Monday, December 10, 2012

The Best Dish of Thanksgiving

It had to be the cauliflower.

Stephanie Izard, of Girl & the Goat, is a talented and generous cook. When I decided to add cauliflower to my Thanksgiving menu but wanted to put a twist on it, I went trolling for some hints as to how she does her roasted cauliflower. Besides the Pig Face (best name ever), the Roasted Cauliflower and Grilled Broccoli were the most memorable dishes I've had at Girl & the Goat. I didn't have to search long for the cauliflower recipe: just a click over to Izard's site lead to a detailed recipe. The dish was a perfect addition to the Thanksgiving menu, though I think only my husband and I enjoyed it. We both had seconds but I'm not sure anyone else had firsts.

The rest of the menu was fairly standard. I salted the turkey overnight, made the usual Vegetarian Stuffing I love so much, and those awesome Golden Pillow Dinner Rolls. I steam-sauteed some of those long market carrots, the ones that are sold with the fronds attached. Those were great. I don't use butter the way I was taught in cooking school, but if you follow the real French cooking method, you end up with glistening carrots. What else? Mixed Greens with Candied Pecans and Pear, Cranberry Sauce...the usual suspects.

The mashed potatoes came out perfectly this year, with only a splash of lowfat milk. I used Yukons, mostly peeled and fully boiled them, then returned them to the pot to dry and wait. As everything was ready to go to the table, I mashed them with my trusty thick, wooden masher-muddler (which should go into the stocking of everyone not already in possession of same, save that of small children and - I can't even believe I'm saying this: dogs*). I can't advise you on where to buy one, though. I don't recall where mine came from, but it's our second one. The first muddler was more traditional and likely fine for cocktails. The new one (more than twice as thick at the mashing end) mostly gets used for guacamole. And mashed potatoes, once a year when we have them.

Oh, and Pumpkin Pie, Apple Pie, and a Chocolate Bundt Cake. My daughters had recently watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and so there was much heralding of the Bundt! all day.

Next up: adventures in the kitchen with pheasant. My husband came home (long story) with a whole bird, boneless breasts, and a smoked bird. Cassoulet is in the offing!

The reason I can't believe I'm said dogs is it sadly won't be long before the creation of  a line of bar-keeping dog toys because many people think that sort of thing is cute. Added to the list of things I don't want to trip on: a squeaky plush cocktail shaker.  That said, I did purchase a stuffed banana for my dog for his stocking for three reasons: 1. He loves bananas, 2. This one has a squeaker, 3. I am an idiot.

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Monday, November 5, 2012

On the Menu This Week

First of all, my favorite egg nog hit the chilled shelves last week. I've been zapping a small slosh (2-3T or so) in a little pitcher and then adding it to my Americano in the mornings. Yum. It's like an egg nog latte minus all the fat and calories.

On the menu this week is a fall favorite: Potato & Maui Onion Soup, which I fell in love with on our honeymoon in Hawaii 17 years ago. Wild salmon is done for the season, so I'm back to buying farmed Norwegian for our main course.

Tonight we're having Italian Beef with Ciabatta from La Fournette and a Pinch House Salad on the side. I've not yet tried the ciabatta from La Fournette. I really like the beer bread and the miche. But Italian Beef demands ciabatta, plus I like having it around for the kids lunches. Tomorrow they'll take fresh mozzarella and basil on ciabatta drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinager, their favorite lunch.

We'll also have Beef Tacos with all the Fixin's, and Smoked Chicken Sandwich with frisee and an awesome Pommery mustard sauce drizzled all over.

What else? Oh, for the night we're running hither and yon, it will be Cantonese Roast Pork with Steamed Broccoli. I can marinate the pork loin overnight and grill it in about 10 minutes - a great weeknight meal on when we all tumble in the door starved.

And that's the week. Happy creeping toward winter!

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hot Sauce! Demystifying Caramel

It's taken me awhile to do this, but I finally made caramel sauce with a candy thermometer. I've always cooked caramel by sight, having learned long ago what to look for in color, changes in bubbling, and smell. But this is hard to teach. Giving someone an exact number on a thermometer is a better way to ensure their caramel will come out right.

Caramel is the simple result of heating sugar to a specific temperature. Think broadly about sugar when considering caramel. You caramelize onions for French Onion Soupquiche, and salads just by cooking the sugars in the onions. Extended heating of goat milk will yield cajeta. In this process, it is the sugars in the goat milk that caramelize, lending cajeta it's distinctive flavor.

For a basic caramel sauce, you heat sugar until it reaches a fairly specific temperature: too low and your caramel lacks depth, too high and it's bitter. After the right temperature is achieved you add cream and vanilla.

My candy thermometer lists a caramel range between 360° F and 380° F.  Sugar (sucrose) begins to melt around 320° F and caramelize around 340° F. If you're going to the trouble to make caramel sauce with a candy thermometer, it's probably a good idea to test the thermometer first. Do this by measuring the temp of a cup of boiling water. At sea level, it should read 212° F. If it reads above or below this number, replace it or make necessary adjustments. Oh, and for my Telluride peeps, and those at higher altitude, please note: for every 1,000 feet you are above sea level, subtract 2 degrees F from the temperature you're aiming for.

I like caramel cooked to 360° F - that's the temp at which I find it has the flavor. For a point of reference, 355-360° F is considered medium caramel and 375-380° F is considered dark caramel. I wonder who made those distinctions in the first place. Another scientific tidbit, most caramel sauce recipes I've seen have a smidgen of corn syrup added. This addition adds a wee bit of glucose to the sauce (corn syrup is only about 20% glucose), probably not enough to change the cooking times, but does change the chemical structure and prevent the formation of crystals. Sucrose is a large crystal and it has a harder time bonding with other sucrose crystals when molecules of fructose and glucose are in the mix. I always add a smidgen of corn syrup to my berry sauces and sorbets, just to keep the sauces smooth and crystal-free.

Caramel Sauce
Print recipe only here

2 cups sugar
1 T corn syrup
2 T water
1/2 vanilla bean
1 cup heavy cream
4 T unsalted butter

Heat the water, sugar and corn syrup in a medium-large (but deep) stainless steel or heavy-bottomed saucepan, fitted with a  good candy thermometer. I use a deep 4-quart pot and have a flat-edged candy thermometer

Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise down the middle, only cutting thru one side. Open it up and scrape out the pods. Put the pod paste and the scraped bean into a small saucepan with the cream.

Heat the cream and vanilla bean over low-medium heat. You don't need to boil it (and don't, because it will make a mess if it boils). 

Cook the sugar until it turns a deep amber and approaches 360° F. Once it reaches that temp, immediately remove from the heat and carefully (and slowly!) pour the hot cream and vanilla bean into the amber sugar. It will get very excited and bubbly. Just pour slowly and you won't make a mess or hurt yourself.  Stir and allow to cool for several minutes, then add the butter and stir gently until melted and just combined. Now it's done. You can transfer it to a squeeze bottle or glass jar once it's cooled a bit more.

Warm, refrigerate leftover sauce, reheating as necessary. Keeps for awhile (a few months).

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Sunday, October 14, 2012

High Fructose Sugar Cookies

Oreo Sugar Cookies, the confection produced by my young breed this weekend, are the turducken of the sweet kitchen. Full disclosure: the Oreos were crushed and added to the sugar cookie dough, whereas a real turducken cookie would have a whole Oreo encased in sugar cookie dough.

The fount of this recipe (reduced to two steps by my husband: 1. sugar; 2. cookies) is easily imagined - summer camp, where fun goes on a sugar-binge. Sidebar: I'll never stop chuckling at the U of Chicago's unofficial motto: where fun goes to die.

So, yeah, the children made Oreo Sugar Cookies and I had to steer clear of the kitchen all day. Cookies are my weakness. Years ago, I read a book called Cowboys are My Weakness, which was good but unconvincing. I find cowboys generally aloof and insufficiently cuddly (if memory serves, so did the author), hardly something to go weak for. I would brake for a cowboy, but that's out of general human kindness and wishing to avoid being charged with vehicular manslaughter.

Owing to my fondness for cookies, and a childhood wholly devoted to the Children's Television Workshop, I also have a weakness for Cookie Monster. I'm indebted to a certain adolescent who tipped me off to this masterpiece:>

Best line: Please someone call the girl scout.

This recipe is decidedly for the younger set, or those not thrown off kilter by glucose spikes.

Oreo Sugar Cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup sour cream

1 1/2 cups Oreo Cookies, crushed

Preheat oven to 350. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Add Oreos to a large Ziploc bag and crush with a rolling pin or your hands. Reserve.

Using an electric mixer on medium-high, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 to 4 minutes. Add egg and vanilla; mix well to combine.

With mixer on low, add half the flour mixture, followed by sour cream, then remaining flour mixture, and mix just until smooth. Add Oreo crumbles and mix until just combined.

Drop mounds of dough 3 to 4 inches apart, onto two parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake until edges of cookies are just firm and tops are barely beginning to brown, 20 to 25 minutes, rotating sheets once halfway through. Cool and enjoy.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

On the Menu this Week

First of all, the Roasted Lamb from a few weeks ago was amazing. I can't recommend it highly enough, especially if you're serving six or more lamb lovers. I had the butcher at Whole Foods cut me a 2.5-pound piece of bone-in lamb shoulder which fed our family of four generously. We keep our animal protein portions small, though, so get more if you have bigger eaters.

Now that the school year has begun, my menu planning has taken a turn for the practical. In the summer I like to daydream a bit about food, but when the kids are in school and time is at more of a premium, I find I have to be more pragmatic about the time I can spend planning, shopping, and cooking. I tend to start each week thinking about what we haven't eaten in a while and plan my weekly menu around the combination of proteins and seasonal veggies. Then I make sure I'm stocked with grains, and produce for nightly salads.

I typically plan for five dinners, knowing that often we'll be out on a weekend night, or have one random night where we forage on leftovers or I make something simple like panini* and a salad. Tonight I'm planning on making Chicken Pesto Pasta, since I have chicken breasts and a bag of fresh basil on hand. Tomorrow will likely be a a quick Teriyaki night (quick pan-fried pork loin, on rice with stir-fried broccoli and bottled teriyaki sauce) since the family calendar has each of us in a different direction at dinnertime. Wednesday might be a good night for salmon, as it's a good day for me to get to Whole Foods, where I buy fish. I like to purchase and cook fish on the same day. Asian Salmon Salad sounds really good right now, so I'll make sure I get some bell peppers at the Green City Market on Wednesday morning.  Now I just need dinners for Thursday and Friday. We've not had Lamb Kabobs in some time, so that's an option, and Friday is a great night for Pizza Margherita, or Chanterelle Pizzas, if chanterelles are still coming to the market. It's a bit late in the season, but it's still possible.

And there - the weekly menu plan is done. Now I just have to plan my little shopping excursions and stock the fridge.

*Ham & Gruyère Panini
Featured on Pinch in 2008, In a Pinch

Preheat a griddle. Spray lightly with canola spray. Slather one piece of low-gluten sprouted bread with your favorite mustard. For the bread, I like both Alvarado Street or the comparable version at Trader Joe's.

Thinly slice some ham and Gruyère (note: Gruyère is very flavorful and a little goes a long way. I only use a few, thin slices to keep the sandwich healthy). Assemble and cook on hot griddle until the bread is toasted and the cheese is melted, about 2-3 minutes on each side. Press down using a panini press or a heavy lid, right on top of the sandwich. It's really good with greens dressed with Balsamic Vinaigrette.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Homemade Tagliatelle and Ragù Bolognese

I've made Bison Bolognese several time since presenting the recipe in February 2011. I cannot say that it has been met with universal enthusiasm. The main offender was the addition of Italian sausage. My kin can snuff out a fennel seed like truffle hogs. "Death seeds" are considered outside the limits of justifiable cooking and are not tolerated. And you thought your family was picky.

I love Bolognese so I've been searching for a new recipe. It didn't have to be bison, either. I regularly pick up the 96/4 lean ground beef at Trader Joes. It's as lean as you get and it's still quite flavorful. I even drain the fat from it when using it to make Tacos. Anyway, I read a lot of recipes and settled on one from a food blog called Food Nouveau. I only changed it a teeny bit. I should mention that her recipe is a blend of two others - one from Josée Di Stasio, a Canadian cook and TV host, and the other from The Geometry of Pasta.

One interesting point of fact: nearly every Bolognese recipe that appeared to be worth its salt called for the addition of a cup of milk. Some recipe authors claim it helps tenderize the meat.

Making the new Ragù also meant making some fresh pasta to go with it. I hadn't made fresh pasta in eons. In the process, I re-wrote my standard pasta recipe which was based on the commercial amounts I used to turn out at Cafe Nola. The pasta recipe will generously serve a family of four. Here are those recipes:

Ragù Bolognese
Print recipe only here

Serves 4, generously

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 large yellow onion, finely  chopped
2 carrots, peeled and finely  chopped
2 stalks celery, finely  chopped
2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
3 slices pancetta (cut into 1/2-cm cubes)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 # lean ground beef (I like the 96/4 variety)
1/2 cup white wine (I used a Pinot Grigio)
1 cup lowfat or nonfat milk
1 15-oz can whole peeled tomatoes, diced (you will use both the liquid as well as the tomatoes)
1/2 cup beef stock

Place a large saucepan over medium heat and add the oil. Add the onion, carrot, celery and garlic with a pinch of salt and sauté for 5 minutes, stirring often. Add the pancetta and cook for a further 10 minutes, until vegetables are softened and pancetta is golden.

Increase the heat to high and add the meat a third at a time, stirring and breaking lumps with a spoon between each addition. Adding the meat gradually allows the water to evaporate – which is key if you want to brown your meat and not boil it. After the last addition, when no pink can be spotted in the meat and no lumps remain, set a timer for 15 minutes. You want your meat to caramelize and even become crispy in spots. More water will evaporate and flavors will concentrate. You want golden bits of meat to stick to the bottom of your pan – this flavorful crust will then be deglazed with white wine. Watch over your pan as you don’t want your meat to burn. When you see some caramelization happening, lower heat to medium to each the end of your 15-minute sautéing time (on my stove, that’s after about 8-9 minutes).

Over medium heat, pour the white wine into the sauce pan. With a wooden spoon, scrape all the brown bits stuck to the bottom and sides of your pan. Push the meat all around to make sure you scrape it all off. By the time you’re finished, the wine will be evaporated (2-3 minutes).

Add milk, diced tomatoes (with liquid), beef stock, another pinch of salt and a good grinding of pepper. Bring to a boil and then lower to the lowest heat and let simmer, half-covered, for 4 hours. Stir once in a while. If your sauce starts sticking before the end of your cooking time, add a bit of stock or water. In the end, the sauce should be thick, more beef than sauce based. Adjust the seasoning one last time, then stir into a drained bowl of cooked pasta and serve.

Fresh Pasta
Print recipe only here

Serves 4, generously

3 cups flour
4-5 eggs
1 t salt
1 T olive oil

2-3 T semolina, for dusting

Measure flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor, or in a mixing bowl or onto a clean counter.

Add eggs and olive oil and pulse until combined and takes on the appearance of wet sand.

NOTE ON THE EGGS: All flour has a different moisture content. My best estimation is that you can safely add 5 eggs to this recipe. If your eggs are particularly large, try four. You can always pulse in another if the dough feels dry.

If working without the Cuisinart, make a well, add the eggs and oil, whisk together and incorporate flour. It should resemble the mixture in the photo below.

Turn out onto a floured counter and knead, incorporating more flour as needed, until smooth.

Wrap in plastic and let sit for 30 minutes.

Dust two baking sheets with semolina. Cut dough into four even pieces. Keep three loosely wrapped in the plastic wrap. Lightly flour a work surface and flatten one of the pieces of pasta dough, pressing flour into both sides.

Using a pasta machine set to the widest setting (#1 on my Atlas) feed the flattened dough through the rollers. Fold the dough over onto itself and roll through, on the same setting. Do this a total of 4 times, dusting with flour as necessary.

Change the setting to the next widest (#2). Feed the pasta through, fold over and feed through again. Run it thru #2 for a total of three times.

Change the setting to #3. You no longer need to fold the dough, unless the surface appears rough or uneven. Run it through this setting 2-3 times. Let the dough rest for a minute or so. Or pick up another chunk of dough out of the plastic wrap and begin to roll that one out, starting at the widest setting.

Run the dough through the rollers until the desired thickness is achieved. I use #6 as my final for tagliatelle, and #7 (the thinnest setting) for lasagna. Run the pasta through each setting at least twice. At the thinner settings, let the dough rest for a minute between rollings to allow it to relax a bit.

At #6 the pasta can be fed through the cutting rollers or cut to the width you prefer by hand. Once you cut it into the desired shape, spread it out on the baking sheet. Allow to dry for about 30 minutes before cooking.

Cook in a large pot of well-salted water (and a splash of oil) for one minute. Drain gently, toss with sauce and serve.

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Chain of Command in the Family Kitchen

Four years ago, I mused about teaching my children to cook by letting them be the sous chef in the family kitchen. The experiment was short lived. I didn't make it fun, or even pleasant. Maybe the failure was that the kids were too young, or I was too impatient. Or, maybe, in assigning them the role of sous chef, the under-chef or not-boss, I had it all wrong.

My daughters are older now. They're at the point I imagined when I wrote the piece: old enough to be responsible for dinner one night a week. We started the practice this summer, which was good timing as everyone has more time on their hands and it's still light out at 8pm. Each Monday morning they decided on a  dinner menu. I had final edit to ensure it wasn't going to be French Toast or Elbow Pasta with Butter and Garlic Powder. Often they shopped for their menu with me, though not always.

I think the success of the exercise was that they got to be chef. I was the sous chef. I did whatever they wanted me to. My job always included getting the animal protein out of whatever packaging it came in, transferring it to a pan, marinating it, or trimming the fat. The part they liked best: picking a menu they were excited about (including dessert) and then taking all the credit for its success. I was present in the kitchen for the entire prep/cooking period (it wasn't a night off cooking for me entirely). They took the responsibility seriously and I think they learned a lot. And we ate really well.

We fell out of the routine during our summer travels and several weeks passed without a kid-cooked meal. But with the CTU strike we are finding ourselves in need of some weekday structure.  On the kids menu last week: Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad, and Fish and Chips with a Pinch House Salad on the side. The practice isn't always confined to a single night. Last night my oldest contributed a wonderful Baby Spinach Salad to my homemade tagliatelle and Ragu Bolognese (check back for those recipes). And tonight the little one is going to make Grilled Salmon Sandwiches with Dill Aioli and Steamed Artichokes. Tomorrow night, my oldest is going to make Fajitas.She hasn't decided yet if she'll make them chicken or steak but they will feature Guacamole and her Chipotle-inspired rice (basmati tossed with fresh cilantro and a bit of fresh lime).

You live. You learn. School or no school.

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Monday, September 10, 2012

Trending: the Pimm's Cup

Last summer I posted on three favorite cocktails: Hendrick's Gin & Tonic, the Moscow Mule, and the Dark & Stormy. Now I have a new one to share: Pimm's Cup. I'm not sure where I caught onto this trending historic cocktail, but I'm guessing it was probably in New Orleans in July. I picked up a bottle of Pimm's at Binny's and we've been bringing out the Cups for guests - and ordering them off of cocktail menus - ever since. One reason I love it: it employs both English cucumber and ginger beer, both of which are always on hand chez moi. The other reason: it has all the delight (and no cloying nada) of my 2011 Summer Cocktails but with a perky twist.

The Pimm's Cup (aka Pimm's Fruit Cup) heralds from England.  I had never heard of a fruit cup so I did a little digging. To my yankee ears it's a silly moniker, akin to referring to Coca-Cola as "pop." Anyway, a fruit cup is also known as a summer cup and is usually gin-based. Oh, and it is traditionally garnished with a bit of a fruit salad (strawberries, fresh mint, orange) but I don't go that route.

The cocktail was created by James Pimm in the 1840s in his London bar and is based on his fruit- and herb-infused gin, Pimm's No. 1.  At one time there are seven Pimm's products but only Cups Nos. 1, 3 and 6 are still available (No. 1 is the only one on the shelves at my local Binny's). The difference between the seven is the base alcohol.

From the Wikipedia entry:
Pimm's No. 1 Cup is based on gin. Can be served both on ice or in cocktails.
Pimm's No. 2 Cup was based on Scotch whisky.
Pimm's No. 3 Cup is based on brandy. Phased out, but a version infused with spices and orange peel marketed as Pimm's Winter Cup is now seasonally available.
Pimm's No. 4 Cup was based on rum. 
Pimm's No. 5 Cup was based on rye whiskey.
Pimm's No. 6 Cup is based on vodka. Only produced in small quantities.

Sidebar: There is a difference between whiskey and whisky. Read about it here.

Preparing a Pimm's Cup is simple: Pour a splash of Pimm's over ice, add a jigger of Hendrick's Gin, squeeze in half a lime and top with ginger beer. Garnish with cucumber, and enjoy. You can get jiggy and first muddle the cucumber (save some to use some as a garnish). Gary Oldman made it this way at Acadia and it was wonderful. Here's our recipe:

Pimm's Cup
Print recipe only here

Makes 2

Splash Pimm's No. 1
2 jiggers (about 3 oz) Hendrick's gin
2 jiggers Ginger Beer (Goslings or Barritt's are good choices)
Fresh squeezed lime (barely half a lime)
English cucumber, cut into thin rounds for garnish
Ice cubes

Add Pimm's, Hendrick's, lime juice and some ice to shaker, cover, and shake vigorously 20 times. Fill two highball glasses with ice. Strain mixture into glasses and top with ginger beer. Garnish with a few thin rounds of cucumber and serve.

Read more:
1. From the New York Times
2. From Pimm's 
3. From Bon Appetit

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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Picking the Right Egg

I don't give much thought to egg selection. When I need an egg I just grab one. But I don't grab willy nilly. I select one egg from either end of the carton so that the carton is balanced with remaining eggs in the middle. It's nice to have control over certain things.

The practice, strange though you may find it, goes back to my professional pastry days where I dealt with several flats of eggs in a single day. (FYI, a flat is, like, 3 dozen eggs, on a squarish, carton with no lid.) You can't just leave an egg in one corner while the others are snuggled together on the opposite corner and expect the single one to stay put during transport.  The flat needs to be balanced.  One time when I was pulling out a flat of eggs from the walk-in, an egg alone in a corner like just described launched itself into a perfect arc, jibonked off the edge of the shelf (at which point it cracked) and landed in another cook's cooling stockpot. What a biff.

Of course at home I'm not the only one tucking into the carton. Frequently the carton reveals total disorder, like pictured above. This sight ignites my brain wheel and demands answers to these questions:

1. What is wrong with these eggs that they weren't picked?
2. What kind of person would leave perfectly good eggs this way?
3. Why don't people do things the way they're supposed to be done?
4. Were the eggs that were picked larger or smaller than the ones left? And, as a follow-up: What were the forager's criteria for selection?
5. Have I been picking the wrong egg all my life?

These questions can be applied to other domestic operations, especially those where laundry is involved.

Like undoing a knot in a necklace chain or unhitching the chain of paperclips that some monkey left in my desk drawer, egg carton disorder compels me to action. And so, this morning, after selecting a random egg I relocated all remaining eggs to spots in the center of the carton. And it was good.

As for answers to questions 1-4, there are none. I cornered the other egg foragers but the criteria either don't exist or would not be revealed. So I will continue to rearrange eggs to my liking. As for #5, after a cup of coffee and a self-assessment I'm certain of the answer: not a chance.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Focacce with Fontina, Peppers and Onions

This focacce was a total accident of leftovers. I had a bunch of peppers and onions, a spare piece of pizza dough leftover from a dinner party (I served Chanterelle Pizzas and Prosciutto-Arugula pizzas as appetizers) and a small piece of fontina - all the ingredients for a perfect little lunchtime smackerel.

The intention was to take it on our transcontinental train trip, but it was completely pillaged before I could slice and wrap it. I will make it again, and make it often, and I recommend you do the same. Use any veg or nice cheese you have on hand, and serve it up anytime. It would make an excellent lunch, picnic food, or appetizer. And don't be afraid of making pizza dough. The dough is pretty resilient. Here's that recipe:

Foccace with Fontina, Peppers and Onions
Print recipe only here

1/3 recipe Pizza Dough
2-4 T olive oil
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup grated fontina
2 T grated Parmesan
1/2 onion, sliced crosswise and sauteed gently
1/2 red pepper, julienned and sauteed gently
1 ripe tomato, sliced
Kosher salt
Chili flakes (optional)

Mix pizza dough earlier in the day, or the day before. Knead into a smooth ball, coat a bowl with olive oil and rub oil onto surface of dough. Cover well with plastic wrap.  Allow to rise at room temp for 2-3 hours, or until doubled. (If making the day before just stick the wrapped bowl in the fridge.)  Punch down dough and let rise again, about 45 minutes. Punch down again and divide into three even portions. Knead each well. Let sit, covered with a kitchen towel for about 10 minutes. If making uno solo foccace you can oil a ziploc bag and freeze the other portions.

Saute the onions. Reserve. Using the same pan (once the onions are out of it) saute the peppers. Reserve. Slice the tomato, grate the cheeses and reserve all.

Lightly oil a baking sheet (I used a 12x17 sheetpan). Lightly flour the counter and roll out one of the dough balls into a shape similar to that of the baking sheet. Rotate the dough as necessary and add flour sparingly, but make sure the dough isn't sticking to the counter. If it shrinks back a lot, let it rest for another 5 minutes, then try again. Once you get it rolled out (it should be about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick, transfer it to the sheetpan. Don't be nervous!

Preheat the oven to 500, with a baking stone if you have one.

Let the dough sit for about 20 minutes. Prep the olive oil: press one clove of garlic into a small bowl. Pour in about 2-4 tablespoons of olive oil and stir. When the dough has risen a bit (after the 20 minutes sitting time) use your fingers to dimple it all over. Then use a pastry brush (or drizzle with a spoon) to brush the surface of the dough with oil. Don't worry about using all the oil, just baste the dough evenly.

Sprinkle the surface with a pinch or two of kosher salt (and chili flakes, if you like). Then sprinkle the fontina evenly over the surface. Top with the sliced tomato, then the onions and peppers, and the parm on top.

Sprinkle with another little pinch of salt and drizzle the extra oil over any exposed tomato, then bake for 6-10 minutes. Every oven is different, and the thickness of the dough will vary baking times. Just keep watch (without opening the oven door too many times) and pull it out when it's nice and golden. Reserve for 5-10 minutes before slicing and serving.

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Get Thee To Acadia (and La Fornette, too)

I am blown away by two new places. The first is new French bakery called La Fournette, located on Wells just south of North Ave. I've been anticipating their arrival since I first sampled their bread at Dominique Tougne's bistro, Chez Moi. We went this morning and sampled some croissants and their Country Bread. Lovely. I'm going tomorrow to pick up a Miche. La Fournette, which means little oven, I think, features patio seating and every traditional French bakery item: macarons (the color was too bright, deterring consumption), homemade preserves, crepes, boulangerie sandwiches, and a wide selection of classic pastry.

Last night we had a delightful meal and amazing cocktails at Acadia in the South Loop. Chef/proprietor Ryan McCaskey was the guest chef at James Beard House in NYC earlier this week and we sampled a few of the dishes he presented in New York. Equally compelling were the cocktails, prepared by a Gary Oldman doppleganger. Presentation was exquisite and featured house made ginger bear, tonics, and cucumber ice cubes, just to name a few. A lovely bar menu would satisfy anyone.

Have you been anywhere new? Do tell!

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Saturday, August 25, 2012

One Big Table

That's just one of the cookbooks I'm reading this summer. Yeah, I read cookbooks. This one, in particular, is a great read because there are so many stories within. The book is the result of food writer Molly O’Neill's ten-year transcontinental road trip, undertaken in order to research the prevailing opinion that Americans had stopped cooking at home. The opinion persists in spite of her efforts, but doesn't tell the whole story of what goes on in America's kitchens. This book does. It contains hundreds of recipes from passionate home cooks to four-star chefs (and a few from their mothers). The recipes reflect the diversity of the American palate and the array of foods Americans put on their tables each day.

I traversed the continent myself this summer. I ate roasted trout aboard an Amtrak train between Chicago and San Francisco (the side of watery veg went untouched); salmon up and down the West coast; more than my share of blueberries on Bainbridge Island, WA; Italian cured meats in the soft sand at Jones Beach in New York; and French Vietnamese back home in Chicago at my surprise birthday party. Maybe I ate other meals that were better, but those particular ones, which were enjoyed in the company of those who I hold most dear, are the ones I will remember.

It's been a glorious summer. As it comes to a close, I'm perusing my new books for inspiration. I came across recipes for Beef and Barley Soup, Caramel Frosting, and Malaysian Broccoli that I cannot wait to try. Most of all, I'm looking forward to the days and evenings spent around tables big and small.

That's all.

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Monday, July 16, 2012

On the Menu This Week

There's lots of great food on the Pinch menu this week. First up is tonight's dinner: Coriander Dry-rubbed Steaks with Avocado Salsa. I'm hopeful my avocados are ripe enough. If not, I'm going to morph the whole dish into kabobs using some gorgeous peppers I picked up at the market recently. Either one will be paired with summer greens, but I need to change up my vinaigrette routine a bit. I'm bored with my dressings.

Next I'm going to line up a summertime favorite: Sweet Corn Risotto topped with a piece of pan fried halibut. I've loved this dish since watching its creator, Anna Thomas, cook it up at the original Sur la Table in the Pike Place Market in Seattle. Cooking fish this way is quite simple: first, remove the skin and cut your fish into individual servings (I go for 4-5 ounces for all animal protein but your fishmonger will advise you to buy more). Sprinkle kosher salt and fresh ground pepper all over the fish. In a medium nonstick skillet, heat 1 teaspoon of grape seed oil for a minute or so. Add the halibut and cook over moderately high heat until browned, about 3-4 minutes. Flip the filets and cook for another 2 minutes or so.

Start preparing the fish when the risotto is about 10 minutes from being ready and serve it right on top of the plated risotto. You'll be busy at the end, but that's just how it goes with risotto. Remember, risotto waits for no man - or fish - so time things properly.

You can also make a simple tomato-herb salsa to toss on top (thinking tomatoes, parsley, shallot and chive, tossed with a smidge of olive oil and white wine vinegar) - just keep it simple and fresh.

Two light meals I'm going to make on evenings when we have evening plans that don't include dinner are Tabouli with Lemon Chicken and Gazpacho which I plan to serve with a side of Chipotle Shrimp. And later in the week will be Rick Bayless' Skirt Steak Salad, which will put to use those chipotle chilies leftover from the shrimp.

That's all.

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Three Tricks All the Pastry Pros Know

In a recent post I mentioned tweaks I employed on Flag Cake and Gougères to send them over the top. Here's that info:

Trick 1 - Soaking Solution
The easiest way to ruin a cake is by overbaking. But even if your cake isn't baked perfectly it can be brought back to life (within reason) with a soaking solution. This is a hot sugar syrup, flavored with a bit of liqueur, pure extracts, or citrus zest, brushed or squirted onto cake layers. It adds both flavor and moisture and really improves the whole of the dessert.

A soaking solution is made by boiling equal parts sugar and water and adding the liqueur or zest once the sugar is dissolved. For the average 8-inch cake I use about 1/2 cup each sugar and water and 2 tablespoons of liqueur. The solution needs to be hot when you brush it onto the cake, otherwise it won't saturate well. I use a pastry brush to soak my cake layers (just make sure your pastry brush doesn't smell like garlic or BBQ sauce) but you can even spoon it on, tho that method takes longer.

When I bake a round cake I routinely cut off the rounded top. The crumb that is revealed is much more porous than the cake top you've removed and snacked on. But if you are not brave enough to trim the top, just poke holes all over the cake with a toothpick and then saturate.

Oh, and you want to do this to a cake that is out of the pan already. Here's the order of operations:

1. Bake a cake
2. Let it cool 5-20 minutes
3. Remove from pan, transfer to a plate
*At this point, I always let my cakes cool completely, then chill in the fridge as trimming and frosting comes out way better on a chilled cake.*
4. Make soaking solution and brush on

Trick 2 - Crumb Coat
A crumb coat refers to a thin coating of frosting that is applied to a cake. After crumb coating, the cake is retired to the fridge to set. This process sets all the crumbs in place so that when you apply a nice thick coating of frosting you don't get any crumbs ruining the view. Here's photo of the crumb and final coat:

This recipe from David Lebovitz was really great. When I learned to make gougères in cooking school they were the sort where you made a choux pate, piped out rounds onto a baking sheet, topped the rounds with grated Parmesan or Gruyère, baked them, and then, when cool, piped into them a ham and Gruyère béchamel. They're quite good, but the béchamel is a wee bit heavy and so 1980. Quiche, brie and béchamel probably did more to usher in the aerobics era than Jane Fonda.

The Lebovitz recipe redeems the hors d'oevre in two ways: it brings it up to date (and offers suggestions for using other hard French cheeses in addition to or in place of Gruyère) and it simplifies the process by adding the cheese to the choux pate. Once the puffs are baked, they are ready to serve.

The only thing I did differently was to use a little water to shape the puffs before baking. If you aren't an expert with a pastry bag, the choux rounds can be a bit misshapen. A simple fix is to dip your fingers into a small bowl of water and then gently smooth out the choux rounds before topping with cheese and baking. I'm pretty sure I learned this trick in cooking school, but maybe it was from restaurant work. Anyway, you can see the difference in the lower photo. The rounds in the front have been smoothed out a bit.

And there you have it - three tricks all the pros know.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Several Things You Cannot Dispute

Once upon a time we caught a production of A Year with Frog and Toad, a musical based on the children's books written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel, the same genius behind Mouse Soup. Thank goodness for children. Where would we be without these stories?

The production, in fact the inaugural production of the Chicago Children's Theater, was really magnificent. We returned home with the CD (the writers of the musical, brothers Robert (music) and Willie Reale (lyrics) won the Tony in 2003 for Best Original Score) and some of those songs still dance in my head.

In Act I, Snail, the show's only character with a job, sings a lovely tune about delivering a letter. "I'm the snail with the mail, I deliver without fail..." This is a tough act to follow, but the brothers Reale pulled one outta a hat with Getta Loada Toad, which concerns Toad's anxiety about being seen in his bathing suit and counts among its stanzas this gem:

"Four things you cannot dispute:
Bamboo comes from a bamboo shoot
Rutabaga comes from a rutabaga root
Bananas are the funniest fruit
And Toad looks funny in a bathing suit!"

Aside from all the catchy rhyming, I really appreciate the simple observation of the banana as funniest fruit. Bananas have a silly name, a silly shape, and that whole shtick with the slippery peel. In fairness, the banana is also the most dependable fruit. It's good on an empty stomach, more satisfying than a Snickers, and folks who find themselves exhausted from gnawing away at beef jerky and protein bars must certainly appreciate - when consuming a banana - mastication without temporomandibular dislocation.

But the banana flavor is a different story. What happens inside the peel needs to stay inside. When I was a kid I had to take banana-flavored medicine for asthma (sucks to that banana-flavored asthma medicine) and I still harbor mistrust of pharmaceuticals. A fifth indisputable fact: a single banana Runt can spoil a perfectly good day. Or, put to music:

...Bananas are the funniest fruit
But a banana Runt will make you boot.

And this brings us to Smarties, my second-favorite non-chocolate candy. We had a boat-load Smarties leftover from assorted parties and I have one roll left in my secret stash. One of my favorite things about Smarties is that there's not a gross flavor. Just now I opened a roll and there were a whole bunch of yellows which, in the case of many other candies, would be a grave disappointment. I know, usually yellow = lemon. But Laffy Taffy, Runts, and Now and Later have each slipped their nasty banana candies onto the market and now I get nervous every time I see yellow in a candy wrapper.

That's all.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Summer Food and Nightcrawler

I haven't been cooking much lately  - just enough to pass along a few recipes from the past month. The Barefoot Contessa's Flag Cake (our version is pictured here) was a big hit, as were David Lebovitz's Gougères. I'm looking forward to trying out Mark Bittman's Sigapore Chili Lobster sometime soon. For that adventure - which will involve live lobsters - I've already secured co-council. I've been watching re-runs of The Good Wife and have found legalese as fun to throw around as Italian. Prego!

When TGW first debuted I assumed they'd never find me in their audience. This was for the same reason I planned to never watch Big Love:  there's just not enough lifetime waking hours to spend any of them wrapped up in adulterous dramas. I'm not sure if it's more surprising that I watched a multiple seasons of Big Love or that I found myself rooting for those dear polygamists. With TGW, it's all about Kalinda and Eli. The last time I saw Alan Cumming was as Nightcrawler in X-Men 2. I'm half-expecting him to pounce into Alicia's office, long tail flying, only to dissipate into a cloud of midnight blue smoke.

In between reruns I've been answering a flood of emails concerning picnic food. Here's what I've been suggesting:

Fresh Corn Salad
Three Bean Salad
Roasted Red Potato Salad
Avocado Salad
Potato, Dill, and Cucumber Salad

Main Courses
Flank Steak Sandwiches
Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps
Summer Chicken Salad
Pan Bagnia
Chilled Soba Noodles

More soon on tweaks to the Flag Cake and gougères to really send them over the top.

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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Poison, Not Just an 80s Metal Glam Band (or One Woman's Private Struggle with Sugar Ants)

A year ago we moved into a house that counts among its features a rooftop patio accessed via sliding glass doors off the kitchen. Immediately off. Not down the stairs, across the city back yard, and up the stairs to the top of the garage. It is possibly my favorite thing, to be able to step outside to grill, pick some herbs, or water my plants. The downside, a ceaseless parade of sugar ants inside on my counters, seemed a small price to pay. Until this year, that is, when spring came early and so did the ants. They were in such great numbers a week ago that something had to be done. And so I searched for a home remedy that wouldn't poison the dog or put noxious chemicals in our living area. My success was so great that I'm passing it along:

Jammy Borax
Recipe below

Let me be clear: Use Borax with caution and don't leave Jammy Borax around where Fido can reach it.

2 T jam, preserves, honey or sugar syrup
2 T Borax

Fashion 1-2 small trays/shallow bowls out of tin foil (or recycled lids from sour cream or yogurt containers, or the like). Just use something you won't use for food later.

Spoon all ingredients into the lid/tray and mix well to combine (if using more than one tray, just do a tablespoon of each ingredient for each tray). Set right outside the point of entry the ants are using. (I set mine on the ground outside our sliding glass doors, next to the outside wall, and leaned a dustpan over it to block the dog from licking it. I also told the dog in no uncertain terms to stay the heck away from the jam.)

The idea is that the ants snack on the jam and then head back to their colony where they either share or infect the queen and kin with the poison. Then you have no more ants. This is what happened for us. Within about 20 minutes the tray was positively teeming with ants. We set out the Jammy Borax last week and I haven't seen an ant inside (or out, for that matter) since. We also spent about 30 minutes smushing every ant we saw inside, just for the sake of immediate results.

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Monday, May 7, 2012

Home fries, home slice!

I have a mental picture of the dude (read: nerd) who inquired of Google, "What does 'Wasabi, home slice' mean?" Even my kids know Wasabi is more than a spicy, expensive root that is usually replaced by a cheaper preparation of horseradish, mustard and green food coloring. Wasabi is a one-word interrogative statement employed by hipsters (read: metro-nerds) when seeking information from other hipsters usually as a direct question of current emotional well-being or purpose. Translated into improper English: "What's up?"

Home slice, on the other hand, is what you call your homie, your paisano, your brother from another mother, even your children.

Anyhoo, I gave up eating potatoes for breakfast several years ago because I just love them so darned much and they were making me pudgy. I'm more moderate now and do eat them sometimes - more like 1-2 times a month. This morning I tried them a new way, following this recipe from Simply Recipes. They were so, so good. There was some distrust of the onion among the natives. But, oh! I will enjoy having them again in the distant future.

One further note: I made them with peeled, uncooked russets. I think if you use cooked potatoes they will come out approximately like the delicious breakfast potatoes at Toast.

That's all.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

At long last! A traditional seeded Irish soda bread

Well. I have been trying to make this forever. When my lovely Irish neighbor was fixing to leave town for New York, I asked her to tell me how she makes bread. Recreating a traditional soda bread (not the caraway-raisin one I turn out each year around St. Patrick's Day) is difficult on this side of the Atlantic because the flours are so different.

Being a professional cook and a frequent bread baker, my former neighbor didn't have a recipe to hand me. But she rattled off the ingredients and I sleuthed out a recipe online that sounded a lot like the bread she bakes several times a week.

You should feel free to tinker with it yourself, adding oats or other grains as you like. For example, the original recipe called for wheat and oat bran. I didn't have either in my pantry, but I did have a box of 7 Grain Hot Cereal which contains cracked wheat, steel cut oats, grits and millet - sort of a chicken scratch that gave the bread some nice texture.  Just follow the basic dry to liquid ratio and you'll turn out something delightful. My version is a slight adaptation from a recipe on Epicurious, which was reprinted with permission from A Baker's Odyssey by Greg Patent.

Anyway, the bread is quite perfect - very authentic and yet less dry than the brown breakfast bread I ate in Ireland. I baked it in a cast iron skillet, which may have helped.

Seeded Irish Soda Bread
Print recipe only here 

1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour, plus more for shaping
3 T cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 3/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup wheat bran AND 1/4 cup oat bran OR 1/2 cup 7 Grain Hot Cereal OR 1/2 cup oats
1/4 cup wheat germ
2 T flax seeds
1/3 cup raw sunflower seeds
1 large egg
About 1 3/4 cups buttermilk
2 T honey

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Lightly oil a heavy baking sheet or cast iron pan or line it with a silicone baking sheet.

In a large bowl, stir together the all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour. Add the butter and work it into the dry ingredients with your fingertips until the fat particles are very fine. Stir in the baking soda, salt, wheat bran and oat bran (or substitutes), wheat germ, flax seeds, and sunflower seeds.

Beat the egg lightly with a fork in a 2-cup glass measure. Add enough buttermilk to come to the 2-cup line. Add the honey and combine well.

Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula until the dough gathers into a thick, wet-looking mass.

Sprinkle your work surface with whole wheat flour and scrape the dough onto it. Dust the dough with a bit more whole wheat flour. Pat the dough into a circular shape about 7 inches across and 2 inches high and transfer it to the prepared baking sheet.

Make a cross-shaped indentation on top of the loaf going right to the edges. I use a metal bench scraper.
Bake the bread for about 40 minutes, until it is well browned and sounds hollow when rapped on the bottom.

Cool for about 10 minutes before serving.

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Friday, April 20, 2012

What to Avoid Eating, At All Cost: Dishwasher Detergent

I've been leery about ingesting soap ever since I was about 7.  It would seem that in my first six years I never gave my mother occasion to wash my mouth out with soap. Either that or I gave her plenty of occasion but that it wasn't until my seventh year that she decided enough was enough. What happened was fairly straightforward. I don't recall what I said, but we were in the kitchen and she was washing dishes. I ran off at the mouth, she told me not to speak that way, and I thought we were good.

 It was the lack of contrition that did me in.

She waited a minute or so, then came over the table where I was sitting and asked me to open my mouth. I sensed her true motives and told her, No, I would not open my mouth because I was certain she was going to put soap in it. She said she wasn't going to...and then obviously did. Still, she had the higher ground - I was not just rude, but shameless and disobedient to boot.

Many years passed without soapy incident until this year, when I switched brands of dishwasher detergent. I had been using the generic stuff from Costco for years, but started noticing my drinking glasses were being destroyed. Finish Gelpacs came recommended so I made a change. I have a good dishwasher and normal city water but both were unable to remove the cloying chemical wash the Gelpacs left on my mugs, silcone spatulas, and glassware. Even a sip of water from a clean glass tasted, well, not soapy, but scented. Food should have flavor, not kitchenware.

After the disappointment that was the Finish gelpacs I went au naturel. I'm currently running trials on Ecover's dish washer tablets (procured at Whole Foods) and some Seventh Generation tablets that I picked up at Target - no complaints with either, tho I think I like the Ecover ones better.

Here's a bit of background on the differences between Finish and Ecover/Seventh Generation. Phosphates were banned by 17 states in 2010 because, after they get your dishes sparkling clean, they exit down the drain and into lakes and other bodies of water where they promote unreasonable algae growth that starves fish of oxygen and wreaks the balance of ocean ecosystems. Most major brands have limited phosphates to a trace and Finish can claim to be environmentally friendly since they comply.

But, most major brands do use chlorine bleach, perfumes and dyes which aren't necessarily regulated, nor are they necessarily removed fully from your kitchenware. Since Ecover and Seventh Generation produts are free of bleach, perfumes and dyes, that's what I went with. And my dishes look great.

Want to read more? 

Cleaner for the Environment, Not for the Dishes - From the NY Times 
Dishes Still Dirty? Blame Phosphate-Free Detergent - From NPR 
Phosphate-Free Automatic Dishwasher Detergents - From Good Housekeeping's Green Guide

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

What to Eat for Dessert: Butterscotch Pudding

This is an oldie, but a goodie. The lovely Melinda, who taught me practically everything I know in the sweet kitchen, used to make this when she was the pastry chef at Wolfgang Puck's short-lived, Los Angeles, brewery/restaurant Eureka. The recipe was printed in Adventures in the Kitchen, which included recipes from several of Puck's LA restaurants.  Melinda taught me how to make it in the mid 1990s when I worked in her kitchen at Cafe Nola in Washington State. I made it over the weekend for a dinner party after having forgotten about it for several years.

This pudding is great served with a Butterscotch Lace Cookie on the side. That recipe originally comes from the Bakers Cafe in Katonah, NY. That's the unifying theme - all these great establishments are gone. But not because of bad butterscotch.

Butterscotch is a a wonderful flavor and less tricky than caramel to make. The flavor is essentially achieved by combining dark brown sugar and butter, tho a bit of heat is required to strengthen it. Dark brown sugar is requisite here - light brown doesn't bring enough color or, really, molasses to the equation. If you're a sugar geek, you might appreciate these facts: light brown sugar contains 3.5% molasses compared to 6.5% molasses for dark brown sugar. Sugar geeks already know that brown sugar is just white granulated sugar with molasses added. If you're a super sugar geek, you know that molasses itself is a by-product of the sugar making process (the steps between hacking sugar cane in the jungle (or uprooting a sugar beet) and the particular product you purchase to fill your sugar bowl - for me it's Sugar in the Raw or La Perruche raw cubes). And if you had the same wacky naturopath as I did in the late 1990s and were iron deficient and told to supplement your diet with blackstrap molasses you know that blackstrap molasses is the sludge left over after every last bit of sugar has been sucked out of the cane. Or beet.*

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying to use dark brown sugar when you make butterscotch because it's not as good if you don't.

Butterscotch Pudding
Print recipe only here

Makes 8-10 six-ounce servings

6 ounces unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
1 vanilla bean, split down the middle and scraped
3 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups half and half
1/2 cup cornstarch
6 egg yolks
2 t vanilla extract

First, measure out everything. This is the kind of recipe where everything needs to be on hand because the steps must be executed in quick succession.  Measure the cornstarch into a small bowl, and separate the eggs and place the yolks in a mixing bowl. Whisk lightly.  Also, set a fine mesh strainer inside a mixing bowl or large pitcher. You will strain the pudding before transferring it to individual cups. Set out the cups/ramekins/glasses in which you intend to serve the pudding.

Now...begin!  Heat the butter in a medium-large saucepan over low heat until melted. Add brown sugar and vanilla bean and whisk until smooth. Cook over medium-low heat for 5-10 minutes, stirring every so often, to let the flavor develop and the color darken.

Heat milk and half and half in a medium saucepan, preferably one with a pour spout. Bring to a very low simmer.

Pour a little of the hot milk over the cornstarch and stir until smooth. Reserve.

Slowly add the remaining hot milk to the butter and sugar, whisking well to combine. If it separates, don't fret - just remove the pan from the heat and continue to whisk until it comes together.

Add the cornstarch to the saucepan, whisking in well.

Carefully ladle some of the hot pudding into the egg yolks, whisking well. Add another ladle of pudding and whisk. Then return that mixture to the pot and combine all together.

Add the vanilla extract and continue to cook for another minute. Strain thru the mesh strainer into a clean bowl or pitcher and immediately transfer the pudding to individual glasses.

I can't comment on the difference between beet and cane sugar or molasses. For sugar I do always purchase C&H or Domino which are labeled Pure Cane. And for molasses, I only ever buy Grandmother's, which is also a pure cane product. 

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Friday, April 13, 2012

What to Eat First: Asian Scallion Meatballs

This was a great find - a recipe (Scallion Meatballs with Soy Ginger Glaze) from a cookbook series I had not heard of (Canal House Cooking). On my next outing to the bookstore I plan to scout out a copy. I have standards for cookbooks. They must teach me something I don't know, but also contain recipes for dishes I have time to cook and that my family would enjoy eating. I haven't purchased a new cookbook in awhile - food blogs and the online sharing of recipes have met my needs for a new recipe when one is called for.

Anyway, we really enjoyed these Asian meatballs - light, lean, incredibly flavorful. They make great appetizers, especially if you can source those wicked cool knotted bamboo picks. And they froze well, too.

Here's that recipe:
Scallion Meatballs With Soy-Ginger Glaze
Adapted from Canal House Cooking, vol. 3, by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer

Makes apx. two dozen


For the meatballs:
1 pound ground turkey
4-6 green onions, finely chopped
1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
Canola oil

For the sauce:
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup mirin (sweet rice wine), or 1/2 cup sake with 1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup chopped peeled ginger
1 teaspoon ground coriander
4 whole black peppercorns

Make sauce: Bring sugar and 1/2 cup water to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar melts completely. Reduce heat to medium-low and add soy sauce, mirin, ginger, coriander and peppercorns. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced by half, about 30 minutes. Strain through a sieve. Can be made up to 2 days ahead and refrigerated.

Make meatballs: mix turkey, scallions, cilantro, egg, sesame oil, soy sauce and several grindings of pepper in a bowl. Roll tablespoons of mixture into bite-sized balls. At this point, you can freeze them. The best way to do this is to put them on a sheet pan, spaced apart so they're not touching each other. Wrap well with plastic wrap and freeze overnight. Transfer the frozen meatballs to a ziploc bag the next day. Then cook as directed below (the skillet/oven combination of cooking works very well with frozen meatballs).

When ready to cook, heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon canola oil. Working in batches to avoid crowding, place meatballs in pan and cook, turning, until browned all over and cooked inside, about 8 minutes per batch. Alternately, brown all over then transfer to a preheated 350F oven to finish cooking.

Arrange on a heated platter, spoon a little sauce over each meatball, and serve with toothpicks. Can be kept warm in a 200-degree oven until ready to serve.

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

An Extra Step to Improve Apple Pie

An article on apple pie caught my eye a few weeks ago. You can read it yourself here. I'm not a huge fan of pie. I much prefer the more elegant tart. The few pies that do get made in the Pinch kitchen - Pecan, Pumpkin, Cranberry, Lemon Meringue - are made in tart pans.

An old fashioned apple pie has always been the one exception; it will always be made in a regular pie dish. Apple pie should be mile high. I don't make it often (and I don't eat it often because it's usually way too sweet for my tastes) but after reading this recipe and needing to help my daughters celebrate Pi Day at school, a pie making night was planned.

The extra step that this recipe proposed was cooking down the apples before baking. I never did this before. I was always a little less than thrilled with the texture of the apples in my pie and frankly, am surprised I didn't think of this myself. The result was a much improved pie that won rave reviews.

Oh, I should note that I tried a new apple, too. The pastry chef referenced in the article recommended Pink Ladies. I've seem them at the market but never tried them. I've always reached for the Golden Delicious when making apple desserts. But the Pink Ladies were great.

I tweaked the original recipe a bit to include fresh lemon juice, my own trustworthy pie dough recipe, and a lot less sugar. The rest of the instructions are mostly from the original recipe. Here is the recipe:

Apple Pie
Print recipe only here

Makes one 9-inch pie

Pie dough (you will have some leftover) Prepare ahead of time.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 pounds Golden Delicious, Honeycrisp or Pink Lady apples, peeled and cored, then cut into thick slices
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup (heaping) sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cornstarch
Juice of 1 lemon

1 egg, lightly beaten with 2 T milk

Make the pie dough first, giving it at least an hour to sit in the refrigerator.

Prep apples.

Melt butter in a large sauté pan set over medium-high heat and add apples to the pan. Stir to coat fruit with butter and cook, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, whisk together the spices, salt and sugar, and sprinkle this over the apples, stirring gently to combine. Lower heat and cook until apples have started to soften, approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Sprinkle the flour and cornstarch over the apples and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, another 3 to 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat, add lemon juice and stir to combine. Scrape apples into a bowl and allow to cool completely.

Place a large baking sheet on the middle rack of oven and preheat to 425. Remove pie dough from the refrigerator and knead briefly on a floured surface to soften (be very brief - you want it to just come together). Use a rolling pin to roll it out (use flour sparingly, but as necessary) until it is roughly 12 inches in diameter. Fit this crust into a 9-inch pie plate, trimming it to leave a 1/2-inch overhang. Place this plate, with the dough, in the freezer.

Roll out the remaining dough on a lightly floured surface until it is roughly 10 or 11 inches in diameter.

Remove pie crust from freezer and put the cooled pie filling into it. Cover with remaining dough. Press the edges together, trim the excess, then crimp the edges with the tines of a fork. Using a sharp knife, cut three or four steam vents in the top of the crust. Lightly brush the top of the pie with egg wash (the egg/milk mixture) and sprinkle with a teaspoon or so of sugar.

Place pie in oven and bake on hot baking sheet for 20 minutes, then reduce temperature to 375. Continue to cook until the interior is bubbling and the crust is golden brown, about 30 to 40 minutes more. Remove and allow to cool on a windowsill or kitchen rack, about two hours.

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Pickle it, Just a Little Bit

I developed this recipe after two meals at Chicago Q in which I could not get enough of their house pickles. The restaurant is selling them by the jar now but it's way more fun to make your own. Best of all, they're done in a few hours. I made them a few nights ago. Within two hours of putting them in jars they had cooled and were quite enjoyable.

They are essentially a bread and butter pickle, but these have considerably less sugar and taste nothing like the sweet nasty that is the bread and butter pickle. These are crunchy and spicy and totally addictive. The onion bits are smashing, too.

My recipe is a based on the two recipes that looked most promising, one from Smitten Kitchen and the other from Lady Martha.

Oh, it should be noted that these are perfectly safe to keep in the refrigerator without making a canning event of it. If if you'd like to put up a great quantity just follow the recipe and sterilize your jars before filling, then just can as usual.

Here's that recipe:

Pickles for a Barbecue
Print recipe only here

Makes 1 quart

1 pounds Kirby cucumbers or pickle cukes, rinsed and cut thick on a diagonal
1/2 medium sweet onion
1 T Kosher salt
2 cups ice
3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
3/4 cup white vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
1 T mustard seed
1 t coriander seed
1/2 t whole black peppercorns
1/4 t celery seed
1/4 t turmeric
1/4 t chili flakes

In a large bowl, combine the cucumbers, onion and salt. Mix well. Cover the mixture with ice. let stand at room temperature for two hours.

In a pot, bring sugar, vinegars and spices to a boil. Drain cucumbers ann onions, discarding any unmelted ice. Rinse well and drain again.

Add cucumbers to pot and bring back to a boil, tossing. Remove from heat and cool. Transfer to mason jars and store in refrigerator.

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Friday, March 2, 2012

Duck, redux

On the weekends, en route home from my kids ski racing practice in Wisconsin, we pass a farm with a hand-painted sign on the road that read "Ducks for Sale." It always makes me smile. Ducks are my favorite bird. A recurring daydream involves living somewhere with a duck pond visible from my kitchen window.

This is a good time to credit foxypar4 for the photo. I selected it over other mallard photos because it best conjures the phobia, popularized by Gary Larson, of being watched by a duck.

My estimation of the steps involved between moving to a location with a duck pond and being in position to - with an Americano in hand - gaze upon a family or two of ducks cavorting around is this: Step 1:  Buy some ducks.

Stocking the pond would be a pleasure equal to the part where I stand in the morning sun with my hair looking perfect wearing an outfit (and shoes!) far more chic than the getup in which I presently find myself. The selection and purchase would have to take place in person at a shop like Bay Hay and Feed, a cozy  purveyor of gardening tools, clothing, gifts, livestock and feed located in the Pacific Northwest. On a visit many years ago they had several galvanized metal feed bins teeming with peeping birds of different feathers. I had to be dragged out of there that day, lured away with the promise of a latte next door.

If I had to order ducklings online (a common enough practice) I might be inclined to do the thing where you purchase eggs (incubation?) and then when the duckling busts out it thinks you're its mother. But that would blur the line between pet and livestock and the whole point of livestock is that they're not pets. You do your best to protect their outdoor environment but you can't have them shaking a tail feather inside unless you live in a barn.

It's such a lovely thing to live in relative proximity to the open spaces of Wisconsin and Michigan. Just seeing a silo now and then reminds me of the possibility of a slower pace. (This is what I was thinking when my blur of a car caught the attention of the state patrol last weekend.) Of course on every one of those farms is a woman with a view of a duck pond but she's too busy with her to-do list to appreciate them. I can relate to her. I'm in a busy time of life and there's lots on my list. I prefer to see this as evidence of a life well-lived, rather than a burden. Some like to knock the to-do list, suggesting that such a thing makes list-makers feel important or needed. I make lists because I am important and needed. And because I tend to forget stuff. Also, I love lists!

Ode to a list
Oh, to-do list
your python-grip on my neck
just makes me love you more.

With every addition and subtraction
my devotion to you multiplies.

Ok, that's all. I'm not even going to go into the part about how that farm in Wisconsin is much more likely to be selling duck meat as opposed to fluffy ducks.

Have a lovely weekend.

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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Cassoulet vs. Cassoulet

Winter is wrapping up but it's not going to get warm in Chicago for awhile. It's a great time of year for French Onion Soup, Spring Lamb Stew and a perfect time to make my first Cassoulet. Over the weekend Cassoulet recipes were popping up all over the place. I read Mark Bittman's recipe with great interest until I got to the part where he called for a pound of lamb shoulder. That didn't seem right. The Wall Street Journal also published a Cassoulet recipe last weekend and theirs has no lamb and appears to be a lot simpler to prepare. Plus, the WSJ got Thomas Keller's protégé, Philip Tessier, to write the recipe. Bittman, you've been outdone.

The two recipes reveal the centuries-old désaccord concerning appropriate ingredients for a Cassoulet. D'Artagnan's site quotes Andre Daguin, a famous chef of Gascony, who said, “Cassoulet is not really a recipe, it’s a way to argue among neighboring villages of Gascony.”  Bittman is hardly the lone wolf tossing lamb or something other than duck into the pot. Saveur Magazine posted a recipe that calls for ham hocks and pork shoulder.

Bittman does get credit for writing a very detailed recipe, which includes method for preparing the duck confit and stock. Also, he uses the whole duck. I like the simplicity and economy of that decision. Cassoulet has decidedly peasant origins. Not that I expect anyone's desire to eat Cassoulet has anything to do with wanting to eat like a peasant.

The drawback to the Tessier (no lamb) recipe is that it necessitates consulting another recipe for duck confit and sourcing 8 duck legs. I've seen whole ducks at Whole Foods but not packaged duck legs. When I make my Cassoulet it will be a tidy marriage of  the Tessier and Bittman recipes, using a whole duck and garlic sausage. I'll post that recipe if I'm happy with it.

It's interesting to note that sourcing ingredients for this humble bean stew, which has roots of being a communal dish, a sort of stone soup, will require nothing short of a line of credit at Whole Foods. Also, Cassoulet is not made to serve 4. You make it to serve a gathering of friends (friends who like duck and white beans). As Julia Child said, “Cassoulet, that best of bean feasts, is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba.”

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Monday, February 27, 2012

On Recreational Peppers

Several years ago I decided to keep green and red bell peppers on hand in my fridge. They are useful in so many things - Greek SaladSunday Breakfast Scrambles and Cauliflower Curry, just to name a few. Weekly dinners improved immensely with peppers in the fridge. Plus, you don't need to use them right away, unlike other quick-spoiling veg.

It came to be that the bulbous bell wasn't quite the kick that was needed. So I started stocking jalapenos. Jalapeno heat is sort of overrated; once seeded, they really aren't all that hot. Finely chopped jalapenos go into my Guacamole and Breakfast Potatoes. Cut into long, thin strips they take Fajitas to new heights. In marinades for chicken they transform bland bird into succulent, spicy Tandoori. Thin rounds of jalapeno make Ginger-Jalapeno Rice Appetizers more spectacular. And I could scarcely produce a homemade salsa (Pico de Gallo, Mango or Salsa Verde) without the trusty Jalopy.

I'm beginning to think the jalapeno is a gateway pepper.

I frequent the Whole Foods pepper bar with increasing regularity, stashing Bird's Eye chilis for Thai Green Curry; Poblanos for Braised Pork Tenderloin, Poblano Beef, and Mexican Pork Stew; and Scotch Bonnets for Jerk Sauce. No chance I'm going to get off these peppers. Last week we had Poblano Beef. I had forgotten how good that stuff is! The only thing wrong with it seems to be that it's impossible to make enough.

A great bit of fun is roasting a pepper over a flame on the stove. If I need to roast lots of peppers I'll throw them under the broiler. But when one or two are all that's needed, I just balance them right on the burner and use my tongs to rotate them. I only do this with the bigger peppers, like poblanos and red bells. Jalapenos go under the broiler or in a  cast iron pan for browning.

There is some care to take when working with hot peppers. Poblano fumes sneak into my lungs when I'm rinsing off the blackened skin. Jalapenos are surprisingly juicy - I often think it'd be a good idea to wear my glasses when cutting them. And don't forget to wash cutting boards and knives. Just don't let these warnings dissuade you! Food smells fear, I'm sure of it. But your cooking will be much improved if you identify some ways to incorporate hot peppers into your menus.

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