Sunday, December 16, 2007

Pesto Pinwheel Perfection


We always try to keep a frozen spheroid of Whole Foods' whole wheat pizza dough in the freezer. When we're feeling hungry and creative, we've been known to break out the pizza stone and try a new topping or two. And recently, we've come to the realization that this pizza dough, which, unlike our attempts at homemade dough rises on command, can be used to make other kinds of bread. In particular, we thought we might make cinnamon rolls.

Cinnamon rolls are a wonderful, delicious treat, but not half as inspired as our next idea. Why not make cinnamon rolls, but stuffed with something else, say...pesto? They'd still be soft, moist, and delicious, but savory instead of sweet. And the fresh pesto's bright green color would add a nice touch to the presentation. Luckily, we had already prepared pesto in the new food processor the day before, so all we needed to do was to unfreeze the dough and find a piece of unwaxed floss (more on this below).

I've always been hesitant to try to make any of the family of rolled-up dough products after the unfortunate incident of the yule-log cake in Christmas '98 (it looked like the yule log had been the victim of Hurricane Andy). But I was confident that, as long as I didn't get in Mia's way too much, this would work.

We began by taking the dough out of the freezer and putting in the fridge for a day. What was once a small lump of dough ballooned to many times its original size, threatening to burst through its plastic bag. With a rolling pin, we pressed the dough into a flat, wide rectangle and coated it with a thick layer of pesto. Next, we carefully rolled up the dough into a long, narrow cylinder:

The fun part is using the floss to squeeze off inch-wide slices of the cylinder, each of which will eventually grow to be its own pesto pinwheel. You loop the floss around the cylinder, and then squeeze it tight until separation is achieved:

We arranged the pinwheels in a cake pan, let them rest in the warm oven for 45 minutes, and then baked them for about 30 minutes at 375 degrees F.


The result was better than we had ever dared hope. The pinwheels are just sticky enough to holds themselves together, while not be too sticky to separate from each other. Once you have one in your hand, you can unroll it or take bites from it as you please. The olive oil contributes a delightful moisture, and the combination of fresh pesto and bread smells is almost overwhelmingly pleasing. Next up - a Christmas combination of pesto and roasted red pepper pinwheels!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Lentil Buttercup Soup


It's 2pm and the snow is falling steadily here in Cambridge, so I thought it might be an appropriate time to pass along my recipe for lentil buttercup soup, another gem in the soup arsenal that is thick and hearty and perfect for a day like today (luckily we have leftovers from last night!).

This recipe is really a glorified daal with sweet and starchy chunks of my favorite squash - buttercup - tossed in. On a whim I also added some frozen spinach, to add some color and some of the good stuff that leafy green vegetables provide. I tend to make this soup spicy, with lots of Indian flavors like ginger, coriander, cumin, chili, and cardamom. If you prefer a milder soup, you can opt out of the chili, but the other spices really make this soup special. Although the squash itself is a bit sweet, the soup itself is not - it's very deep and earthy.

I've only ever tried this soup with red lentils, because they cook in the blink of an eye and turn soupy enough that there is no need for a blender in this recipe. Try it with regular brown lentils if you dare, but don't say I didn't warn you.

The recipe may seem time-intensive, because I roast the squash before adding it to the soup. However, the squash roasts in just half an hour, which is about the time it takes to chop an onion and cook your lentils. The soup is great on its own for dinner, with some bread or naan on the side, or try it as a prelude to another spicy, earthy, Indian- or Moroccan-inspired dish. Yum!


Lentil Buttercup Soup

2-3 c. (about 1 small) buttercup squash, peeled and diced in 1/2 in. chunks
1 small onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. red lentils
5 c. stock or water
1 c. chopped frozen spinach
2 tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. whole cumin seeds
salt and pepper, to taste
spices to taste: paprika, chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, garam masala, turmeric, ground ginger, ground coriander, cardamom

Directions:
Roast squash: drizzle with olive oil and season with spices, then roast in a foil-lined baking pan at 425 degrees for about 25 min., or until tender.
In soup pot, heat 2 tbs. olive oil.
Once hot, add cumin seeds and fry for a few seconds.
Add onions and season with salt, pepper, and spices. Cook until softened, about 7 min.
Add garlic and cook a few minutes more.
Add lentils, stir, add stock, and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until lentils are tender and starting to lose their shape, about 15-20 min.
Add more stock, if necessary, to achieve desired consistency. Adjust seasonings and continue cooking until lentils are soupy.
Add roasted squash and spinach, and cook until hot.
Serve with a dollop of plain yogurt.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

French Food, In Baby Steps


I'm the first to admit that I know almost nothing about French cooking. Sure, France is the birthplace of all things culinary, but it isn't really my style. Too many rules, too many "techniques." Cooking for me is much more Italian, Mediterranean, or Indian: a pinch of this, a bit of that, toss it together and dig in.

I think, though, that it is time for me to confront the French beast. I've been reading the wildly popular blog Chocolate and Zucchini, which is about as French as French can be, in my opinion. The cute creator/writer/hostess/chef, Clotilde, is petite and cheerful and loves to entice her readers with tales and photographs of butter-rich sables, creamy fig glace, and all manner of enticing tarts. I recently happened upon her cookbook (also called Chocolate and Zucchini) at a local bookstore and couldn't resist buying it. Thus my cookbook-buying bender continues, and I am obligated to add a little French flare to the kitchen.

A little frightened by the technique-heaviness and fat-filledness of Clotilde's recipes, I opted for something simple on my first go: Soft-boiled eggs. You might be thinking that this isn't really a French recipe, but wrong you are. With a name like Oeufs a la Coque, how could this recipe not be French? Also exceedingly French is Clotilde's story accompanying the recipe: a tale of a lovely French family, each with a single oeuf for Sunday dinner. Ah yes, I remember those Sunday night family dinners at my house, when we would all eat a single egg and be perfectly satisfied with our supper's simplicity. If we weren't feeling particularly ravenous we might even share two eggs between the four of us...

In all seriousness, though, this dish is just right for breakfast, brunch, or, I suppose, dinner - as long as it's not the only thing you are eating. To make the eggs, add them carefully to a pot of boiling water. When the water starts boiling again, set your timer for four minutes and cook at a gentle simmer. Immediately remove eggs, rinse with cool water, and serve in precious little egg cups, like the ones we just bought specifically for the photographs in this post.


To eat the eggs, tap a knife around the top of the egg, cracking the shell gently. Pull off this little hat of egg shell, and season with salt and pepper. Eat with a small spoon, or by dipping pieces of bread into the egg. You are bound to feel very sophisticated. Almost French, I'd say.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Mastering the Art of Eggplant: Grilled Eggplant and Zucchini Lasagna


I have always been wary of eggplants. In theory they are good; when cooked well they have a rich and smoky flavor that soaks up yummy aromas like garlic and olive oil. In practice, though, eggplants have caused me a lot of grief. I've tried roasting, but with dry and disappointing results. Frying isn't really my thing. I've used the trick of roasting the entire eggplant in the oven, but, while tasty, the finished product is a heap of mushy nightshade, suitable only for baba ganoush or another similar dish (not that I have a problem with baba ganoush).

Last night, though, I decided to tackle the infamous eggplant. My gameplan: cook it not once, but twice. If I couldn't get it soft and moist enough with one method, the second would surely do the trick. I was inspired to create this grilled and admittedly pseudo lasagna by the Griddler, a Cuisinart appliance that looks like a George Foreman grill on steroids. You can open the device to a 180-degree angle, allowing for a fairly large and grill-like cooking surface. My idea was to grill slices of eggplant and zucchini, and layer them with ricotta, tomatoes, and spinach. Thus the grilled lasagna was born.

I started the dish by marinating the vegetables for a few hours in some oil, vinegar, and garlic. I then grilled them, making sure they got golden brown and soft. The zucchini was pretty self-explanatory, but the trick with the eggplant was to flip each slice several times, brushing them with leftover marinade to prevent them from getting too dry.

Once grilled, the eggplant were still a little tough on the inside, but the baking completely cured that problem. The finished lasagna, though a bit watery (due to a lack of carbohydrate, I suspect), was flavorful and quite tasty - and even tastier the next day. The picture above is of a day-old piece, which sliced nicely. As you can see below, though, the finished product didn't hold up to a fork quite as well as a traditional lasagna might.


In any case, this lasagna is chock-full of vegetables and is perfect with pasta or a thick slice of bakery bread. It would make a terrific sandwich, too - similar in structure to traditional eggplant parm, but without giant globs of cheese and greasy pools of oil left on your plate. A few tips: baby spinach obviates the need for chopping, which is always a plus. I always have success with small eggplants, like the Italian or baby varieties. Finally, splurge for the whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes (sold at Whole Foods for $2.89 per can). They are unusually delicious, and big, juicy chunks of them add great texture to this dish (see below).


Grilled Eggplant and Zucchini Lasagna

2 large zucchinis
2 small (Italian) eggplants
5-6 c. loosely packed baby spinach leaves
1 small onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 large can whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 1/2-2 c. fat-free ricotta (or use part-skim or whole)
1 tbs. olive oil
oregano, basil, salt, and pepper to taste
parmesan, for sprinkling
mozzarella, for sprinkling
1/2-3/4 c. marinade for vegetables (mix olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Italian seasonings, salt, pepper, garlic, and lemon juice according to your preference)
Directions:
Prepare Vegetables:
Slice zucchini and eggplant lengthwise into thin slices; salt and pepper them.
Pour marinade over vegetables, and let sit for about 2 hours.
Heat a grill or grill pan, and grill vegetables, allowing them to get brown and soft.
For eggplant, flip several times, brushing with marinade with each flip.
Prepare Sauce:
Heat oil in a medium saucepan and add onions and garlic.
Season and saute until soft.
Add spinach and continue to cook until wilted and water has evaporated.
Add chopped tomatoes and cheese, stirring and cooking until combined.
Adjust seasonings and remove from heat.
Assemble and Bake Lasagna:
Spread a few tablespoons of sauce in the bottom of a small rectangular or circular glass dish.
Begin layering vegetables, placing a layer of eggplant, then more sauce, then a layer of zucchini, and so on until vegetables and sauce are used up.
Top final layer with mozzarella and parmesan, and bake at 350 degrees for 30-4o minutes. If top is browning too quickly, cover with foil.
Finish under the broiler for about 3 minutes, until cheese is browned and bubbly.
Lasagna is best served the next day, as the chilling helps it set nicely.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Secret Ingredient Hot Cocoa



I used to think of hot chocolate as something that I really, really looked forward to when I was backpacking. Of course, the thing about backpacking is, when you get home, you realize that all those special backpacking treats - the 5-day-old gouda on stale pita, the 151-proof rum mixed with tang served in an unwashed mug that recently held coffee and lasagna, and yes, the hot chocolate served over the remnants of last night's mashed potatoes - just don't seem as delicious when you return to civilization. They all go straight into the trash, to be bought again in 358 days. Hot cocoa was a backpacking delight, and perhaps as a result, it had no place in my normal life. That was until Mia made us homemade hot cocoa recently.

Mia and I were enjoying ourselves, sitting at the table with my friend Josh and his girlfriend Andrea. When Mia suggested homemade hot chocolate with amaretto as a dessert drink, I readily agreed, but I didn't think about it too carefully. Josh and I continued our self-indulgent discussion about the secret lives of famous economists while Mia tended to the stove just beyond my field of vision. She soon placed the mug in front of me, but not until I put it to my lips did I recognize, finally, the enormousness of the moment.

Homemade hot cocoa is to Swiss Miss as raw milk cheese illegally imported from France is to Cheese Wiz, as 1982 Chateau Margot is to Thunderbird. The only remotely comparable experience was when, in high school, my Venezuelan friend Adrienne gave me a cup of her mother's homemade hot cocoa. That particular cocoa tasted like a melted bar of chocolate - it was incredibly flavorful, rich and thick. But it turns out it was missing something - a secret ingredient or two.

Mia made the cocoa in two ways - a more traditional version with cocoa powder, and one inspired by the South American tradition known in Argentina as submarino, which is milk served hot with a chocolate bar. Both drinks begin with heating skim milk. Then you add the chocolate, either in the form of powder or a bar. Finally, you flavor it with cinnamon and vanilla. Feel free to omit these secret ingredients for the "classic" hot cocoa experience, but we think that you'll find that vanilla and cinnamon elevate hot cocoa to new highs.

Secret Ingredient Hot Cocoa

1 c. milk
1 1/2 tbs. unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Ghirardelli's or another high quality brand)*
1 1/2 tbs. sugar*
dash of vanilla extract
generous shake of cinnamon
splash of amaretto

Heat milk over medium heat in a small saucepan. Add cocoa and sugar, stir or whisk to remove lumps and combine. Add cinnamon and vanilla. Continue stirring until hot. Pour into mug and top off with amaretto. Serves 1 and leaves others jealous.

*Note: For submarino-style hot chocolate, substitute about an ounce of bittersweet chocolate for the cocoa powder and add sugar to taste.


Sunday, December 2, 2007

Thanksgiving Redux

Due to popular demand, I thought I'd post about my most recent culinary adventure: cooking for Thanksgiving at my parents' house in Westford, Massachusetts. Luckily for me, I was put in charge of everything from turkey to dessert, and didn't stop baking/brining/cooking/roasting from Tuesday evening until mealtime on the big day.

I won't bore you with the all the turkey-day details, since most of you have probably moved on from T-day to bigger holidays at this point. However, I'll give you a brief rundown of the menu, some important tips that I discovered while preparing it, and my favorite picks. And for your enjoyment I offer a mental image (no photos were taken, unfortunately): I decided to brine my 12-lb. turkey, which meant a whole lot of wrestling with my raw little bird, trying to get it just right in the brining bag and the big, plastic bin I had readied for the job. Twelve pounds only seems small - trust me, it was a struggle.

So, here is my menu:
Curried butternut soup with wild rice
Fennel and orange salad with black olives
Smashed peas with mint and walnuts
Roasted, Indian-spiced sweet potatoes with chick peas
Sauteed brussels sprouts with shallots and chestnuts
Turkey, brined and basted with butter and riesling
Cornbread stuffing with apples and chestnuts
Cranberry-fig sauce
Carrot and sage cornbread mini-muffins
Pumpkin mascarpone pie
Chocolate amaretto torte with candied almonds
Vegan apple tart
Almond biscotti

The most notable aspect of my cooking experience was brining the turkey. I followed a Martha Stewart recipe for the brine and for the roasting process itself, which involved unheard-of amounts of butter and an entire bottle of white wine. The turkey was indeed moist and incredibly delicious, although I must admit that I'm not convinced that this was due to the brining process. Since roast turkey is something I have only once a year, it's hard for me to accurately assess the value of the brine, but my mom also suspects that an equally delicious turkey can be had without the wrestling involved with brining.

As for the rest of the menu, my big tip is not to do brussels sprouts for Thanksgiving. I love brussels sprouts, but they are really best eaten fresh - directly after sauteing or roasting. Unless your Thanksgiving schedule allows for immediate eating (mine didn't, and the result was slightly bitter sprouts), I'd say save the sprouts for more laid-back occasions.

What were the favorites, you might be wondering? My favorite dish was probably the soup, but as has previously been established, I am obsessed with all things squash. My aunt Caren raved about the sweet potatoes, which were moist, spicy, and a nice change of pace from traditional Thanksgiving sweet potato dishes that are loaded with butter, cream, and sugar. The cornbread stuffing (made with homemade cornbread) was also a hit. The apples were the perfect touch. Two more of my personal favorites were the cranberry-fig sauce and the cornbread mini-muffins.

I made the cranberry sauce with fresh cranberries, red wine, a splash of balsamic vinegar, and dried black mission figs. I also added a tiny bit of orange juice, and seasoned it with cinnamon sticks and cloves. The flavors were strong and just barely sweet enough, and the leftovers were perfect smeared on crackers...or straight from the Tupperware. The mini-muffins were a last-minute idea, and I improvised the recipe. Fresh sage and a bit of parmesan cheese made for cute and savory little morsels, which went well with the soup.

And then there was dessert. The pumpkin mascarpone pie, which I took straight from Bon Appetit's Thanksgiving issue, was hands-down the best pumpkin pie I have ever had. I made the crust, and my sister Emma made the filling. The chocolate amaretto torte was also a hit. It turns out that you can't go wrong with high-quality chocolate, absurd amounts of butter, and liquor. Who knew? I, however, am partial to the biscotti, because I can eat an infinite amount of them and not feel like barfing. Not so with the torte. Trust me.

Oh, and the apple tart: My cousin Matt, who eats vegan, came for dessert, so I needed a Thanksgiving sweet that did not include butter, eggs, cream, or chocolate. Yikes. I bought a vegan pie crust from Whole Foods (shh, don't tell anyone!), let it thaw until pliable, and used it as the base for a free-form apple tart made with honeycrisp apples. It was incredibly simple, and turned out quite well.

So, there it is: Thanksgiving 2007. I can hardly wait for next year.

Gators, Pythons, and Bears Oh My!

I have blogged in the past about Savenor's, a famous little market on Kirkland St. in Cambridge that sells rare meat. The venison tenderloin that I declared to be the most delicious meat I had ever eaten was a Savenor's treat. I returned to Savenor's with some friends on Friday with more ambitious goals than venison - bear and wild boar. I also secretly hoped for some moose after reading John McPhee's description in the food issue of the New Yorker a few months back.

Unfortunately, our wildest gastronomic dreams were not to be met. While some grayish bear meat was available in the freezer to the tune of $50/lb, there was none in the fridge. I didn't see any moose at all. We were tempted momentarily by rattlesnake, farm-raised python (Ian now wants to be a python and bear farmer), and gator, but the meat looked far from appetizing. We settled on a French rack of wild boar and a hunk of venison loin. The crazy guy behind the counter declared that "venison is the tastiest treat in the world. Besides possum." I didn't know whether to laugh or engage him in conversation, so I awkwardly tried to do both, or neither. We paid our $45 and left for Chris's, whose barbecue (unlike ours) was ready to see some action.

Chris barbecued the wild boar after salting it and painting it in olive oil, while I mistakenly chose to pan fry the venison instead of throwing it on the grill next to the boar. Perhaps because the venison was a loin as opposed to a tenderloin, perhaps because I was lucky last time, or perhaps for some other reason, the venison was all but inedible. It seemed to be made up of two different and unfortunate animals haphazardly forced to coexist in one loin. The outer layer was mostly fat and gristle, and everyone in the room not allergic to salmon agreed that it tasted sort of like a really bad piece of salmon. The inner layer tasted more like a sick deer.

The boar was more successful. It had a nice, smoky, wild taste, and some of us (like Chris, below) ate it the way it was meant to be eaten (not me, I like knives):


In the end, we were glad to have tried it - mostly for the story-telling value - but won't be racing back for more any time soon. The prospect of fresh bear, though, might warrant a third trip to Savenor's.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Leeky Lemon Risotto


Risotto is one of those dishes that I always wanted to try, but never had an excuse to make. It is just rich enough (rice, butter, cheese) and time-consuming enough (so much stirring!), that I would always reserve it for a special occasion. But alas, when any such occasion arose, I never thought of it. My tale is one of culinary opportunities squandered...

Until now. Browsing a few new cookbooks, I discovered a couple of different recipes for risotto. Not just any risotto, though: barley risotto. Instead of using arborio rice, these recipes called for barley, which satisfies my requirement of eating lots of delicious whole grains. Mmmmm, whole grains!

So, I put an end to the flip-flopping that would often occur in the rice and grain aisle of Whole Foods, and hit the bulk bins for some barley. Tonight, we were going to have risotto.

The risotto I made was inspired by a few different recipes; a couple for barley risotto, and one for regular risotto. I wanted something full of flavor and with a little vegetable to boot, and that is how Leeky Lemon Risotto was born. The risotto came out beautifully, and the barley was perfect. It has more character than arborio, but the flavor and toothsomeness of it fit well with the other flavors in the dish. Hot out of the pan, it was filling, creamy, and rich - without actually being that creamy or rich. We had it with swordfish, which was a lovely complement, but it could also be a meal in itself, especially if you add some chopped chicken or shrimp.

A few notes on making the risotto: Barley is a whole grain, and takes a bit more time than regular arborio rice to cook. Ours took about 40 minutes, and yes, almost constant stirring and checking is necessary during this time. Like arborio, though, barley becomes very starchy when cooked, which lends this dish the creaminess found in traditional risottos. Although I haven't tried making risotto with brown rice or other grains, I would guess that barley is closest to the real deal, at least in terms of texture. The great thing about any risotto is that you can add just about anything you want (or whatever you happen to have in the fridge). Herbs are especially easy to substitute. We used fresh tarragon in our risotto, but thyme, chervil, parsley, or basil would also be delicious. Here is my recipe:

Leeky Lemon Risotto

4-6 c. chicken stock
1/2 c. white wine
1 c. pearled barley
1 large leek (white part only), chopped
2 shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. butter
1-2 tbs. lemon juice
grated zest of 1 lemon
1-2 tbs. chopped fresh herbs
2/3 c. frozen peas
salt and pepper, to taste

Heat oil and butter in a medium-large saucepan. Add shallot, garlic, and leeks, and saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, heat stock in a pot and keep at a gentle simmer.
Add barley to saucepan, stirring to coat with oil, and saute for another 2-3 minutes, until barley is shiny.
Add white wine, stirring until almost completely absorbed.
Now the fun part: start adding hot stock to the barley. Add by the ladle-ful, stirring to incorporate. When stock has almost been absorbed, add another ladle-ful. Repeat until barley is just about cooked. Barley should be tender, but not completely mushy. This process should take about 30-40 minutes. Patience.
When barley is just about cooked through, add frozen peas, stirring until they are heated through.
Finally, add your seasonings: lemon juice, zest, herbs, and a dash more salt and pepper. If you want a slightly richer risotto, stir in some butter, a splash of cream, or some grated parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Home-Made Ravioli


Last weekend, Mia and I house-sat for her parents, so we had a large kitchen and a lot of time on our hands. She suggested, and I readily agreed, that we make our own ravioli. I've always been curious about fresh pasta, and fresh ravioli in particular - what is pasta made from? How do you turn pasta dough into ravioli? Why is it so delicious? Whenever I claim that pasta is made from wheat, I am corrected because it's actually made from semolina. But as it turns out, semolina is actually just a type of wheat. It is the inner, starchy endosperm of durum wheat. According to the package, semolina contains an unusually large amount of gluten, which is why you can stretch it and shape it so much without its breaking up.

Satisfied with that, we moved on to the production process. Mia put the dough together (a cup of semolina, a cup of whole wheat flour, and three eggs; next time we might try a pinch of salt and a splash of olive oil) and kneaded it. Next came the fun part: rolling. Pasta is usually made with a pasta machine, which does all the dirty work for you by mechanically or electrically rolling the dough into long, lovely, paper-thin sheets. Lacking such a device, Mia rolled it out by hand with a rolling pin, which, in addition to serving as her upper-body strength training for the week, produced charmingly (?) and irregularly shaped pieces of dough. The sheets were then cut into ravioli-sized squares.


We prepared three fillings - ground lamb with mint, buttercup squash with ricotta, and mushrooms and walnuts with sage, sherry, and goat cheese. We filled them - a dollop of filling in the middle, wet the edge of the pasta dough with water, and fold it over and push the ends together until they stick. Then we cooked them, 4-5 minutes in boiling water.

The result was delicious. The pasta itself was tasty, chewy, and fresh. The ground lamb wasn't much of a success, but the other two fillings were superb. Mia's favorite was the squash (she's obsessed with squash), and my favorite was the mushroom-walnut - savory, earthy, and nutty. Overall a success, if rather labor-intensive. Next time we'll tweak the dough. Or make pizza instead.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Skillonnet

[Or, A Sonnet About My Skillet]

Pre-seasoned did she come, to my delight;
Black and sturdier than I expected.
I tore her packing quick to cook that night,
Pans and Pyrex were to be neglected.

Serenely in the oven she preheated,
Whilst I cracked eggs with glee that knew no bounds.
To what a treat my guests would soon be treated,
Rumors of cornbread now making the rounds.

Needless to say it was success unmatched,
The skillet days had only just begun.
Frittatas slide out with no egg attached,
Pancakes and faina cook just until done.

Oh, ferrous vessel why aren’t you endemic?
Especially for us who are anemic?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Avgolemonissimo


I know what you're thinking - yet another soup. We basically subsist completely on soup at this point, given the fresh chill in the air and the infinite possibilities of warm, liquid deliciousness. I was planning to post about some other culinary adventures that we've taken recently, but this avgolemono soup that we made tonight was so incredibly delicious that I couldn't wait to share the recipe. Jonathan exclaimed, after polishing off a heartily-sized bowl: "I think that might have been the best soup I've ever had." The picture above was a success in terms of photography, but to be honest, this isn't the most beautiful thing you'll ever eat. Whether it is the most delicious, though, only you can decide.

The soup - avgolemono - is a classic Greek soup made with rice, eggs, and lemon; although we've added some odds and ends to make it a bit healthier and heartier. The recipe below could probably serve 4, but we had it on its own for dinner and were only left with one wee bowl's worth of leftovers. You could serve it with nice crusty bread or a green salad, but, if you don't feel like the extra work, it's fine and complete on its own. Despite wishing I had homemade stock on hand, we used Whole Foods brand and were quite pleased with the results. Without further ado:

Avgolemonissimo (Greek Egg-Lemon Soup With a Twist)

6 c. chicken stock
1/2 c. uncooked brown rice
1 split, boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 egg
3 tbs. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
1 carrot, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped coarsely
1 c. finely chopped chard or spinach
2 green onions, chopped
generous freshly-ground black pepper

Bring stock almost to a boil in a large pot. When it is barely boiling, add rice, garlic, carrot, white parts of green onions (save the green parts for garnishing), and whole chicken breast. Cover and simmer over low-medium heat for about 20 min., or until chicken is cooked through. Once chicken is completely cooked, remove from soup and shred with a fork to get bite-sized pieces. Return to soup and continue simmering until rice is soft, about 20 min. more. Meanwhile, beat egg with freshly-squeezed lemon juice until blended. When rice is done, ladle a bit of hot soup into egg mixture and whisk vigorously to temper the egg. Don't let the egg scramble. After whisking for a few seconds, add egg to soup, and whisk some more to avoid scrambling. Continue to cook over low heat (don't let the soup boil) for a few more minutes, just until the soup is thickened. Add chopped chard and stir to wilt. Ladle into deep bowls and garnish with green onion.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Moroccan-Spiced Carrot Bread


I love drinking tea. Jonathan and I have tea at least twice a day, in the morning and at night, and usually a few times in between. For me, though, having tea is often more about the delicious goodies that go along with it. Yes, I love tea just as it is, but I'm not going to complain if it happens to come with a crunchy biscotti or a thick slice of moist tea cake.

We posted a few times about pumpkin bread, which is the ultimate in tea cake-like creations. Even so, you can't have pumpkin bread all the time (can you?), so I've been forced to branch out with my sweet quick-breads. Sure, I enjoy the standards: banana, banana-walnut, zucchini, gingerbread...but it's always fun to try something new.

Hence my Moroccan-spiced carrot bread, a recipe inspired by a classic Moroccan carrot salad. I love the combination of sweet and spicy in Moroccan food, and carrots with raisins and spices seemed like it would be as good in loaf-form as in salad-form. The first time I tried this recipe, I was so bold as to add cumin to the batter. I've omitted it from this version because I thought it was just a tad too much, but if you are feeling adventurous, you might want to give it a try (just a pinch or two, though). The bread is still decidedly sweet, but the combination of lemon, almond, carrots, and raisins provides a very interesting (and addictive) flavor.

This loaf is incredibly moist, reasonably healthy, and perfect both for dessert and for breakfast the next day. The only time-consuming part is shredding and draining the carrots. I drained them with cheesecloth, but a good hard press in the colander should be fine. Fluff the carrots with a fork after draining, to make mixing easier. A couple of quick notes: I used whole wheat pastry flour, which is finer and lighter than regular whole wheat flour. I also used baby food, which is smoother and provides more flavor options (like apricot or prune) than applesauce. Don't get too freaked out; it's just pureed fruit, I promise. Here is the complete recipe:

Moroccan-Spiced Carrot Bread

1 1/2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. honey
2 eggs
1 4-oz. jar apple-apricot baby food
1/4 c. olive oil
2 c. shredded, drained, and fluffed carrots (about 4 carrots)
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
3 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. cloves
1/4 tsp. paprika or cayenne
1 tbs. grated lemon zest
3/4 tsp. almond extract
2/3 c. raisins

Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder, and spices into a large bowl. In a separate bowl, mix eggs, sugar, honey, baby food, olive oil, and almond extract thoroughly (Tip: Use the same measuring cup for the oil and the honey. Measure oil first, then honey. When you pour the honey, it won't stick to the cup). Add the carrots and raisins. Mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just until combined, being careful not to overmix. Pour batter into a greased loaf pan and bake at 375 F for 45 min.-1 hr., until tester inserted into center comes out clean. Pumpkin bread is good when slightly undercooked, but you want to cook this bad boy all the way through.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

For Novelty's Sake

Anybody who knows me well knows that I adore any and all things miniature. If it's tinier than it should be, it's right up my alley. When I go to ice cream shops, I surreptitiously save my taster-sized spoon, rejecting the gargantuan utensil plopped into my final order. There is just nothing cuter than something mini. So, imagine my delight (and child-like squeals) when I happened upon a crate of lady apples while perusing the aisles of our local Whole Foods.

I had never heard of, or seen, lady apples until that joyful moment, and unhesitatingly dumped a few handfuls into a produce bag. There was no deliberation; not so much as a glance at the price or even an inspection of the individual fruits themselves. Who knows if I even needed apples in the first place? This was a novelty purchase.

A few days later I was standing in the kitchen, minuscule fruit perched between thumb and finger, munching carefully on my precious little apple. Jonathan's roommate asked me what kind of freakish thing I was eating. "Oh, it's a lady apple." To which she posited, "Well, why are you eating it like that?" And I, defensively: "It's so small that there isn't really much flesh...you have to be careful or you'll bite through the core."

And then, her naive response: "I guess you can't really buy food just for the novelty..."

Can't buy food for the novelty? What is this, the Soviet Union? Of course you can buy food for the novelty. Indeed, novelty is one of my primary purchase motivations for half of the things I buy. Certainly I am not defending myself on the grounds of practicality or common sense; I once had lofty dreams of turning my wee lady apples into dinner party-appropriate caramel confections, but that didn't exactly happen. And yes, that marinated feta with the capers and herbs is still in the fridge, lonely and half-eaten, its novelty having worn off some.

But if you think you are both reading this food blog and living in a world in which true practicality actually matters, I think we all know that you are kidding yourself. Novelty foods, and, I suppose, other novelty items, are exciting, sometimes delicious, and at the very least, potential conversation starters. Why not indulge?

A couple of weeks ago, we bought famed Italian farro (an ancient whole grain) for the first time. At $7 per pound, it isn't exactly staple material, but, as Jonathan so aptly pointed out in his last post, how can you resist anything the Italians do? If they eat farro, I'll try it at least once. I would have bought it if it had cost $20 per pound (maybe). Perhaps I am just more culinarily curious than most, but the novelty of novelty goods hasn't quite worn off for me yet. I'll take a meal of microscopic, fleshless fruit and toothsome ancient grains over meat and potatoes any day.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Coffee Roasting I

When worked at Analysis Group, before I drank coffee, I used to listen wide-eyed to the VPs' tales of home coffee roasting. Steven Shurmann had just convinced AG to shell out for a fancy in-office espresso maker, with built-in water filters and surely more than the standard 15 bars of pump pressure, and he and Armando brought freshly roasted beans from their homes every Monday morning. Coffee roasting appealed more to my aesthetic sense of the good life than to my tastebuds.

But then, that fateful night when I first started to study hard for the microeconomics general exam (a big test grad students take at the end of their first year) a few years ago, I decided to give coffee another try. Maybe it was several years worth of beer bitterness, or maybe it was simply my more advanced age, but that night, the free coffee at the Bureau (National Bureau of Economic Research, where I have a desk) actually tasted sort of good. It wasn't long before I ordered my own coffee roaster (I went with the economical Fresh Roast) and sample pack of green beans.

In this post I will describe the basic roasting process. When I do my cupping later this week or early next week (depending on when the beans arrive), I will talk about comparing different roast styles and different coffees. The beans arrive (from the ubiquitous sweetmarias.com) processed but unroasted. They are green and have a faint earthy smell totally unlike the smell of roasted coffee. Here, for example, is a picture of my new India Anohki beans ("a rare and intense coffee, odd blueberry sweetness and hidey, rustic chocolate, low acidity, bizarre!").

The unroasted beans can survive at room temperature for years.

To roast, you throw the beans in the roaster, which is really just a glorified popcorn popper (with a special basket for the chaff - during roasting, the beans shed their outermost layer). They slowly turn a light brown, and you smell a popcorny smell. Then they start to crackle - the "first crack" is loud and assertive.


As they get darker in color after the first crack, the smoke becomes stronger and smells a little bit more like the coffee smell we're used to. A light roast is stopped before the second crack, which is characterized by more frequent but less powerful crackling noises. Here's a darker roast, which I stopped about 15 seconds into the second crack:


After the second crack, there's a lot of smoke, and you're getting into French and Spanish Roast territory. If you get to the mythic and dreaded third crack, head to Peet's after desperately waving a towel under the smoke detector to ward off the fire department's expensive and probably unnecessary visit.

My sources vary on how long you should wait to drink the coffee after it's roasted, but it's certainly no more than on the third morning after roasting. I'm beginning to believe in the roast-10-minutes-before-you-drink model, which my new coffee roasting book attributes to the Italians. I can't resist anything the Italians do.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Stew's On, Too

Just about as soon as I finished singing the praises of hearty soups, another recipe idea popped into my head - this one was a stew. If soup is the perfect thing to warm you up on a chilly fall night, then there is simply no word to describe the ecstasies of stew. Like soup, but heartier, chunkier, and unabashed in its ability to showcase the variety of tastes and textures it contains.

The stew we came up with tonight featured chicken, beans, and white yams - a variety I had never tried before, but which proved to be quite delicious. It was a Friday night of cooking and experimenting; we were working on a few new, more complicated recipes, and the stew was our quick and easy dinner. It also turned out to be the star of the evening, as it were. This recipe was inspired by a dish I had in Argentina, which consisted of brown lentils, stew meat, bacon, and batatas - a South American sweet potato varietal. Anyone who knows me well knows that this is not my typical dish. I'm not exactly a "bacon" kind of girl. So, while this dish was tasty enough to inspire this recipe, most will not be surprised to find that I use the term "inspire" quite loosely here. No bacon. Sorry.

As it turns out, this dish is really not at all like the lentil stew I ate in South America, but it is indeed delicious. I used a host of canned ingredients, but if you are feeling inspired, you can do everything fresh (though it is largely unnecessary, in my opinion). I do maintain, however, that roasting the pepper and yam before adding them to the stew is essential; it provides a smoky, deep flavor that can't be achieved by sauteing. The most time-consuming step is boiling the chicken, which we did in a separate pot of water instead of in the stew base itself. I chose this method so that I could boil the chicken breast skin-on and bone-in, and so that I could shred the chicken before adding it to the stew. I prefer the texture of the shredded chicken to big chunks of chicken, and I think it makes for moister, more tender meat. The added bonus, of course, is the big Tupperware of homemade chicken soup now sitting in the freezer; instead of a lonely chicken-only boil, we added some carrots, parsnips, celery, onion, and parsley to the water. We also added a few cupfuls of this stock to the stew, which gave it a lovely rich flavor.

If we hadn't been making a million other things this evening, we most certainly would have whipped up a batch of homemade skillet cornbread to accompany the stew. The two would make such a perfect match that we may just pull out the old skillet tomorrow to make a batch to go with the leftovers (which are abundant). Rice or corn tortillas would also be nice on the side. Here's the recipe:
Roasted Sweet Potato and Chicken Stew

1 whole bone-in, skin-on chicken breast
1 large white yam, garnet yam, or sweet potato
1 15-oz. can pinto beans (undrained)
1 15-oz. can fire-roasted diced tomatoes (try Muir Glen brand)
1 red pepper, roasted and peeled
1 c. fresh, frozen, or canned corn kernels
1 small can green chilies
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbs. olive oil
seasonings to taste: salt, pepper, cumin, adobo, chili powder, etc.

Chop the chicken breast in half, leaving skin on and bones in. Boil in salted, seasoned water until cooked through, about 20 min. Remove from pot (reserve cooking liquid), remove the skin, and shred off the bone with a fork. Meanwhile, roast the yam and the red pepper. Peel and dice the yam (1/2 in. dice). In a foil-lined roasting pan, toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, chili powder, and cumin. Roast in the oven for half an hour or so, until the yam is golden and tender. Roast the pepper over the flame of a gas burner, or under a broiler until skin is charred. Let cool, peel off the charred skin, and dice the now naked pepper. Now start the stew: heat olive oil in a heavy saucepan, then add onions and garlic. Saute until softened. Add tomatoes, beans, corn, and green chilies. Bring almost to a boil, and then add chicken, diced pepper, and roasted sweet potatoes. Add chicken stock as necessary so that there is enough liquid to cover. Season stew. Cover pan and let simmer until everything is hot and flavors have blended, about 10-15 min. Serve in wide bowls with cornbread, rice, or tortillas.



Thursday, November 1, 2007

Soup's On

As soon as the weather starts to turn chilly, there is nothing I love to eat more than a big bowl of hearty soup. In fact, even when the weather isn't so chilly, there is nothing I love more than a big bowl of hearty soup. I'll admit that I've been crafting pots of thick, vegetable-filled soup since late August. The fun really starts now, though, when hefty winter squashes and smoky roasted root vegetables are the stars of the season.

I mentioned in a previous post that I had experimented with pumpkin wild rice soup, and I am still working on getting a recipe that is just right. I have even been informed that I may be receiving, via mail, some fresh Minnesotan wild rice. So, I'll postpone that particular soup until further notice.

However, I thought I would share a couple of delicious vegetable soup ideas - nothing too fancy - that have crept their way into our dinner repertoire lately. For all of these soups, I tend to toss in whatever catches my eye when grocery shopping, so don't be alarmed by the lengthy ingredient lists. The great thing about soups is that you can add anything you want, and it always (well, almost always) turns out spectacularly. I haven't included step-by-step instructions, but have noted anything noteworthy. Always start by sauteing the mirepoix (here it's onion, carrot, and celery), and you'll be fine. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Late Summer Vegetable Soup (a bit out of season, but still yummy)

onions, carrots, and celery
fresh or frozen corn kernels (cooked)
peas or fresh broad beans, if available
zucchini
buttercup or butternut squash
handful of fresh parsley
seasonings - salt, pepper, cumin, turmeric, paprika, etc.

Make sure to allow enough cooking time if using fresh beans. Puree corn and parsley together until creamy to provide a thickening base for the soup. Puree other vegetables to achieve desired chunkiness.

Mushroom Wild Rice Soup

onion, carrots, and celery
mix of wild mushrooms - cremini, oyster, button, shiitake
chicken broth
zucchini
peas
cooked wild rice
seasonings - salt, pepper, sage, bay leaf, garlic, etc.

Add vegetables first, then puree before adding mushrooms and rice. Saute the mushrooms separately before adding to the soup.

Tuscan-Style Vegetable Soup

onion, carrots, and celery
1 can crushed tomatoes, with juice
stock or broth
starchy vegetable, such as potato or squash
cannellini beans
peas
chard, spinach, or kale
roasted or crushed garlic, left in chunky pieces
seasonings - salt, pepper, basil, oregano, parsley, bay leaf, etc.

Start by sauteing the flavor base, then add tomatoes and stock. Cook squash or potato in soup until tender, then add peas, canned beans, and leafy green. Serve ladled over day-old crusty bread, or add orzo.

More inventive soups on the way, but this should hold you over for now.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Question From My Mother

Well, lucky me - I have another cooking question to answer, this time from my mother. She writes:
I made oven-baked fries seasoned with fresh dill, oregano, pepper, and kosher salt. I tossed with olive oil. Still, I thought they were bland and not at all like the Greek-style fries that I love. Ideas? Probably fresh garlic would do the trick?
I love oven-baked fries, and we used to get them at a fantastic, family-run Greek restaurant near our house when I was at home. They always sliced the potatoes lengthwise in wide, flat oval-shaped sheets, maximizing surface area for a tangy and heartily-seasoned treat.

But, back to the question at hand: Yes, I think you are quite right that fresh garlic would make the fries more robust. I would approach these like a Greek-seasoned crouton; creating an olive-oil based mixture to brush over each potato slice. In this case, since you are going for Greek, I would keep the oregano but forget the dill. Dill can be nice, but it won't really go with the garlicky taste that you are after here. Instead, I would replace it with another Greek flavor, such as dried mint, or maybe parsley.

I would also recommend adding some lemon juice to your spice and oil mixture. This will definitely impart some Greek-ness to your fries. Here is my recommendation, in rough recipe form:
Oven-baked French Fry Dressing

1/4 c. olive oil
2-3 pressed garlic cloves
generous kosher salt and freshly-grated black pepper
dried oregano and mint to taste
2 or so tbs. lemon juice

Whisk ingredients together thoroughly, and spread on potato slices using a kitchen brush.

Let me know how they turn out next time!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Peas in a Pesto

For most of my life, I was firm in my stance on peas: I hated them. I picked them out of my samosas; rejected them steamed or boiled, fresh or frozen. And then, last year, I had the great fortune of giving peas another shot. It just took a spoonful of tender tinies, with a dash of salt, and I was hooked. I loved peas. They were so healthy, colorful, sweet, and versatile!

My love affair with peas has not faded over the past year, and I include them in as many recipes as I can. Not only are they bright and sweet, but they are incredibly healthy - the perfect cross between vitamin-rich vegetable and fiber-rich legume.

I'm not sure where I got the idea for a pea pesto, but it sure was a good one. My pea pesto is very simple and includes just about all of the ingredients for a traditional basil pesto in addition to peas. I usually serve it on pasta, both because of its creamy texture and because the sweet pea flavor is a perfect complement to whole grain pastas, such as whole-wheat linguine or even sprouted wheat pasta (Trader Joe's sells reasonably-priced sprouted wheat papardelle that we buy in quantity). Any extraneous pesto makes a delightful dip for pita chips or spread for sandwiches.

Here is my rough recipe for pea pesto - I haven't included precise measurements because I usually just adjust the proportions as I go. I do, however, start with 2 cups of peas for 3-4 pasta servings.
Delicious Pea Pesto

2 c. frozen tender tiny peas
handful of basil or parsley leaves
a few crushed garlic cloves
handful of grated parmesan cheese
generous drizzle of olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
pine nuts or walnuts (optional)

Defrost peas in the microwave. Combine warm peas and the rest of the ingredients in a blender or food processor, and blend until smooth and creamy. Add a bit of pasta water if the pesto is too thick.


When I'm feeling particularly inspired, I serve the pesto and pasta with a generous sprinkling of toasted walnuts on top. Lemon zest would also be lovely. In the picture below we served the pesto as a dip for homemade farinata wedges (recipe and post coming soon). Enjoy!




Sunday, October 28, 2007

Searching for Sherbet

With nearly a quart of leftover buttermilk in the fridge, we got thinking. You can make ice cream out of cream, milk, ricotta, and yogurt, so why not buttermilk? Some cursory internet searching made it obvious that this was not an original idea, and we quickly came upon a David Lebovitz (the reigning ice cream king) recipe for lemon buttermilk sherbet.

I have vague memories from my early childhood of recoiling at the sound of "sherbet" (though I remember it as "sherbert") because it just meant some poor imitation of its more delicious cousin, ice cream. But what exactly is sherbet? In Australia, it means beer. In England, it describes a (different) fizzy drink. Wikipedia has an entire entry entitled "Sherbet (disambiguation)." In America, sherbet can, it seems, mean anything from sorbet to ice cream. I guess we can stick with the dictionary.com definition of
A frozen dessert made primarily of fruit juice, sugar, and water, and also containing milk, egg white, or gelatin.
It couldn't be easier to prepare – the only ingredients are water, sugar, lemon juice, lemon zest, and buttermilk – and boasts a tart and grown-up taste. Directly out of the ice cream maker, the sherbet was delicious and refreshing, even if the texture left something to be desired after a few days in the freezer. I guess we've learned a few things about sherbet.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Eating "Healthy"

As Jonathan noted in a recent post, I am the bearer of a modified version of his pumpkin bread. This modified version is what I like to call "healthy." I'll explain the special definition of "healthy" momentarily, but first it is important to note that this blog, while gooey with homemade-ice cream and greasy with homemade mayonnaise, is actually a pretty healthy, self-contained little universe. Most of my own recipes (you'll see plenty of them soon) are whole-grain, chock full of vegetables, or otherwise nutritious. So, that is why you'll see so many "healthy" treats, starting, of course, with pumpkin bread.

One should note that "healthy" is not the same as healthy. Steamed broccoli is healthy. Reduced-fat muffins are "healthy." Oat bran is healthy. Whole-wheat chocolate chip cookies are "healthy." Get the idea? Now, to make things even more complicated, some "healthy" recipes really are quite nutritious, while others aren't quite as nutritious, but are improvements over other, really unhealthy things. I think that you can decide for yourself whether "healthy" is close to healthy or to unhealthy. However, I am here to guide you taste-wise. If a "healthy" recipe really tastes quite different from the original, you will be amply notified.

Many of my recipes are "healthy" because I have a raging sweet tooth, and couldn't possibly live without delicious treats like pumpkin bread, gelato, and brownies. Especially brownies. When I crave something sweet and home-baked, but haven't necessarily earned the right to indulge myself, "healthy" recipes save the day. I fully advocate the occasional and utter indulgence, but perhaps not every day. Or at least not at every meal.

If you are still skeptical of the idea of "healthy" recipes, and would prefer to just have the honest-to-goodness stuff less frequently, consider this: how incredibly awesome it is to have something home-baked that can serve both as tasty dessert and as hearty breakfast. If this doesn't make the case for "healthy," I don't know what does.

Now, enough of that intellectualized "healthy" crap, and on to the recipe for "healthy" pumpkin bread:
"Healthy" Pumpkin Bread

1 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1-2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cloves
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
2 eggs
1 c. + 3 tbs. solid-pack pumpkin puree
1/3 c. vegetable oil
1/3 c. buttermilk

Sift dry ingredients (not sugar) and mix remaining ingredients in a separate bowl. Mix wet into dry ingredients, being careful not to overmix. Pour batter into greased loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for 45 min., or until tester inserted comes out clean.

Jonathan will be quick to tell you about the time when I made this pumpkin bread way too "healthy." It was basically healthy at that point. It was also rather...spongy? This recipe is the happy medium, and you will hardly be able to tell the difference between it and the original, unless you do a side-by-side taste test. I'll admit that the original is better for dessert. But this is pretty damn good.

Venison

As I was fortunate enough to sneak in a dinner sans Mia this evening, I was able to enjoy one of the few great pleasures in life, red meat. Beth proposed venison, and I agreed to walk to Savenor's to obtain it. Savenor's is about the size of my bedroom, and, in addition to a few readily obtainable potatoes and fruits, it sells meat. And I'm not even sure it sells regular meat - what it really sells is irregular meat.

I asked the butcher for help finding the right cut of venison. We wanted something that we could sear and/or roast such that we could finish eating before Josh Beckett threw his first 12-6 snapdragon for a strike. He brushed off my question by saying that, obviously, any of the multitudinous venison cuts available could be prepared in my fashion, but really what I wanted was bear or wild boar. I was careful to be both contemplative and noncommittal. When he was done explaining how truly stunning the $60 blob of bear meat tastes, I kindly asked him to give me one of the two venison tenderloins that were co-packaged.

An uncooked venison tenderloin is an alarming thing to behold. I have pictures, but they're available only by special request and after a background check. The best description I can think of is that a raw venison tenderloin looks like a common leech, but 20 times the size. Anyway, I did a simple kosher salt and black pepper spice rub, and then, after washing my hands thoroughly, I used the new silicone pastry brush to paint the entire thing with olive oil. I sauteed it over medium heat for about 4 minutes per side, and then we put it in the oven at 450 degrees for another 5 minutes or so.

The result was superb. It was the best meat I have ever tasted - tender, free of any gristle that might get in the way of the eating experience, and, most importantly, intensely flavorful. I really have no choice but to urge strongly that you head to your favorite specialty rare meat grocer and try it for yourself.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Question From My Sister

An aspiring foodie herself, my sister Emma came to me last night in search of some culinary advice. I was pleased with this request, not only because it presented me with a challenge and future blog post, but also because when I still lived at home 3 or so years ago, Emma could barely make herself a bowl of cereal. My, how she's grown! Her question is as follows:

The other night, I made whole wheat cous cous with a little butter, salt, and cumin, then served it with sauteed onions, peppers, and broccoli, with plain yogurt on the side. It was good, but a bit bland. Can you suggest something to spice it up a bit?
Here are some general tips, and some specific ideas for this meal:

My first tip is to pick a flavor theme for this meal. When I'm throwing a bunch of veggies and grains together, I usually am thinking that it will have Indian-inspired spices, or Moroccan-ish flavors. This shouldn't hold you back by any means, but should give you some direction, and hopefully make the meal more interesting.

Next, I'd think about how to cook the grains in this recipe. I almost never cook grains without adding some seasonings. This adds depth of flavor and allows you to mix and match tastes without over-seasoning one element of the meal. When I make quinoa, for example, I usually start by sauteing some garlic and onion in the saucepan, and then adding the water and quinoa. Cous cous is a bit trickier, since you don't cook it in the same way you cook other grains - most recipes call for steeping the dry cous cous in hot water for about 5 minutes or so. However, feel free to add spices or crushed garlic to the steeping water. This will infuse the cous cous with whatever flavors happen to be tickling your taste buds. Another easy option is to steep in broth rather than water. Instant flavor, minimal effort.

Ok, so what to do with this recipe? I have a few suggestions:

Take the Mediterranean/Moroccan route: When cooking the cous cous, add a dash of cinnamon, cayenne, and cumin to the steeping liquid. Throw in a splash of good olive oil, too. You could even try some chopped green onions or other fresh herbs, if you have them on hand. Once the cous cous has steeped, try adding one or a few flavorful accents. I love garbanzo beans, raisins, and toasted pine nuts. The beans and pine nuts also add some protein to this meal.

Now for the veggies. I'd skip the broccoli in this case, since it doesn't really fit the Mediterranean flavor profile. If you still want something green, try sauteing some spinach with those onions. Add some garlic, cayenne, salt, pepper, and cumin, and you've got yourself a flavorful accompaniment for the cous cous. And what about the peppers? In my mind, nothing tops off a Mediterranean meal like roasted red peppers. Roast whole peppers over the burner of a gas stove, or pop them in a hot oven until skins are charred. Let them cool, and then remove the burned skins.

For the yogurt on the side: You could keep things simple by serving Greek-style yogurt with nothing added to it. The rest of the meal is flavorful enough that this is a good option. However, if you want to get fancy, you could try a tzatziki-like yogurt dish. Mix the plain yogurt with shredded cucumber, salt, pepper, and fresh garlic. Let it sit for a bit so the flavors can mingle before serving.

Try any or all of these steps, and see how it turns out. Of course, if you don't want Mediterranean influences, you could also try Indian: curry powder, garam masala, peas, raita-inspired yogurt, tomatoes, and cauliflower; or Latin American: cumin, garlic, chili powder, black beans, sauteed peppers and onions, low-fat sour cream, etc.

Hope this helps!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

All the Fixins

On Saturday night, overcome by a false nostalgia for some down-home cooking, I decided to make a "traditional" American meal. I say "false" nostalgia, because my family was never the meat-and-potatoes type. A normal meal at 7 Kings Pine Rd. in Westford, Massachusetts, usually took the form of a Chinese-inspired stir fry with bok choy and soba noodles, turmeric-infused rice with daal and chickpeas, or ubiquitous rice and beans (my favorite!).

For the most part, I have inherited my mother's inclination towards ethnic culinary experimentation, and keep the nearest pantry stocked with garbanzos, tofu, garam masala, cumin, plain yogurt, miso, and hot paprika. A former pesco-vegetarian, I am relatively apprehensive about preparing meat and tend to mix and match various vegetable dishes, soups, and mezze when serving a meal.

On Saturday, though, I was inspired to go completely New England-traditional. Ok, so I added a hefty sprinkling of cayenne to my pumpkin soup. And curry. And cumin. But for the most part, my meal was tame: salad with granny smith apple vinaigrette and walnuts, (spicy curried) pumpkin soup, and lemon-herb roasted chicken breast with potatoes and homemade stuffing. I will admit the potential for having been influenced by reading the latest issue of Bon Appetit (it was the Thanksgiving issue).

In particular, the magazine inspired my chicken: we purchased an entire skin-on, bones-in chicken breast, which afforded me the opportunity to mix some fresh herbs in some butter and rub it between the skin and the breast meat. I then slipped about 10 or so thin slices of lemon under the skin, and sprinkled the outside with some kosher salt and pepper. That was it. No stuffing the cavity, no kitchen twine, no giblets. I just popped that baby in a roasting pan alongside some quartered, oiled, and seasoned potatoes and some of the stuffing I had prepared (in copious amounts).

Speaking of the stuffing: I had originally intended to do an easy wild rice stuffing, which requires no bread. Upon returning from Whole Foods, however, I found half of a stale loaf of rustic whole wheat bread, ripe for cubing. And so it was that I reserved the wild rice for the pumpkin soup, cubed the bread, toasted it in the oven until dry, and then mixed it with the other stuffing ingredients:

Olive oil/butter
Carrots
Onion
Celery
Mushrooms
Dried cranberries
White wine
Chicken broth
Sage, salt, pepper, etc.

I haven't included measurements in this pseudo-recipe, but as long as you mix the above in rationally-devised proportions, you will come up with something delicious. As I mentioned before, some of the stuffing got prime seating next to the chicken breast, and the rest was baked in a separate pan. Simple, not outrageously unhealthy, completely delicious. Take a look:




I also mentioned a pumpkin soup with wild rice. It was quite tasty, incredibly easy, and beautiful, but I will withhold the recipe until I get the seasonings just right. This time around I think I may have overdone it with the cayenne. Stay tuned, but for now, a visual offering:




It should be noted that the morning following this hyper-American feast, I was visited by the insane notion of making a leftovers omelette. We had a few potatoes and a hefty helping of stuffing left, and I made an omelette for two using 4 eggs, a large frying pan, and an utter disregard for visual appeal. It may not have been pretty, but Jonathan and I agreed that it was one of the best omelettes we had ever eaten. Served with generous amounts of organic ketchup, of course. Why does ketchup make everything taste better? (This is not rhetorical, please post a response in the comments section, if you are so inclined.)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Homemade Mayo

Jonathan's brother, Andy, recently embarked on the culinary adventure of making homemade mayonnaise. He, like me, has noticed a cultural trend that stigmatizes mayonnaise, causing yuppies and calorie-conscious gym-goers alike to claim that they "hate" mayonnaise, and that it "grosses them out." As both a yuppie and a calorie-conscious gym-goer, I must admit that I generally abstain from mayonnaise. However, I will not go so far as to say I hate it, and I certainly appreciate that the non-conformists among us are willing to whip up a homemade batch now and again.

For those of you unfamiliar with the process of making homemade mayonnaise, the key element is emulsion. Since mayonnaise is a an emulsion of vinegar and fat (oil, egg yolk), careful precision is necessary while mixing the ingredients. Andy explains his experience below:

The first step is combining together in a bowl:

2 tbs. red wine vinegar
1 tbs. lemon juice
Minced garlic, to taste
Salt, to taste (1-2 tsp.)
1 egg yolk

Next, beat this concoction with a whisk until it is completely mixed. Now comes the hard part:

Add the oil (about 3/4c.). This must be done quite literally one drop at a time. With the addition of each drop, you have to demonically whip the concoction to force air into it. Once you've worked a decent amount of the oil into the emulsion, you can start adding the oil 2-3 drops at a time. On our first go we whipped for a while and produced a light liquid - nothing near mayo. In an act of desperation we dumped the mixture into the blender, which, miraculously, did the trick. However, to test the method, we made a second batch that started in the blender, and this didn't fare as well. Not surprisingly, many online recipes warn readers about the arm-soreness related to making mayonnaise.

Fortunately, it's easy to tell whether you've succeeded in creating the proper mayo emulsion. After adding the oil one of two things will happen: 1) Just when you think your arm will fall off, your emulsion will magically turn into real, live, mayonnaise. This is success. 2) Just when you think your arm will fall off, your emulsion will continue to look like a thin, unappetizing liquid. This is failure. Toss it, and start again, preferably with someone else doing the whisking this time.

According to Jonathan, when asked whether homemade mayonnaise was worth the effort, when there are so many other things to make, Andy replied that "only someone who has never tried homemade mayonnaise would ask that question."

It's probably not an everyday project, but apparently worth it on special occasions. And, to appease those who are appalled by the unhealthiness of recent posts (honest-to-goodness ice cream, while delicious, is best consumed in moderation), we will be posting some healthier recipes soon. I promise.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Honest-to-Goodness Ice Cream

If you had stopped by 20 Ellery St. a few weeks, you would have found me and Jonathan waiting anxiously, like 10-year-olds with upcoming birthdays, for the UPS guy. We startled at every faint rustling coming from the direction of the front door. We raced down the stairs at every ring of the doorbell. We almost became hysterical when, on the day that our package was supposed to arrive, the UPS guy was late and didn't make our delivery until 3pm.

What, you ask, could possibly evoke such giddy enthusiasm from two jaded and sarcastic 20-somethings? Well I'll tell you: it was an ice cream maker.

Jonathan picked out a wee Krups machine, which has a removable freezer bowl and a cute plastic churning paddle. I can't say I'm completely confident that the whole contraption will survive much longer than a few months, but as far as I'm concerned, the pure excitement surrounding its advent is worth the price (which, as you might imagine, was not very steep).

Just a couple weeks into our ice cream-making careers, we have already turned out several successful batches. Our first go was a low-fat mocha gelato, which we thickened with cornstarch instead of egg yolks, and which was speckled generously with grains of freshly-ground espresso powder. Rave reviews, although even I, the obsessive healthy-food taste rationalizer, can't say that low-fat is the same as the real thing.

We opted out of dairy for our second experiment: apple cider sorbet, made with fresh apple cider and locally-grown MacIntosh apples. The sorbet was a deep caramel color, with the unmistakeable taste of real New England apples (the best).

Next came an attempt at frozen yogurt....but we have decided that it shouldn't be spoken of again. So we'll update you when we've found a post-worthy fro-yo recipe.

Last night, though, was our crowning achievement: thick, delicious, perfectly-textured, honest-to-goodness ice cream. We made banana (flecked, of course, with a little Valrhona 70%) because we had a few ripe specimens in the kitchen. We started the egg-based custard late Friday night, chilled it overnight, and churned it to creamy perfection late yesterday afternoon. We popped it back into the freezer for a few hours (after a preliminary tasting), and it was ready to scoop and serve by dessert-time. We invited some friends over to share in our culinary joy, but most of them couldn't make it. Too bad - we had to eat it all ourselves.

More delicious pictures and anecdotes to come. But for now:


Saturday, October 20, 2007

Pumpkin Bread

By request, I am posting our famous (stolen from a website lost in the sands of time) pumpkin bread recipe. Mia also has a "healthy" version of this recipe, which she may or may not post in the future. This version is not really that bad for you, and it is extremely delicious.

Pumpkin Bread

1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cloves
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 1/3 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 c. + 3 tbs. solid-pack pumpkin puree
1/2 c. vegetable oil

Sift the dry ingredients (not sugar) and mix the rest of the ingredients in a separate bowl. Mix wet into dry ingredients, being careful not to overmix. Pour batter into greased loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 45min., or until tester inserted comes out clean.



Baked Eggs

I am authoring this post, even though Mia was responsible for the meal in every way, because I already published it to my blog.

Inspired by my new favorite food blog, 101cookbooks.com, I decided to experiment with baked eggs this morning. We used oiled ramekins, lined them with bread (whole wheat pita for me, sourdough toast for Jonathan), piled in a few diced tomatoes and onions, seasoned with parsley, salt, and pepper, and then plopped an egg on top. We baked them at 425F for about 10 minutes, just until the yoke was set. They were fantastic. Similar in gooey deliciousness to poached eggs, but with all the flavors of a tasty omelette.




Friday, October 19, 2007

Pumpkin Biscotti

The other night, I, alone, and by myself, with no help whatsoever, made pumpkin biscotti, using a slightly modified recipe from Simply Recipes.

Ingredients:

• 2 1/2 cups of white whole wheat flour
• 1 cup of sugar
• 1 teaspoon of baking powder
• 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg
• Pinch of ginger
• Pinch of cloves
• Pinch of salt
• 2 eggs
• 1/2 cup of pumpkin purée
• 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
-some raisins, chocolate chips, and/or walnuts

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Sift together the flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, and spices into a large bowl.

2. In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, pumpkin purée, and vanilla extract. Pour the pumpkin mixture into the flour mixture. Give it a rough stir to generally incorporate the ingredients, the dough will be crumbly.

3. Flour your hands and a clean kitchen surface and lightly knead the dough. Add the raisins, walnuts, and chips. Lightly grease a baking sheet or line it with parchment paper. Form the dough into a large log, roughly about 15-20 inches by 6-7 inches. The loaves should be relatively flat, only about 1/2 inch high. Bake for 22-30 minutes at 350 F, until the center is firm to the touch.

4. Let biscotti cool for 15 minutes and then using a serrated knife cut into 1 inch wide pieces. Turn the oven to 300 F and bake for an additional 15-20 minutes. Cool completely.
Biscotti may be still a tad moist and chewy, so if you prefer it crisp let it sit uncovered overnight in a dry space. Serve and enjoy.
Makes approximately 15 cookies.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Red Ramekin Debut

Hello and welcome to our new blog! We are aspiring gourmets and are excited to share some simple recipes, pictures, and general musings on food.

-Mia and Jonathan