Lazy Man's Caesar (for When You Can't Be Lazy)

I’ve been pretty harried this week. I feel like I've been smoking into rooms and sliding through doors, often with only a few moments to spare (or not); a poof of stress trailing in my wake. Picture an entrance that Kramer from Seinfeld might make; I just hope my hair isn't sticking up quite as much, though it's entirely possible. Sleep has felt like a drug, when I’ve been lucky enough to score some.

I’m not complaining. I’ve just been rather busy lately between work, school and writing. Still, I refuse to fall into the wasteland of bad Chinese food and frozen pizza. Eat well or bust.

Perhaps this will eventually be my tragic flaw, but—for the time being—my crutch is this quick homemade dressing. It’s really a lazy man’s Caesar and is ridiculously easy to make, even if you are hustling and bustling all over the place. So please don't judge that I use mayonnaise instead of raw egg yolks. The last thing I need is to be separating eggs and streaming their yolks into my food processor (when I really should be reading about the use of ginger in medieval times or better yet: sleeping).

This Caesar—on the other hand—is no slouch, it's creamy and bright with a hint of lemon and a good kick from the pecorino and Dijon mustard. For a moment, it plants me at a table at Figs on Charles Street, where Todd English makes a mean Caesar salad. I’m eating his salad, glass of red wine in hand—and perhaps some olive oil-dipped focaccia in the other; primed and ready to indulge in a slice of my favorite Figs pizza: a pie sauced with a light tomato base topped with arugula, hot peppers, lemon aioli and fried calamari. My blood pressure drops just typing all of this.

While I’m quite positive Mr. English uses egg yolks in his Caesar (in fact, if this recipe is correct, it confirms it), for now I’ll take a meal that at least reminds me of such an experience: especially if it’s quick to make. True to its word, my dinner came to be in less time than a pizza would take to order. In fact, I accidentally cut myself while chopping romaine and still managed to make a hefty Caesar salad—and eat it—before my thumb stopped bleeding. I’ll bet you haven’t heard that before: a meal that comes together faster than clotting.

Anyways, if you have a can of tuna or some chickpeas in a cupboard or have time to poach an egg (you lucky devil, you) you’ll have dinner in fewer than 10. And the dressing will keep for days, with no worry of salmonella, luring you to use it on veggies instead of leaning on greasy takeout. Because let’s face it: the last thing you need when you are superbly busy is to have to run out and buy a pair of elastic-waisted pants. So it goes: make a lazy Caesar, get to bed when you can, and try to avoid the waist land.

Lazy Man's Caesar Salad Dressing

2-4 tbsp mayo
Juice of 1 lemon and 1/2 peel, zested
5 anchovies
2-4 tbsp pecorino cheese, plus more for dusting
2 tsp dijon mustard
2-4 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

Combine first 5 ingredients in a blender or food processor. Stream in olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Toss with greens, a little more pecorino, and you're done.

Makes ~3/4 cup

-As you can see, this is a taste as you go recipe. Start with about 2 tbsp of the mayo, cheese and olive and taste and adjust until you think it's right for you.

-While certainly not traditional, I mixed some radicchio in with the romaine because I felt like a needed a little purple in my life that particular day.

-I made a bunch of croutons by tossing chunks of bread with olive oil, salt, pepper and some oregano and my 425 degree oven did the rest of the work. Confession time: while they were crunchy and crisp on day one, the crouton leftovers did get a little stale by day two. That said, once covered in caesar, it didn't matter much. (Nothing did.)


A Coconut Paradise, Two Ways

I'll admit, I've been rolling my eyes at the mention of coconut water for weeks. No, not coconut milk: the luscious, creamy liquid intent to add richness to curries and infuse desserts with tropical whisperings. If you happen to be on any sort of rigid regimen, coconut milk practically shoves a mini drink umbrella in your hand and begs you to run off to the Maldives. Come right in, it murmurs, the milk's just fine.

While—on the other side of the island—coconut water is doing exactly the opposite. Instead of leading you to sanctuary, it’s guilt-tripping you: telling you to get off your beach chair, put down the rum, you lush, and go kitesurfing.

Now, perhaps these generalizations occurred because I associated this fairly new to market coconut water with people who relentlessly talk about their calves; who seem to be in a constant panic about their hydration status; and, perhaps, who are perpetually wearing Lycra.

Not that there is a thing wrong with any of that, it’s just that I was unimpressed with the novelty of drinking the water—instead of the milk—of a coconut and had certain presumptions. I wasn’t all that interested in coconut water’s purported natural ability to replenish electrolytes. Nor did I fancy myself much of a kitesurfer.

But then free coconut water samples showed up at yoga. And in a goodie bag I received at a hotel event. And in a box that was suspiciously mailed to my office. Someone—or some coconut deity—was trying to tell me something. And it finally hit me over the head.

This coconut water was meant to make a guest appearance in the basmati rice I had been planning for dinner. I wanted fluffy rice, with a side of tropical escape from this wintry slop: and coconut milk would have mucked that up, making rice that was too sticky and heavy. Coconut water, on the other hand, is extracted by drawing only water, not fat; serving as a perfect liquid to bathe my rice in.

And since the water I received was lightly flavored with passion fruit juice, its slight sweetness brightly complimented the pinch of saffron and healthy dose of cardamom I threw into the pot. It was just the ticket. Rice to help you remember that winter won't last forever, while gently nudging that bathing suit season is closer than you think.

Admittedly—ahem—a fleeting sentiment, as I soon realized that this slightly spicy, floral rice would be perfect for coconut rice pudding. So I put down the bathing suit and picked up the coconut milk. At this very moment, I can’t think of a more quintessential dessert than creamy coconut rice pudding to counteract the slush outside: which a bikini just ain't gonna help with.

I suppose, all in all, I actually wound up with two tickets to paradise this week. Which is fine by me. Turn out the coconut water’s just fine too. As for bathing suit season: best reach for a spoon and wait for the snow to stop.

Coconut Cardamom Rice Pudding
2 cups cooked coconut spiced basmati rice (recipe suggestion follows)
3/4 cup whole milk
3/4 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds removed
Pinch of salt
Zest of 1 orange
Pinch saffron
3 cardamom pods, smashed, shells removed and seeds ground
Ground pistachios (optional)

Combine rice, milk, coconut milk, sugar, vanilla bean (seeds and pod) and salt in saucepan and cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and continue to cook stirring occasionally, to make sure milk does not burn, for about 15 minutes more, until mixture thickens. Remove vanilla bean pod. Pour into cups and chill. Top with crushed pistachios if desired.

Makes about 2 cups

Coconut Spiced Basmati Rice
1 cup basmati rice, rinsed
1 1/4 cup coconut water
Pinch of saffron
8 cardamom pods, smashed, shells removed and seeds ground
Pinch of salt

Combine all ingredients, cover with a lid and bring to a boil. Once boiling, turn heat down and simmer 15-20 minutes or until all liquid is absorbed. Let sit 5 minutes before fluffing with a fork.

Makes about 3 cups

-The coconut water I had was Vita Coco's passion fruit flavor. There was only 11 ounces in the bottle I had, so I added enough plain tap water to get to 12 ounces (1 1/4 cups) for cooking the rice. I like firm rice; if you like your rice a little more moist, you could add up to 16 ounces (2 cups) liquid.

-If you'd like to add your own flavoring, I'd estimate there isn't more than 4 ounces of fruit juice in the bottle I had (judging from the grams of carbs on the nutrition label).

-Use your best judgement on the saffron; it's easy to over or underdo. I used a generous pinch, but not so generous that it made the rice taste like a dishwasher.

-I use a mortar and pestle to grind both the cardamom (and the pistachios). I also suspect my cardamom is beginning to turn and loose flavor, so you may need less than I have specified.

-Anyone humming "Two Tickets to Paradise" by Eddie Money? Anyone?


Glazing Over Resolutions with Ginger-Glazed Carrots

Carrot: n. a reward offered for a desired behavior; an inducement

Glaze: v. to give a smooth, glossy surface

At the top of a new year we tend to pause, take a step back, look ahead, and perhaps start to envision a more together life. A life in which your socks match on a regular basis, a life in which you don’t feel chronically bloated and, perhaps, a life in which you are awarded a Pulitzer.

And so the resolutions for a better being begin. Lose weight. Eat better. Improve grammar. Comb hair regularly. Marry George Clooney. These goals are nice, but nothing has really sparked any change: just a big sparkly ball dropping from the sky. Just time passing, as it always does. And so resolutions typically don't last. And even if they do, they don't ensure happiness. (Not even you, Clooney.)

Which is why I’m not really a big fan of them. I don’t despise resolutions. It’s just that they tend to be arbitrary and lofty; forced progress towards achieving a perfect version of yourself. A feat that is downright unattainable.

It brings to mind the old “carrot on a stick” routine. Boy holds a stick with a carrot tied to it. Boy dangles carrot in front of the donkey he is riding. Donkey moves to get the carrot. Carrot remains slightly out of reach. (Clooney is also famous for this, as an untamable bachelor.)

With resolutions, you often do this carrot tomfoolery to yourself. But you can also do it to others. And others can do it to you. And we can live for years like this, dangling carrots and chasing them all over the place.

So while I applaud those that manage to create thoughtful resolutions (and marvel at those that keep them), I gave my New Year’s resolutions (version 2.011) the old heave-ho. This year I want to eat my carrots instead of chase them. And decided to start in one of the most un-resolution-y ways: with butter. I also had a large quantity of ginger ale in my fridge that was taking up space and making me pretty anxious. Enter Alton Brown. Untamable in the kitchen, he had me glazing carrots with my soda surplus, and chuckling to myself at how easy it all was.

And while I won’t say these glazed carrots were perfect, they were pretty darn good. Sweet, tender, healthy—sort of—with a little gingery bite.

So I suppose if you had to pin me down to a resolution, I’d say it's to glaze over resolutions and eat more carrots. I wish you great success with all your carrots in the coming year, may there be more glazed than dangled in your days ahead.

Ginger-Glazed Carrots
Inspired by Alton Brown

2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp fresh ginger, minced
1 bunch carrots (about 1 pound), peeled and cut so that they are all about the same size
8 ounces ginger ale
pinch kosher salt
pinch coriander
pinch allspice
pinch cayenne pepper

Heat a saucepan (that has a lid) on medium heat. Add butter and ginger and stir; add carrots, ginger ale, salt and spices. Cover and bring to a simmer (this will take about 10 minutes or so). Once liquid is simmering, remove lid, stir, and reduce heat to low. Continue to cook carrots uncovered until ginger ale reduces to a glaze and carrots are tender, occasionally spooning liquid over carrots as they cook (about 10-15 minutes more).

Serves 3-4 people

-For a less sweet, fewer additive-containg beverage you could try using GuS ("Grown Up Soda") ginger ale, which can be found at Whole Foods.


Luck Be A Lentil

My family was one big walking Italian cliché over the holidays. We had 3 pies, 2 trays of cookies, and a bowl of red grapes for dessert ... for 12 people. We discussed making homemade ricotta for ravioli, as we sopped up leftover red sauce with Italian bread. We debated Aunt Marion’s meatball recipe: parsley or no parsley? We drank Chianti.

My mother even saved the red and white string I used to wrap gifts because it reminded her of the stuff they used to package old fashioned baked goodswhich she'd walk to fetch for her grandmotherat Harrison Bakery, in Syracuse. (Which, truthfully, I bought because it reminded me of the string used to tie up boxes of cannoli at Modern Pastry in the North End—Boston’s version of Little Italy.) In short, we all but broke out singing "Dominick the Donkey."

But it really hit home just how Italian my family was when I broached the tradition of making lentils on December 31st each year. Italians believe that eating lentils on New Year’s Eve provides luck for the year ahead. Since lentils are shaped like little coins and are often green in color, it’s said that they signify good fortune: a legume-backed insurance policy of sorts. And so growing up, my mother would make us lentil soup at the start of every year.

This year at the Christmas table, my grandmother piped in to say she still made lentil soup, as did my aunt, and my mom’s cousin: a tradition that my great grandmother brought over from Italy, 98 years ago.

I learned that long before I was born, it was also tradition for my grandmother to (try) to avoid the lentil soup if there was garlic in it (she doesn’t like it). My great grandmother would then enact her deny, deny, deny garlic-in-the-soup policy until someone inevitably found a large chunk. (I imagine she must have felt like her hands were tied, being handed a garlic restriction: why bother to cook at all?) She’d shrug, wrinkle her nose, and act confused as to how—precisely—the garlic got there. But she knew exactly how.

And how can you mess with a stubborn tradition like that? Though, in the interest of full disclosure, staying in on New Year’s Eve to make lentil soup—instead of drinking champagne and wearing an obnoxious amount of sequins—sounded downright depressing this year. So for good measure, I made sure to get my lucky lentils in on the eve of New Year’s Eve at Addis Red Sea, an Ethiopian restaurant in Boston’s South End. You just can’t take any chances when it comes to an entire year of prosperity. And the lentils they served were all I had hoped for: spicy and a refreshing change of pace, just what I wish 2011 to be.

But being a bit of a traditionalist—and a bit superstitious—I made sure to whip up a pot of lentil soup this week. Just in case. It couldn’t hurt to have a little added insurance; a little extra lentil currency to ensure good fortune and most definitely, unabashedly, some garlic in the coming year.

Italian Lentil Stew

1/4 cup olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp fresh thyme, minced (divided)
1 bunch carrots, diced (about 2 cups)
8 cups chicken stock, homemade if possible
2 cups lentils, preferably Puy
2 tsp fresh rosemary, minced
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
2 cups canned diced tomatoes, with slightly more tomato juice and less diced tomato
Kosher salt and pepper to taste, season throughout soup

Heat a large saucepan or dutch oven on medium heat and add olive oil. Add onions and cook until translucent, about 5-7 minutes, adding a pinch of salt as the onions cook. Add garlic and half your thyme and cook 2-3 minutes more. Add diced carrots and stir until combined. Add another sprinkle of salt and bit of pepper and cook carrots until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes more. Add stock, lentils, rosemary, allspice and red pepper flakes and cook for about 15-20 minutes. Add tomatoes/tomato juice and rest of thyme. Let cook for 10-15 minutes more and taste to adjust for seasoning. Continue to cook until lentils are soft but still retain their shape, about 10-25 minutes more.

Makes 9 cups

-The cooking time of the lentils will depend on the type of lentil you use and how old the lentil is. Adding an acid will also increase the time it takes to cook the lentils. So if you are in a hurry it may be best to forgo the tomatoes, as much as it pains me to say so.

-I am a sucker for Puy lentils. Technically, they are French. And I love them. They hold their shape wonderfully and have an almost nutty flavor. They are also charmingly dark green with little blue specks and were originally grown in the volcanic soil of Le Puy, France.

-This is definitely a recipe where you can take some major creative license. Don't dig the pine of rosemary? Use oregano. Or sage. Or whatever else you'd like. Though, it definitely helps to salt as you go with a recipe like this, adding it only at the end may make it taste more salty and not necessarily more flavorful.

-This makes a thicker, hearty soup/stew. You can always add more broth if you'd like to thin it out.

-Adding parmesan cheese will only help your cause.