Thursday, December 23, 2010

A New Holiday Favorite

I have always loved the holidays because they bring everyone together. Coworkers gather for parties, Friends make extra time for special restaurant dinners, and Families travel to be together, even if it is just for a few nights or one special meal. The time between Thanksgiving and New Years always passes too quickly; there are always more things to do than there is time to get everything done. But that sense of quickened time makes the season all the more precious, the time with loved ones all the more special.

For me, this season centers around food: which favorite meals to make for company, what to bake for friends, and especially where to pick up take out after shopping and before baking, because there just isn’t always time for making dinner in the midst of it! I love baking and sharing what I’ve made with people, watching them smile with anticipation as they open a package and smell the spicy scent of gingerbread. It brings such happiness to make someone smile, especially during such a busy time of year.

I have a few recipes that I make nearly every year, but I also like to try to new things. I collect pages from magazines or from online for a year, waiting until the big rush of baking starts just after Thanksgiving. My holiday dinners are pretty much set in stone—my Grandmother’s Lasagna Verde and my mother-in-law’s Norwegian Meatballs on Christmas Eve and roast beef on Christmas Day. Especially this year when we’ll be in Texas without family, these recipes will be our link to our families in another place.

As much as I love tradition, it is fun to try new things and eventually create new traditions. This year, in honor of living in a new part of the country, I decided to make something more Texan to add to the mix. At this time of year, there are gorgeous Texas pecans at the farmer’s market and in the grocery stores, so I wanted to make something invoking pecan pie, but that were sturdy enough to package with cookies.

Enter Pecan Bourbon Squares. I love the dark, strong flavor of molasses and the warm spice of cinnamon and cloves, and I believe that all pecan pie is improved with a healthy dose of bourbon. Everything works together to offset the sweet nuttiness of the pecans, and since they have just the right amount of salt, they have that sweet/savory flavor that makes them extremely addictive. I’m sure this is one recipe that will be in the repertoire for many years to come.

Bourbon Pecan Squares

These look lovely in seasonal muffin cups if you are packaging them for gifts, and they will stay good in a sealed container and/or in the fridge for several days (the flavors actually meld and it tastes better the next day). This recipe freezes well, so if you’re getting a head start on baking, just cool completely, cut into squares and package in a freezer bag with sheets of parchment beneath each layer.

¾ cup pecans, toasted and chopped
9 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small chunks (1 stick + 1 Tablespoon)
1 ½ cups flour
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup + 2 Tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup molasses
½ cup light corn syrup
6 tablespoons butter, melted
¼ cup Bourbon
1 ½ Tablepoons Vanilla
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs, beaten
1 ½ cups toasted and chopped pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the middle of oven. Line a 12” x 17” jelly roll pan with aluminum foil, leaving some hanging over the edges. Spray foil generously with cooking spray.

For the crust, combine the pecans, butter, flour sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Press the mixture evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for about 30 minutes, checking at 25 minutes, until lightly golden.

While the crust is baking, make the filling. Whisk together the sugar, molasses, corn syrup, butter, bourbon, vanilla, salt and eggs in a medium bowl. Stir until the mixture is well combined and the sugar has dissolved. Stir in the pecans, mixing until well-coated.

When the crust is finished, immediately pour the mixture into the pan over the hot crust and return to oven. Bake until the top is browned and the filling is well set, about 30 more minutes, again checking for doneness at 20 or 25 minutes; you don’t want to burn the pecans but the filling does need to be set or the bars will be runny. Cool on a rack in the pan until completely cooled and set.

Remove the bars out of the pan by lifting the foil evenly, and set on a cutting board. Remove all of the foil, taking care that none tears and remains on the crust. Cut into 1 inch squares; makes 40-50 squares.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A good Delicata Squash recipe...

I have had this recipe all typed up for more than two weeks, and kept waiting for the right story to tell with it. It would have made a nice, light side dish for Thanksgiving, but I just didn’t get around to finishing this in time. It’s a busy time of year for work, which is a terrible excuse, but there you go. Instead of devoting my spare bits of free time to writing, I plopped onto the couch and watched Glee on my TiVo.

I suppose the story for this one is simple: I liked it. It was really good, really easy, and I thought you might like it, too. I’m sorry it’s too late for Thanksgiving, but perhaps it will be enjoyed during this hectic holiday season when healthy eating sometimes seems completely impossible.

Cider Glazed Delicata Squash

I used mulled cider for this because that is what I like to drink; any fresh apple cider or juice would work fine. If you don't have wine open to cook with, you can use a half cup of cider instead.

1 medium Delicata Squash, peeled, seeded, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons Olive Oil, divided
¼ cup white wine
¼ cup Apple Cider
salt and pepper to taste

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add half of olive oil to pan, then add half of squash and arrange in a single layer in the pan. Allow squash to brown, about 5 minutes on the first side and 2-3 minutes on the second side. Do not move them around too much so they can get a nice sear. They will cook again, so they don’t need to be cooked all the way at this point.

When the first batch is done, remove them to a bowl, and repeat with the second batch. When the second batch is finished, add the first batch back in, and deglaze with white wine. Cook for a minute, scraping the browned bits from the bottom of the pan, and then add the cider. Toss the squash frequently for a few more minutes until the liquid has reduced and you have a nice glaze on the squash.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Elevating the Lowly Lentil

I did not grow up eating a lot of lentils because my mother doesn’t care for them. It actually wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I even tried them, but when I finally did, it was love at first taste. I’ve always been a healthy eater, so it was probably as much a philosophical love as a gustatory one. Lentils are packed with protein, fiber and vitamin B, and have an intriguing earthy flavor. They also take on other flavors quite well, making them somewhat of a chameleon in the kitchen.

Green and Red lentils make lovely soup as they break down and become creamy while cooking, and I love the bright color and rich flavor of a hearty red lentil soup. But it is the French Green Lentil, or Le Puy Lentils for the region in France they come from, that I really love. These lentils look more brown than green, and are probably one of the most boring looking ingredients, cooked or raw. But for something that looks like little pebbles, these lentils are surprisingly versatile and delicious. Unlike their more colorful counterparts, they hold their shape when cooking, so they can serve as a base for other ingredients. The classic dish of salmon over lentils is one of my favorite meals.

Despite their versatility and nutritional benefits, you don't see a lot of lentil main courses featured in food magazines or restaurant menus. I think it is time for the hard-working lentil to get some recognition in its own right. They don’t really need another protein for flavor since they can take on whatever flavor you are in the mood for. They're cheap and they cook relatively quickly so they're great for a weeknight dinner on a budget.

Today, the weather was cool but the sun was shining, the best kind of fall weather. I wanted a hearty dish that wasn’t heavy to match that cool but sunny weather. Lentils fit the bill perfectly. I sautéed some carrots, onion and celery with baking spices, smoked paprika and chili powder. Cinnamon added an earthy sweetness, while the paprika added a nice smokiness, and the chili gave a subtle heat. I stirred in some ribbons of collard greens for some color and for a nutritional boost. It turned out to be a perfect one-pot meal. I’ll happily let Lentils move beyond side dish to steal the show from now on.

Lentils and Collard Greens

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium carrots, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
½ onion, chopped
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup white wine
1 cup French Green Lentils
3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 pound collard greens, stems removed, cut into ½ inch ribbons
Salt and Pepper

Heat a saucepan over medium heat. Add olive oil, and sauté carrot, celery and onion, stirring to coat with oil. Add cinnamon, chili, paprika and nutmeg, and stir to coat. Cook veggies until onions are translucent and spices are very fragrant, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook for one minute.

Deglaze pan with white wine, and cook until wine is reduced by half. Stir in lentils, then add stock and bring to a boil. When liquid is boiling, reduce heat to a simmer, stir in collard greens, and cover. Simmer for 40 minutes, or until lentils are tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

There may be some liquid remaining, but if you have any leftovers don’t strain this off, as it absorbs as everything cools and allows this dish to reheat well.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Lazy Days

There are days that I love to spend hours in the kitchen, and then there are days that I want to eat something that tastes like I spent hours in the kitchen but that actually materialized out of thin air. In other words, there are motivated-to-cook days and there are lazy days.

The other day was a lazy day that happened to occur right after a binge-at-the-grocery-store day. The timing could not be worse; you’re supposed to be excited to cook when you have a fridge full of food. To make matters worse, I still had a few kohlrabi from my CSA that I needed to use. I hadn’t ever had kohlrabi and was half-heartedly looking for an inspirational recipe.

Fortunately, inspiration had struck sometime several months ago, and I rediscovered a recipe I had clipped for a Savory White Bean and Vegetable Bake by Tucker Shaw from the Denver Post. I had been looking forward to making this recipe for a long time but somehow it had been edged out by something sexier, something that took more effort. But not tonight; the time had come for Savory White Bean and Vegetable Bake, or something like it.

I didn’t have half of the ingredients called for, but I did have fennel, carrots, parsnips, potatoes and of course, those kohlrabi. So I went with it, and my grocery store binge turned out to be a good thing, since I had a lot to work with. In the end, I used half as many beans, making this more of a vegetable hash with some protein. I also completely forgot the breadcrumb topping. But you know what? It didn’t need a topping. It was completely flavorful and satisfying all on its own as vegan main dish with a green salad and some cranberries on the side, and my husband enjoyed his with a roasted chicken leg and cranberries on top.

While this is definitely an easy recipe, it did call for some chopping, but it was the kind of mindless cooking that you do with the TV on and you still won’t screw it up, so I consider it a pretty lazy recipe. All in all I spent probably 20-30 minutes chopping things up and browning the veggies, but then I stuck it in the oven, poured myself a glass of wine, and plopped down on the couch. A half an hour later, dinner was served.

Winter Veggie Hash

I approached this dish with a laissez-faire attitude, not really knowing what was going to wind up in the pan when I finished. It turned out to be what I’d call a hash, which sounds like something you’d get at a cheap diner, but with tons more freshness and flavor. I kept wanting to eat more after I was full, which is always a good sign, and snacked on the leftovers straight from the fridge for the next few days.

This calls for a lot of veggies, and if halfway through chopping you worry that you should have halved the recipe, things are going swimmingly. They really cook down quite a bit, plus it made for excellent leftovers, either warmed or cold. Use whatever veggies you have on hand; I’m sure a sweet potato or diced squash would be lovely and bring great color.

2 Tablespoons Herbes de Provence
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon dried mustard
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 fennel bulb, chopped
1 onion, chopped coarsely
3 medium carrots, chopped into 1/3 inch pieces
2 medium parsnips, chopped into 1/3 inch pieces
2 bulbs kohlrabi, peeled and chopped into 1/3 inch pieces
4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, chopped into 1/3 inch pieces
6-8 garlic cloves, minced
1 can of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 bay leaves
2 springs of thyme
1 spring rosemary
2 cups veggie stock
Salt and Pepper
Parsley leaves, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350. In a small bowl or cup, combine the Herbes de Provence, fennel seed and mustard.

Heat a large, deep, oven-proof skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil, and, working in batches, brown the fennel, onion, carrot, parsnip, kohlrabi, and potato. I needed two batches to cook the vegetables and get a nice brown crust on them; put the first batch in a bowl while you’re browning the second batch, then add them back in when they’re done (or use two pans if you don’t mind the extra clean up). Cook for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are starting to soften.

Once the vegetables are softened, stir in the garlic, beans, bay leaves, mixed dried herbs and the fresh herb sprigs. Stir it all to mix well, then stir in the stock.

Transfer skillet to oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the veggies are all soft. Remove the bay leaves, thyme and rosemary stems. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and garnish with leaves of fresh parsley.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A cake worth cheating for...

Ahhh...I am halfway through my vegan cleanse, and feeling wonderful. I've been focusing on all of the wonderful things I can eat and not feeling at all deprived. I even survived a steakhouse dinner with coworkers without caving. All in all, things are going well.

But last weekend we had some friends in town, and I had planned on cheating a little bit. The question was, if I was going to break the momentum I had going, what was worth cheating for? The first thing that came to mind was a vague notion of a cake, something like the one on the cover of Bon Appetit in October or that appeared in Cannelle and Vanille's blog last month. I continued to ponder the many pie, apple tarte tatin, apple bread. I'm sure you see the theme: I was craving warm baked apples with a lightly sweet cake to bind it all together. It simply isn't fall until I've had some baked apples.

I spent a large chunk of time each day dreaming about what to make when I discovered that Dorie Greenspan's newest cookbook, Around My French Table, had been released. Birthday gift card in hand, I went straight to the bookstore to buy my copy. It should be said that I collect cookbooks the way some people collect dust bunnies: without really trying and they always accumulate faster than I realize. I ought to take a page from Heidi Swanson who started her blog to use recipes from cookbooks she already has.

In any case, I saw that there was a beautiful looking apple cake to be found in this cookbook. Even better, it was far more apples than cake, large chunks of fruit barely held together with a batter that enhances the flavor of the apples without overwhelming them. Being that I was cheating on a vegan diet, I reasoned that this recipe was less cheating than some other cakes might be. It was a lovely story to sell myself, and I bought it hook, line and sinker.

It was oh-so-worth it! I loved that we had friends visiting and we were all able to share it together. I probably enjoyed it the most, not having had many sweets in the past few weeks, my palette a little more revived after eating so cleanly, but also because I selfishly made exactly what I was craving. Topped with a lightly whipped cream spiked with vanilla, this was a perfect ending to a perfect meal with friends. I should confess that I cheated a few other times as well, but I limited it to once per day, so overall I think I did pretty well. And still, after all the sneaky bites, it is this cake that I enjoyed the most.

For now, I will enjoy eating a variety of fresh, crisp apples, and share a wonderful cake recipe with you. Soon, we can share it together.

Vanilla Apple Cake

Dorie calls her recipe "Marie-Helene's Apple Cake," but I made a few adjustments based on what I had on hand, so I'll share what I made with you. I encourage you to try it her way also; this is really a base that you can flavor as you like. Hers calls for dark rum, which I swore I had in the pantry but didn't, so I used Navan Vanilla Liqueur. I loved the boozy vanilla flavor, and was tempted to use some cinnamon, but kept it clean and simple. If you want to try cinnamon and nutmeg, I'm sure it would be delicious. I also used some whole wheat pastry flour, which I love for it's nuttier flavor, but you can use only all purpose if that is what you have on hand. I used 2 Granny Smith apples for their tartness, a McIntosh for its soft creaminess when cooked, and a Pink Lady for the tart-sweet balance.

1/2 cup Whole Wheat Pastry Flour
1/4 cup all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
4 large apples, different kinds if possible
2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
3 1/2 tablespoons Navan (or another vanilla liqueur)
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and position rack in center of oven.

Butter an 8 inch springform pan and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl.

Peel the apples, then cut in half, remove the cores, and cut into 1 to 2 inch chunks.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk until foamy. Add the sugar and whisk for another minute or so to blend. Whisk in the liqueur. Slowly add half of the flour mixture and whisk until it is incorporated. Add half of the butter, whisking to incorporate, then repeat with the rest of the flour and the remaining butter. The batter should be smooth and a little thick.

Using a rubber spatula, fold in the apples until they are evenly coated. Pour the batter into the pan, scraping the batter from the sides, and then even everything out in the pan.

Bake for 55-65 minutes, until the top is golden brown and toothpick in the center comes out clean. Let cool for 5 minutes on a rack, then carefully run a butter knife around the edges to loosen the cake and apples from the sides of the pan. Carefully remove the sides of the springform pan, taking care to make sure there is nothing stuck to it.

Cool the cake until it is a little warm or at room temperature.

Serve with a little lightly whipped cream with just a little powdered sugar and vanilla, or eat it all on its own. It would be delicious the next day also as breakfast or a mid-afternoon snack.

Store with parchment or wax paper on the cut edges and over the top, then cover with a tea towel. It will be okay at room temperature for two days, if it hangs around that long.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Soup’s On

I suppose you know autumn has officially arrived when it seems everyone has a cold. I had just about convinced myself that I was invincible and would not succumb, but then on Saturday night I had the tell-tale scratchy throat and runny nose. Fortunately, I have a very minor cold, the kind that does leave me sounding like I’m very sick so I’m getting a good amount of sympathy, but where the most intense symptom is soup-craving.

I know you won’t find “soup craving” in any medical tomes on the symptoms of the common cold, but you will find soup in just about every culture as a way to alleviate the symptoms. I guess all these years of treating a cold with Chicken Noodle Soup has just led my body to immediately crave the cure. Since I love soup, I’m actually a bit happy to have an excuse to eat a lot of it for the next few days. So far I’ve tried a new vegan version of my favorite butternut squash soup, a cup of kale and white bean soup from the market, and miso soup.

All were wonderful and hit the spot. But truth be told, I only really made the butternut squash soup; the miso soup was from a box, to which I added some enoki mushrooms, firm silken tofu, and spinach leaves. It was very good and felt very cleansing and healthful, so I recommend it if you, too, are suffering from a cold and don’t feel like doing much of anything.

But if you’re a bit hungrier and want something more substantial, then it is butternut squash soup you want. You may not know you want it, but trust me, you do. At least I do, and I make it all the time. There was a period last year, after our little squash plant went crazy and we had a big basket of butternuts in the pantry, when I was making soup weekly and eating the leftovers for lunch several days a week. It got to the point that my husband requested I not make it for awhile. He likes to come home and eat my leftovers when he works nights, and it turns out that weeks on end of butternut squash soup got to be a bit much for him.

So you may want to just start with making this once, then again in a few weeks if it’s a hit, and then go from there. Maybe you’ll become as obsessive as I am, or maybe it’ll be a once a year type of dish for you. Either way, you’ll want it in your repertoire.

The version here is a super-garlicky one, but since the garlic is roasted it has a nice, soft, sweet flavor. I roasted whole cloves along with the peeled and cubed butternut squash, all tossed with olive oil and salt and pepper. The smell was divine, and I couldn’t help but snack on a few bites straight from the oven. In fact, if you were feeling lazy, at this point you could nix the soup and just eat the roasted squash. Or even better, double the garlic and roast two squashes: one for soup and one for a side dish, one for now and one for later. Why, oh why, didn’t I think of this when I was making it? Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to do this again next weekend. Sorry honey, butternut soup’s for dinner…again.

Garlicky Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

What I hate worst about most butternut squash soup recipes is that they call for an exact amount of squash, and who actually sits there weighing vegetables and converting that to the number of cups it will yield while they’re in the middle of grocery shopping? Not me. I’ve purposefully left this a bit vague for you so you can use whatever size squash you have on hand. When you are picking squash, choose one that is heavy for it’s size; it will be the sweetest and most flavorful. If you only have itty bitty ones to choose from, then maybe grab two or three so you can make a decent amount of soup. The other ingredients will need to adjust based on how much squash you have, but I promise it is a forgiving cooking method and will still taste great.

1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes (my squash was about 3 pounds and yielded about 9 cups, cubed)
1 head of garlic, whole cloves, peeled
1 medium onion, diced
1 tablespoon fresh sages leaves, or more to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided, more as needed
¾ cup white wine
3-4 cups vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste (I used 10-12 grates)
Green scallion rings for garnish, optional

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Toss squash and garlic cloves with 2 tablespoons of oil and a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. If there is not enough oil to coat, add a bit more. Spread evenly on a baking sheet and roast until the squash is tender, turning once or twice so it doesn’t burn, about 45 minutes to an hour. A little browning of the squash is fine and adds wonderful flavor.

When the squash is almost done or is finished, heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy bottomed stock pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, sage, a few grates of fresh nutmeg, and a pinch of salt and pepper, and sauté until it is translucent. Add the wine and increase heat so the wine begins to reduce. When it is reduced by half, stir in the squash and garlic, and cover with vegetable stock, about 2-3 cups. Let simmer for 5-10 minutes until the squash starts to fall apart.

Using an immersion blender or working in batches in a regular blender, puree until smooth. Return to pan, and add more stock as needed to thin the soup to desired consistency. Taste, and re-season with salt and pepper as needed. Garnish with green scallion rings, and serve with a piece of whole grain toast and a green salad.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


It’s been a little while since I’ve been here, and I’m sorry about that. I’ve been on vacation and then had a busy week of work, and I’ve really missed the writing and the thinking and planning that come along with it. I’m feeling a bit rusty, but happy to be back at the page.

Vacation was a trip home to Colorado, and it was wonderful to see friends and family, and enjoy some beautiful Fall weather. Fall is my favorite season in Colorado, and I think others would agree. I love the crisp air and the fresh smell it brings, as if the heavy-scented heat has been blown away. I love the turning leaves, especially when they are at that point of just turning from green to gold.

I love the blue skies, the need for a sweater, and I love the return of heartier food. I was able to revel in all of this for one week. The best part was returning to Texas, where Fall is starting to make a tentative appearance.

Part of my love of Fall is the food. There is the lingering summer produce as well as all of the start of cool weather crops: beautiful winter squashes, dark greens, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. All of the things I’ve been secretly waiting for while delighting in tomatoes and eggplant and zucchini. It’s not just that I love to eat squash, but there is something so comforting about roasting a vegetable, letting the flavors really develop, and then sitting down to dinner. By this time of year it’s dark again at dinner time, and a warm meal and a glass of wine inside feels like being wrapped securely in a blanket.

I also love braised meats at this time of year, but that will have to wait a few weeks. I’m doing a 40 day Vegan diet in conjunction with a 40 day Yoga Challenge through Yoga Yoga in Austin. So, for the next month or so we won’t have any meat, seafood or dairy on these pages. I know, it’s a bit scary at first, but I promise that still leaves lots and lots of recipes. Just this weekend I made a big batch of watermelon gazpacho, possibly the last truly summery dish of the year, and it is so fresh and flavorful that I’ll probably have to share this one with you at some point. I’ve also enjoyed some of the first roasted Delicata squash of fall; bridging two seasons of produce will make this so enjoyable. I’m also considering an experiment with making crisps and pies without butter, just shortening. I have a lot of research still to come, but I don’t even think I’ll have to do without baking during this cleanse. So far, I’m excited about all there is to make and not feeling at all deprived. And in a month, I'll be ready to delve into a different side of cold weather fare.

So, here is a toast to Fall, to fresh air and fresh food, and to a few new challenges to keep you grounded.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Wishing for a Fig Tree

There is a beautiful fig tree up the street from me on the route I walk my dog. It towers over the house on the corner and shades the whole side yard and sidewalk. The tree reigns over a garden that tumbles with colorful flowers and vines and just-about-to-bloom cacti. A lemon tree stands to the side, in front of the house. The garden looks as though it was once very well planned and now has had some time to settle in. It’s on the verge of chaotic, but still cared for. It reminds me of a person who is a little eccentric but really fun to have around.

I love this garden, and always slow down to walk past it. Not just for the welcome shade on a hot afternoon, but to see plants that are not quite as pruned as the rest of the neighbors'; to observe all of the succulents, which I have never planted, aside from an aloe plant in college that I slowly murdered with too much water.

But it is the fig tree that I am really stopping for. It’s exotic, curvy leaves, the small, seedy fruit, and even the scent of fruit that has fallen on the other side of the fence and now smells slightly fermented. I am forever hoping that the owner will be out front, that I will stop to talk to her (that she will be a her!), and that we’ll strike up a friendship, the best kind of friendship, the kind where I get baskets of fresh figs and lemons, and where I come back a few days later with jars of fig preserves and lemon curd.

As of yet I have not met the neighbor, though I’m still hopeful each time I turn the corner at the end of my street. But I won’t let that stop me from enjoying fresh figs. September is when they are at their peak, and our farmer’s market and grocery stores are brimming with Missions and Brown Turkeys.

The fig is almost sensual, with its feminine curves, bursts of seeds and a musky and floral scent. I have to confess that all on their own, the flavor is almost too much for me. But that is the perfect reason to dress them up a bit. I love the bite of an earthy blue cheese to cut the floral notes, and some salty prosciutto to counter the fruity flavors. So simple and yet so perfect.

Now, if I could only meet that neighbor so I had enough figs to make this dish every day, it would be a perfect, perfect world.

Figs with Blue Cheese and Prosciutto

This is one of those recipes where you really don’t have to measure anything at all, which is my favorite kind. The amounts below are approximately what I used, but if you have a more or less pungent blue cheese, you may want to use more or less honey to balance it. I meant to add chopped walnuts to the cheese mixture but forgot; it was great without them but add some for more crunch.

1 pint very fresh figs
6 slices of Prosciutto
2 ounces blue cheese, at room temperature
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 ½ teaspoons honey
1 tablespoon toasted walnuts, chopped

Snip the stems off of the figs. Taking care not to cut all the way through, quarter the figs, leaving about a quarter inch at the bottom. It will look like petals of a flower and still be intact.

Mix the cream, cheese and honey and walnuts, if you’re using them, in a small bowl, stirring to combine. If the cheese is still solid, add some more cream. Taste it; if it is too strong, add more honey, but remember that you’re still adding it to the figs and prosciutto.

Divide the cheese into all of the figs, about a tablespoon per fig. Gently press the mixture into it, then push the sides back so they are upright. Wrap a slice of prosciutto around the fig, making it look like a tulip.

Arrange on a plate and Enjoy!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Make me a Banh Mi

If you have never had a Banh Mi (pronounced "bawn me"), you are missing out on one of the most flavorful, comforting sandwiches around. Never even heard of a Banh Mi? The word literally refers to the Vietnamese baguette made with wheat and rice flour. But it is more commonly known as the traditional Vietnamese sandwich served on the baguette, popular as street food in Vietnam and in Vietnamese immigrant communities all over the world.

But the sandwich has it's roots in France, as well, where the French eat a sandwich of pate and lettuces on baguette. Much Vietnamese food has a French influence due to the French colonization that began in the 19th century and lasted until the Japanese took control during World War II (but left the French administrators). It wasn't until the 1954 that Vietnam would begin to escape French rule, and by then their cuisine was inflected with many French elements. I hate to breeze through the details, but this isn't a history blog. I do suggest you read more here or here if you are interested in learning more.

The Banh Mi starts with the Baguette, which in Vietnam is made with both rice and wheat flour. If you have a good Asian market nearby, you may be able to find this kind of bread; if not, just use a softer baguette from the grocery store. I love the crunchy crust of a traditional French baguette, but for a loaded sandwich it's not the best choice. Next are the pate, pork, pickled carrots and radishes, cilantro and jalapenos. There are probably a thousand versions, so this is really just a starting point.

We've made Banh Mi with roasted pork, pulled pork, and pork meatballs. The meatballs were our favorite. Not only were they delicious and easy to eat, they were also by far the easiest to make. A win-win situation if I ever saw one! The meatballs here are so flavorful that if you have any leftover, or if you make extra, they would make a great meal with a cool soba noodle salad tossed with any extra vegetables and pickling liquid.

I aspire to someday make pate from scratch, but for now, I just buy some from a gourmet grocer, farmers' market stand, or deli. The professionals do a wonderful job, so pick something that they recommend. You want to taste the creaminess but not have any flavors that completely overpower the dish. We used a pork peppercorn pate, and it had a crust of peppercorns that was delicious smeared on bread, but that we were careful to avoid on the sandwiches as it was a pretty strong flavor.

Last, but certainly not least, are the vegetables. I like a quick pickle with a good amount of sweetness to counter the salty pork and rich pate. The fish sauce adds a savory note and complexity, while the rice vinegar balances with acidity. Sliced jalapenos bring heat to the finish, while cilantro brings the dish together. Many versions call for mayonnaise, or remoulade style dressing, but I like it with just a little extra siracha sauce for the kick of flavor; it's heat is more up front, so it doesn't add to the fire of the jalapenos. And it has a nice vinegary sweetness that punches with flavor.

Once you have the ingredients ready, it's a simple matter of assembling the sandwich. Smear the pate over the bread, and top with the meatballs and all of the veggies. Voila!

My favorite part about this dish is that it is full of exotic flavors, but in the end, is just a really great sandwich, which is one of the ultimate comfort foods.

Banh Mi Sandwich
If you're not a big fan of spicy foods, simply remove the seeds from the jalapeno slices, or omit them altogether.

1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground lamb
1 egg
1/4 cup Panko (Japanese Breadcrumbs)
1/4 cup diced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon Siracha
1 Tablespoon Parlsey, chopped
1 Tablespoon Basil, chopped
1 Tablespoon Thai Basil, chopped
1 teaspoon Toasted Sesame Oil
I Tablespoon Olive Oil
pinch of salt and pepper

Pickled Vegetables:
1 carrot, cut into matchstick pieces
1 cucumber, cut in half and sliced into ribbons
3 radishes, sliced thin
3/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
1 1/2 Tablespoons sugar
1 Tablespoon Fish Sauce

French Bread or Baguette
1 Jalapeno, sliced
4 ounces Pate

Preheat the oven 350 degrees.

Mix all ingredients for the Pickled Vegetables in a bowl and toss to coat. Refrigerate for at least one hour and up to overnight.

Put all ingredients for meatballs in a bowl. Using your hands, wearing rubber gloves if so desired, massage the ingredients together. Do not overmix, but make sure everything is incorporated. Portion into small balls, roughly an inch or inch and a half around.

Heat the Olive Oil in a pan over medium high heat. Working in batches, sear the meatballs on all sides, about 1-2 minutes per side. Transfer to a baking dish. Repeat with remaining meatballs. In the oven, cook the meatballs for 10-12 minutes, or until they are no longer pink on the inside.

Meanwhile, slice the baguette into 4 5 inch portions (or 4 or 6 inch, depending on the size of your bread and how hungry you are). Slice each portion in half length wise, and toast until lightly golden. Spread with an ounce of pate on the bottom side of bread. Cut the meatballs in half, then position on the bread. Top with a quarter of the pickled veggies, a few slices of jalapeno, and cilantro to taste. Serve with extra Siracha if desired. Place the top piece of bread on the sandwich, then slice in half if desired, or just serve as is. Enjoy!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Bake Off

My husband is not a big baker, but every once in a while his sweet tooth gets the best of him. The other night he asked me to make something for dessert. It was perfect timing because I was planning on making a cake from a recipe I'd found in Gourmet for Raspberry Buttermilk Cake. I'd been wanting to make it for over a year; somehow it didn't happen last summer, and then when Gourmet ceased the magazine publication last fall, I waited to make the recipes I'd saved, as they would be the last. It's a strange reaction, similar to saving a brand new shirt that you love for the perfect occassion rather than just wearing it and enjoying your purchase.

In any case, I had some apricots that needed to be used, so I thought I would swap those for the raspberries and fianlly bake my pretty cake. When I told him it was his lucky day and he was getting an apricot tea cake of sorts, he was not impressed. "But I wanted chocolate," he said. I swear, men are far more addicted to chocolate than women. At least the men in my life crave it regularly. I could live without it; at least so long as I had fruity cakey desserts.

"Then you should make your own dessert," I told him, expecting him to whine until I gave in and made chocolate chip cookies. But he surprised me, as he occassionally does (I came home late from work a few weeks ago to find that he had made chocolate souffle!) and said he would make brownies.

It probably seems strange that two people that make up the entire household would go to all the trouble of baking two separate desserts to satisfy two different cravings. I'm all for compromise, but in a sense it was nice that we each got what we wanted, and also got to enjoy the other's company while making our desserts. It got a touch competitive, with us each claiming ours would be the best, but it was all in good fun.

Both desserts turned out well. My apricot cake was marvelous: moist and tender with a slightly crunchy sugar coating, and the musky scent of apricots. His brownies, with a Peanut Butter swirl and walnuts, were dense, fudgy and rich, perfect with a tall glass of cold milk.

I'm sure it'll come as no surprise that it was a tie. To be fair, the judges aren't usually the ones competing, but the bottom line is that these are two recipes worth sharing with you. Make one when you want fruit and the other to fulfill a chocolate craving. Or do as we did and indulge in having your very own dessert.

Apricot Cake

This is a lovely little cake, perfect for a snack, breakfast, or dessert. Since it was all mine I made sure to try it for all occassions (purely for blog research, I assure you). This was adapted from Gourmet where it initially called for raspberries, so I will not be offended if you use something else entirely, or even skip the fruit if it is the dead of winter when you get around to this.

1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup plus 1 1/2 Tablespoons sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
1/2 cup buttermilk, shaken
1 cup sliced apricots (about 2-3 small fruits)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees with rack in the middle. Butter and flour a 9 inch round cake pan.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Beat butter and 2/3 cup sugar at medium high speed until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in vanilla. Add the egg and beat well.

At low speed, slowly add the flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with the buttermilk. Begin and end with flour. Mix just until combined.

Pour batter into the prepared cake pan, smoothing the top with a rubber spatula. Arrange the apricots in a pinwheel if you're so inclined, or simply place them evenly spaced across the top. Sprinkle the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar evenly over the top.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the cake is Golden Brown Delicious. Cool in the pan for ten minutes, then turn onto a wire rack to finish cooling.

Nutty Brownies

If you're a brownie lover, this really delivers. It's the perfect balance between fudgy and cakey, with a rich chocolate flavor and lots of nuttiness, too. If you don't care for nuts I suppose you could skip the Peanut Butter and the walnuts, but they are half the fun of this recipe.

6 ounces 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate
11 Tablespoons (1 stick plus 3 Tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into slices
1 1/4 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
1 cup walnuts, toasted, coarsely chopped
4 Tablespoons creamy Peanut Butter (we used an all natural variety)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees with rack positioned in center. Line a 9 inch square pan with parchment paper, then spray the foil with nonstick vegetable oil spray.

Combine chocolate and butter in a microwave safe bowl. In 30 second increments, heat the chocolate, stirring well between each time. Once the butter is melted stir thoroughly to help melt the chocolate. It will be finished when the chocolate is smooth and shiny (how long it will take depends on your microwave; if you're nervous or if it seems to be cooking too fast, just do 15 second increments).

Whisk sugar, eggs, salt and vanilla in a bowl to combine. Whisk in chocolate mixture. Stirn in flour mixture and stir just until combined, then stir in the walnuts. Pour batter in prepared pan, spreading it evenly with a spatula. Drop four tablespoons of peanut butter evenly spaced in quadrants of the pan, then swirl them in with a butter knife, using the same motion as you would to fold egg whites. It does not have to be perfect; you'll get a nice surprise bite of peanut butter every once in a while.

Bake for 25-28 minutes, until a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs attached. It may seem a bit underdone, but it will continue to cook and set once out of the oven. Cool completely on a rack.

Remove the brownies by lifting up on the parchment paper. Slice and serve, ideally with a cold glass of milk (or a scoop of vanilla ice cream).

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dinner for One

I was feeling a bit melancholy tonight. Last night, I had plans with some friends for a girls' night. I was looking forward to this; I hadn't had much time for chatting with women over wine since we moved. It was perfect timing, too; my husband was supposed to work late. Only he ended up getting off early, so I left him on the couch with ESPN for my dinner with the ladies. It was a wonderful evening, and I looked forward to seeing him for dinner the next day.

I spent the afternoon prepping for one of our favorite Sunday dinners: Roasted Chicken. I would serve it with individual Tomato Tarts, roasted potatoes with lots of fresh herbs and green onions, and a green salad. I had finished everything and was waiting for him to let me know when he would be home so I could put the chicken in the oven, when his text arrived: "eat without me." It wasn't a huge surprise, nor hugely disappointing. Such is the life of a chef, and I am long since accustomed to it.

Still, I was a bit melancholy. The tomato tartlets were in the oven already since they take a while and don't need to be served hot. I wrapped the chicken back up in its butcher paper and put it in the fridge, along with the potatoes, and reveled in the fact that Monday night's dinner was made. However, this meant I could go to yoga and still turn out a lovely dinner; the two are too often mutually exclusive.

My dinner for tonight was reinvented as tomato tartlet with green salad. A perfect and ladylike dinner, the kind I used to eat all the time when I was single, but that are too dainty for a man and so make rare appearances. My mood had lightened: no longer melancholy, I tried to enjoy the peace and quiet that descends on me and the dog as I sip my wine before dinner. It's my favorite time of evening, the last rays of sun dappling my yard, a gorgeous pink tint to the light. I'll enjoy this night for what it is, and appreciate even more my Monday night Roast Chicken with the best possible company.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What I love about you, Austin

One of my favorite things about Austin, Texas is the seriously good Mexican food. After living here for a few months, I am in no way an expert, but we have found some delicious Mex and Tex-Mex. In fact, it's safe to say that my husband pretty much wants one or the other every time we go out to eat.

For good reason. I used to think that corn tortillas were dry and flavorless. But our fist taco experience here in Austin, at Maria's Taco Xpress completely converted me. Their house made tortillas are the best I've ever had. They are smoky and are fresh, moist and pliable, with a hint of sweetness. They taste like corn! In fact, they are so good that I find my favorite fillings are the simplest: vegetarian black bean with a little bit of pico de gallo is perfect in my mind. My husband, however, disagrees, and says that the al pastor are the best. He does have a point about the tender pork with a bit of crust from the carmelized sugars from the pineapple. Rich and meaty, these are excellent with extra salsa. But I would be just as happy eating plain, warm, fresh corn tortillas.

Another favorite for interior Mexican is Curra's. On a recent visit, I had the vegetarian tacos which were out of this world. They had nopalitos (cactus), veggie chorizo, and mushrooms. This vegetarian chorizo was incredible; even my husband agreed that it was fantastic: flavorful and with the mushrooms, very meaty tasting. But it was the nopalitos that stole the show, as they should have. They were tender, delicious and refreshing, and I still am dreaming about eating more of them. Sadly, the corn tortillas were a bit lacking, but if I could smuggle in some of Maria's, it would be a perfect dish.

I'm sure we'll have a lot more great Mexican food, but so far these are big favorites. If you're in Austin, or were here for a visit, and have other suggestions, we're always looking for an excuse for Mexican.

Oh, and I'm hoping to try to make some homemade tortillas one of these days, so stay tuned...I may be sharing a recipe soon!

A Tale of Two Sorbets

I love ice cream. I love to cook. Yet somehow, I am not a lover of making my own ice cream. think my problem is that when I want ice cream, I want it now, and frankly, you have to be a bit patient. Plus, there are so many fabulous artisanal versions available that it’s too easy to just go buy it when you have a craving. But I still do a lot of thinking about making ice cream, or gelato, or something.

It was serendipitous that I found two wonderful recipes for sorbet within days of one another. One was a divine sounding Chocolate Cherry Sorbet and the other a Thai Basil Coconut sorbet. I had grand plans for a pairing of contrast: deep, dark chocolate beside creamy white coconut, garnishes of red cherries and verdant basil, and of course, bitter chocolate and fruity cherry against nutty coconut and spicy basil.

Before you get too excited about this pairing, I have to confess that I first made Chocolate Cherry Sorbet and weeks went by before I finally got around to the Basil Coconut. It was pure laziness on my part. I had one good sorbet, and I didn’t need two. Perhaps it was a good thing that my excitement had waned, because the Coconut sorbet ended up being a big disappointment.

But first, the Chocolate sorbet. The picture in Cooking Light of the Chocolate Cherry Sorbet, from which I based this recipe, was gorgeous, and almost sensual with the melting sorbet and the glistening cherry topping. (Disclaimer: I got lazy far before making the coconut sorbet and skipped the topping all together.) On the upside, the sorbet was fabulous on its own. I like to add a little liquor to my ice creams; because alcohol freezes at a much lower temperature than water, it yields a softer and creamier texture. This I learned after several rock hard tubs of ice cream that were basically inedible. A tablespoon or two does the trick. To bring out the flavor of the cherries I used little ruby port. It added complexity and worked wonderfully with the chocolate as well.

We enjoyed this sorbet until the last scoop. Then it was time for the Thai Basil Coconut Sorbet. When I re-read the recipe, I decided that there was no way that the flavor of the Thai Basil would infuse the ice cream just by getting blended in at the last second before straining. Instead, I would infuse the basil in the coconut base for ten minutes. (Cue some dark "Jaws" warning notes) I must say that at this point I did express concern that there would be some off green notes, but this did not stop the steeping.

Ugh. It was not only green tasting, but stemmy, too. It was like eating a plant. Gone were the minty notes on the mid palette and the spicy basil flavors on the finish that were present when I first began the infusion stage. Worse, it had a gummy texture. Could it be the coconut cream? I’m not an expert in this ingredient, but the only version my grocer carried was gritty and thick, and even after dissolving it and straining it, the final product had that weird texture. In fact, after I let it all melt to throw away, it was still thick and gluey, with an unappetizing grey-green color.

I can’t believe I’ve just spent more time discussing what went wrong versus what went right, when I had a perfectly good recipe to share with you. But I think if you want to grow and expand your abilities, you have to take risks and learn from your mistakes.

In the end, I had one good sorbet recipe and was reminded of the importance of both following a recipe, but also occassionally going out on a limb to make something the best you can. I won with the Port, but lost big time with the basil. And that’s okay, since I enjoyed the process, and the pint of gelato I had in the freezer.

Chocolate Cherry Sorbet

Chilling this recipe overnight is key to having a smooth texture. If you pour it into the ice cream maker without it being cold throughout, it will develop ice crystals and freeze unevenly. The port will help it stay a little creamier when frozen, as will keeping it in your freezer door (where it warmest) as opposed to the back of a shelf.

¾ cup Cherry Jam
½ cup cocoa
¼ cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups water
2 Tablespoons Ruby Port

Combine the jam, cocoa, sugar and salt in a heavy saucepan and stir with a whisk until smooth. While whisking, gradually stir in the water. Bring the mixture to a boil, and whisk occasionally to keep it smooth. Cool to room temperature, then chill overnight.

When you remove the mixture from the fridge, stir it with a whisk until it is smooth; it may have settled a bit. Add the port and whisk thoroughly. Pour into the ice cream maker and process according to the instructions. If you want a soft serve style sorbet, eat it right now, but hurry before it melts! Otherwise, transfer it to a freezer safe container (I like the to-go soup containers you find at a hot bar of a grocery store) and freeze for about an hour.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Easy, Elegant, French

Sometimes I wish I were French. French women have an easy sense of style, always looking perfect but not looking like they put any effort into it. French design is equally chic and unfussy all at once. And French food is the same. I think a lot of people associate French food with foo-foo presentations and teensy portions. But I think of elegant items, with seasonal ingredients and bursts of flavor. Think less Paris and more Provence.

Take the clafoutis. It is basically a custard, a preparation upon which a thousand dishes are based. Add a little flour, some lemon zest and cherries, and you’re done. It couldn’t be easier, or prettier. A creamy lemon color studded with bright red fruit, all puffed and golden, dusted with powdered sugar.

Traditionally, this is made with the pits left in the cherries for depth of flavor. Since I don’t relish the idea of spitting out cherry pits (not very ladylike), nor do I want anyone to choke, I pitted the cherries. If you wanted to add that deep cherry flavor, I’m sure a little kirsch or even a splash of port would bring out the flavors magnificently.

What troubles me about the clafoutis is when to eat it. I picture a French lady making it when her friends stop by for coffee. But no one really stops by my house for coffee, so I make it for dessert. My husband recently pointed out that is a lot like a baked pancake and I ought to make it for breakfast next time. Since I am not a Frenchwoman, and since I like to think traditional preparation is the foundation from which to jump, I think this would be grand.

If it is not cherry season, this is also good with raspberries, and I imagine it would taste delicious with just about any fresh fruit you add; raspberries or blackberries would be excellent. If you choose to go with stone fruit, such as nectarines, I would use fruit that is not too juicy as it will separate from the custard and everything will become soggy.

I may not be French, nor have a Frenchwoman’s sense of fashion or design, but I like to think I have her sensibility when it comes to food: find good ingredients at their peak of freshness, and remake the classics using what you have. It’s simple, delicious, and – I think – elegant.

Cherry Clafoutis

This is a versatile recipe that works well for dessert, breakfast, or to serve with coffee or tea in the afternoon. As always, the fresher the cherries and the higher quality the eggs, the better the result. As with any very simple dish with few ingredients, use the best ingredients you can find. A cherry pitter makes quick work of pitting the fruit. I adapted this from a recipe that appeared in Food & Wine.

½ cup flour
¼ cup plus 2 Tablespoons sugar
4 medium eggs, preferably free range
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter, melted
¼ cup milk, plus 2 tablespoons
1 ½ cups pitted fresh cherries, halved
1 Tablespoon powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350. Butter a 10” quiche pan or gratin dish.

Stir the flour, sugar and salt together in a medium bowl. In a small bowl whisk the eggs. Add the milk, then whisk in the butter. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and whisk vigorously for a few minutes, until the batter is pale in color and smooth.
Pour the batter into the buttered pan. Place the cherries on top of the batter, evenly dispersing them. They will sink just a little, but that is okay.

Bake for 20 minutes, until the sides have puffed up and it is golden brown. Let cool slightly, then dust with powdered sugar.
Serve warm or at room temperature (or even cold, straight out of the fridge), with a dollop of whipped cream, spiked with kirsch or port, if desired.