Thursday, December 17, 2009

CREAM BISCUITS

Holy cow, I made biscuits! Honest-to-goodness, delicious biscuits! And it was so incredibly easy!

OK, biscuits may not be the hardest thing in the world to make, but I’ve always avoided them for some reason, probably because I have an irrational fear of any recipe that involves cutting butter into flour (pie crust, etc.), plus I’ve made a heck of a lot of baking-soda breads that haven’t turned out well. But when I saw this recipe so highly praised at The Smitten Kitchen and realized that it used cream instead of butter, there went my feeble excuse for avoiding biscuit-making. Even with my questionable dough-handling abilities, I was pretty sure I could manage to stir melted butter and heavy cream into some dry ingredients, pat the dough out flat, and cut it into circles (not owning a biscuit cutter, of course, I just used the top of a drinking glass). I was skeptical the entire time, waiting for flat, dry lumps of sadness to emerge from the oven, so imagine my thrill when they came out light, flaky, and puffy, just like real biscuits! (“But they are real biscuits,” A had to keep reminding me.)

We served these with a cider-braised chicken dish (from the St. Paul Farmers Market Cookbook) that turned out a little disappointingly, but the biscuits so wildly exceeded my expectations that I didn’t even mind. Now that I know I can whip them up with no trouble on an average weeknight, the possibilities are endless! They’ll be great dipped into soups, or spread with homemade jam, but when I get back to cooking after New Year’s, my first order of business will be to try them with creamed chicken on top.

The biscuits are best straight from the oven, but I still found them pretty tasty the next day, after a brief zapping in the microwave. But if you don’t want to eat 10 biscuits right away, you can either freeze the leftover biscuits or—and this sounds like a brilliant idea I’ll certainly be trying soon—freeze the dough rounds to bake later.

3 tablespoons melted butter
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the surface
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups heavy cream

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Melt butter in a small pot or microwave dish, and set aside.

2. Sift 2 cups flour, the baking powder, and the salt into a large bowl. Fold in 1¼ cups cream. If the dough is not soft or easily handled, fold in the remaining ¼ cup cream, little by little. (I ended up using about 2 additional tablespoons.)

3. Turn dough onto a floured surface, mound it into a ball, and, using your hands, press it to a thickness of about ¾ inch. Cut into rounds, 2½ inches in diameter. Gather dough scraps, press them flat again, and continue to make rounds. Dip the top of each round in melted butter (or brush it generously with butter if that seems easier) and arrange biscuits on the baking sheet.

4. Bake until golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Serve immediately, or freeze for future use. (You can also freeze the uncooked dough rounds; they can be baked straight from the freezer, although a few extra minutes of baking time will be needed.)

Yield: About 10
Time: 30 minutes
Leftover potential: Good, if frozen

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

POTATO-LEEK PIZZA WITH BACON


Oh, yum. I spotted this why-didn’t-I-think-of-it recipe in Pioneer Woman’s brand-new cookbook, The Pioneer Woman Cooks. I love her humor and her tantalizing concoctions (accompanied by dazzling step-by-step photographs), even though they’re a bit richer and heavier than I’d usually cook for our little Southern Californian household of two, one of whom has a petite appetite and the other of whom hunches over a computer in a cubicle all day instead of performing grueling, calorie-burning ranch labor on the wide-open prairie. (Really, the only other PW recipes I’ve actually made are the fabulous ranch dressing and oatmeal-jam bars.) But this twist on the iconic flavor combination of potatoes and leeks, with some bacon thrown in, sounded too good to pass up—and you know how I love pizza.

It was fully as delicious as it sounded. The only real changes I made were to omit the goat cheese (because even though I keep on trying it, I just don’t like goat cheese), and halved the amount of mozzarella (because a pound is a lot of cheese). I can see that the goat cheese would add a zippier flavor, and if I’d had some asiago or Gruyere, I might have thrown a bit on there, but we both loved it plenty well as is. If I were making this just for myself, I might have reduced the bacon (to, say, 4 slices) and increased the leeks (to at least 4), but A was horrified when I mentioned it the idea (if anything, he wanted more bacon and fewer leeks—but then, this is the man who got bacon chocolate chip cookies for Valentine’s day, and he doesn’t share my adulation for leeks). So we’ll just keep that ratio the way it’s written.

Tips: Do be sure to use fresh mozzarella, because you need the moisture it provides, and do be sure to slice the potatoes paper-thin. This is the only potato pizza recipe I’ve tried where the potatoes aren’t cooked beforehand, and while that does make things easier, I worried the whole time about ending up with crunchy potatoes, especially since I’d sliced them by hand (a mandoline seems useful, but so very sharp and scary, and where would I keep it?). In the end, while the potatoes were not raw as I’d feared, they did have a bit more bite than usual. I liked the chewy, slightly al dente texture that resulted, but I certainly wouldn’t have wanted them any less cooked than that. So keep ’em thin!

1 pound pizza dough
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
6 slices thick-cut bacon, diced
3 leeks, rinsed well to remove grit and thinly sliced
5 small red or Yukon Gold potatoes
8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced thin
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese to taste
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Roll out the pizza dough on a baking sheet, drizzle it lightly with olive oil, and sprinkle it lightly with salt.

2. In a skillet over medium heat, fry the bacon until cooked but not completely crisp, then remove with a slotted spoon and set aside on a paper-towel-lined plate to drain. Pour off most of the grease, but do not clean the skillet. Return it to the stove and, over medium-low heat, saute the leeks until soft, about 3 minutes. Remove the leeks from the heat and set aside.

3. Using a sharp knife or mandoline, slice the potatoes very thin. Arrange the potatoes in a single layer all over the crust, slightly overlapping the edges. Sprinkle the potatoes lightly with salt, then lay the mozzarella slices in a single layer on top. Place the leeks on top of the cheese, then sprinkle the fried bacon pieces over the top. Add a generous dose of grated Parmesan and a sprinkle of pepper.

4. Bake 8 to 11 minutes, until the edges of the crust are golden brown and the cheese is melted and bubbly.

Serves: 4
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: Good

Monday, November 23, 2009

APPLE BUTTER

I know this photo looks pretty much exactly like the one for pear butter, but it's just a trick of the light, I swear! The apple butter is a much darker shade of brown.

I’ve been making and canning this apple butter from Simply Recipes as a holiday treat for at least three years now and am always pleased with the results—sweet, tart, and spiced, with a velvety consistency, great on toast, on pancakes, or in oatmeal. Apples are cheap and plentiful at this time of year (I usually use Fujis because I can buy seconds—small and slightly flawed but perfectly tasty—at the farmers’ market for $1.50 a pound); the recipe is clever (I love that you initially cook the whole apple, peel, core, seeds, and all, to maximize the flavor and natural pectin content) and fairly easy, although I can always be heard swearing when it comes time to put the boiled apples through the food mill. Why does it seem that I need three hands to work a food mill effectively (one to turn the crank, and two to hold it steady so it doesn’t jump around)?

This year I finally bought my own food mill ($25 at Bed Bath and Beyond with their 20% off coupon), after always having to borrow one in the past. I’m a bit reluctant to own such an infernal device, plus it seems silly to have a largish kitchen item that I’m only going to use once per year (although by that token, I wouldn’t have a cookie press, either), and it feels redundant to now possess four different machines for pureeing food (although unlike the blender, small food processor, and immersion blender, the food mill has the obvious advantage of straining out peels and seeds). Ideally, I’ll find a few more uses for the food mill (I could have used it on the pear butter, for starters), but even if I only ever use it for my annual batch of apple butter, it'll earn its keep admirably.

By the way, this is officially my last canning project until 2010 (sigh), both because I need to concentrate on holiday baking and because all those little glass jars are threatening to take over the apartment.

4 pounds good cooking apples (e.g., Granny Smith or Gravenstein; I used Fuji)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
2 cups water
Sugar (about 4 cups; see cooking instructions)
Salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon allspice
Grated rind and juice of 1 lemon

1. Prepare jars and closures as in steps 1-2 here.

2. Cut the apples into quarters, without peeling or coring them (much of the pectin is in the cores and flavor in the peels), and cut out any damaged parts.

3. Put the apples into a large pot, add the vinegar and water, cover, bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, and cook until apples are soft, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat.

4. Ladle apple mixture into a chinois sieve or food mill and force pulp through the sieve or mill into a large bowl below. Measure resulting puree. Add ½ cup sugar for each cup of apple pulp. Stir to dissolve sugar. Add a dash of salt, and the cinnamon, ground cloves, allspice, lemon rind, and lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.

5. Cook uncovered in a large, wide, thick-bottomed pot on medium-low heat, stirring every 5 minutes to prevent burning. Cook 1 to 2 hours, until thick and smooth when a bit is spooned onto a cold plate and allowed to cool.

6. Fill jars and process for 10 minutes, as in steps 7-9 here.

Yield: 14-16 4-ounce jars
Time: 4 hours
Leftover potential: Yes!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

PROSCIUTTO-AND-BASIL-WRAPPED CHICKEN FINGERS


This brilliant, easier-than-pie little chicken recipe from The Hungry Mouse tastes about like what you'd expect, but that's hardly anything to be ashamed of when what you expect and receive is chicken wrapped in basil and thin, salty ham. For about the quickest chicken dish I can think of, the end result is disproportionately pretty, or at least it would have been if I hadn't found the paper-thin slices of Trader Joe's prosciutto so unexpectedly hard to manipulate without tearing (it was worse than working with phyllo!). I just ended up sort of hamhandedly (hee! sorry) draping them as best I could around the chicken, but they still cooked up elegantly, the prosciutto forming a crisp, translucent shell around the tender chicken.

This recipe is the perfect solution for when you want a little protein to accompany a more labor-intensive dish; I was desperate for arugula, potato, and green bean salad, which is, let's face it, kind of a lot of work for a salad, what with toasting the walnuts, boiling the potatoes and then the green beans, washing and drying the arugula, and making the dressing, so I wanted something with it that I could just throw in and out of the oven, and this fit the bill perfectly. I especially liked the more manageable two-bite, hand-holdable size of the little chicken tenders; sometimes I get daunted when faced with a huge slab of chicken breast that I have to saw my way through with a knife. These would probably be a hit with kids, or as part of a party spread.

An equivalent number of chicken breast tenders (or chicken breast sliced into strips), prosciutto slices, and large basil leaves; I used 8 of each
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly cracked black pepper to taste
Olive oil to taste

1. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set it aside.

2. Place a basil leaf atop each piece of chicken (it should mostly cover the chicken; if it’s too small, use two).

3. Starting at one end of a piece of chicken, wrap a slice of prosciutto around the chicken, keeping the basil in place. Set the wrapped chicken on your prepared baking sheet, and repeat with remaining chicken pieces.

4. Drizzle a little olive oil on each piece of chicken, then sprinkle with a little kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper.

5. Bake for about 15 minutes, until chicken is cooked (juices should run clear) and prosciutto is nice and crisp.

Serves: 3–4 as a main dish, more as an appetizer/snack
Time: 30 minutes
Leftover potential: Good; these reheat fairly well.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

BEEF, BEAN, AND BEER CHILI

I still have several pounds of beans from the Rancho Gordo samplers I received last Christmas, and now that the weather’s grown cool enough to simmer something on the stove for hours, I’ve been looking for ways to cook them. This has been a bit challenging; I’ve used up the most straightforward beans (i.e, white beans and black beans), and I’ve found a great recipe for Christmas lima beans, so what’s left are the more unusual varieties, the kinds a recipe is unlikely to call for specifically. And of course you can always just cook up some beans and eat them, but A doesn’t really like straight-up beans and I’m not great at improvisation.

So the obvious answer was chili, especially when I was staring at a bag of pebble beans that said “great in chilis” on the label. (Yes, Texans, I’m sorry, I know you think it’s a travesty to put beans in chili, but I’m from the Midwest and that’s how we eat it there.) One problem: I wasn’t sure I liked chili. The only time I really remember eating it was when my mom made it when I was a kid, and I was always a little suspicious of it, as I was of any concoction containing a lot of different ingredients mixed together, particularly when one of those ingredients was beans. (How ironic that I used to dislike chili because it contained beans and now I needed to make chili because it contains beans!) But it sounded sort of good to me now, and I figured A would be down with eating anything that was spicy and had beef in it.

The next ordeal was finding a recipe, and let me tell you, it was formidable. I wanted it to contain beef, 1 pound of dried beans, beer, and nothing else that was too specialized or weird. This recipe on Epicurious was a contender, but the enormous volume of comments scared me off—most people liked it, a lot of people made adaptations, and a small but strenuous minority thought it was bland and awful. I dutifully read through all 296 of them, took copious notes, and tried to figure out how I would scale the recipe down (it served 10 and called for three pounds of beef but only 15 ounces of canned beans), but ultimately I gave up, went to Food Blog Search, typed in “chili beef beans beer,” and immediately found this recipe from Pinch My Salt. It called for three cans of beans, the equivalent of 1 pound of dried beans, so I didn’t have to mess with the proportions at all. It had a modest amount of beef, it had beer, it had a bell pepper and a jalapeno (I liked the idea of at least getting a little bit of fresh veggie in there), and it didn’t have particularly baroque seasonings.

I did incorporate a few details from the Epicurious recipe. I increased the garlic, used a dark beer (Negra Modelo), and used beef broth instead of the water originally called for. I made sure to buy brand-new chili powder, because old chili powder may have lost its flavor. I also may have added pinches and dashes of the following secret ingredients various Epicurious commenters swore by: unsweetened cocoa powder (maybe 1 teaspoon?), Worcestershire sauce (a generous dash), ketchup (a few squeezes), powdered mustard (a couple of pinches), and black pepper (a few grindings). I’m not sure whether any of these made a difference, but what I do know is I FREAKIN’ LOVED THIS CHILI. All along, as I cooked, I was suspicious. Would it be bland? Would it be unbearably spicy? I kept tasting it, and it seemed to be both at the same time—so spicy it made me cough, and sort of flat and blah due to the lack of salt (salt is added at the end). But with the long cooking, everything blended or mellowed out or something, because when we sat down to eat it was absolutely perfect. I loved that it was hearty but not heavy, simple but complex. I loved how it was spicy enough to be interesting, but not enough to be annoying or painful. I loved the smoky taste from the chipotle powder and fire-roasted tomatoes. I loved loading it up with toppings (I highly recommend cheddar, green onions, cilantro, and corn chips). I loved the leftovers the next day (and the next, and today).

Oh! And the beans? Exemplary. I finally achieved true tenderness (yet without being mushy), and I owe it all to this amazing new method of cooking them: Don’t soak, just cover them with water, bring it to a boil on the stovetop, cover, cook in a 250-degree oven for 75 minutes, and drain. Easy, efficient, and effective (as well as an apt use for my Dutch oven). I cooked the beans while assembling the chili and then dumped them in when they were done, about halfway through the chili’s simmering time—the recipe says to add them right away with the tomatoes, but since they’re already cooked you can really do it whenever you want; in fact, Epicurious has you do it at the end, but I like giving them a chance to absorb the flavor of the chili.

I’m so pleased to have found my go-to chili recipe on the first try. I’ll be trying it again soon, next time with Vaquero beans. At this rate, I’ll have to hope I get Rancho Gordos again for Christmas! (Ahem.)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 large bell pepper (I used red), seeded and chopped
3 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 large jalapeno, minced (seeds and all)
1 pound ground beef
3 tablespoons chili powder
2 teaspoons chipotle chili powder
2 teaspoons cumin
1 bottle dark beer (I used Negra Modelo)
1 14.5-ounce can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
114.5-ounce can crushed tomatoes (if you can’t find crushed tomatoes, which I never can, just puree a can of whole or diced tomatoes)
1 cup beef broth (preferred), chicken broth, or water
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 15-ounce can each of pinto beans, black beans, and kidney beans, drained and rinsed; OR 1pound dried beans in a variety of your choice (I used pebble beans), cooked until tender
2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
Optional extra seasonings such as unsweetened cocoa, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, mustard powder, black pepper
Optional toppings for serving such as shredded cheddar cheese, sliced green onions, chopped fresh cilantro, sour cream, and corn chips

1. In a large saucepan or dutch oven over medium heat, cook onion and pepper in olive oil until softened, about five minutes. Add garlic and jalapeno and cook, stirring, for another minute, then add ground beef. Cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, just until meat is no longer pink. Drain the fat from the pan, then return to heat.

2. Add the two chili powders and cumin, and cook the spices and the meat together, stirring, for half a minute or so. Add the beer, stir, and allow to cook while you open all the cans and drain and rinse the beans. Add all the tomatoes, broth or water, tomato paste, and beans; stir well. Bring mixture up to a slow boil then turn the heat down to low and simmer, partially covered, for at least an hour.

3. As the chili simmers, stir it occasionally, and taste to see if you need/want more chili powder, cumin, or other seasonings (don’t add salt until it’s done cooking). Once chili has reached the thickness you like add salt to taste.

Serves: 6–8
Time: 2 hours
Leftover potential: High—tastes even better the next day, and can easily be frozen.

Monday, November 16, 2009

BROWN SUGAR CARDAMOM PEAR BUTTER


Searching for a pear butter recipe to add to my burgeoning jam collection, I found this one on Epicurious and was instantly smitten with the revolutionary idea of using brown sugar instead of white sugar in canning. I love brown sugar, and have been known to sneak small bits of it straight whenever I’m measuring it out for a recipe. And indeed, the brown sugar adds a nice, rich note to this otherwise straightforward pear butter—if not quite strong enough, in my opinion, to merit the original title of Caramel-Pear Butter, which, coupled with the presence of salt in the ingredient list, had led me to dare to hope that it might taste like salted butter caramel in a jar.

This is slightly more labor-intensive than my previous two jam recipes. For one thing, seven pounds is a lot of pears. I scored a great price of $1 a pound at the farmers’ market (though I should have let them ripen a little longer—their tarter flavor wasn’t a problem, but the finished pear butter was a bit grainy), but they were small, and going over 20something pears with a vegetable peeler is a thankless job. There’s no added pectin here, either; the mixture thickens the old-fashioned way, with slow cooking, and must be tended constantly so it doesn’t stick or scorch.

When everything was done and I tasted the pear butter, I wasn’t sure whether it had all been worth it. It tasted good, but pretty average, like sweetened pear, without a really detectable brown-sugar flavor. But maybe the constant tasting and smelling of sugar over the course of the afternoon head deadened my tastebuds, or maybe the little leftover half-jar I set aside in the fridge mellowed and deepened overnight, because the next day, when I spread it over toast, I was really impressed. This is some fantastic stuff. Even if it doesn’t taste like caramel, it has a dark, complex, ineffable quality worthy of gobbling by the spoonful. And look at that nice, thick, spreadable, buttery consistency, so thick it stands up in peaks in the photo above!

Two notes: The original recipe called for nutmeg, but I wanted to use cardamom, my favorite spice, and was not disappointed; it’s a great match for pears. Also, being sans food mill, I used an immersion blender on the pears instead. (I wouldn't recommend blitzing them in a blender or food processor, though, because you want to retain a little of that whole-fruit texture; if you don't have a food mill or immersion blender, try a potato masher.)

¼ cup apple juice
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, divided
7 pounds ripe Bartlett pears
3 cups (packed) golden brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
¾ teaspoon coarse kosher salt

1. Prepare jars and closures as in steps 1-2 here.

2. Combine apple juice and 4 tablespoons lemon juice in a large, deep, heavy pot. Peel, core, and cut pears, one at a time, into ½- to ¾-inch pieces; as soon as they are cut, mix pears into juice mixture in pot to prevent browning.

3. Cook pears over medium heat until they release enough juice for mixture to boil, stirring frequently, about 16 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until pears are very tender, stirring frequently, about 20 minutes.

4. Remove pot from heat. Press pear mixture through the fine plate of a food mill into a large bowl and return the pear puree to the same pot. (Alternatively, you can use an immersion blender to puree the pears in the pot to your desired consistency, or for chunkier pear butter, crush pears by hand with a potato masher.) Add 2 tablespoons lemon juice, brown sugar, cardamom, and ¾ teaspoon coarse salt.

5. Bring to boil over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered, stirring every 5 minutes to prevent scorching, for about 1 hour until pear butter thickens and is reduced to 8 cups.

6. Fill jars and process for 10 minutes, as in steps 7-9 here.

Yield: About 16 4-ounce jars
Time: 4 hours
Leftover potential: Of course.

Friday, November 13, 2009

HUNGARIAN GREEN BEAN SOUP


Ta-da, my collection of pureed green soups is now complete! Actually, it didn’t occur to me that this soup might be a dead ringer for several others in my repertoire until I set out to take pictures of it and felt a strong pang of déjà vu; there are only so many ways to photograph pale green liquid in a blue bowl in a poorly lit kitchen, after all. I’d had the recipe bookmarked in my copy of The St. Paul Farmers’ Market Cookbook for several years, mostly because I’d never heard of a green bean soup before, and green beans are one of my favorite vegetables, but also because the sour cream/dill combo (the thing that makes it “Hungarian,” I guess) sounded alluring.

This is an easy recipe, assembled along the ol’ boil-and-puree line, and (I feel like I say this all the time) I feared it would be bland, but it wasn’t. A feared it would be super-green-beany, and it wasn’t that, either. It mostly tasted like dill and sour cream (well, I used crème fraiche, and plain yogurt, preferably Greek, would also work), sort of like a lighter, fresher, tangier, less oniony potato-leek soup, but with a vague green undertone. It didn’t bowl me over with its uniqueness (at least, I’m not sure I could identify it as green bean soup if I were blindfolded), but I enjoyed it and will certainly make it again, not least because it’s so versatile—lemony and green for spring, delicate enough for summer, and accessible enough for winter (the recipe says you can even use frozen green beans). We ate it with dill, red onion, and cheddar drop biscuits (a good way to use up the rest of that bunch of dill), but garlic bread would also make a good accompaniment.

3 cups good-quality chicken broth (or vegetable broth, for a vegetarian version)
½ pound fresh green beans
2 small russet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 small onion, quartered
¼ cup butter
2 tablespoons snipped fresh dill
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
¼ cup sour cream or crème fraiche (can also substitute plain yogurt)
Juice of 1 lemon

1. Combine broth, beans, potatoes, onion, butter, dill, and garlic in large saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until vegetables are tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper.

2. Transfer soup to a blender or processor in batches and puree until smooth, then return to saucepan (or leave in the pan and use an immersion blender). Stir in sour cream and lemon juice. Warm over low heat until heated through.

Serves: 4
Time: 40 minutes
Leftover potential: Good

Thursday, November 12, 2009

VANILLA-BOURBON PEACH JAM


I don’t even remember how I stumbled across this recipe, but once I saw it, I knew that I’d have to try it, and that it would be well worth departing from the safety of Ball-approved recipes. I mean, peaches, vanilla bean, lime juice, bourbon, and almond extract? Be still my heart! I rushed out to the farmers’ market and snatched up some of the last peaches of the year (literally; they were labeled with a sign that said “Last chance!”), speed-ripened them overnight in a paper bag with a ripe banana, and whipped up what may be the most delicious jam I’ve ever made. I didn’t think it would be possible for it to live up to my feverish expectations, but it really did: savory with almond, rich with vanilla, and with a slight alcoholic bite from the Jim Beam. So far I’ve just been spreading it on toast, but I suspect it would be great on ice cream as well. I can’t wait until peach season rolls around next year so I can make more!

A few recipe tweaks: The original recipe called for half a vanilla bean, cut into pieces, but I wanted big vanilla flavor without actual chunks (I just love those specks of vanilla bean), so I used a whole bean but removed the actual pod part before putting the jam into jars. I also found that the original recipe’s instructions (add sugar, then pectin later) were exactly the opposite of those that came with my box of pectin (add pectin, then sugar later), so I decided to trust the authority of Sure-Jell and everything turned out fine; my modified version is below.

1 package low-sugar pectin (I used Sure-Jell for less or no sugar needed recipes, in the pink box)
3½ pounds ripe peaches
3 cups sugar (or whatever the instructions in the pectin box say)
¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 whole vanilla bean
¼ cup bourbon
1 teaspoon almond extract

1. Prepare jars and closures as in steps 1–2 here.

2. Blanch the peaches in boiling water for 30 seconds, then submerge in an ice bath. Slip off the skins and chop peaches into ¼-inch dice, removing the pits.

3. In a glass pie plate or flat-bottomed bowl, place a single layer of peach pieces. Using a potato masher, crush peaches until they reach your desired consistency and transfer to a large, deep, stainless-steel saucepan, repeating until all peaches are mashed and placed in saucepan.

4. Measure sugar into a large bowl and set aside.

5. Mix ¼ cup sugar from measured amount with the pectin in a small bowl. Add pectin-sugar mixture and lime juice to the peaches in the saucepan. Slice the vanilla bean in half lengthwise, scrape out all the seeds with a small spoon, and add the seeds to the peach mixture. Add the vanilla bean halves and stir peach mixture well. Add ½ teaspoon butter to reduce foaming, if desired.

6. Bring mixture to a full rolling boil (a boil that doesn’t stop bubbling when stirred) on high heat, stirring constantly.

7. Stir in remaining 2¾ cups sugar quickly. Return to a full rolling boil and boil exactly 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, skim off any foam, remove and discard vanilla bean halves, and stir in bourbon and almond extract.

8. Fill jars and process for 10 minutes, as in steps 7–9 here.

Yield: About 14–18 4-ounce jars
Time: 3 hours
Leftover potential: Leftovers are kind of the point here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

COCONUT OATMEAL COOKIES WITH PECANS AND KRISPIES


This recipe is a favorite of mine from Carole Walters’ indispensible Great Cookies. The original name is “Chock Full of Crunchies,” which is so darn cutesy I can’t manage to repeat it without rolling my eyes. My version may be less catchy, but at least it’s more descriptive. Walters calls them “a crunch-lover’s dream,” but “crunchy” isn’t really the first thing that springs to mind when I think of these cookies. The cereal does add little chewy-crispy morsels and there are some nuts too, but the main event is a nice, tender, buttery oatmeal cookie, with a nice lacy crispness around the edges and a moist middle thanks to the coconut. I’m a sucker for oatmeal cookies and for coconut, but mostly I think these cookies appeal to me so much because the first time I tasted them, I had a vivid sensory flashback to a kind of cookie my mom used to make when I was a kid, involving coconut and Grape-Nuts (I think we called them “crispy cookies”?), which I’d entirely forgotten about until that moment--so these have a Proustian quality for me. Sure, chocolate-chip cookies hold the top spot in my heart, but for a non-chocolate cookie, these are hard to beat.

2 cups all-purpose flour, spooned in and leveled
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly firm
¾ cup lightly packed light brown sugar
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup rolled oats (old-fashioned, not quick-cooking)
1 cup finely chopped sweetened, flaked coconut
1 cup crispy rice cereal (i.e., Rice Krispies)
1 cup coarsely chopped toasted pecans

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and moderately butter the cookie sheets.

2. Strain together the flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder in a large bowl. Set aside.

3. Using an electric mixer (if using a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment), mix the butter on medium-low speed until smooth and creamy. Add the brown sugar, then the granulated sugar, and mix until well blended, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, then the vanilla and mix for 1 minute longer. Reduce the mixer speed to low, then add the dry ingredients in three additions, mixing just until blended. Using a large rubber spatula, fold in the oatmeal, coconut, rice cereal, and pecans.

4. Drop walnut-size mounds from the tip of a tablespoon onto the cookie sheets, about 2 inches apart. Scrape down the sides of the bowl frequently to maintain an even combination of dough to textured ingredients. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes, rotating the pans top to bottom and front to back toward the end of baking time. Bake until the edges begin to turn a golden brown. Do not overbake.

5. Remove the cookies from the oven and let stand for 2 minutes. Using a metal spatula, carefully loosen and transfer to cooling racks.

Yield: About 5 dozen
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: High; these cookies freeze well.

Friday, November 06, 2009

BALSAMIC STRAWBERRY JAM


When my friend P left the country for a month and gave me temporary custody of all her canning supplies, it seemed like a good time for me to get back into jam-making. I’ve done most of my canning with P and other friends, so I was a little nervous about undertaking it on my own—it can be so laborious (when, say, you’re peeling seven pounds of pears), as well as a little scary (as you obsessively sterilize everything to make sure you don’t give any of your loved ones botulism), so it’s nice to have company. But it’s also nice to be able to can whatever you want whenever you want it, and I was excited about my solo adventure.

Still, I wanted to proceed with caution. I don’t normally spend a lot of time worrying about food safety, beyond washing all my fruits and vegetables and making sure I don’t touch everything in the kitchen with raw-chicken-covered fingers. But canning is one area where I feel strongly about following the proper procedures: using recipes only from reputable sources, following them precisely (because the pH of canned goods is carefully calibrated to prevent bacterial growth, you shouldn’t mess with the proportions of fruit, sugar, and acid), and processing the jars correctly; I’m no expert, but I’ve read enough to shudder when food blogs mention improvising jam recipes, canning things that shouldn’t be canned (for instance, pumpkin butter, which is sadly one of the few things that can’t be safely preserved), or “sealing” jars by flipping them upside-down instead of boiling them. It’s not hard to can things the right way, so why take a risk?

For my inaugural attempt, I went right to the highest authority: The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. And right at the front was a recipe for strawberry jam, presented as a simple master recipe to walk you through every single step of the canning process before you move on to more complex endeavors. Strawberries were still available at my farmers’ market for relatively cheap, and strawberry is my favorite kind of jam. Perfect!

I had never made jam with pectin before—I’d just done it the old-fashioned way, slow-cooking pure fruit and sugar until thickened. Even though I know that pectin is a naturally occurring substance that’s found in fruit anyway, it felt a little funny to be emptying that box of powder into my pot, but it sure as hell turned out to be liberating not to have to stand over a pot of simmering, spattering jam for hours on end. With pectin, you only have to cook the jam for a few minutes, making this a doable Saturday-afternoon project that doesn’t make you feel enslaved to the kitchen.

The recipe offered several variations, all of which sounded good (vanilla strawberry, lemon strawberry, and black pepper strawberry may all be in my future), but I was intrigued by the balsamic option, remembering how good balsamic vinegar tasted with the strawberries in this salad. The finished jam doesn’t taste identifiably like balsamic vinegar, but I do think it adds a nice depth of flavor and helps balance out the sweetness. I prefer a less-sweet jam and think this one is right on the verge of being too sugary, though I’m certainly capable of downing several pieces of toast slathered with it, as well as sneaking straight spoonfuls out of the jar on the fridge on occasion.

I was grateful for how incredibly methodical and detailed the Ball recipe is. Heating up the jars in the canner while you prep the ingredients is a stroke of genius that keeps things moving right along—the jars are nicely sterilized by the time the jam is done cooking, and it doesn’t take too much longer to bring the water to a boil after you put the filled jars back into it. Mine took a bit longer because I used 16 4-ounce jars instead of 8 8-ounce ones, meaning that I had too many to fit in the canner at the same time and had to do two rounds of sterilizing and processing—but it was worth it, because those little jars are so dang cute. I want to give them as gifts, and they’re a much more manageable size to transport, as well as to consume before they end up sitting half-eaten in the back of the fridge for months, as big jars of jam tend to do around my house.

You guys, canning is so fun! I love the nifty tools (a funnel, magnetic lid lifter, and jar lifter are invaluable and cheap—I’ll be acquiring my own when I return the borrowed ones to P), the tasty fruits, the scientific precision, and the sense of accomplishment I feel when I’ve amassed a stash of pretty little glass jars full of deliciousness. If you’ve never canned before, this recipe is a great place to start, and even if you’re an old hand, the balsamic twist is worth trying.

7 cups granulated sugar
8 cups whole strawberries
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons good-quality balsamic vinegar
1 package (1.75 ounce/49 to 57 grams) regular powdered fruit pectin

1. Place 8 clean 8-ounce mason jars on a rack in a large, deep pot that is at least 3 inches deeper than the height of the jars. Fill the jars and pot with cool water that covers the top of the jars. Cover and bring water to a simmer over medium heat; do not boil.

2. Prepare 8 two-piece closures. Set screw bands aside. Place lids in a small saucepan and cover with water. Heat just to a simmer over medium heat, but do not boil. Keep lids warm until ready to use. Do not heat screw bands.

3. Measure sugar into a bowl and set aside. (Sugar is added to the boiling jam all at once, so measuring it ahead of time prevents errors in quantities and eliminates cooking delays.)

4. In a colander placed over a sink, wash strawberries in cool running water. Drain thoroughly and, using a strawberry huller, remove hulls.

5. In a glass pie plate or flat-bottomed bowl, place a single layer of strawberries. Using a potato masher, crush berries and transfer to a 1-cup liquid measure. As you accumulate each cup, transfer crushed berries to a large, deep, stainless-steel saucepan. Repeat until you have 5 cups of crushed strawberries.

6. Add lemon juice and vinegar to crushed strawberries in saucepan. Whisk in pectin until dissolved. (To reduce foaming, you may also add ½ teaspoon butter, if desired.) Bring to a full rolling boil over high heat, stirring frequently. Add sugar all at once and, stirring constantly, return to a full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down. Boil hard, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Remove from heat and, using a large slotted spoon, skim off foam.

7. Fill one jar at a time. Using a jar lifter, remove jar from canner and empty hot water back into canner (do not dry jar). Place jar on a tray or towel-covered counter and place a canning funnel in it. Ladle hot jam into hot jar, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Slide a nonmetallic utensil, such as a rubber spatula, down between the jam and the inside of the jar two or three times to release air bubbles. With a clean damp cloth or paper towel, wipe jar rim and threads to remove any food residue. Using a magnetic lid lifter, lift hot lid from water and center it on jar. Place screw band on jar and, with your fingers, screw band evenly and firmly, just until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip-tight. Do not overtighten. Return jar to canner rack and repeat until all jam is used.

8. When all jars are filled and placed in canner, ensure that jars are covered by at least 1 inch of hot water. Cover canner and bring water to a full rolling boil over high heat. Continue boiling rapidly for 10 minutes, starting timer only when water reaches a full rolling boil. At the end of the processing time, turn heat off and remove canner lid. Wait 5 minutes, then remove jars, without tilting. Place jars upright on a towel in a draft-free place and let cool, undisturbed, for 24 hours.

9. After 24 hours, check lids for seal. Remove screw bands and press down on the center of each lid with your finger. Sealed lids will curve downward and will show no movement when pressed. Jars that haven’t sealed properly must be refrigerated immediately or reprocessed. Rinse and dry screw bands. Wipe jars with a damp cloth or paper towel and loosely reapply screw bands. Label jars and store in a cool, dry, dark place.

Yield: 8 8-ounce jars
Time: 3 hours
Leftover potential: Duh.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

CHICKEN IN RIESLING


RIP, Gourmet magazine. I never subscribed (and thus, I suppose, could be considered complicit in your downfall), but you had consistently great food writing, and a quick search of my blog reveals that the few recipes of yours I’ve tried are among my favorites. Now I’m adding this one to the list.

I originally spotted this, in a modified version, at Everybody Likes Sandwiches, where it was described as “the best single meal I've ever ever ever cooked in my life.” How could I not give that a try, immediately? The original version on Epicurious looked more to my taste, so I added it to my menu for Sunday night. A cozy, hearty, French peasant-style braise of chicken and root vegetables in wine and cream seemed a perfect way to welcome November and the return of 5:00 sunsets. Of course, it ended up being over 90 degrees in Pasadena, but this was still a delicious dinner—luckily, it was originally intended for the spring, so it’s not too rich and heavy. This is the kind of recipe that makes me feel really impressed with myself, even if all I did was follow directions. It’s so simple (I was a little afraid it would be bland, since there are barely even any herbs in it), but the ingredients are transformed into something sophisticated and surprising, probably because they're bathed in a chickeny, tangy, creamy sauce that will have you licking the plate (next time, I might make a few more potatoes or maybe serve some bread, the better to soak up more sauce).

The recipe may be a little too time-consuming for a weeknight, but I didn’t feel like I was stuck slaving in the kitchen, and we ate at a timely hour. I followed the directions exactly and everything went smoothly. My Riesling wasn’t Alsatian (Trader Joe’s only had two Rieslings, a $2.99 one from California and a $6.99 one from Washington, so I went with the Washington), and I’m not even sure how dry it was (I took a sip and it was tart and fruity), but I don’t think it mattered; I really loved the taste of the finished sauce. Gourmet says you can use crème fraiche or heavy cream, but for me there’s no choice—crème fraiche has so much more character and works so well in sauces, since it never separates (the reheated leftovers were still perfectly creamy the next day), I strongly recommend it if you can get it (and if you can’t find it at the store, make your own!). I had a bit of a revelation when reading about the French-style cut chicken; I always complain that the bone-in chicken breasts that come in the packages of whole cut-up chicken at Trader Joe’s are impossibly massive (especially since white meat is not my favorite), but it had never occurred to me that I could simply cut them in half crosswise into more manageable portions. This time I gave it a try, and wouldn’t you know it, two hacks with a cleaver through the ribs and I had four neat, modest pieces! I’ll definitely be doing that for other bone-in chicken recipes from now on.

1 whole chicken (about 3½ pounds), backbone discarded and chicken cut French style into 8 pieces (2 breast halves with wings attached, halved crosswise for a total of 4 breast pieces; 2 drumsticks; and 2 thighs), or 3 pounds pre-cut chicken parts (bone-in, with skin).
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
4 medium leeks (white and pale green parts only), finely chopped (2 cups)
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot
4 thin medium carrots, halved diagonally
1 cup dry white wine (preferably Alsatian Riesling)
1½ pounds small (2-inch) red potatoes (I could only find larger ones, so I halved them)
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
½ cup crème fraîche
Fresh lemon juice to taste (I used the juice of 1 lemon)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Pat chicken dry and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and a rounded ¾ teaspoon pepper. Heat oil with 1 tablespoon butter in a wide 3½-to-5-quart heavy ovenproof pot (I used my Dutch oven) over medium-high heat until foam subsides, then brown chicken in 2 batches, turning once, about 10 minutes total per batch. Transfer to a plate.

3. Pour off fat from pot, then cook leeks, shallot, and ¼ teaspoon salt in remaining 2 tablespoons butter, covered, over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until leeks are pale golden, 5 to 7 minutes. Add chicken, skin sides up, with any juices from plate, carrots, and wine and boil until liquid is reduced by half, 3 to 4 minutes. Cover pot and braise chicken in oven until cooked through, 20 to 25 minutes.

4. While chicken braises, peel potatoes, then generously cover with cold water in a 2-to-3-quart saucepan and add 1½ teaspoons salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer until potatoes are just tender, about 15 minutes. Drain in a colander, then return to saucepan. Add parsley and shake to coat.

5. Remove chicken mixture from oven, stir in crème fraîche, and season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, then add potatoes.

Serves: 4
Time: 2 hours
Leftover potential: Good.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP WITH PEAR, CIDER, AND VANILLA BEAN


I already have a satisfactory butternut squash soup recipe, as well as two dissatisfactory ones, so I wasn’t really in the market for another. It’s impossible, however, to read Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life without wanting to make this recipe (originally featured on her blog, Orangette, and published at Seattlest)—at least, if you’re a sucker for vanilla the way I am. I’ve had it filed away all spring and summer, just waiting for squash, pear, and cider season to roll around, and I’m happy to say it was worth the long wait. This soup is more labor-intensive than my usual one, and less savory, as well as being considerably more expensive (at least until I find a source for discount vanilla beans), but it’s also rich, complex, unusual, and utterly delicious. I was wary that with all that fruit and squash and vanilla, its flavor might veer into the realm of overwhelmingly sweet, but as long as you make sure to salt it sufficiently, it escapes dessertiness. And if in doubt, pair it with something salty to balance everything out. The first time around, I dipped in slices of the best garlic bread ever, which created an amazing contrast between flavors; for the leftover soup, a grilled-cheese sandwich made from sharp aged cheddar and onion rye bread proved a worthy accompaniment.

I won’t be dumping my former favorite butternut squash soup for this one. But my simple, everyday standby is gaining a more sophisticated, decadent, special-occasion cousin, perfect for dinner parties, Sunday suppers, and feasts welcoming fall.

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch pieces (4 generous cups)
2 firm-ripe pears, peeled, cored, and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 2 cups)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 cup apple cider
4 cups good-quality chicken broth
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup half-and-half
1 vanilla bean, about 7 inches long
Fresh chives, finely chopped

1. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or stockpot over medium-low heat. Add the squash, pears, and onion, stir to coat with oil, and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 10 to 15 minutes, until the onion is soft and transparent and the pears are starting to fall apart.

2. Add the cider, and bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the broth, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer the mixture, partially covered, for about 30 minutes, until the squash is tender.

3. Working in batches, carefully puree the mixture in a food processor or blender, then return the soup to the pot (or keep it in the pot and use an immersion blender). Season soup with salt. Continue to cook over medium-low heat, uncovered, until it has reduced to about ½ to ⅓ of its original volume. Stir occasionally. The final consistency is up to you; when it reaches a thickness that seems right—not too thin, not too thick—it’s ready.

4. While the soup is reducing, put the half-and-half in a small saucepan. Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise into two long strips. Using the back of your knife, scrape the tiny black seeds out of the bean. Scoop the seeds and the bean halves into the pan with the half-and-half, and put the pan over low heat. Warm the half-and-half until it is steaming, but not boiling. Remove it from the heat, remove and discard the vanilla bean halves, and whisk to break up any clumps of seeds in the half-and-half. Set aside.

5. When the soup has reduced to its desired thickness, stir in the half-and-half, taking care to not leave any little black seeds behind in the saucepan. Taste, and adjust seasoning as necessary. Serve, garnished with chives.

Serves: 4–6
Time: 1½ hours
Leftover potential: High; soup always tastes better the next day.

Monday, October 19, 2009

ROASTED BUTTERNUT SQUASH SALAD WITH WARM CIDER VINAIGRETTE

Just a little over a month after discovering my new favorite salad, I’ve found its autumn counterpart in this showstopper from the Barefoot Contessa (via The Way the Cookie Crumbles, where I was tickled to see that the monkey peeler featured in the photos is the same one that’s sitting on the shelf over my stove). The arugula and toasted walnuts are still with us, but in this new version the boiled potatoes are replaced by maple-glazed roasted butternut squash, the green beans are now dried cranberries, and the dressing is still mustardy (yes, this Dijonphobe is finally learning to love what a little Grey Poupon can do to a salad dressing), but now based in a reduction of apple cider and cider vinegar for an orgy of fallishness. It’s warmer and bolder, but still light and fresh enough to be perfect for the uncertain Southern California autumn, when the temperature seems to rollercoaster between the 50s and the 90s at a moment’s notice, so that the wintry menu you planned on Friday might seem oppressively heavy and hot by the time Wednesday rolls around.

Again, the real magic lies in the contrast of flavors and textures: the peppery arugula, the caramelized squash, the tart cranberries, the earthy walnuts, the salty cheese, and the sweet-sour dressing. While it wasn’t as much of a revelation for me as the potato-green bean salad (and was certainly more labor-intensive), I’ll be happily making it again, and A adored it. I can’t think of a better way to enjoy the first squash of the season.

The recipe below reflects a few changes to the original, because I did think some of the proportions were a tad bonkers: specifically, the fact that it calls for so much olive oil (½ cup in the dressing, or two tablespoons per serving) and Parmesan (¾ cup or 3 tablespoons per serving). WTF, Ina? Why drown a healthy, colorful salad in unnecessary fat? Since I, too, like my dressings on the acidic side, I followed the lead of The Way the Cookie Crumbles and used only about ¼ cup of oil in the dressing, which was plenty (I still had more dressing than we needed). I should have reduced the salt in the dressing correspondingly, though; a whole teaspoon made it crazy salty (A liked it, but then that man would happily eat a salt lick sprinkled with bacon bits). Next time, ½ teaspoon. And it might sound incongruous, given what a die-hard cheese lover I am, but I can’t imagine this salad with so much cheese, so I cut back to about ¼ cup. Maybe it was the fact that the photos at The Way the Cookie Crumbles didn’t include the Parmesan, but I just kept forgetting that the cheese should be there at all. It did add a nice salty/savory quality, but a spoonful per bowl seemed plenty, and when I ate the leftovers, I didn’t bother with the cheese and didn’t miss it. So I’d even go so far as to classify it as optional.

A few other random thoughts:
  • When I pulled the maple syrup out of the fridge, I noticed that it had expired…in August 2008. Guess we need to eat more pancakes around here. Maybe it was my imagination, shocked by this discovery, but I thought it smelled a little weird, though I can’t imagine how exactly syrup would go bad. Anyway, it was OK for the squash glaze, but I threw the rest away.
  • I used fancy-schmancy hippie hand-pressed unpasteurized handmade cider from the farmers’ market for the dressing, but since you’re reducing it, any cider or apple juice would work just fine.
  • I’m not a cranberry lover, but I liked the effect of roasting them for a few minutes—they got addictively plump and chewy. Nice touch!
1½ pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into ¾-inch dice
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
1½ teaspoons kosher salt, divided
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons dried cranberries
½ cup walnut halves or pieces
¾ cup apple cider or apple juice
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
4 ounces baby arugula, washed and dried
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Place the butternut squash on a baking sheet. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, the maple syrup, 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste, then toss to combine. Roast the squash for 15 minutes, turning once, until tender. Add the cranberries and walnuts to the pan and cook for 5 minutes more.

3. While the squash is roasting, combine the apple cider, vinegar, and shallots in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until the cider is reduced to about ¼ cup. Off the heat, whisk in the mustard, ¼ cup olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt, and pepper.

4. Place the arugula in a large salad bowl and add the roasted squash mixture and the grated Parmesan. Spoon just enough vinaigrette over the salad to moisten and toss well. Season with salt and pepper (if necessary) and serve immediately.

Serves: 4
Time: 45 minutes
Leftover potential: Fair, actually, if all the ingredients are stored separately. I mixed up half the salad for dinner the first night, then stored the remaining arugula in a bag, the remaining squash mixture in a microwaveable container, and the remaining dressing in a small jar. When we wanted to eat the leftovers, I warmed up the squash mixture, then mixed it with the arugula and dressing (I skipped the cheese, but you could add it at this point) and it was just as good as it had been the first time around.

Friday, October 16, 2009

CHOCOLATE CRINKLE COOKIES


These are a classic variety of cookie, but I can only recall encountering them once before: when S, one of my roommates in my first post-college apartment, made them. At that point I was only beginning to cook for myself (I mean really cook, not just assemble convenience ingredients), and baking seemed far beyond my reach, so I was mightily impressed that someone would just whip up some cookies in their spare time. It’s likely that my awe amplified the experience, but I remember those cookies being freakin’ delicious.

So when I received Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, a facsimile of a 1963 edition, for Christmas one year, I was happy to see that Chocolate Crinkles were represented. I flagged the page…and then managed to ignore it for several years. There were always hipper, sexier cookies to make, cookies with sea salt and bacon and gourmet chocolate. I even made a fancier version of the Chocolate Crinkle once, with almond meal and Ghirardelli (hmm…I’d nearly forgotten about that recipe; perhaps it’s time to revisit it). I loved the vintage look of the cookbook, but the old-timey recipe seemed almost too simple—and a little weird, too, what with its four eggs, and oil instead of shortening or butter. What if it sucked?

Even after deciding to pull the trigger and finally make these cookies one Saturday afternoon, I continued to worry about potential suckiness, especially at a few key moments: when the dough turned out oddly thin, like cake batter, when I tasted the dough and it wasn’t particularly yummy (I consider eating cookie dough off the beaters the number one privilege of being the cook), and yet again when placing my tiny dough balls on the baking sheet. (I mean, teaspoons? Really? Not tablespoons? I was sure these cookies were going to end up the size of animal crackers.) Not to mention that between the chocolate and the powdered sugar, this was one of the messiest recipes I’ve made (maybe I’m a slobbier baker than some, but I had to mop a sticky coating of sugar off the floor afterwards). But the dough firmed up to a fudge-like consistency after chilling, the cookies puffed up to average size in the oven, and they tasted great. To me, the unique texture is what’s truly magical—the sugar forms a delicate, crackly shell encasing the tender, chewy chocolate within. Especially hot from the oven, when the interior is most brownie-like, these are dangerously addictive. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned.

½ cup vegetable oil
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted
2 cups granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup confectioners’ (powdered) sugar

1. Mix oil, chocolate, and granulated sugar. Blend in one egg at a time until well mixed. Add vanilla. Stir in flour, baking powder, and salt. Chill several hours or overnight.

2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place confectioners’ sugar in a shallow bowl and drop in teaspoonfuls of dough. Roll in sugar, then shape into balls. Place about 2 inches apart on greased baking sheets. Bake 10 to 12 minutes; do not overbake.

Yield: About 6 dozen

Friday, October 09, 2009

SPINACH AND PORK WONTONS


Habitual readers will already know how much I love ravioli, dumplings, and most other variants of food-stuffed-inside-other-food. It’s surprising, then, that it’s taken me so long to attempt to make my own wontons. I guess I was waiting for the right recipe—one that contained foods I really liked, and didn’t sound too fussy or have too many ingredients. When I saw this one, originally from Food & Wine, at The Bitten Word, with the reassurance that it was actually pretty easy, I finally decided to take the plunge.

I’ve made these twice now, and I can confirm that it isn’t too hard. It’s just on the verge of being too taxing for a weeknight meal, but once I discovered that I could make the filling a day or two ahead of time and chill it in the fridge until I was ready to form the dumplings—and then I could even freeze those until I was ready to cook them—that became a nonissue. These are fun to make (I find folding them rather meditative) and really delicious, and knowing exactly what’s inside them (pork, spinach, and seasonings) makes them seem more wholesome to me than dumplings usually do. They might not win any beauty contests (mine cooked up sort of blobby), but a bowl of them makes an excellent dinner. Even though we eat more (12) than the recommended serving size (7.5), I feel OK about it—that’s only 2 ounces of pork, not much more fat to speak of (just the sesame oil), and at least a cup of spinach.

Lots of recipe notes:
  • After reading the comments, I went ahead and doubled the original filling recipe, which was supposed to fill 30 wontons, and got just enough to fill 48 wontons, the exact size of the package of wrappers I’d bought. And that’s not even using heaping teaspoons, so I’m not sure why the proportions of the original are so off. I recommend using the quantities below—if you have too many wontons (is there such a thing?), just freeze them for later; I cook 24, which is two servings for us, and freeze the other 24.
  • The recipe originally called for 2 (doubled, 4) cups of spinach. The second time I made it, I went ahead and used the whole bag of spinach I’d bought, which said it contained about 6 cups, because I didn’t want extra spinach sitting around the fridge and I figured spinach shrinks down so much anyway. It didn’t make a noticeable difference in the quantity or taste of the filling, and it was a good way to squeeze in a few more nutrients, so I’m going to continue doing it in the future.
  • I didn’t have sherry, so I didn’t use it. Still tasted good.
  • The second time around, I put the garlic inside the wontons instead of in the sauce (more on that sauce below). Because I love garlic. It was good, so I’m modifying the recipe to include it.
  • I thought the original sauce seemed sort of pointless—the first time, I just used a little extra soy sauce with some red pepper flakes sprinkled in, and it was fine. Then A found Gyoza Dipping Sauce at Trader Joe’s, which is delicious and contains pretty much the same ingredients as the sauce the recipe asks for. Either way, I think it’s a good idea to drizzle the sauce over your bowl of wontons, because it keeps them from sticking together, and they’re a bit delicate to try to dip into sauce anyway. But A prefers to dip, so do whatever you like. Regardless, the garnish of chopped cilantro is key.
4–6 cups baby spinach, rinsed
3 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
2 teaspoons dry sherry (optional)
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
½ pound ground pork
2 scallions, minced
1½ teaspoons minced fresh ginger
2 small garlic cloves, minced
Cornstarch, for sprinkling
48 thin wonton wrappers
Chopped fresh cilantro
Extra soy sauce or other Asian-style sauce for dipping (I recommend Trader Joe’s Gyoza Sauce)

1. In a skillet over medium heat, cook the spinach with a few spoonfuls of water, covered, stirring occasionally, until wilted; transfer to a colander, let cool, and squeeze dry. Finely chop the spinach.

2. In a bowl, combine the 3 teaspoons soy sauce with the sesame oil, sherry, salt, sugar, and pepper. Mix in the pork, scallion, ginger, garlic, and spinach. Chill for 10 minutes. (You can chill it, covered, for a day or two if you’d like to make your wontons later.)

3. Dust a large baking sheet with cornstarch (you can skip this if your wonton wrappers already seem plenty cornstarchy, as mine did). Arrange 4 wonton wrappers on a work surface, keeping the other wrappers covered with plastic wrap. Brush the edges of the wrappers with water and spoon 1 teaspoon of filling in the center of each. Fold the wrappers diagonally over the filling to form triangles; seal. Bring the two opposite corners of the triangle together; press to seal. Transfer to the baking sheet and cover. Repeat. Any wontons you don’t want to cook right away can be frozen (freeze them on the baking sheet until they harden, then transfer them to an airtight container and freeze until ready to cook; you don’t need to defrost them—just drop them directly into boiling water as in Step 4, but give them a little more cooking time). I usually cook 24 and freeze 24.

4. In a large saucepan of boiling water, simmer the wontons over moderate heat, stirring occasionally. When they float, cook for 3 minutes longer. Drain the wontons well (they can be delicate, so I find that it works better to transfer them one by one to the colander—or directly to serving bowls—with a slotted spoon, rather than pouring them out with the water).

5. Place the wontons in serving bowls and sprinkle with the cilantro. You can toss the wontons with the dipping sauce (I prefer this, because it’s neater and keeps them from sticking together) or dip them into the sauce individually (A prefers this, because it’s fun).

Serves: 4–8
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: Not good if already cooked (they stick together and fall apart easily), but it’s great to freeze uncooked wontons for a quickie meal later.

Friday, October 02, 2009

KALE, ROASTED GARLIC, AND FOUR-CHEESE PIZZA


Yes, another pizza recipe. I haven’t met one yet that I didn’t like. That can be reassuring, especially when one needs something new to post to one’s food blog and one’s little experiment with making one’s own pita bread was an EPIC FAIL. (Well, OK, it was edible and tasted good, but it was totally pocketless—it’s supposed to puff up in the oven and then deflate when you take it out, thus creating the pocket. Instead I got flatbread, the making of which devolved into an epic dough-wrestling match that tried my patience and my confidence. I may or may not make a second attempt.)

I was pretty high on roasted garlic after last week, and I had some leftover asiago still in the fridge, so this recipe from Eggs on Sunday (again!) was a slam dunk. I suffered a moment of fear while preparing the kale—being so obsessed with roasting it, I suddenly realized I’d never sautéed it before and didn’t know if I would like it—but the kale actually turned out to be what I loved most about this pizza, which is high praise indeed when you’ve also got roasted garlic and four cheeses to contend with. Even though I’d sautéed it and partially buried it in cheese, its time in the oven rendered it familiarly browned and crispy on the edges: it was like a roasted-kale pizza, guys! Actually, even better: it was like roasted kale on delicious garlic-cheese bread. Because I had a little ricotta sitting lonely in the fridge and have realized that I love ricotta on non-tomato-sauce pizzas (it adds just the right amount of moistness without being overcreamy), I subbed that for the provolone in the original recipe. And it was excellent (while I’m at it, I might try sneaking a little ricotta onto that mushroom-garlic-asiago pizza next time around). Add this to the list of recipes that will get kids (and A, and me) to happily eat their kale.

1 pound pizza dough
1 head of garlic
1 bunch kale
3 cups of grated cheese (I used a mix of ricotta, fontina, asiago, and mozzarella)

1. To roast the garlic, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Cut the top ¼ inch off the head of garlic, so just the very tops of the cloves are exposed. Drizzle a little olive oil over the head of garlic, wrap it loosely in foil, and place the foil package in the oven for about 1 hour, until the cloves are soft. Squeeze the soft cloves out and roughly chop them. (Roasted garlic can be stored in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container for several days.)

2. When you’re ready to bake the pizza, preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Stretch out your ball of pizza dough and lay it out on a pizza peel or baking sheet that’s been generously dusted with cornmeal.

3. Wash the kale and trim away the tough center stems. Heat about a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and sauté the kale until wilted. Remove kale from pan and chop it.

4. Top the crust with half the grated cheese, then the roasted garlic and the sauteed kale. Top with another layer of cheese.

5. Bake for about 8 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbly and just starting to brown, and the crust is golden brown.

Serves: 4
Time: 1½ hours
Leftover potential: Good

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

GREEN BEAN AND POTATO SALAD WITH BACON


At this time of the year, I get a little cranky about living in Southern California. It’s fall—school’s started (and with it, the horrific post-Labor-Day traffic), the days are getting shorter (it’s dark when I get up in the morning and nearly dark when I come home at night), the clothing stores are full of wool and fleece, and I’ve even seen a few leaves turning orange (yes, some of our trees do change colors in the autumn, contrary to popular belief). The food blogs are suddenly full of talk of pumpkins, apples, long-simmered soups, and pot roasts. And…it’s 103 degrees in Pasadena. September is traditionally one of our hottest months, not to mention that some part of the Southland is usually on fire. It’s still too hot for me to even make ice cream, let alone start canning and braising and roasting and baking and cuddling up under blankets the way online peer pressure and my own Northern instincts compel me to.

But I’m trying to look on the bright side. At least I get a little longer to say goodbye to summer and perfect all my salad recipes, right? Like the other night I revisited this one from Cooking Light, which I first made a few months ago and enjoyed, but never got around to writing about. I couldn’t get wax beans, my photos turned out sort of blah, and A—who I’d expected to be enthusiastic about anything involving bacon—was skeptical (“the pieces are too big and it’s hard to eat”). So, in the midst of this new heat wave, I thought I’d give it another shot—this time, with wax beans, a little extra bacon, and the beans and potatoes halved crosswise to address A’s objections. The result was a perfectly pleasant potato-green bean salad, heavy on the green beans (I like that), dressed in a simple vinaigrette, and jazzed up with crumbles of bacon. It’s good…but if this doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, it’s because not even the allure of bacon can rival the other potato-green bean salad in my life, the one I discovered a few weeks ago and can’t stop craving. So I’m not sure whether this recipe will quite make it into my repertoire. But I recommend it to you, and I might turn to it every now and again, just for variety, when summer starts feeling a little too long.

¾ pound green beans, trimmed
½ pound wax beans, trimmed
½ pound fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise
¼ cup white wine vinegar, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon kosher salt, divided
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1tablespoon minced fresh parsley
2 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled

1. Cook beans in boiling water 5 minutes or until crisp-tender. Drain and run under cold water for a few minutes, then let drain again.

2. Place potatoes in a saucepan; cover with water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 5 minutes or until tender; drain. Return potatoes to pan over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons vinegar to pan; bring to a boil. Remove from heat.

3. Combine remaining 2 tablespoons vinegar, oil, ¼ teaspoon salt, and pepper in a small bowl, stirring with a whisk. Drizzle beans with vinegar mixture; toss well to coat. Place beans on a serving platter; arrange potatoes over beans. Sprinkle with remaining ¼teaspoon salt, parsley, and bacon. Serve at room temperature.

Serves: 6
Time: 30 minutes
Leftover potential: OK. The vinegar will discolor the green beans, so it won’t be as pretty, but it will still taste fine.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

MUSHROOM, ASIAGO, ROASTED GARLIC, AND THYME PIZZA


Eventually, I’m just going to end up cribbing Eggs on Sunday’s entire Pizza category. I can’t help myself! There’s so much variety, and all the kinds I’ve tried have been seriously good. Left to my own devices, I’d just be throwing some tomato sauce, zucchini, mushrooms, sausage, and mozzarella on there and calling it a day. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but considering that I make pizza once a week, I feel the need to branch out. And I’m OK at improvising every now and then, but with pizza, the possibilities are so endless that I tend to get overwhelmed and would prefer to seek guidance from a recipe so my little head doesn’t spin too much.

Mushrooms are my #1 default pizza topping, so I knew I had to try this one. It’s simple, but with the big, bold flavors of pungent asiago and sweet roasted garlic (mmm…gaaaarlic…) The flavors pair fabulously, and it’s easy to throw together (for weeknight-cooking ease, I roasted the garlic the night before and kept it in a sealed container in the fridge until I was ready to make the pizza). The only thing I’d change would be to use more mushrooms—I suspect my pizza was larger than the one in the original recipe, and although 1 cup seemed to provide plenty of mushroom coverage at first, I’d forgotten how much mushrooms shrink up once they cook, and in the end they looked a little meager. So next time, I’ll try a whole 8-ounce package. No such thing as too many mushrooms, right? In addition to amping up the flavor even more, I think it’ll help the moisture content—I know I overcooked my pizza a little, but even with the drizzle of olive oil it was a bit dry.

1 whole head of garlic
Olive oil
1 ball of pizza dough (1 pound)
1½ cups grated asiago cheese
1–2 cups thinly sliced mushrooms (I like cremini)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon thinly sliced tops of green onions (optional; I didn’t want to buy some just for this recipe, but if I’d happened to have some on hand, I would have used them)

1. To roast the garlic, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Cut the top ¼ inch off a whole head of garlic, so just the very tops of the cloves are exposed. Drizzle a little olive oil over the head of garlic, wrap it loosely in foil, and place the foil package in the oven for about 1 hour, until the cloves are soft. Squeeze the soft cloves out and roughly chop them. (Roasted garlic can be stored in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container for several days.)

2. When you’re ready to bake the pizza, preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Stretch out your ball of pizza dough and lay it out on a pizza peel or baking sheet that’s been generously dusted with cornmeal.

3. Layer the toppings as follows: grated asiago cheese, mushrooms, roasted garlic, thyme, and green onion slices. Drizzle the pizza with a little olive oil.

4. Bake until the cheese has melted and the crust is golden brown, about 8–10 minutes.

Serves: 4
Time: 1½ hours
Leftover potential: Good.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

FRUIT AND BROWNED BUTTER CAKE


I made this dessert with some gorgeous “dinosaur egg” pluots a couple of weeks ago, but even though it knocked my socks off and A’s too, I neglected to write about it. At first I couldn’t figure out why I kept procrastinating, and then one day I caught myself thinking, “Hmm, I seem to have forgotten what this tastes like…how will I describe it on my blog? It’s been so long since I tasted it, I really don’t think I can do it justice anymore. Maybe I should whip up another batch, just to inspire myself.” Yes, I had managed to trick myself into making this again. Sometimes having a food blog comes in handy.

Purely in the spirit of scientific inquiry, I used nectarines the second time, and it turned out just as amazingly as the first time around. So: versatile, possibly foolproof? Check. Delicious? CHECK. Astoundingly easy, requiring only a few common ingredients (I didn’t plan on making that second batch ahead of time—just gave in to my craving one day and delightedly found that all the ingredients were already in my kitchen) and some fruit that happens to be in season right now? Check, check, and check. Clearly, I can’t in good conscience keep the recipe from you people any longer.

This isn’t really a cake per se, but that’s what the original recipe (from Classic Home Desserts by Richard Sax) calls it: Quick Apple Cake. Occasionally, while eating, you do get a chunk that seems cake-reminiscent, where the batter has oozed down to surround a piece of fruit. But on the site where I found the recipe, Baking With Julie, it looks more like a pie, baked in a pie plate and cut into wedges. I don’t own a pie plate, if you can believe it, so I used an 8-inch square Pyrex baking dish, and rather than slicing the dessert (which didn’t have much structural integrity anyway the first time I made it, probably because I used too many of those juicy pluots) I just scooped out spoonfuls into bowls, like a cobbler or crisp or crumble—and indeed it’s put together that way, with lots of cooked fruit on the bottom and just a layer of batter on top. Julie calls it “Browned Butter Bliss,” and that’s certainly accurate, as well as being kind of catchy—and really, if we can have desserts called grunts, slumps, buckles, bettys, and pandowdies, why can’t we popularize the bliss? Still, I’m not sure I can pull it off without air quotes, so in the end I opted for a more straight-up descriptive name, mainly so I don’t have to deal with the “huh?” that would probably result each time I told A we were having Bliss for dessert.

The magical ingredient here is the browned butter, which gives the cake a wonderful caramelized flavor (seriously: taste a fingerful of the uncooked batter; the caramel is even more pronounced than in the finished dessert). If you’ve never browned butter before, all that means is melting butter in a pan on the stovetop and then letting it go a shade or two darker—this happens quickly, so you do have to be vigilant, but otherwise it requires no skill on your part. Then you just mix that—by hand; no mixer required—with some sugar, eggs, and flour, and pour the batter over some cut-up fruit you’ve tossed with a little sugar in the baking dish. You don’t even have to peel that fruit! Sprinkle some more sugar on top and bake. One bowl, one baking dish, a few measuring cups, and that’s it. In 40 minutes you’ll have meltingly soft baked fruit, sweetened but still a little tart, nestled beneath a crusty, buttery topping. I’m willing to bet you could use just about any pie-friendly fruit: peaches, plums, apricots, berries, cherries, pears….Obviously I’m going to have to experiment with each and every one. And I haven’t even tried it with ice cream or whipped cream yet—it’s plenty good plain, whether eaten warm from the pan or cold from the fridge the next day. I'd also like to try it with brown sugar, though that might just be gilding the lily.

Even more so than the berry buttermilk cake, my other favorite simple-baked-fruit-dessert discovery of this summer, this is a recipe I can totally envision myself effortlessly memorizing, then whipping up spontaneously at a moment’s notice when guests drop by (of course, guests never really just “drop by” my apartment, but in this fantasy I live in some close-knit, old-timey community with all my friends in easy reach and leisurely afternoons to spend in each others’ kitchens). Or, you know, when I just have some fruit lying around that needs to be eaten.

8 or so small plums or apricots, or 3 large peaches or nectarines, thickly sliced (the original calls for 3 tart apples, peeled and thinly sliced, in which case also add a squeeze of lemon juice to them in the pan)
¾ cup + 3 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon (optional; I didn’t use it)
½ cup butter
2 large eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Butter a pie plate or 8-inch square baking dish. Toss your fruit in the baking dish with about 2 tablespoons sugar and the cinnamon, if using; spread evenly over the bottom of the dish.

3. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat (I find that a light-colored [i.e., non-nonstick, such as stainless steel] pan works better, because you can see the color of the butter more clearly) and keep cooking it, swirling the pan occasionally, for about 5 minutes or until it turns golden brown (you should see brown flecks in the butter). Remove from heat and pour into a medium mixing bowl.

4. Stir the ¾ cup of sugar into the butter, then the eggs, then the flour. Pour over the fruit and sprinkle with the last tablespoon of sugar.

5. Bake for 40–45 minutes, until golden and crusty, and the juices ooze from around the edges. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or thick vanilla yogurt.

Serves: 4–8
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: High. I was surprised how much I liked the cold leftovers the next day—almost more than the hot-from-the-oven version (though if you wanted, you could just reheat the leftovers in the microwave—which I’d do if I were serving it with ice cream; I love that warm/cold contrast). Sure, the cake topping gets less crisp, but the flavors seem to meld more.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

GREEN BEAN AND CHERRY TOMATO SALAD


With just two vegetables in a basic vinaigrette, this salad is almost too simple to talk about. You may note that it’s also suspiciously similar to this salad, but with shallots instead of corn. But it’s plenty tasty, and since it happens to contains the two vegetables I’ve been most obsessed with this summer (as well as following the vegetable + acid + shallots formula that’s worked so well for me in the past), I’m…going to talk about it anyway. After all, you can never have too many summer salads in your arsenal, particularly when the temperature hits the triple digits and forests in your immediate vicinity are on fire.

The recipe is from Chez Panisse Vegetables, via Smitten Kitchen, and I made it for the first time on the fourth of July, when A was out of town and some friends kindly invited me to share in their cookout, so I volunteered to bring salad and we all enjoyed it. But I forgot to photograph it or write about it, so I made it again last week, as a side dish for a hot-weather dinner of hummus and pita crisps. A, being not really a fan of either cherry tomatoes or green beans, politely tried a few bites and then gave me the rest of his bowl, so I guess we won’t be eating this all the time. But I’m fine with making myself a big bowl to eat by my lonesome when the green-bean-and-cherry-tomato craving strikes again.

I made a half-recipe, but otherwise no other modifications. I haven’t added an herb so far, but I do think basil would be tasty.

1 pound green beans (or a mix of green and yellow beans)
1 pound cherry tomatoes
1 large shallot
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Basil or other herb (optional)

1. Trim the beans and cut them into large segments. Parboil in salted water until just tender, about four to five minutes. Drain and immediately spread them out to cool.

2. Stem the cherry tomatoes and cut them in half.

3. Peel and mince the shallot and put it in a large bowl with the vinegar and salt and pepper. Whisk in the olive oil. Taste and adjust the balance with more vinegar, oil, or salt, as needed. Toss the cherry tomatoes in with the vinaigrette. This can sit for a while, but do not add the green beans until just before serving or they will discolor from the acid in the vinaigrette. For variety, the salad can be garnished with basil or some other fresh herb such as parsley.

Serves: 6
Time: 15 minutes
Leftover potential: Low to OK. I did eat some leftovers the next day and they tasted fine, but the vinegar had turned the green beans an unappetizing army green, so be forewarned.