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

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)
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.