Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Who Needs Girl Scouts?

I really can't get enough cookies. And since I have more cocoa powder and candy canes left over from the holidays than I know what to do with, I decided to take to the kitchen and create some peppermint-chocolate goodies. These are actually less like cookies, and more like small cakes. The taste is very similar to a Girl Scout's Thin Mint cookie, except it's a soft, fudge-y Fat Mint cookie.

Recipe for Fat Mints (makes about 30 small cookies):
  • 1 cup of flour
  • 1/2 cup of cocoa powder
  • 1/2 tsp of salt
  • 1/2 tsp of baking powder
  • 1 stick (8 tbsp) of butter, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup of sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp peppermint extract

For the glaze/topping:

  • 2-3 candy canes, crushed
  • 1/2 cup of powdered sugar
  • 1 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 tbsp + 1 tsp of water

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the flour, cocoa powder, salt and baking powder in a medium bowl. In a larger bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until it becomes a paste. Beat in the egg and peppermint extract until combined with the butter and sugar mixture. Gradually mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Shape the dough into rounded teaspoon-sized balls, spread out on a cookie sheet and bake for 12-14 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together the powdered sugar, cocoa powder and water to make the glaze. When the cookies are cooling, spread a little chocolate glaze on top and garnish with the crushed candy canes.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Nuts About New Year's Eve

If you're planning on hosting a posh New Year's get-together, champagne is key, but don't forget the finger foods. Whether you prefer a festive buffet, or a smattering of various appetizers placed throughout your house, small bowls of roasted nuts will compliment your snacking layout nicely. When I worked at Kitchen Conservatory in St. Louis, I became addicted to the honey roasted almonds that we would put out for the (ahem) customers. They make a great holiday munch.

How to make the Salty-Sweet Honey Roasted Almonds:
  • 2 cups of whole raw almonds
  • 2 tbsp of honey
  • 2 tbsp of water
  • 2 tsp of olive oil
  • 1/4 cup of sugar
  • 1 tsp of kosher salt

Don't heat the oven - first, spread out the almonds on an ungreased baking sheet. Place the sheet in the oven, then turn the oven to 350 degrees and take out the sheet after about 15 minutes and set aside. Toss once about halfway through cooking. Meanwhile, stir together the honey, water and oil in a medium saucepan, and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. Stir in the roasted almonds and cook, stirring until all the liquid has been absorbed by the nuts. In a medium bowl, mix the sugar and salt. Transfer the nuts to the bowl and toss until coated. Spread the nuts out on a sheet of wax or parchment paper to cool.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

New York Brunch

The origin of Eggs Benedict is unclear, but its popularity is undisputed. Each weekend, the residents of New York collectively sit down for brunch. Nearly every restaurant in the city offers a special weekend brunch, and nearly every one includes some form of Eggs Benedict on the menu. There's traditional (english muffin, a slice of ham, and a poached egg with hollandaise), nontraditional (with smoked salmon, bacon, spinach, or tomato; the list is endless), and even McTraditional (the Egg McMuffin was inspired by Eggs Benedict - a slice of cheese sheepishly substitutes for the hollandaise).

How to make Eggs Benedict:

Toast an english muffin, and cover it with a piece of canadian bacon. Place a poached egg on top and cover with hollandaise sauce. I like to serve it with roasted asparagus on the side, which taste great swept up in the overflowing egg yolk and hollandaise sauce.

How to poach an egg:

In a shallow saucepan, bring a couple inches of water and a splash of vinegar to a very gentle simmer. The small amount of vinegar will help keep the egg together. With a slotted spoon, swirl the water and crack the egg right into the water. Keep swirling gently so that the yolk becomes encased by the white, and so it doesn't stick to the bottom. Be careful to keep the simmer and swirl gentle enough so as much of the egg stays together as possible without scrambling. Cook for a few minutes until the egg has somewhat solidified, but the yolk is still soft. Remove the egg from the water with the slotted spoon and transfer to a lint-free tea towel so the egg can dry off until you're ready to build your Eggs Benedict.

Make the hollandaise sauce:

(Note: I do not make hollandaise according to tradition... I use more egg yolks. And non-clarified butter.)

In a medium saucepan (or use a double boiler if you have one) bring a couple inches of water to a simmer over very low heat. In a stainless steel bowl set over the steaming water, whisk 4 egg yolks with the juice of 1/2 a lemon, plus a pinch of salt. Whisk continuously until the yolks become thick and light in color, and have increased in volume. This will take several patient minutes. Keep a hand on the side of the stainless steel bowl - if it gets too hot to touch, you may want to turn the heat down a little, or remove the bowl for a minute to prevent the egg from cooking too fast and getting chunky. Once the yolks have thickened, whisk in 6 tablespoons of unsalted butter, one tablespoon at a time. Spoon the warm sauce over the poached eggs, and garnish with snipped chives. This will be enough sauce for at least 6 Eggs Benedicts.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Yule Tide Carol

Merry Christmas! I wish you comfort and joy, and lots of good food, through the holidays and into the new year.

If you could please allow me the pleasure... to serenade you with some merry measure... it would be this rendition of Deck the Halls.

And to all a good night!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Happy Cookie Days

Cookies are the food stars of the holidays. Every food magazine in December features beautiful shots of cookies and their corresponding recipes. Every family has a holiday tradition that revolves around cookies, whether it's leaving freshly baked treats for Santa, or hosting cookie exchange parties with friends. As an annual Yuletide ritual, I make the same ginger-molasses cookie every year. It's not the most popular cookie in my household, but to me it is synonymous with Christmas, and it's one of my favorites. My mother's Grandmother, Veronica Townsend (after whom I was named) used to make these for my mother, who then used to make these for me. Someday, I'll make these for my grandkids.

I made a batch of these yesterday, along with some classic chocolate chip cookies for my husband. I thought I might try to experiment and "Christmas them up" by taking a bit of the dough and adding some peppermint extract and crushed candy canes. Not a good idea. I've never baked candy canes in cookies before, but apparently they become a chewy, sticky, red-and-white-runny mess. So I nixed that operation. I still have a lot of candy canes in my possession for test creations, so maybe I'll try something else (being careful not to add them as garnish until after baking).

Recipe for Grandma Veronica's Ginger-Molasses Cream Cookies:

Mix together:

  • 1/4 cup of butter (softened, but still a little cold)
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup molasses

Stir in:

  • 1 tsp of baking soda, dissolved in 1/2 cup of warm water

Sift together these dry ingredients, then mix them into the wet ingredients:

  • 2 cups of flour
  • 1/2 tsp of salt
  • 1 tsp of ginger
  • 1/2 tsp of nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon

Heat the oven to 400 degrees, and chill the dough in the fridge for about 30 minutes. Drop rounded teaspoons full about 2" apart on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake until set, about 7-8 minutes. While the cookies are still a little warm, frost with icing.

How to make icing: Stir together 3/4 cup of powdered sugar with 1/4 tsp of vanilla and 1 tbsp plus 2 tsp of cream.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Soothing Oeufs

No matter how upset my stomach is, I can always rely on scrambled eggs to keep me sustained. Gentle, consoling, and easy to make, they stand comfortably alone, or support some hearty sides with modesty.

Recipe for a plate of Fluffy Asiago Scrambled Eggs with Hash Browns and Bacon:
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tbsp cream
  • Shredded asiago cheese
  • Fresh snipped chives to garnish
  • One big yukon gold potato
  • 2 or 3 strips of bacon
  • A small dab of butter
  • Salt and pepper

How to make the eggs: heat a non-stick skillet over medium-low heat. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs with the cream, then add a pinch of salt and one turn of the pepper mill. Pour the eggs into the skillet, and push around with a spatula every 20 seconds or so, until done. When the eggs have almost cooked through, fold in the cheese. Serve hot with the fresh chives sprinkled on top.

How to make the hash browns and bacon: heat a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon, and cook for a few minutes on each side until they have reached your desired crisp. Remove from skillet, reserving the fat on the bottom. While the bacon cooks, peel the potato. When the all the skin is off, keep peeling until you have a pile of thin potato layers. Gather up the potato pile and drop it onto the hot fat. Use a spatula to shape the pile into a thin cake. Add a small dab of butter (about 1/2 tbsp) to the top of the potatos to melt. Let cook for a few minutes until golden brown on the bottom, and then lift the cake/pile with a spatula and flip, letting the other side get nice and crispy brown. Taste before adding salt.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Gifts for Gourmets

I still have a copy of my Christmas wish list to Santa from when I was 8-years-old. It was so well organized, and it had little drawings on it to match the descriptions - just in case Santa couldn't read my writing, I suppose. I did not ask for a Barbie doll, or a Cabbage Patch Kid, or even an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle. I asked for a bagel and a pear. Even at 8 I knew I loved food.

If you have a foodie friend in your life that you still need to get a gift for, they might think a pear is a weird gesture (and they'd be right, unless they're 8 and they specifically asked for it by name, and via crude illustration); but I bet if they don't have any of these essential gadgets, they will enjoy adding them to their culinary repertoire.

Of course, certificates for a specialty grocery store, nice restaurant, or a cooking class make great gifts as well. For something sexier than a spaetzel maker (what?? impossible!), I highly endorse the Philosophy line of cosmetic products. Their 3-in-1 shampoo/shower gel/bubble bath concoctions smell delicious (but don't leave a lingering sugary scent on your body) and have equally delectable signatures such as Red Velvet Cake, Cinnamon Bun, Coconut Frosting, Strawberry Milkshake and Raspberry Sorbet. Last year I begged my husband for a bottle of the Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream and I have been savoring every last bit. The icing on the cake, literally speaking, is that scripted on each bottle is the recipe for which it is named. So you can smell the cake and eat it, too.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Coq au Procrastina-Vin

I somehow got it in my head a while back that I really need to make some Coq au Vin, probably just because I like saying it and pretending I'm Julia Child: Coke oh Vahn. The Coq lost his crow and has been hanging out in my freezer, until finally last night, I thought, "I've got coq. I've got vin. Let's do this thing already."

It's a classic dish, characterized by the Coq (fresh rooster parts, or in many non-French-cottage-in-the-countryside cases, grocery store chicken), braised in the vin (usually red wine), and accompanied by an assortment of other ingredients: lardons (salt pork), mushrooms, pearl onions, mirepoix (carrots/celery/onion combo), thyme, bay leaves, etc, etc. There are endless recipes and variations, since each region of France simply must have their own version, as well as celebrity chefs. I did it my own way as well, partially because I hate following the rules (I thought about throwing in the pearl onions, but I just didn't feel like it), but mostly because I hate extra trips to the store if I don't have any, say, mushrooms, for example.

Recipe for last night's somewhat anti-Traditional Coq au Vin for 2:
  • Two legs of chicken
  • 1 and 1/2 cups of red wine
  • 3 pieces of thick-cut bacon, sliced into thin strips
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 big carrot, peeled and sliced into bite-sized rounds
  • 3/4 cup of chicken stock
  • About 1/2 tsp of fresh thyme leaves (or 1/4 tsp dried)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Fresh parsley for garnish
  • Salt and pepper
  • A half stick of butter and about a 1/4 cup of flour on hand

In a dutch oven or large heavy pot, cook the bacon on medium-low heat for several minutes until done but not crispy, stirring occasionally. Move the bacon to a plate and set aside, but keep the fat in the pot. Season the chicken with salt and pepper, and brown in the bacon fat until each side is golden, about 8-10 minutes. If the bottom starts looking dry, add some butter. There should be a shiny thin coat of fat across the bottom. Remove the chicken and place on the plate with the bacon. Next, cook the onions and carrots in the pot (adding a little more butter if necessary). Stir occasionally until softened, about 5-7 minutes. Add a rounded tablespoon of flour to coat the vegetables, and cook while stirring occasionally, until the flour has browned slightly. Deglaze the pot by pouring in the wine and stirring, scraping the browned bits off the bottom. Stir in the chicken stock, thyme, and add the bay leaf. Transfer the chicken and bacon back to the pot, also pouring any accumulated juices in as well. Increase the heat to high, and stir a few times - when the sauce reaches a rolling boil, turn down the heat for a gentle simmer, and cover the pot. Let the chicken simmer for about 30-40 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare a potato dish to serve with the chicken. The chicken will be tender and rich, so simple is best. Mashed or roasted potatoes are a good choice. Last night I went a little crazy and did individual gratins of Potatoes Dauphinoise, which is delicious and easy, but a little over-the-top paired with the rustic Coq au Vin.

After the chicken has finished simmering, remove the legs and prepare to serve to your liking. I pulled the meat off the bones so I could just spoon the sauce right over it, and not have to worry about picking it apart as we ate. To finish the sauce, taste it to see if you need to add any salt or pepper. Make a paste from equal parts flour and softened butter, and stir it in a little at a time until the sauce has thickened slightly. It shouldn't be too thick. If you want mushrooms and pearl onions, sautée them together separately in bacon fat and add them towards the end. Spoon the sauce and vegetables over the chicken, garnish with some fresh parsley, and enjoy. Don't forget the side of crusty bread to soak up the sauce.

Beware of Onion

"No pugs in the kitchen!" I shout, stomping my feet, for the third or fourth time. A favorite pastime of my two dogs is to wait patiently nearby as I chop food, ready to chomp on the fated bits that drop. Since my kitchen has no door (or wall, for that matter) to separate itself from the rest of our tiny New York apartment, I must surrender to the inevitable: no matter how many times I shoo them away, as long as there's food, the pugs will return.

The truth is, I don't mind. One of the many perks of being a dog is the occasional scrap of "people" food falling directly toward you. The problem is, however, that I chop so many onions.

Everyone knows that chopping onions makes you cry. Also fairly common knowledge is the reason behind the tears: the chemical irritants that onions contain, which give it a nice flavor, but also burn your sensitive eyes. So why bother to write about onions? Lately onions have been a root cause of some misery for me, and not just a few tears. Here are a few warnings about this very frequently-used ingredient:
  • Do not let your dogs or cats eat onions or anything with onion - it will make them extremely sick!
  • Although they are neighbors at the grocery store, onions and potatoes should not be stored with each other in the pantry at home. The onions will cause the potatoes to quickly sprout.
  • Fingers are easily sliced while chopping slippery onions. Be sure you have a firm grip on the root, not the skin. Make sure the onion is flat on the surface, and not rolling around, when you cut. A good technique is to first chop off the pointy stem top, then cut the onion in half from top to bottom, so you have half-a-root per half-onion section as your anchor. This will hold the onion layers together. Peel off the skin, then laying each half flat, hold the root with one hand, and make several slices lengthwise, going away from (and not through) the root. Then slice the other direction.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Vealing Very Veak

Ugh. Fighting the flu is not what I want to be doing this time of year. My kitchen misses me; saying nothing, but giving me an ingenuous look that says, "Christmas cookies...cinnamon promised."

Whenever I'm not feeling well, I tend to crave Italian food. I think it's the mild acidity of the tomato I want. A trait I must have inherited from my mother. Whenever she is sick, she wants something really spicy or acidic. After speaking with her on the phone this afternoon, she gave me a long-distance hug, and told me to take it easy. Chicken noodle soup may be good for the souls and stomachs of the ailing, but moms are usually best.

I stopped at the store to pick up some veal to make meatballs. Go for the lighter-colored veal that is well-marbled with fat.

Recipe for Veal-ly Good Meatballs:

  • 3/4 lb of ground veal
  • 2 slices of bacon, diced
  • 1/2 small onion, finely diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced or pushed through a garlic press
  • 1 tbsp of butter, softened
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup of breadcrumbs
  • Fresh thyme leaves, about 1/4 tsp
  • Fresh chopped flat parsley leaves, about 1-2 tsp
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil

Mix all the ingredients (except olive oil) together in a large stainless steel bowl with your hands. If it feels too wet, add more breadcrumbs. Heat a small amount of olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Roll meatballs, and place on the bottom of the pan to brown. Cook for a few minutes, then turn over. Once the outside of the meatballs look like they've cooked, cover with tomato sauce and bring to a simmer. Simmer the sauce over medium-low heat, covered, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes. Check a meatball to see if it has cooked through, and then remove the pan from the heat, stirring a final time. Serve over pasta with fresh grated parmigiano reggiano.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

I'm Dreaming of a White Chili

I don't know if it's the chill in the air, or the fact that I started talking about it last week, or the sudden nostalgic streak that seems to be affecting me recently, but last night I made more chili. When I was in high school, I worked at a restaurant in Minneapolis that made the most amazing white chicken chili soup. I consumed a small bowl of it during every one of my shifts. I distinctly remember wondering if I should try to get the recipe, but I think every 18-year-old has some genetic quality that makes them think they don't really need to plan for the future - that everything they need will somehow always be there for them - which prevented me from actually asking for it.

Fortunately I think I have duplicated it successfully, to the best of my memory. Even if I am way off on the original ingredients, it sure tastes good anyway.

Recipe for Creamy White Chicken Chili:
  • 3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, diced into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 can of white kidney (cannellini) beans, drained
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 jalapeno, minced, seeds removed
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • Juice of 1/2 lime
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 3/4 cup of chicken stock
  • 3/4 cup of your favorite light-colored beer
  • 1/2 cup of heavy cream
  • Fresh chopped cilantro - about 2 tbsp to stir in, plus more for garnish
  • Generous pinch (or about 6 sprinkles) of cumin
  • Generous pinch (or about 6 sprinkles) of paprika
  • Salt and white pepper to taste
  • Shredded Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheese for garnish

In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter, and add the onion, garlic and jalapeno. Sweat for a couple of minutes, then add the chicken. Pour the lime juice over the chicken and season with cumin, paprika, salt and pepper. Cook the chicken, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Pour in the chicken stock, cannellini beans, and beer, and stir to combine. Bring the heat to high. When the pot starts to boil, turn down the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in the cream, and simmer for an additional few minutes. Turn off heat and stir in the chopped cilantro. Check seasoning, and add more salt and pepper if needed. Serve garnished with cheese and cilantro.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Fads, Secrets, and More Bacon

The night owls among us recognize the current fad that is the speakeasy. Those certain secret after-hours locations that only a certain select few know about. During the period of prohibition, these often corrupt establishments that covertly sold alcohol were kept secret from the disciplinary wrath of the local police. Today, they are kept secret from the general public to protect (or forge) their aura of cool, not to protect their owners from a raid. Unlisted phone numbers and addresses. Hidden paths and doors. Secret knocks and passwords. Only those deemed decidedly hip are let in on these secrets, by another decidedly hip individual already in-the-know.

I had heard about a mysterious place that only lets you in if you find the secret phone booth, pick up the phone, and say the password. Last night I was out with some decidedly hip friends, walking around the East Village, laughing, distracted - not even realizing that we had paused at a tiny phone booth inside a hole-in-the-wall joint. Suddenly, after Mary had stepped inside and said something into the phone, the false back wall of the booth moved swiftly to the right and a beautiful woman popped her face through: "I'm so sorry, but we're full right now. Try back later?"

It's no secret that "creative gourmet" is a current fad among hot dog lovers. A recent episode of Top Chef featured a challenge where the contestants had to create their own unique take on the hot dog. Luckily, despite being turned away from the secret phone booth speakeasy, the aforementioned hole-in-the-wall joint we landed in served creative gourmet hot dogs. So we feasted instead.

I ordered the "Chihuahua" dog - a classic hot dog wrapped in a crispy strip of bacon and served smothered with avocado, salsa and sour cream. Until last night, I've been eating my hot dogs primarily with a thin drizzle of ketchup and mustard. Sometimes I would get crazy and try onions, relish, or even chili with some cheese, but mostly I would stick with just ketchup and mustard. Oh, what I have been missing out on! Bacon wrapped hot dog = genius. It wasn't the first time a strip of bacon changed my life, and I doubt it will be the last.

Here are some other creations I can't wait to try:
  • The "Chang" - a dog wrapped in bacon and topped with kimchee
  • The "BLT" - a dog wrapped in bacon and topped with lettuce, tomato and mayo
  • The "Tsunami" - a dog wrapped in bacon with teriyaki sauce, pineapple and green onions
  • The "Good Morning" - a dog wrapped in (yup, you guessed it!) bacon and covered with melted cheese and a fried egg

We didn't end up in the arcane room behind the moving wall. It didn't matter; I discovered a better secret. A place, not hidden, that I can get an awesome-tasting New York hot dog, loaded with goodies, for much less than the cost of a New York night spot cover charge.

Tell me about the best hot dog you've ever tried!

Museum of Modern Art

Do you ever look at a piece of modern art and think to yourself,
I could totally do that? Me too.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

What's Shakin', Bacon?

Last weekend we went to see my favorite comedian, Jim Gaffigan, perform live. One of the things I like best about him is how much he loves food. Most of his material revolves around food and eating, and his famous bit about Hot Pockets launched him into fame. We also share similar thoughts on salad.

On his new tour, he had a lot to say about one of my favorite foods: bacon!

"...When you cook bacon, you know you're getting something great because it sounds like a round of applause is coming from the stove - sssssssssss, ahhhhhhh!"

"...Salad with bacon bits always turns into a treasure hunt to find the bacon."

"...Would you like to join our religion?" "Sure, sounds good." "You can't eat bacon." "Oh? Nevermind."

Recipe for Veronica's Favorite Bacon Sandwich:
  • 6 strips of thick-cut bacon
  • 1/2 avocado, thin slices
  • 1/2 mango, thin slices
  • 1 leaf of lettuce
  • 2 slices of good bread
  • 2-3 tbsp of chili-lime mayonnaise (recipe below)

Cook the bacon in a skillet until crispy. Prepare the chili-lime sauce, spread on both slices of bread, and stack your sandwich!

Recipe for Chili-Lime Mayonnaise:

  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tsp lime juice
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • A few drops of Sriracha (Thai chili sauce)
  • Zest of 1 lime

Whisk the yolks (a mixer helps) with the lemon juice, lime juice and salt. Whisk in the oil a few drops at a time and continue to whisk until thick. After about 1/3 of the oil has been added, start to whisk it in more steadily. Make sure all your oil is getting absorbed. Stir in a few drops of the Sriracha and lime zest. The sauce will keep in the fridge for two days.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Tis the Season to do Good

According to this recent news article, more Americans are relying on food stamps than ever before. And due to the increase in demand, food banks are struggling to meet requests.

As you know, these are tough economic times for everyone. If you have the means to donate food or time to a local food bank this holiday season, it is much needed, and will be appreciated by someone. Tis the season to volunteer. Tis the season to give!

Regardless of the season, always give thanks for food.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Baby it's Chili Outside

If you still have leftover turkey at this point, you have a problem. You might want to just call it quits to play it safe (unless you froze it), or hurry up and make turkey chili.

Our thanksgiving leftovers made it to Sunday. We lazily heated up turkey bits piled on slices of French bread (bruschetta style) with stuffing and dressing for 3 days before I had to come up with a new plan with new food. Yesterday, I decided to make chili. There are so many chili recipes I have been wanting to try out (especially this one from Mollie Katzen) and I am hoping to invent a recipe of my own. One of my goals is to
someday win the Hannibal Annual Chili Cookoff with my very own Budweiser-inspired chili.

But since yesterday was stressful, and I only had about 5 minutes to run through the store before I had to get home to let the dogs out (who each defecated on the floor regardless of my best efforts to reach them as fast as possible), I decided to go with the easy chili recipe my mom taught me.

Recipe for Can-do Beef Chili:
  • 1 lb. extra lean ground beef
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1/2 green pepper, diced
  • Generous sprinkles of chili powder
  • (Optional - I like to add a little hot sauce, garlic salt, and chipotle powder - but definitely add salt and cracked black pepper)
  • One can diced tomatoes
  • One can kindey beans
  • One can Campbells tomato soup
  • Cheese, sour cream, Fritos - toppings of your choice
In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and stir in the onion and green pepper. Cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the beef and cook until brown. Add the chili powder and seasonings and stir as the meat cooks. I usually end up using between 1-2 tbsp of chili powder. Add the diced tomatoes and juices, drain the kidney beans and add, then pour in the concentrated tomato soup. Stir and bring to a simmer. Let simmer for about 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the beans are soft. Serve in a bowl with chosen toppings.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Gobble Gobble

In keeping with family tradition, I gave my turkey an ironic and worthy moniker. In recent years, the lighthearted, dubious honor has mostly gone to our current president in some form of his name. Our turkey has been "W" and "Bush," and I think even just "George." Sometimes it's named after a political figure, sometimes not, but given this years' intense political climate, we just decided to go with it. We landed on "Joe the Turkey."

Joe was a tricky bird. He turned out pretty well, but I think it was the side dishes that stole the show (maybe I should have named them Sarah Palin!). And I'm usually not one to gloat, but I'm especially proud of how the gravy turned out. I skipped the bread stuffing (served it on the side instead), and filled Joe with onion, carrot, celery, fresh thyme, sage and rosemary, which flavored the bird, but mostly aided the yummy drippings. After Joe was cooked, I tipped him upright and dumped out the juices into the pan, and skimmed out the fat. Then I added turkey stock and brought to a simmer, stirring and scraping the browned bits off the bottom. I mixed equal parts flour with room-temperature butter, and stirred it in to the stock and juice, a little at a time, until thick and creamy.

Here are full recipes for some of the Sarah Palin side dishes:

Recipe for Sweet Corn Soup with Basil Cream:
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 4 cups sweet corn off the cob, frozen
  • about 2 cups vegetable stock
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil, leaves torn in half
  • Salt and white pepper to taste

Take the torn basil leaves and soak in the heavy cream, crushing and piercing the leaves with a fork. Set aside in the fridge. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and simmer the onion until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the sweet corn and cook, stirring occasionally for 3 minutes. Season with a little salt and pepper while stirring. Pour in the vegetable stock until the liquid is just covering the top of the corn, and bring to a boil. Transfer the hot stock, onions and corn to the blender and blend until smooth. As you would for any hot soup, leave an opening at the top of the blender and cover with a clean tea towel to absorb the steam. Push the soup through a strainer or chinois. Pour in the cream, making sure not to get any of the actual basil leaves in the soup, and whisk until combined. Check seasoning and adjust accordingly.

Recipe for Roasted Root Vegetables:

  • 2 turnips, peeled and sliced into thick strips
  • 2 parsnips, peeled and sliced into thick strips
  • 4 carrots, peeled and cut on the horizontal into thick rounds
  • 1 big shallot, sliced and rings pulled apart, skin off
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Splash of balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tbsp light brown sugar
  • Salt and cracked pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine all the vegetables in a bowl and cover with olive oil, stirring until all are well coated. Let marinate for 30 minutes. Stir, and add splash of balsamic vinegar and tablespoon of brown sugar, and stir again to evenly coat. Spread out the veggies on a roasting pan, and sprinkle salt and pepper over the tops. Roast at 400, giving the pan a few shakes as it cooks. It will take about 20 minutes depending on how big or small your pieces are, but keep an eye on it and remove from the oven when the veggies are caramelized and dark around the edges.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Heroin for Breakfast

Ah, breakfast. Such a culinary paradox. Our natural inclinations to diversify our diet are so easily repressed, ignored, or forgotten, every morning. If you eat the exact same chicken stir-fry dish every night for a week, you get sick of it. And your friends might think that you're either a little nuts, or that you really need to branch out. Or both.

The usual rules don't apply at breakfast. We've all had that period in our lives where we ate the same cereal every morning for months on end. Until maybe we hit a wild streak and tried a new granola bar. Then it was the new granola bar every morning for a month. We want to start the day in a comfortable place, and so we conform to our comfortable morning routines.

My comforting morning sustenance routine has included a mug of English breakfast tea (with milk) every day for the last year and a half. The upbeat, never annoying, whistle of the tea kettle is my merry morning song. Some streaky symphonic contributors over recent months have included Honey Nut Cheerios, ginger bread cookies, vanilla-almond granola with yogurt, toast with honey butter and a soft boiled egg. Lately, however, breakfast has taken a dangerous new direction.

It all started very innocently a few weeks ago. I had innocently stopped off at Le Pain Quotidien to purchase an innocent baguette, when I innocently overheard a conversation taking place that piqued my epi-curiousity. A customer was chatting and laughing with the woman behind the counter; "Um, ok, yes, I'd like to try it," he concedes. She offers him a spoonful of something that looks fantastic. She pauses, "Well? Am I right?!" I'm trying not to stare. "Oh wow," he finally sighs, "that reminds me so vividly of my childhood. When I was a boy, we ate something just like that every day for breakfast in my country (which, I come to find out, is Turkey). I've had Nutella, which is close, and tastes okay, but this," his eyes widening, "this is perfect." Suddenly he turns to me (oh crap! I was staring!) and says, "Never, ever, eat this. It is like heroin." He turns back to the woman at the counter, "I'm sorry. I can't. It's too good." And then he leaves. But I swear on my baguette, not 30 seconds later, he was back buying a whole jar of the stuff. Heroin.

Noisella, it's called. Nostalgia in a jar. Belgian chocolate and hazelnut spread. And yes - not one to heed warnings about food, especially food dubbed "perfect" - I did buy a jar for myself. Once again, it started innocently. It's daily a.m. usage was accompanied by croissants and crusty bread, consumed with my morning tea. Now, fully addicted, I caught myself today dipping pretzels and trying to justify it as lunch. And doing it again for dinner. And realizing I did that yesterday, too. Admitting you have a problem is the first step. I might be a little nuts, and I definitely need to branch out. When a routine becomes an obsession, it's time to shake things up.

Monday, November 24, 2008

DIY Tomato Sauce

Tomato sauce - conveniently pre-packaged in a glass jar - oh so easy. So many options. So affordable. So quick. Just add pasta.

But the store's just so faaaaaaar and it's rainiiiiing (that's the sound of me whining in my head). Good thing homemade tomato sauce is a snap, it's delish, and it's easy to keep key ingredients on hand. And it makes your house smell like that Italian Grandmother you always wanted.

Recipe for Whiny Winey Tomato Sauce:
  • 1 can of whole peeled tomato
  • 1/4 cup diced onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1/4 cup red wine
  • Dab of tomato paste
  • Splash of balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp combo of dried herbs - basil + thyme (if you have fresh herbs on hand, use them! Just stir 'em in at the end)
  • Pinch of sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and add the onions and garlic. Cook and stir for about 5 minutes until soft and golden on the edges. Add a dab of tomato paste and stir, cooking about 1 more minute. "Deglaze" the pan with the wine and splash of balsamic vinegar. Turn heat to medium low. Open the tomatoes, and pour the sauce into the pan. Remove the whole tomatoes from the can and dice finely while smashing out some of the juice. Transfer to the saucepan. Stir in the herbs, sugar, salt and pepper, and simmer over low heat for 30-40 minutes.

Okay, so it's easy, but not as quick as the stuff in the jar. But what's the rush? Pour yourself a glass of that wine and whine about your crazy ________ (a. Co-workers / b. In-laws / c. Boss / d. Neighbor) while you leisurely prepare the rest of your meal.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Purée of the Day

Jack, friend and dinner guest, had witnessed my actions in the kitchen, and was aptly prepared for the taste to come. Nathan, husband and regular dinner partner, had come home later than expected from work, and was harboring false expectations for what he was about to eat.

"Wow, I love cauliflower prepared this way!" Jack thought to himself.

"These mashed potatoes taste weird," said Nathan.

A quick conversation about the roasted cauliflower purée cleared up the mild misunderstanding, followed by some laughing and banter:

"What if we opened a themed restaurant, and served a different purée each day, and it was always a surprise??"

Hmm... bad idea. Good idea? Roasting cauliflower and turning it into a creamy, delicious side dish. You may want to warn your guests ahead of time.

Recipe for Roasted Cauliflower "Mashed Potatoes"
  • One head of cauliflower, the florets broken off in roughly equal-sized pieces
  • 1/4 onion, skin discarded and rings pulled apart
  • One clove of garlic
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • Heavy cream
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and white pepper

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Spread out the cauliflower on a jelly roll sheet or roasting pan, and scatter the onion pieces and garlic clove among the cauliflower. Drizzle a little olive oil and roast until the tops of the cauliflower are golden, about 20-30 minutes. Whiz the veggies in a food processor with the butter until combined. Slowly pour cream into the mixture a little at a time and continue to purée until you reach a desired creamy consistency. Salt and pepper to taste.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Do Choke

I love foods that I can eat with my hands. Forks and spoons + me are such a clumsy combination, that I almost always end up wearing part of my meal as an unintended accessory to my outfit. So I really enjoy snacking on an artichoke. Whip up some herb butter (tonight I made it with fresh lemon and dill), grab some crusty bread, and you've got yourself a first course to an elegant meal or a simply delightful finger food snack.

Recipe for Black-Tipped Artichoke (2):
  • 2 artichokes
  • 1/2 lemon
  • 1 dry bay leaf, broken in half

In a medium stainless steel saucepan, or a pan that is big enough to comfortably hold your chokes without overlapping, heat about an inch of water on high until boiling. Add a little lemon juice, the peel of the lemon, and the bay leaf pieces to the water. Bring to a simmer. Meanwhile, as the water is heating, prepare your artichokes. When selecting a choke, look for a nice green one that feels heavy for its size. The leaves should be tight. Cut the stem off the bottom, so the choke sits flat. Remove some of the tough leaves around the bottom. Be careful of the sharp points at the tip of each leaf - cut off the top inch (or so) of the choke, and snip the pointy tips off the leaves, rubbing with lemon juice as you go to prevent browning. Sit the chokes upright in the pan of the simmering water, and cover the pan so the chokes absorb the steam. Steam the chokes for about 40 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the broiler. Transfer the steamed chokes to a shallow gratin dish, still upright, and broil for about 5-10 minutes until the tips turn black. Serve the chokes with warm crusty bread and herb butter.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Worth the Wait

"What's the best dish on the menu?" The restaurant manager repeated my question, eyeing me flirtatiously.

Oh brother.

It was the kind of rainy November night that makes you want to sit in the corner of a cozy restaurant, surrounded by friends, laughing and drinking wine until you finally close the place down. Unfortunately, the people lingering at the corner table that was slated for our group reservation at 10 p.m. seemed to feel the same way. I glanced at my watch - 10:43.

I'd spent the last three quarters of an hour posted near the kitchen entrance, watching food go in and then out of what I assumed to be a 700 degree wood burning brick oven, and then delivered to the nearby counter to be plated before being handed off to another section of counter to await its appropriate server.

I was mesmerized. Watching. Planning my order. Thinking about how amazing it would be to roll my sleeves up and get back there. Wondering how the guy working the brick oven avoided setting his hands on fire. The manager sauntered over to find out if I was being taken care of (and maybe to make sure I wasn't stalking one of his sous chefs). "Oh yes, thank you. Just waiting for my table. I like to watch the food. What do you think is the best dish on the menu tonight?"

The dialogue taking place on this particular rainy night is at Middle Eastern restaurant Taboon, off the main beat, but still in what's considered Hell's Kitchen. We waited a long time for our table. I was watching the front-of-house activity for a good 50 minutes. The manager professed his love to me. But oh, the food. The food was incredible. The focaccia flatbread was warm and crisp from the brick oven, and the hummus was flawless. We split an incredible shrimp appetizer that I think I can duplicate (I'll share the recipe in an upcoming article if it proves successful). I ordered the garlic and pistachio oil marinated hangar steak that was perfectly grilled, served on top of a red and yellow pepper chutney and garnished with crunchy pistachios. No dessert was ordered among us, but my potato purée was so sweet and creamy that it was a treat in itself.

I laughed and drank wine, surrounded by friends, at our cozy corner table. And yes, we closed the place down.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Pretty Peas

Okay, so my soup last night was less than fabulous. Still, I was hoping to start a "soup" category under my Recipes section, so maybe I'll just start with one of my favorite easy soups that I make often, instead of a culinary experiment gone bad.

I first tasted this soup in 2006 when my mom adapted it from a recipe she found in Darina Allen's Ballymaloe Cooking School Cookbook and served it at a spring party. It is such a beautiful shade of green and tastes so fresh, and the jalapeno provides a surprising and pleasant kick, I love to serve it as a vibrant first course.

Recipe for Pea-Cilantro Soup:
  • Homemade or good quality chicken stock, about 3 cups
  • One bag of frozen peas
  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 1 small jalapeno, diced (seeds removed)
  • Chopped cilantro, about 1/2 cup
  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • Salt and white pepper, to taste

In a small saucepan, heat the stock on one burner. On another burner, in a medium saucepan, heat the butter on med-low and stir in the onions, cooking until softened, about 3-4 minutes. Add the jalapeno to the onions and cook a few minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Add the peas to the medium saucepan, and cover with the hot stock, so just the top of the peas are covered (if you come up short, add more stock, or, if you must, a little water). Bring to a boil and cook the peas until just soft, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and pour mixture into a blender. Remove the middle section from the lid of the blender, so steam can escape, but before you turn the blender on, add the chopped cilantro and salt/pepper, and hold a folded tea towel over the top to cover the hole in the lid as you blend. This allows the steam to be absorbed by the towel, but no green splatters across your kitchen ceiling. Once you have blended the soup, taste and adjust seasoning, and pour in the cream. Blend one more time on low. The soup can be chilled and served cold (with an optional dollop of fresh whipped cilantro cream) and it tastes great served hot, too.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Trial and Pear

Forgive me, for I have sinned.

When my work day comes to a close and I begin to make my way home, I start to think about dinner. Okay, that's not exactly true - I think about dinner frequently throughout the day. But I think about it the most on my way home, because that's when I stop off at the store. Having recently cooked my pumpkin mascot, I had about a 1/2 cup of pumpkin purée remaining in my fridge that I thought would make a good fall soup. "Certainly the market will have some fall vegetables," I thought, as I walked briskly to Zabars, clutching the lapels of my cardigan together (I left my scarf at work), "I could make a lovely roasted turnip and pumpkin soup. Maybe with walnuts. Pecans? No, walnuts." My mind went on like this as I walked, spinning, trying to pair the flavors in my head.

When I arrived at the store, I headed directly towards the produce. "Turnips? Hmmm... nope. Parsnips? Some interesting carrots? No?? Crap."

Time to improvise. I see Bosc pears! My imagination perks up: "Yes! Those would taste good with pumpkin. I'll roast them, add some cardamom, some fresh grated ginger, incorporate that into the pumpkin soup, whip up a nice vanilla-scented cinnamon cream to plop on the top, it will be fabulous."

When I arrive at my kitchen at last, I commence roasting and simmering, and creating the whipped cinnamon cream. My husband comes home, and after observing me for about 30 minutes, immersed in my project and not paying him any attention, says, "That had better be the world's best soup."

The final product tasted as divine as I imagined. Unfortunately, I committed a cardinal sin of chef-dom along the way, which ultimately ruined the dish. All of my conceptual focus went to the flavor, and I completely ignored what the texture of the pear would do to my creamy pumpkin soup. It made it grainy. I chewed my soup, and probably made an ugly face. I did not anticipate this.

But I should have. I know better. I've eaten pear before, and I am familiar with its grainy texture. Pear is wonderful in so many dishes, sweet and savory, but it is not a good choice for creamy soups. A chef needs to be able to think about more than flavors. There is so much to consider when building a great meal. If I'm going to master this cooking thing, I need much more practice. I'm not afraid to keep trying. 

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Carpe Vinum

I absolutely support solitary wine consumption. While many caution "drinking alone" as a symptom of alcoholism, I find there are certain exceptions to every person's path (or downward spiral) in life. I often drink wine as I cook, and sometimes even when I'm enjoying take-out pad thai, alone, on a Sunday night. My companion tonight is a 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon from RustRidge Vinyards in Northern California.

I remember purchasing this wine; my husband and I were at a corporate dinner function to support a new up-and-coming winery, and after a fabulous meal, paired with tastings of several different wines, we chose this particular Cab Sav as our favorite and adopted our very own bottle. That was over a year ago. I think the reason we've held on to this bottle for so long is because we were hoping to celebrate something, or wait for that perfect, special occasion, to break it open. Riding on high expectations, the wine has been waiting for us on this pedestal we've created. Through birthdays, anniversaries, a new home in a new city, new jobs, and visits from friends - nothing was worthy of this particular wine.

Until something very unworthy happened. It is Sunday night. My husband is out of town for a business trip. Our two pugs are curled up, asleep at my feet. Snoring gently the way that pugs do. I'm nervous as hell about my work day tomorrow (my first big partnership pitch... cross your fingers for me) and I find myself really needing a glass of wine to ease into my evening. I worry about the repercussions of opening this wine with no one to share it with. Will my husband be mad at me for drinking it without him? Will I regret not saving it for a special dinner party? I shove my fears aside and pour myself a glass.

But something is not right. I've waited too long, and the wine is not as good as it once was. Somewhere on the pedestal, the integrity of the wine has been compromised. I don't know when, or how, but I suddenly do have one regret: not enjoying it sooner, for no particular occasion at all.

Life is short, drink your wine. Share it, or don't, but for heaven's sake - drink it.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Some Like it Hot

I have many goals in my life. I have a few aspirations, too. But I only have one mission: to discover the perfect cup of hot chocolate. I guess it all started on a 2007 trip to Paris. My mother told me, "You absolutely MUST go to Angelina. They have the world's best hot chocolate." And somewhere between the Louvre and Arc de Triomphe, I went. And it was very good. But not good enough to leave me satisfied with the notion that I will never again consume a better cup of hot chocolate. It was so thick, it was almost like drinking pure chocolate syrup. I prefer something more drinkable, something that makes me reach for more instead of reaching for my water glass. A chocolate beverage with subtle-but-surprising flavors and aromas to tease my senses. When the ancient Aztecs roasted their treasured cocoa beans to make a chocolate drink, they would spice it with chili peppers and wine. Of course the beverage has evolved over time into the sugary treat it is today, but I think those Aztecs probably knew a thing or two about their cocoa.

Whenever I've had a really rough day, or I'm just really cold, a cup of hot chocolate usually does the trick. Inspired by several recipes, I came up with my own that is particularly comforting. The title is a nod to a recipe for "The Duke's Hot Chocolate" featured in the book, The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper - a recipe that was enjoyed by the Bentivolglio Dukes of Bologna and features hints of vanilla, orange, and allspice.

Mine is enjoyed by me, and sometimes I just want to pretend that I'm a lady of the high court.

Recipe for Duchess Hot Chocolate:

  • 2 cups of milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 4 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 4 tbsp sugar
  • pinch of good salt
  • 3 dashes of nutmeg
  • 3 dashes of cinnamon
  • 1 dash of ground cloves
  • zest of a small orange (enough for only about 1/2 tsp)
  • 2 tsp Grand Mariner

In a small saucepan over low heat, slowly heat the milk and vanilla extract, whisking occasionally. Combine the cocoa powder, sugar, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, and whisk briskly into the warm milk. When combined, add the zest and whisk in the Grand Mariner. Test temperature, and serve when it has reached desired warmth.

Allow yourself enough time, post-consumption, to pass out on the couch. I'll never give up my global search for the perfect cup, but at least I found something satisfying that is as close as my kitchen.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Yes... Much Better

Fortunately, after my sticky breast pastry incident, there was really nowhere to go but up. I decided to try a baby papaya in my own sticky rice dessert, since a) it looked good, and was on sale and b) I like to try different things. That's the great thing about fruit - so much of it is interchangeable in cooking, once you figure out the basic flavors and categories, there's really no excuse not to experiment.

Papayas and mangoes are both considered to be tropical fruits. While mangoes have a tough core in the middle, papayas have tiny, round seeds (see below). Cut your papaya length-wise down the center, and scoop out the seeds. Then, using long strokes from top to bottom and left to right, dice the fruit by cutting a grid. Try to leave the skin intact as much as possible, because then you can just scoop your diced bits out of the skin.

Recipe for Sweet Sticky Rice and Tropical Fruit:

  • 2 cups cooked sticky rice (follow the directions on the package of glutinous rice. Remember to allow time to soak it. The longer you soak it, the less time you will need to steam it)
  • 1 ripe mango, or papaya, or guava...
  • 1/2 can of coconut milk
  • 1/4 cup of sugar
  • 1/2 tsp good salt
  • toasted sesame seeds for garnish

Heat the coconut milk, salt, and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low. Take out a small amount (about 2 tbsp) of the liquid and reserve. Add the cooked sticky rice to the sauce, and stir until all the liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Turn off heat. Scoop the rice into a bowl and place the sliced fruit on top. Drizzle with the reserved liquid, and garnish with toasted sesame seeds.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Sticky Situation

About 6 months ago, I was introduced to a popular Thai dessert - sticky rice and mangoes. The taste of the warm, sweet rice with the cool, tangy exotic fruit and toasted sesame seeds was unlike any dessert, or dish, I'd ever tried. The aroma and melt-in-my-mouth flavors transported my imagination to another culture and life. Last week while fumbling my way through Chinatown, I happened to land in a tiny mouse hole of a bakery that sold sticky rice-mango "pastries," dusted in coconut, for 80 cents. For only 8 dimes, I had no choice but to try it. I pointed, gestured, "one please," and made my way into work, giddy about my treat.

It was so full of promise, my beloved sticky rice-mango treat. But no sooner had I taken my first bite, when I realized it would not live up to my hopes and expectations. It didn't quite taste right, and the texture was distracting. It felt like I was trying to eat a breast implant. I've never actually held a breast implant before, and I don't intend to ever receive breast implants, but if I ever change my mind, I will go to Chinatown, pick up a sticky rice-mango "pastry," show it to my plastic surgeon, and say, "please make them feel like this."

Needless to say, I was totally unsatisfied with that particular sticky experience. But I did remember to do my monthly breast self-exam, so I guess it wasn't a total loss. Preventative health care for 80 cents. A pretty great deal, really.

I decided instead to make my Thai treat at home, the old-fashioned way. Sticky rice takes planning. It is glutinous rice that must be soaked for at least 2 hours, but ideally overnight. I'll let you know how it turns out - tune in tomorrow for an update.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Duck... Duck... Chicken!

The September "Paris" issue of Gourmet magazine featured a section devoted to succulent duck confit. My mouth has been watering for a recipe featured on page 137 ever since I read about it: Asian Noodles with Barbecued Duck Confit. I took the first step the other day when I visited the Hong Kong Supermarket to retrieve Chinese black vinegar. Tonight, I almost made it.

The thing about duck confit, aside from the fact that it is delicious, is that it's a quintessential "restaurant" dish. Typically when I eat at a restaurant, particularly ones with a reputable executive chef, I like to order a.) whatever the house recommends or b.) something I don't have the means to make at home. At French restaurants, often this dish is the duck confit. As much as I want to try to make it, it is time consuming, and I currently lack not only the time but also the equipment (i.e., deep fat thermometer) to give it a go.

Hoping to find it instead at the counter of one of my local high-end markets, my efforts proved fruitless, and I wondered instead if chicken legs for $2.75 could suffice. The Chinese black vinegar was difficult enough to locate - if I couldn't find cheater's duck confit in New York, who would really try this recipe?

The chicken turned out to be a fine substitute. I would absolutely make this spicy Asian barbecue chicken again, but I think next time I would serve it on rice. The noodles were great, and overall I thought it was a good dish. My husband didn't care for it though; too many clashing flavors for his taste. In my adapted recipe below, I only replace the duck confit with the chicken (and cook it a little longer) and I also cut some of the Chinese black vinegar, because it is incredibly potent.

Recipe for Asian Noodles with Barbecued Chicken Legs (adapted from Gourmet):

For the noodles:

  • 7 oz dried rice-stick noodles (rice vermicelli)
  • 2 small carrots, thin sliced
  • 1 handful of green beans, trimmed
  • 3 scallions, chopped
  • 1 cup fresh herbs, coarsely chopped - basil, cilantro and a little mint

For the chicken glaze:

  • 2 tbsp hoisin sauce
  • 1 tbsp fresh lime juice
  • 2 tsp Sriracha (Southeast Asian chile sauce)

For the noodle sauce:

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp Chinese black vinegar
  • 1 + 1/2 tbsp packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Soak the noodles covered in cold water for 30 minutes. In one small bowl, stir together all the glaze ingredients. In another small bowl, stir together the sauce ingredients. Place the chicken legs skin-side up on the rack of a broiler pan, then pour about 1/2 to 1 cup of water in the bottom of the pan. Season with salt and pepper, and brush about 1/2 the glaze on the legs. Roast until brown, about 20 minutes, and flip the legs, brush with glaze, and cook another 5-10 minutes. Flip one more time, brush with remaining glaze, and turn the oven to broil. Crisp under the broiler until skin is a little black, about another 3 minutes. Meanwhile, blanch the carrots in a small saucepan of boiling water for 30 seconds, then transfer to a large bowl with a slotted spoon. Return the water to a boil, and cook the green beans until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with carrots. Bring a pasta pot of water to a boil. Drain the noodles, and cook in the boiling water for about 30 seconds. Drain again, and transfer back to the bowl. Add the sauce, carrots, beans and scallions, and toss with tongs. Serve the noodles with chicken legs on top, and generously garnished with the fresh herbs.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Better Than Candy

I couldn't believe it. Yesterday I was leisurely strolling toward Union Square when it dawned on me that I somehow managed to breeze through Halloween without pumpkins. The signs at the Union Square farmers' market approached me, one at a time, with persuasion. Pumpkins! Last Chance! Half Price! Gone Soon! I selected an adorable 3 lb. sugar pumpkin for $2. It is now my autumn mascot - sitting on my kitchen counter, reminding me of the fall season. Soon I will turn it into fragrant, spiced pumpkin bread. Fresh pumpkin beats up on the canned stuff any day. To make your own puree, select a little sugar pumpkin (the big jack-o-lantern type tend to be too large and stringy); they are small and sweet, about 3-5 lbs, and they have a dark and flavorful flesh. Cut it in half and scoop out the strings and stem area and seeds from the middle (save the seeds for a roasted, salted snack!). Place the halves face down in a shallow baking pan and cover with foil. Bake at 350 for about 1.5 - 2 hours. Once the pumpkin has cooled off, scoop out the flesh and puree in a food processor, or mash with a potato masher or ricer.

Recipe for Punkin' Bread:

  • 3/4 cup of pumpkin puree
  • 7 tbsp room temp. butter (plus a little more for the pan... so you need about 1 stick)
  • 1 + 1/4 cups of flour (plus a little more for the pan)
  • 1 eggs
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1/2 tsp good salt

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare your loaf pan by greasing with butter and dusting lightly with flour. Whisk together the dry ingredients - flour, baking powder, ginger, nutmeg, and salt - in a large bowl. In another bowl, beat together the butter, sugars, egg, and pumpkin. Add the dry ingredients to the pumpkin mixture, and stir until combined. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake for about 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Below: Gremlin Gourds at the Union Square market.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Eels, Squids and Crabs... Oh My!

I'm definitely not in Missouri anymore. My first trip to a Chinatown market yesterday yielded much more to my visual palate than the Chinese black vinegar I had gone in search of.

Gigantic, dried squids, near the packaged soups - a popular item.

Would you like your fish pre-dead and gutted? Or alive and kickin'?

Yes - that cooler, on the ground, is filled with slithering live eels. Happy Halloween!

The crabs were my favorite. They are kind of cute, I think.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Master the Tater

Tater tip 1: Store your potatoes in a cool, dark place, like the pantry. But don't store onions with your potatoes - they can cause the taters to sprout.

Tater tip 2: Potatoes generously seasoned with fresh herbs taste great!

Recipe for Herb-a-licious Twice Baked Taters (for 2):
  • 1 russet potato
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp cream cheese (or sour cream - unless you're cheese-obsessed, like me)
  • Fresh chopped chives (about 1 tsp)
  • Fresh chopped rosemary (about 1 tsp)
  • Fresh chopped parsley (about 1 tsp)
  • Ground black pepper, to taste
  • Good salt, to taste
  • Cheese topping of choice (try blue cheese! Roquefort! yum!)

Prepare the tater by scrubbing and poking a few holes in the skin. I like to rub the skin with some extra butter. Bake the potato until done - a 350 degree oven for about an hour will do the trick. Cut the tater in half the long way, and scoop out the insides into a mixing bowl, leaving the skins intact. Add all the ingredients (besides the cheese for topping) to the potato insides, mashing and mixing until smooth. Fill the skins with the mixture, and top with your cheese of choice. Bake the tater halves until the cheese topping is bubbly and melted, about 15-20 more minutes.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Heirlooms are a Girl's Best Friend

Yesterday, while trolling the market shelves on the lookout for nothing in particular, I came across a most gorgeous and precious gem. The biggest, richest jewel-toned, and juiciest-feeling heirloom tomato I'd ever seen. It was lust at first sight. It's incredible how tomatoes have this enchanting effect on me. Perhaps it's the siren redness, or the aphrodisiac quality of something with so many varieties, all subtly different in flavor - a forbidden fruit that was once assumed dangerously toxic upon its introduction to European cultures.

I know that I have not always succumbed to the tomato's suggestive invitations. I distinctly remember being 16 years old, on a youth pilgrimage to the Middle East, and finding it so strange that tomatoes were an elemental, central part of breakfast each day. I remember thinking, "What? No Cherrios? Donuts? Muffins?" I'll never forget those breakfasts, but I wish I had the foresight to keep a better journal of my trip. I always hated journaling, and my parents made me do it while I traveled. I wrote three entries, and not once did I recall the food.

We went to Bethlehem today. It was pretty cool. We practically had to crawl through the door of the Church of the Nativity. Some guy wanted to buy me and another girl for 81 camels. Weird. Camels?? Oh well. I miss my friends.

Back to the heirloom. I wonder if I'm worth 81 heirlooms? Certainly not if they are like the one I found. It was the size of a softball, and its weight in my basket caused me to 'switch arms' several times. Heirloom tomatoes are expensive, but they represent (in my mind, at least) how a tomato should really taste. And you can't put a price on that.

Monday, October 27, 2008

W8ing 4 pie; trying 2 connect...

That's the headline I wrote last night, clumsily tapping my little iPhone screen with my fat thumb, after many fruitless attempts to connect my laptop to the internet. Hoping to write instead one tap at a time, I soon discovered that I wasn't able to access what I needed via iPhone, and gave up, frustrated, but at least I had some pie to ease my disappointment. The iPhone is a wonderful piece of technology, but despite what I once suspected, it cannot do everything.

Reunited with my kitchen at last, I decided to celebrate by baking a hearty apple pie. I love making (and eating) pie. Anne Cori at Kitchen Conservatory makes the best pies, and before my last day working there, she gave me a much-treasured lesson on pie perfection. I love that pie dough can be challenging, but also forgiving. My pies never look like beauty queens; I patch them together and they always taste great.

I was surprised to see an issue of Everyday Food in my mailbox yesterday - I thought my subscription had expired long ago. As it was their November "Thanksgiving" issue, of course there was a section attributed to pie-making. I flipped through, curious to see what Martha had to say on the subject. I haven't yet seen any other recipes that compare to the one I was taught. Most recipes call for butter. Some do call for shortening. Anne uses an equal combination of butter and shortening - for an equal one-two punch of tenderness and flakiness - which is how I also make my chocolate chip cookies. In Martha's recipe, I saw the word "food processor" and nearly dropped the magazine.

Anne frequently teaches classes on pie-making, which I highly recommend. But if you are unable to make the trip to St. Louis, here are a some pie tips:
  • Use a pastry blender to be sure you are still leaving dime-sized chunks of butter in your dough. You should be able to see it.
  • Only drizzle as much ice water that will allow the dough to just come together. Don't knead or over mix.
  • Chill dough for at least 1/2 hour. Cold dough + hot oven = good pie. I also like to chill the pie plate for when I piece my pie together later. I am a s l o w p o k e.
  • Only roll out the dough once. Mine is never perfect, and I always end up patching it together.
  • Dust the extra flour off the dough. It won't cook, and won't add any flavor. I do this with my pizza dough, too.
  • Try using potato starch for your filling. The flavor is more neutral than corn starch, and will allow your fruit to shine.