyed cream cheese we spread on date nut bread. And just as we remember, thank and advocate for the bees when we drizzle our honey, we do the same for the palm trees that give us dates. For, like bees, bats, dragonflies, and all living creatures, palm trees merit, need and deserve our care and conservancy.

Honey Cake
When making a cake, especially one with a heavy batter such as this, one key element is to avoid overmixing. Unless specifically directed by a recipe, the rule of practice is to add dry ingredients in three batches with wet ingredients in two batches, beginning and ending with the dry. After the third addition of dry ingredients, fold the cake batter just until it comes together, and gently fold that into the cake pan/s.

For the cake
2 half-cup sticks unsalted butter, plus extra for pan
2 cups all purpose flour, plus extra for pan
1/4 cup granulated sugar
5 large eggs
1/2 cup pure honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

For the frosting
1 8-ounce bar cream cheese
¼ cup honey
Ground nutmeg

Make the cake
  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Butter an 8 x 8 baking pan and lightly dust with flour. Shake to distribute the flour on all sides and the floor of the pan; shake excess out of the pan.
  3. Unwrap 2 sticks unsalted butter and place them into a large mixing bowl. Gently place the butter wrappers over the butter and set the bowl aside while the butter softens, approximately 20 minutes.
  4. Sift the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and a pinch of salt together into a small bowl.
  5. Break the eggs into a small mixing bowl. Use a wire whisk to break up the eggs until thick and golden, as if for an omelet. Add the vanilla extract to the eggs  and whisk to incorporate.
  6. Once the butter is soft enough to work with, attach the beaters to an electric mixer. Set the mixer to medium-high and beat the butter until it is creamy and workable, about 2 minutes. Add the sugar and honey to the butter, and mix until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
  7. Working in alternate batches of three-dry and two-wet, use the mixer set on low to beat the flour mixture into the creamed butter and sugar mixture alternately with the egg-vanilla mixture. Start and end with the flour mixture.
  8. Once all of the ingredients are incorporated , use a silicon spatula to gently transfer the batter to the buttered and floured baking pan. Use the spatula to get all of the batter into the pan, and to smooth the top of the batter.
  9. Bake until set and golden, approximately 45 - 50 minutes.
  10. Cool on a wire rack.
  11. Once cake is cooled, frost cake with honeyed cream cheese.
  12. Cut cake into squares and serve.
Make the frosting
  1. While the cake is baking, unwrap the cream cheese and place it into a medium mixing bowl.
  2. Add a pinch of dried nutmeg to the bowl.
  3. Measure the honey into the bowl.
  4. Lightly cover the bowl. Allow the cream cheese to soften while the cake bakes.
  5. When ready to serve, use a wire whisk or stick blender fitted with the whisk attachment to whip the cream cheese and honey together. 
Resources and equipment

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Marinated Olives

In the previous column, I wrote about the two lodestars of living in our former hometown of Astoria, New York: Greek culture and the Neptune Diner. These forces meet on the laminated pages of the Neptune's menu - as they should, for one of a diner's responsibilities is showcasing the food of the local populace. Aside from its signature chicken gyro, the Neptune serves a towering omelet of feta and tomatoes, a sizzling skewer of grilled swordfish, a honeyed slab of baklava. And, of course, neither a booth at the 'tune nor any Greek table is complete with a dish of briny olives.

Something Astoria and California share is the importance of olives to local culture, cooking, and commerce. California orchards produce as much as ninety-five percent of the olives that make their way to the American Table. California's fabled microclimate equals the Mediterranean sun and season that are ideal for this crop. In this way, the success of California olive farming parallels the success of that other famous California crop: wine grapes.

Perhaps because they represent abundance, olives are best when shared. A jumble of marinated olives is as much a standard of welcoming guests at a party, on the patio or in the vineyard as is a hot, gooey artichoke dip. Because they respond so well to preservation, olives are not only one of the earliest snack foods but one of the earliest pantry staples. Marinated olives are a staple in our urban pantry, not only for sharing with guests but for nibbling with lunch or during Happy Hour. We have access to splendid olives year-round in California, so a marinate a batch a few times a year and keep them always accessible in a large jar in the refrigerator. Martini olives are integral to the wet bar. Place them in your bar refrigerator if you're that swank, or keep them in the fridge with the mixers and the preserved cherries.

There are hundreds of varieties of olives. Commonly available kitchen varieties include, but are not limited to:
  • Gaeta (Italian), small black, chewy  and intense
  • Kalamata (Greek), medium black, meaty and salty
  • Nicoise, Picholine (French), tiny black, fruity and delicate
  • Liguria (Italian), small black, firm and briny
  • Manzanillo (Spanish) large green, rich and assertive.
While imported olives do exist, they are subject to tax and tariff and other forms of governance including FDA clearance. As a result, like many imported food and drink, imported olives travel through brokers, and their retail cost may reflect this. You will have a better chance of getting imported olives at a Mediterranean or gourmet grocery than at the supermarket. But that's okay, because supermarket olives are great, and there is every likelihood that they were grown and harvested in California.

Marinated Olives
Olives are sold brined in a solution of vinegar, water and salt. In supermarkets, they are sold either from an olive bar as part of the salad bar or from the deli case. Mediterranean markets may  also have fresh olives, which will likely be sold by the branch and have a bright, tart flavor unlike what we're used to from brined olives, or oil-cured olives, which are black olives cured in olive oil rather than brined. Brined, fresh or oil-cured olives will work for these recipes, but the best will be a jumble of mixed olives. 

Most green olives sold in glass jars in the antipasti aisle of the supermarket are acceptable. Avoid all jarred black olives and all canned olives. Canned olives are often tinny and mealy, and often cans and jars labeled as "black" olives are unripe olives that have been treated with lye.

Marinated Olives
1 pound mixed olives
1 strip orange zest
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 sprig fresh oregano
1/4 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
Extra-virgin olive oil
  1. Transfer the olives into a colander and quickly rinse them under cool water.
  2. Measure the coriander seeds, fennel seeds, hot red pepper flakes and a pinch of salt into a large glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Pour a two-count of olive oil into the jar; swirl the jar to coat the spices with oil.
  3. Add the thyme, rosemary and oregano to the olives in the colander. Use your hands to gently mix the olives and herbs together.
  4. Spoon the herbed olive mixture into the jar, stopping when the jar is half full.
  5. Drizzle the herbed olive mixture in the jar with olive oil just until coated, typically a five-count.
  6. Nestle the strip of orange zest on the oiled herbed olives in the jar.
  7. Spoon the rest of the herbed olive mixture from the colander into the jar. Don't be afraid to pack the jar as the olives will settle.
  8. Drizzle the herbed olive mixture in the jar with olive oil just until coated, typically a five-count.
  9. Place the lid on the jar and gently shake the jar so that the ingredients settle.
  10. Refrigerate, checking the jar occasionally to add more oil, herbs or olives as warranted.
Note: Before serving, add a sliced sun-dried tomato, smoked pimiento, or clove of roasted garlic to the serving bowl.

Martini Olives
8 ounces pimento-stuffed green olives
1 strip lemon zest
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 dried bay leaf
Dry vermouth
  1. Transfer the olives into a colander and quickly rinse them under cool water.
  2. Hold the bay leaf over a half-pint canning jar and break it into pieces over the jar. Add the strip of lemon zest and a pinch of salt to the jar.
  3. Gently transfer the rinsed olives to the jar. Don't be afraid to pack the jar as the olives will settle.
  4. Gently push the rosemary sprig into the jar.
  5. Pour 1 tablespoon cold water into the jar.
  6. Gently fill the jar just to the top of the olive mixture with dry vermouth.
  7. Place the lid and ring on the jar just until tight.
  8. Gently shake the jar to distribute the ingredients.
  9. Refrigerate the olives to use as needed.
Equipment and Resources

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Chicken Gyro Platter

It is not incidental that our spirits stir in springtime; it is intrinsic. The Earth is awakening, and we as children of the earth feel this rumbling ancient rhythm. Buds appear on branches dormant just weeks ago, while creatures from migrating birds and insects to the family pet exhibit an uptake in mischievous energy. We are creatures of sky as well as earth, and for every day of sunshine and breezes there is a day of shadows and storms. In Southern California, we are experiencing our usual spring of warm days and chill nights, of lemon blossoms and the return of the ravens. The outdoor furniture is coming out of the dry dock of garages, carports, storage units in anticipation of patio lunches and twilight cocktails, and gardeners professional to avocational are refreshing top soil, reseeding carpets of green lawn, digging holes for spring bulbs.

I cannot help but think of my family of friends in the northeast. It seems as if every day on social media, posts appear about the bone-weariness of  a winter that lingers a bit too long, of snow drifts and sludge, of the thwarted desire for springtime frolic. I think of my old neighborhood of Astoria where, as I lived it for twelve years and as I've written about so often, spring is such an important season, April is such an important month, Easter is such an important holiday. One of my first assignments as a lifestyle writer was discussing the tradition of Greek Easter Bread. Since then, April often has found me writing about Greek cooking, which I believe one really cannot do absent the context of springtime. As reflected in its signature ingredients -- lamb, lemons, garlic, honey, dairy, herbs --springtime provides not just the perspective for Greek cooking but its essence. Accordingly, I've published stories about and recipes for sticky-sweet baklava, smooth-tart avgolemono, more obscure but phenomenal dishes of Greek green beans and potatoes with sumac, even a hearty Greek salad.

Any Astorian will tell you that just as spring is the firmament of seasonal living in Astoria, the Neptune Diner is the locus of daily living. For years, the 'tune was our ground zero -- literally, as we lived three blocks from it. It is right off of the train platform, as easy to stop by on the way home as walking down a couple of flights of stairs. The Neptune anchored our lives for over a decade. For years, it was a Friday night ritual for our family of friends to "meet at the 'tune" for family dinner, a tradition that anchored us at the end of hectic weeks and revived us in preparation for the hustle of weekends. The Neptune ritually fed John and I our first breakfast on New Year's Day, and we and our guests usually managed at least one brunch there during Pride Weekend. John and I had our first dinner as Astorians at the Neptune, the day we signed our lease, and when I packed up our apartment for the move out west, on the evening that the moving van rolled away I ate dinner alone at the Neptune. I was served by Frankie, the world's most attentive, least sober, courtliest and wisest waiter and a true treasure of a human being. He comped my last meal as a New Yorker and I overtipped him for the last time as one. Everything after that is a sleepless blur until I found myself settling into my seat on a westbound jet and snapping one last picture of the tarmac at JFK. It was one of the most profound departures of my life.

Like a good diner's should, the Neptune's menu unfolds in page after laminated page. All of the classics are there, all of them rendered well: breakfast all day, cheeseburgers with fries, hot plates of meat loaf or roast turkey, cups of soup with grilled cheese or a BLT, rice pudding, coffee, pie. Like most diners, the menu also showcases regional specialties such as egg creams along with house specialties that reflect the Greek culture of Astoria. There is pastitsio and skordalia and fried smelts and birds nests and briny black olives and a bottle of ouzo behind the register for a farewell opa!

To that menu and to the countless nights with family, I herewith raise a bottomless cup of diner coffee to Carrie, Paul, Marin, Blake, Kat, Douglas, Alma, Dave, Lissa, William, Jeff, Gail, Jacob, Madelyn, Katie, Earl, Sue, The Three Johns, Ali, Karen, Ben, Peter, Ann, Bridget, Jenn, and most of all to Frankie, to Greg, and to the owners and staff of the Neptune. In honor of those people, those days, that menu, that place, here is one of our favorite dinners in our urban home, inspired by the keynote experience of eating dinner at the Neptune: a chicken gyro platter all the way with tzatziki, grilled pita, olives and feta. The chicken is pan-grilled in deference to ease of home cooking. While this Sunday Supper is a hearty meal in and of itself, is wonderful accompanied, Neptunelike, by bowls of avgolemono and finished with a big piece of baklava. Opa!

Chicken Gyro Platter
The best Greek groceries will be available in a Mediterranean or gourmet market, but supermarket ingredients should be fine for this recipe. Olives, whether from a cold case or a food bar, should smell fresh and briny and evidence no white or gray bloom. Feta should be sold in chunks and packaged in salt water. If you cannot easily locate fenugreek, order it from an online spice supplier such as Penzeys.

For the chicken
Two large boneless chicken breasts
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 medium cloves garlic
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons fenugreek
Freshly ground black pepper
Hot red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon salt

For the tzatziki
3 medium cucumbers
1 bunch fresh dill
1 lemon
1 small white onion
3 medium cloves garlic
8 ounces plain yogurt, preferably Greek, 0-2% fat
Sour cream
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

For the table
4 - 6 pockets pita bread
1 strip fresh rosemary
1/3 - 1/2 pound mixed olives
1 1/2 pound block Feta
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Drain the cucumbers
  1. Position an in-sink colander into place.
  2. Peel the cucumbers so that no green remains. Remove the stem and blossom ends from the cucumbers.
  3. Cut each cucumber in half lengthways. Use a teaspoon to remove the seeds and pith.
  4. Put on a cut-resistant mesh glove. Working carefully, hold each cucumber half at an angle, cut side down, against the large holes of a box grater. Grate all of the cucumber halves over the in-sink colander. The cucumber will get slick as you grate, so work carefully.
  5. Sprinkle the grated cucumber generously with salt. Gently shake the colander to mix the salt and cucumber together. Leave the colander in place a minimum of  four hours to drain the cucumbers, shaking the colander a couple of times during to be sure to express as much moisture as possible.
Marinate the chicken
  1. Position a large zippered plastic food bag in a medium bowl and open the bag. Carefully measure the olive oil and lemon juice into the bag. Peel and press the garlic cloves into the oil-lemon mixture. Add the dried oregano, salt, several grindings of fresh black pepper, and a shake of red pepper flakes to the mixture in the bag.
  2. Working one chicken breast at a time, carefully use a sharp knife to remove any filmy white membranes or red splotches from the chicken. Carefully cut the chicken breast lengthways into strips about 1/2 inch wide. Carefully cut across the strips to form chunked about 1/2 inch wide.
  3. Gently transfer the chunked chicken to the bag containing the marinade. Press the bag tightly together and zip it closed, holding the least amount of air possible inside the bag.
  4. Massage all of the ingredients in the bag together so that all of the chicken is coated in the marinade.
  5. Place the marinating chicken in the refrigerator overnight, or for a minimum of four hours.
Make the tzatziki
  1. Transfer the yogurt to a large mixing bowl.
  2. Peel the garlic cloves and press them into the yogurt. Use a silicon spatula to stir the mixture so that it is smooth and fragrant.
  3. Cut the lemon in half crossways. Use a lemon press or a glass juicer to strain the juice from the lemon halves through a small mesh sieve into the yogurt-garlic mixture. Use the silicon spatula to stir the mixture until it is smooth, shiny and very fragrant.
  4. Peel, cut and dice half of the onion. Measure 2/3 cup diced onion into the yogurt mixture.
  5. Working a couple of handfuls at a time, add the shredded, drained cucumber to the yogurt mixture. Stir after each addition just to incorporate. Keep going until you have added all of the shredded, drained cucumber - it is okay if the mixture is somewhat thick.
  6. Lay the dill onto a cutting board. Remove and discard any thick stems while reserving the fronds. Carefully use a knife or an herb chopper to cut the dill into tiny pieces. Transfer the dill to the yogurt-cucumber mixture.
  7. Measure the olive oil into the bowl containing the cucumber-yogurt-dill mixture.
  8. Use the silicon spatula to gently incorporate the mixture. It should be thick and very fragrant.
  9. Add enough sour cream (typically about 3 tablespoons) to the mixture to achieve a spreadable, though still somewhat thick, consistency.
  10. Cover the bowl containing the tzatziki with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Prepare the chicken
  1. Position a wire mesh strainer over a large bowl. Empty the contents of the marinating bag through the sieve so that the marinating liquid drains into the bowl.
  2. Place a two count of olive oil into a grill pan or ceramic-coated skillet. Swirl the pan to coat it with olive oil.  Turn the burner to medium-high.
  3. Separate the pita into halves by cutting across the circle to form a half moon. Grill the pita in the hot pan for a couple of seconds on each side. Place the grilled pita in a pie tin or on a cookie sheet and keep the pita warm in an oven set to 200 degrees F.
  4. Reduce the burner heat to medium. Carefully add the marinated chicken to the pan. Shake the pan gently to distribute the chicken and to keep it from sticking.
  5. Sprinkle the fenugreek on the chicken.
  6. Cook the chicken, stirring as needed,  until nicely grilled, approximately 6 minutes. If the pan runs dry, add a bit of the marinating liquid to the pan.
Serve the meal
  1. While the chicken is cooking, remove the feta from its container and place the feta on a rimmed plate or in a shallow bowl. Drizzle the feta with a two count of olive oil. Strip the rosemary leaves onto the oiled feta, and sprinkle the oiled feta with a few grinds of fresh black pepper.
  2. Place the oiled feta, marinated olives, warmed pita, tzatziki, and grilled chicken on the table for everyone to build their gyro however they want. Opa!