Monday, July 28, 2014

Kibbe nayyeh: The meatloaf they forgot to bake

Not the actual culprit,
but you get the gist.
This picture came from here.
The kibbe nayyeh sits by itself on the counter at my husband, Brian's, family reunion, ostracized from the other food spread out on a nearby table.

I am a towering blonde Amazon in his great aunt’s kitchen, surrounded by tiny, stooped-shouldered Lebanese women who shuffle around the table loading their plates with hummus, grape leaves, Syrian bread, and a string bean dish called lubee. There’s regular baked kibbe too, a kind of Middle Eastern meatloaf stuffed with pine nuts and bulger, that’s cut into little brown diamonds.

But it’s the kibbe nayyeh that I keep stealing glances at, an oval of pink paste adorned with little sprigs of parsley stuck throughout the top.

Kibbe nayyeh is unbaked kibbe. That's right. Raw, ground meat piled onto a plate.

“That’s kibbe naye, right?” I ask a cousin. She makes a grossed-out face and nods.

“I stay away from that,” she says.

Brian said his dad, Tony, will eat anything. I made an awful, dry brick of a meatloaf once and he piled on second and third helpings, making happy, grateful sounds throughout the meal.

So it’s no surprise that Tony’s spreading a spoonful of kibbe nayyeh into a little pocket of Syrian bread. He says he always eats it. Brian’s mom, Sharon, whose parents were Lebanese and Syrian, has never tried it.

Naturally, I’m intrigued. So I ask a few Sharon questions, which are followed by vague, and not altogether reassuring, answers.
  • Does it make you sick? (No one’s ever gotten sick that I know of). 
  • What else is in it? (Onions and spices and other stuff). 
  • Is it lamb or beef? (I don’t know, ask my aunt).
“If you’re going to try it, you better get some now,” Sharon says. “It always goes fast.”

“Get me some more too,” Tony adds.

Sure enough, the pink oval on the platter is already half gone. Now it’s in the shape of a pink gravestone. I scoop a little pasty ball onto a plate, grab a few Syrian pockets, and head back to the table.

I spread the kibbe nayyeh onto a pita. I examine every centimeter of it, holding it an inch from my face. I sniff it. Yup, it’s definitely raw friggen meat.

“Just eat it,” Brian said. “Don’t think about it too much.”

So I do. It’s pasty and mild and slippery, but not bad. Pretty good actually. The onion flavor is nice, and it doesn’t have that heavy, musky taste that baked kibbe sometimes has. I fill up another pita, and Tony scoops up the rest.

“Auntie! Alex tried the kibbe nayyeh!”Sharon tells her aunt, an 80-ish Lebanese woman whose hair is still jet black and who calls everyone “angel face” or “sweetie.”

“I’m so glad sweetie,” she says, beaming. “Most people are frightened by it.”

“I was frightened,” I admit. “But it was good.”

I ask her what kind of meat it’s made of. But Auntie Alice doesn’t know either. She didn’t make it. It's from another cousin who Auntie Alice points to across the lawn: An old lady in bright blue polyester slacks whom I've never laid eyes on before. This other cousin lives in Connecticut. A trace of panic follows the kibbe nayyeh into my stomach. Raw mystery meat transported hundreds of miles by a strange old woman. Fantastic.

Tony seems unbothered by this information. He finishes the last bite.

And so, I ate raw meat.

And I’m proud of it. And it was good!

But the next day, I felt sick. Headache, rolling stomach, sweaty palms. My mind immediately jumps to the kibbe nayyeh. No! I ate RAW MEAT? Why would someone do that?

I beg Brian to find out if his dad feels OK. I start Googling information about food-borne illnesses. When Brian can’t reach his dad right away, I conclude that he’s probably already at the hospital with e. coli. Why would I eat raw meat? Why?

Brian finally talks to his dad. His dad feels fine. Come to think of it, so do I. My temperature is normal, and I’m no longer clammy. I take a swig of Pepto Bismol and get back to work.

Yes, I ate raw meat. And I lived to tell the tale.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Burrata: The It-Cheese of the Summer


I’m declaring burrata the It-Cheese of the Summer. It’s the Lupita Nyong'o of the food world: Fabulous, obsession-worthy, and suddenly everywhere.

The divine beauty that is Lupita Nyong'o.
First, what is it? Burrata tastes like the creamy, sexy love-child of ricotta and mozzarella. It’s a fresh Italian cheese with a thin, outer layer of mozzarella, and filled with a crazy-decadent mixture of rich and buttery-tasting cream and mozzarella.

I first tasted burrata last year while I was in Puglia, Italy, the birthplace of this gorgeous cheese. We ate burrata with breakfast, and I almost fainted with happiness when I first put it in my mouth. I ate it every day for a week, and then went home, heartbroken, thinking I’d never taste it again.

When I saw BelGioioso-brand burrata cheese in my neighborhood grocery store a few months ago, I did a double-take.

“Burrata, it’s you,” I thought to myself. “My long-lost love!”
Minutes later, this 4 oz. hunk of cheese was G-O-N-E.
I’ve only bought it a couple of times, because I can’t be trusted with it. Each time it’s been in the house, I’ve eaten all of it with a spoon…by myself… in a single sitting.

And now, burrata seems to have gone Hollywood. I’ve seen recipes calling for burrata cheese in a ton of magazines so far this summer: O, The Oprah Magazine; Every Day with Rachael Ray; Bon Apetit; and Redbook. And it’s not hard to see why. It’s fresh and creamy, and perfect for a summer night. It pairs equally well with honey as it does with bruschetta.

It’s perfectly acceptable to eat burrata all by itself with a little kosher salt, or spread across a hunk of crusty bread. But a nice way to serve it is atop a “salad pizza,” an idea that I adapted from Andy King, co-owner of the amazing A&J King Artisan Bakers in Salem, MA. He told me during an interview for Northshore Magazine that one of his favorite summertime suppers is a grilled flatbread topped with lettuce and a drizzle of vinaigrette.

Here’s how I interpreted his idea: I made pizza dough (store-bought is fine, too), spread it out on a baking sheet, and topped it with a mixture of:

  • About 5 tablespoons of olive oil
  • A big handful of dried parsley
  • A minced garlic clove
  • Salt and pepper
I mean, this is good all by itself, but topping it with greens and burrata cheese makes it extra yummy.

First spread the olive oil mixture evenly across the dough, and top that with a few tablespoons of grated Parmesan. Then, bake the dough at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes.

It comes out not really like pizza, but more like a very thin cheesy-herb focaccia. Cut or tear it into big pieces, top with fresh lettuce and a simple vinaigrette of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and finally, add dollops burrata cheese across the top. Season with kosher or sea salt.

OMG. YUM.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Kale fail


CSA season is finally here!

Our family signed up for a CSA for the first time this year. CSA stands for community-supported agriculture and is a kind of “farm club:” You pay up-front during the winter for a weekly share of the farm’s harvest during the summer and fall. Our CSA runs from mid-June through mid-October, so we’re in for months of farm fun.

Chloe was so excited for the veggie club to start that she woke up asking about it every morning for a week before the CSA’s kick-off. When the day finally arrived to head to the farm and pick up our first share, she was beyond excited.


I couldn’t believe the size of our half share: We got a huge bunch of kale, a head of lettuce, a bag of mesclun mix, a bunch of scallions, two massive turnips, a pint of strawberries and a jug of apple cider.
The fact that we were bringing all this fresh produce home to eat was beside the point. Just going to the farm was an awesome experience for Chloe. At the farm, she rode tire swings, ate cider donuts, watched in hushed excitement as a little duck family came waddling toward us, and fed lettuce to a flock of very hungry and excitable chickens. 


See that look on her face? That’s pure, complete, strawberry-stained joy.
Everything is right in her world. 
Everything in the share was wonderful. Everything except the kale.

That’s because I hate kale. My whole family hates kale. I know I’m supposed to love kale, this exalted and trendy superfood. It’s in smoothies and salads. There are bumper stickers and t-shirts and throw pillows imploring people to eat more of it. And yeah, I know why. WebMD says that one cup of chopped kale boasts:
·         33 calories
·         206% of your daily vitamin A needs
·         134% of vitamin C
·         684% of vitamin K
·         9% of calcium

I feel like hating it is some kind of moral failing on my part. (Although I suspect the people who say they love it are really full of shit*). But still, I try to listen to the bumper stickers and eat more kale when I’m in the mood for self-flagellation. And when kale appeared in our CSA share, I had to make use of it.

I made a kale frittata. In the frittata’s defense, this was the best incarnation of kale I’ve ever tasted. The recipe had its work cut out for it, trying its best to disguise the offending vegetable with Parmesan cheese and pepperoni. It’s not the frittata’s fault that kale is terrible.

So I served up this frittata to the fam, and was thinking, “Hey, this isn’t so bad,” even though I had to chew every bite the way a cow chews her cud. Brian choked his down without a word. Chloe on the other hand, did have a few words for the kale frittata. She ate the first few bites in silence, and then as if unable to hold it in any longer, burst into tears. This wasn’t a tantrum. This was actual, kale-induced pain.


This is a re-enactment of Chloe’s kale face.  
Chloe and I had also made strawberry-rhubarb crisp out of the berries in our CSA share, so I promised the warm, sweet dessert to anyone who could live through the frittata. Dinner played out like a culinary version of good cop-bad cop. Through her tears, Chloe somehow managed to finish almost every bite of her dinner, and I promised never to do that to her again. If kale shows up next week, I’ll call one of my alleged-kale-loving friends and give it away.

I’m so sorry, Chloe. Mommy really does love you.

*Yo, don't write to me telling me how kale is really, actually amazing, and you really do love it, and so do your kids. Lies.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Danger Zone



I’ve been scouring the internets to find the perfect picture of Kenny Loggins for this post ‘cause I have been living in the Danger Zone for weeks. Why? Butter baby. On the table. Not the fridge.

That’s right! And I’m not sorry! 

Brian gave me a gorgeous tangerine-colored Fiestaware butter dish for Christmas, and I just couldn’t bear hiding it in the fridge. I considered leaving it empty on the table, purely for decorative purposes, but a butterless butter dish struck me as unseemly. I could just picture an unwitting dinner guest happily lifting the lid, expecting to find pleasantly soft butter, and ta-da! Empty. Fooled you, sucker. 

I’ll be having none of that, thanks. I have memories of butter always just being out on the counter at the houses of older people when I was a kid, and no one ever seemed to die from butter-borne diseases. 

So I did a little searching online and found many, many enlightening things. Basically all chefs agree that storing covered butter at room temperature is totally OK. (The stiffs at the USDA say it should be stored in the freezer. Puh-leaze)

Here’s the thing: The butter I buy is made from pasteurized milk and it’s salted, making it pretty inhospitable to germs. When butter goes bad it’s because of rancidity (which can happen with any high-fat foods, including cooking oils). Rancidity is evident when butter smells and tastes icky, and this happens after about 10 days on the counter. But we are butter people in this house, and tear through sticks with wild abandon. The idea that one would last 10 days is just cray. 

So I’ve been leaving the butter out, and the result is easy spread-ability for bread and butter and easy whipping for baked goods. Come summer, I will store my butter in the fridge, for sure. Soft butter is one thing. Melted, mushy butter is quite another. But in the winter, when I’m freezing my arse off inside my house, I’m thinking the butter is OK in its pretty little dish on the table. (For friends of mine who are reading this and silently swearing that they'll never use the danger-zone butter at my house again, fear not: I also keep some in the fridge for the table-butter averse.)

So. I’m riding the highway to the danger zone. And it’s paved in room-temperature butter.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Anyone care for some ranch bacon?


My husband, Brian, is something of a ranch dressing connoisseur. He loves it, and like any aficionado, has very strong feelings about it. For instance, he feels that restaurant ranch dressing is far superior to the disgusting, bottled variety. Also, light or low-fat ranch dressing is never OK. And I will be forever grateful to him for teaching me the sublime pleasure of dipping cheesy fries in ranch dressing, especially at Denny’s after midnight.

So when Brian encountered “ranch” bacon at the renowned cheese and specialty foods shop, Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, MA, he naturally had thought he’d arrived at his mother ship.

“Hey, it says ranch bacon!” I heard him say. “Want to get some ranch bacon?”

“Yeah, sure,” I replied, but I have to admit, I was only half-listening. Chloe was practically assaulting the the poor Formaggio Kitchen employee as he gave us cheddar to sample; as soon as the pieces of cheese fell away from the block, Chloe grabbed them out of the guy’s hand and shoved them in her mouth like a rabid raccoon. I stared at her for a second in disbelieving shock before telling her to calm down and back away from the cheese monger.

We spent almost an hour picking things out, and finally bought a variety cheeses, meats, and wines. And all the way home, Brian kept talking about “ranch bacon.” Until finally I looked at him and said, “Why do you keep putting the emphasis on the ‘ranch?’”

“Because the label said ranch bacon.”

“The label said Niman Ranch Bacon…that’s the ranch where the bacon is from. It’s not ranch-flavored bacon.”

“How do you know?”

“Because there's no such thing. How would they even make ranch-flavored bacon?”

“How do they make maple-flavored bacon?”

OK, he had me there. I just shrugged, and said we’d see in the morning.

I’ll save you the suspense: The bacon wasn’t ranch flavored. Disappointment ensued. It was still really, really delish, though! Niman Ranch is known for its natural, high-quality meats, and this bacon had an amazingly rich and nuanced flavor. But still. It didn’t taste like ranch dressing. What the fuck?

What we got at Formaggio Kitchen:

Robiola Roccaverano DOP, a gym-sock smelling, bloomy-rind goat’s milk cheese from Piedmont, Italy. I was the only one who ate that one. A-mazing.

Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, the cheese that Chloe attacked the cheese monger for. We loved it alone or stacked on top of an apple slice and drizzled with honey. From Vermont.

Bayrischer Blauschimmelkase, a sweet and mild blue cheese from Germany that Chloe and I loved. The sign in the store said something like “if blue cheese could be an ice cream, this would be it,” and surprisingly, that description was pretty accurate.

Also, a wild boar salami; a salami medley; orecchiette pasta; and a bottle each of red and white wines.

And of course, the “ranch” bacon.