Monday, March 20, 2017

Rasgulla

I'm not into the whole idea that one simply eats to live, because I live to eat. That has made me an adventurous cook. While I love meatloaf and spaghetti and meatballs as much as the next person, I almost never cook them. (Besides, Neal does a much better job at both dishes than I do.) I prefer to make things that are a little more unusual than what one would expect a second generation Polish-American to make: octopus; egg foo yung; b'stilla; rasgulla.

Rasgulla is an Indian dessert, basically cheese balls cooked in a sweet syrup. I found the recipe in Chetna Makan's book The Cardamom Trail. Chetna was a contestant on the 2014 season of the Great British Bake-Off and an even more recent Christmas special. Trained as a fashion designer in Mumbai, she moved to the UK a decade or so ago where she honed her already keen talent for baking. She's known for incorporating exotic spices and international flavors into her bakes, and her creativity quickly made her my favorite contestant of the four seasons of the Bake-Off that I've seen so far. I purchased her book as a Christmas gift to myself but so far haven't made anything other than the rasgulla. Why? Because most of the recipes call for self-raising flour, and I've been too lazy to look up the conversion to regular AP flour. Plus, the house has been full of holiday baked goods and food show samples and there hasn't been room for one more pie or cake or cookie in our already oversized bellies. That said, I'm hoping to try something before it gets too warm to turn on the oven.

In the meantime, however, I did find time to make these cheese balls. No self-raising flour required, and they sounded pretty simple otherwise. They're rather unusual, in that the cheese becomes very firm and "squeaky" after cooking. I find them most pleasing when warm, but they can also be eaten at room temperature or chilled.

Rasgulla (adapted from The Cardamom Trail)

1-2 tablespoons lime juice
1 3/4 pints whole milk
Pinch saffron
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons rosewater
1 tablespoon cornstarch

Mix 1 tablespoon of lime juice with 1 tablespoon of water in a bowl and set aside. Bring the milk to a boil in a large saucepan, then turn off the heat. Add the saffron. Pour in the lime juice and stir well. Let stand for 5 minutes - the milk should curdle. If it hasn't curdled enough, add the other tablespoon of lime juice and wait a few more minutes until there's a definite separation of the curds and whey.

Place a layer of cheesecloth in a fine gauge strainer and place over a bowl. Carefully pour the curdled milk into the strainer, catching the curds in the cheesecloth and allowing the whey to drain into the bowl. Gather the ends of the cloth together and wring out as much liquid from the curds as you can. Drain the whey from the bowl, set the strainer back on top, and place the bundle of squeezed curds back in. Place a small plate on top and weight it down with a can or two to help press out any excess liquid. Allow to drain for 15 minutes.

In a wide pan, heat the sugar with three cups of water until the sugar has dissolved. Remove the syrup from the heat.

Remove the curd from the cloth. Place it on a clean surface, sprinkle with the cornstarch, and knead with your palms for 10 minutes. It will go from crumbly to soft and smooth. Roll the dough into a fat log and cut into 20 pieces. Roll each piece into a smooth ball.

Once the balls are ready, bring the syrup to a boil and add the rosewater. Add the balls, then cover the pan and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes. The rasgulla will double in size and become spongy. Turn off the heat and keep the balls in the syrup until ready to serve.

Serve warm with or chilled with some of the syrup. Leftovers can be stored in the syrup in an airtight container for up to three days.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Broccoli Cheese Soup

Most broccoli cheese soups I've had are as thick as paste and is about as tasty. The broccoli is often mushy and flatulent, well past the point of overcooked. And forget canned versions; I find them abominable.

Homemade soup, on the other hand, can be quite delicious. And no, you don't need a crock pot (not for anything in my book). Broccoli cheese soup is actually quite quick, especially if you don't roast the broccoli first. But why not? Roasting adds another layer of flavor, and it can be done while you're prepping the other veg.

There's also no need for a gloppy texture. Just don't use so much flour!

This soup is somewhat lean in that I didn't use whole milk or half and half, as some recipes call for. Much of the broth's flavor comes from bottled dry hard cider (but a light beer will also work) and chicken stock. It's roux-thickened, so there's not really any need for tons of dairy. And it doesn't need more than a cup and a half of cheese--it's not fondue, after all.

I think this soup is perfect on a cold winter day, especially like the snowy one we just had. In fact, this was dinner that very day, accompanied by hot buttered toast. It would also work well using a small head of cauliflower in place of the broccoli. Even a pound of button mushrooms, sliced and sauteed in butter, would make a good substitute for the broccoli-averse.

Broccoli Cheese Soup

2 heads broccoli
Olive oil
Salt
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
1 medium carrot, diced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup dry hard cider
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups 2% milk
4 shakes Worcestershire sauce
Freshly ground nutmeg (1/8 - 1/4 teaspoon, or to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper (as much as you like)
Tabasco sauce
6 ounces shredded sharp white cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Trim broccoli stems. Cut into small florets. Peel the stems and cut into chunks. Arrange in one layer on a foil-lined baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and a big pinch of salt. Roast for 20 minutes, or until florets start to char a bit on the edges. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

In a soup pot or dutch oven, melt the butter and stir in the flour until a paste forms. Add the carrot, pepper, and onion and cook, stirring frequently, for 3-4 minutes, until veg start to soften and everything smells good. Pour in the cider, stock, and milk and bring to a simmer. Season with the Worcestershire, nutmeg, pepper, a few shakes of hot sauce. Add the broccoli and simmer over medium-low heat for about 20 minutes, until the broccoli is tender. Stir in the cheese until melted. Season with salt to taste.

Serves 4-6

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Monday, March 13, 2017

Paulie Gee's Hampden

Baltimore has never been known for its pizza. Starting in the 70s, many restaurants serving pizza used "fresh dough" that was trucked in from a factory, so crusts were uniformly flavorless and flabby across the board. Then the big chains like Pizza Hut, Domino's, and Papa John's came in. They put out complete crap, but since they can seem like the only choices, especially for delivered pizza, people eat them anyway. There are exceptions, of course. Matthew's, in Highlandtown, claims to be Baltimore's first pizzeria (since 1943), and they are a favorite of many. There's also Pizza John's in Essex and Squire's in Dundalk (my fave), both serving tasty pies for generations. But even with a couple of decent pizzas in town, Baltimore was never going to be New York, a city where even a cheap dollar slice can be manna.

Suddenly, in the 21st Century, Baltimore has good pizza. Even some great pizza. We even have New York pizza now. Ok, technically Paulie Gee's serves Neapolitan-style pizza, but founder Paul Giannone opened his first shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The Baltimore outpost, owned by Maryland native Kelly Beckham (aka Pizzablogger), is the second franchise location outside of NY and a welcome addition to the foodie paradise that is the neighborhood of Hampden.

Paulie Gee's is all about the pizza. It's pretty much all they serve, apart from the three salads currently on the menu. We tried 'em all. Each salad features its own type of greens (spinach, baby arugula, or spring mix) with a handful of toppings and a vinaigrette. Nothing groundbreaking, but all tasty, and fine choices if diners need something green to fool themselves that they are eating healthily in a pizza joint.

Sherry Lee Lewis - spring mix, pecans, red onion, guanciale, cranberries, oloroso sherry vinaigrette.
The pizza is the real show here. We heard that the pizza crusts weren't quite perfect when the place first opened, at least not in the opinion of some of our foodie friends. Chalk that up to getting used to the ovens and all the vagaries involved in making pizza crust, from the yeast to the water to the fermenting times. Now, however, I think they have it down.

Currently the menu boasts some 34 pizzas, a baker's dozen of which are vegan. We took a vegan friend with us one afternoon to sample a couple pies. He chose the Lou Ferrigno with cashew ricotta, pecan pesto, and vegan sausage (all house-made) along with basil, grape tomatoes, and a dash of nutritional yeast. It was pretty, and the ricotta was admirably cheese-like. He seemed to think the sausage was realistically meaty, but I'm not fond of meat analogs in general.

We also had the In Ricotta da Vegan (I'm not sure if the names amuse me or make me sad) with vegan tomato sauce and more of that sausage stuff; dollops of cashew ricotta, baby arugula, and evoo are added after the pie emerges from the oven. Again, the vegan ricotta was pretty nice. Of course the real star of both pies was the crust, thin, lightly chewy, with a nice crackle and a ton of blistering.

Over two visits, Mr Minx and I tried four other pies, two with tomato sauce and two without. We ordered the Betty White, a white pie with mozz, parm, pecorino, garlic oil, and soppressata, but got the Barry White, instead which is meatless. Because our server didn't write our order down. (Why? Why? Something usually comes out wrong or not at all when people rely on their memories.)

Top: Lou Ferrigno. Left: In Ricotta de Vegan. Right: Barry White.
We also had Mo Cheeks (tomatoes, parm, pickled red onion, pecorino, guanciale)...

Mo Cheeks

...and Hot Child in the City (somewhat similar to Mo Cheeks, but the red onion isn't pickled, the guanciale is replaced with Italian sausage and rosemary, and there's a liberal dose of HOT chile oil).

Hot Child in the City
Also the Stinger Bell. Yes, they couldn't not have a fucking reference to The Wire, because, you know, that's all Baltimore is known for. At least they didn't top this white pizza with shell casings and smack. Instead, there's a clever combo of smoked mozz, basil, lemon slices, lemon bitters, and Mike's Hot Honey. Yes, it sounds totally wacky, but works well together. The lemon doesn't make the pie sour, and the honey doesn't make it sweet. Instead there's great balance with subtle smoke in the background.

Stinger Bell
Beckham, and Co. transformed the former Republican Club by exposing the brick and decorating the place with two domed pizza ovens and a ginormous stack of fire wood. The wooden chairs aren't particularly comfortable, but one doesn't linger over pizza. With those blazing ovens, they take a short time to make, and the thin crust means they get cold pretty fast. Best to eat and get out so the next pizza hungry patrons (and we are legion) can take their turn. There's also a full bar in the back with a growing list of wine, beer, booze, and cocktails (which are also available in the front).

We like Paulie Gee's a lot. The pizzas are very good, and it's a hell of a lot closer to us Towson residents than our other favorite pizza joint, Hersh's. Expect lots of pizza photos on our Instagram accounts (@minxeats and @neal.patterson).

Paulie Gee's Hampden
3535 Chestnut Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21211
410-889-1048
http://pauliegee.com/hampden/


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Friday, March 10, 2017

Daniela

We visited Daniela's original location, a tiny storefront on 36th Street, when we were writing our first book, Food Lovers' Guide to Baltimore. Today, they're in a much bigger space down the road, in one of those cute buildings with covered porches on the north side of the street. The menu has expanded, and they serve lunch and dinner 7 days a week. We had originally gone to Hampden to eat at another restaurant across the street, but at 5:15 it was already packed and unbelievably noisy. I was not willing to wait to eat potentially mediocre food with the din of clueless hipsters all around me, so we instead sought refuge in the quiet at Daniela.

I imagine Daniela can get fairly boisterous at times, too, when full, but the atmosphere was serene during our visit.

The menu is a real pastapalooza, with a few meat and fish dishes. Knowing that Daniela makes all the pasta in-house, however, made our decision to stick with starches an easy one. But first, the appetizers.

Mr Minx was intrigued by the sound of Italian crab soup, zuppa di granchio. It smelled absolutely amazing, rather like scampi, very garlicky and briny. It was absolutely nothing like the familiar Maryland-style crab, though delicious in its own way.

I had the zuppa di pomodoro, a rich creamy tomato soup that contained a ton of cheese. It was like eating a grilled cheese sandwich with a bowl of tomato soup, only without the bread. I think it would make a great lunch on a chilly day.

We also got the fritto misto, not realizing it was going to be such an enormous portion. There were three fat shrimp, a pile of calamari, and several dozen tiny baby anchovies, all delicately coated and lightly fried. The only accompaniment was lemon, so the flavor of the fish was allowed to speak for itself.

I had the saffron fettuccine with shrimp and zucchini in a tomato vodka sauce. The pasta was quite rustic, about twice as thick as any fettuccine I've had before, and cooked until fairly soft. There were three of those big fat shrimp again, but also a plethora of tiny shrimp, some as big as my thumbnail, but others as small as my pinky nail (they must have been fun to shell). The zucchini was very thinly sliced and added a pretty hint of green to the dish. The flavors were very nice, lightly tomato-y, a touch of saffron, but I wish there had been a bit more texture.

Mr Minx's scialatielli al fruitti di mare was also on the soft side, the thick pasta ribbons flavored with Pecorino and parsley. There was a plethora of seafood in the dish, including clams, enormous mussels, and more of those teensy shrimp. The dish had a stronger flavor than mine, both of tomatoes and of seafood, again very pleasing. Just a bit soft.

We couldn't finish our entrees (that fritto misto did us in) but we had to try dessert. We had eaten Daniela's fabulous tiramisu before, the cappuccino flavor, so this time we had the strawberry version. The enormous portion was definitely big enough for two, but was light and fluffy and somehow not at all heavy. While I enjoyed everything we had, dessert was my favorite.

It's nice that Daniela has moved to a larger space, so more people can enjoy her Sardinian cuisine. The food was tasty, but service was a bit...casual. We stood around at the door for a long minute before anyone noticed we were there, and while dishes came out of the kitchen at a nice pace, none of the servers seemed in any hurry to refill our water or offer us a more wine (or remove our empty glasses). Portions are large and nicely priced, and our leftover pasta made a nice dinner when reheated on a busy evening a few days later.

Daniela Pasta & Pastries
824 W. 36th Street
Baltimore, MD 21211
443-759-9320
http://www.danielaristorante.com/

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