Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Sweetest Gift

Every winter there comes a day when I walk into the kitchen at my parents' house and see a large bag of Meyer lemons. "Arlene is back?" is always the first thing I ask my mom.

Arlene is a friend of my parents since way back before I was born, back before my parents were even married. Mom and Arlene worked together at the Rainier Brewery, but that's another story. Arlene spends part of every winter in Palm Springs and when she returns, she always brings with her some Meyer lemons from the tree at her house.

My childhood memories are filled with memories of women like Arlene. Women that love to cook & bake and shared that love of food with me. These friends joined our family for parties or holidays, were neighbors and often babysitters. Looking back now, I realize what an influence they've had at me.

Visits to Arlene's house held the promise of her homemade fruit leather. Being babysat by Sandra meant she'd bake cookies with me. Staying with my aunt Margita meant sweet, juicy, blackberry pie.

So back to the lemons. Meyer lemons are thought to be a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange. They are still quite tart, but have a great flavor and are very juicy. I wanted to make something special with these seasonal treasures and got it in my head to make lemon curd.

I did some research and it seemed simple enough. Then I made the mistake of asking the chef/owner of a restaurant I was dining at last weekend and he put the fear of God in me. "Whisk like mad," he said. "Do you have a chinoise? No?! You'll have lumpy curd unless you strain it properly." Gah! I panicked.

But wait, I've made hollandaise, pastry creams and the like. I just needed to find the right recipe. I remembered seeing a recipe for lemon curd in a magazine awhile back and found an old issue of Fine Cooking with a much simpler recipe than anything else I'd read. Inexplicably, they have a more complex recipe on their website.

Simple Lemon Curd
Yields about 1 cup

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2-3 lemons)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 oz (2 Tbsp) unsalted butter cut into 4-6 small pieces

Set a fine strainer over a medium bowl. In another medium bowl, whisk the lemon juice, sugar and eggs until thoroughly combines and most of the sugar has dissolved.

Pour the lemon mixture into a heavy-bottom stainless pan. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon until the curd is steaming (but not boiling) until thickened and registers 175 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 3-7 minutes.

Take the curd off the heat, add the butter and stir until the butter has melted. Pour the curd through the strainer to get rid of any lumps. Let cool. Will keep up to a week in the fridge.

In honor of Inauguration Day, I decided to make a special dessert with the lemon curd. The idea of little tartlets was stuck in my mind. They needed a little color, so I spent a King's ransom for some out-of-season raspberries.

These days, I have found myself surrounded by lots of little girls and like to think that my love of baking and cooking will rub off on them. 14 year-old Chloe was the first to arrive on the scene and we have baked chocolate chip cookies together since she was 4 or 5. She advanced quickly to cracking the eggs, then reading the recipe and today, I can just sit back and watch her make them all by herself.

Little Hazel, Marley, Lily and Makenna are almost old enough to join me in the kitchen. Most have already shown a fondness for sweets and treats and I always have something special for them when they are over at our house. The lemon curd was a little too tart for Marley, but she sure did like those raspberries.

A turnip, a yam and an eggplant walk into a bar...

Well, not exactly. Last week, my produce box included those vegetables however. In my new goal to waste less food, that meant I'd have to eat them all. Since I never, ever buy any of those items I needed to know HOW to cook them first.

First, the yams:

I knew I'd probably roast them, but didn't have a plan as far as roasting them whole, peeling and chopping them first or what. I did some searching and found a recipe for Roasted Yam Purée with Brown Butter. If anything could make yams taste butter, it's got to be a stick of butter. Too bad it doesn't photograph better. Looks like baby food, tastes like nutty, buttery goodness.

Roasted Yam Purée with Brown Butter
4 pounds yams (red-skinned sweet potatoes)
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

Preheat oven to 400°F. Roast yams until tender when pierced with knife, about 1 hour. Cool slightly.

Melt butter in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Cook until butter turns light brown, about 5 minutes.

Scoop flesh from yams into a bowl and purée with a stick blender until smooth. Blend in brown butter. Season to taste with salt.

On to the eggplant:

The eggplant solution was even less photogenic, but turned out darn tasty. It is more about the chicken stock and caramelized onions, but at least I saved the eggplant from the compost bin. Plus, I have lunch for a few days.

Puréed Eggplant Soup
4 Tbsp olive oil
1 pound eggplant (sliced in half lengthwise)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
5 cups low-salt canned chicken broth
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tsp celery salt
1 Tbsp dried basil
1/2 tsp dried chile flakes
1 large onion, sliced
1 1/2 Tsp minced fresh garlic
1/4 cup dry white wine

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spread 2 Tbsp of the oil on a rimmed baking sheet. Season the cut side of the eggplant with salt and pepper and put the halves face down on the pan. Roast until tender, about 40 minutes (a knife will enter the flesh easily). When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, scrape the flesh with a spoon and set aside in a bowl. Discard the skin.

Meanwhile, put the chicken broth, herbs and the skin of the onion into a saucepan. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Strain the broth.

Heat the remaining 2 Tbsp in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and and cook, stirring frequently, until golden. About 20 minutes. Stir in the garlic and about 1/2 tsp salt. Saute another 3-4 four minute until the garlic starts to brown. Deglaze the pan with the wine and cook another minute or two. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Add the eggplant flesh, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 5 minutes.

Pureed to within an inch of its life with a stick blender. Strain through a fine mesh strainer. Season to taste.

And finally, the turnips:

The turnips ended up cooked with cream, topped with cheese and baked to make a nice little gratin. I only had about a pound of turnips so I halved the recipe below and cut the cooking time by half as well. I also didn't have enough Parmigiano, so I substituted gruyere and added a some panko bread crumbs just for kicks.

Turnip Gratin
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/2 pounds medium turnips, trimmed and left unpeeled
1 tablespoon chopped thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Rounded 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (use a Microplane)

Preheat oven to 450°F with rack in middle.

Melt butter in an ovenproof 12-inch heavy skillet, then cool.

Slice turnips paper-thin with slicer, then arrange one third of slices, overlapping tightly, in skillet, keeping remaining slices covered with dampened paper towels. Sprinkle with about a third of thyme, kosher salt, and cayenne. Make 2 more layers.

Cook, covered, over medium heat until underside is browned, about 10 minutes. Add cream and cook, covered, until center is tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

Sprinkle evenly with cheese, then bake, uncovered, until golden and bubbling, 10 to 15 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Artisan Bread in 3, 2, 1

There really is no longer an excuse for not making bread at home. After the "No-Knead Bread" sensation of '06 and '07, someone managed to make it even easier.

There is a new book and website called Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. And really, other than about an hour to rise & bake the bread and another 1-2 hours to cool it completely, it IS that quick & easy.

The Seattle PI (Lord, help them!), ran a great article about the bread last fall. The dough is as simple as mixing together flour, yeast, salt and lukewarm water. Seriously, a monkey could do it. You just let the dough sit out on the counter for a few hours and then refrigerate for up to two weeks.
When you are ready to bake a loaf, just yank off a handful of dough, shape and let rise.

The dough is a little unwieldy, so make sure you have plenty of flour on hand. I like to use rice flour for shaping the loaves, since it is finer than wheat flour. I've stuck with the boule shape, but will tackle baguettes and other shapes next. I think for for $17 on Amazon, the book is probably a worthwhile investment, since they have lots of variation on the dough and other recipes and ideas.
There is a certain satisfaction in filling the house with the smell of baking bread (on a weeknight, no less!) and slicing into a loaf that looks like this and costs about 82 cents.

The Master Recipe
Makes four 1-pound loaves

3 cups lukewarm water (about 100 degrees)
1 ½ tablespoons granulated yeast
1 ½ tablespoons kosher salt or other coarse salt
6 ½ cups unsifted, unbleached, all-purpose white flour (measure with scoop and sweep method)
Cornmeal or parchment for pizza peel

Preparing the dough:
In a 5-quart bowl or a resealable, lidded, plastic food container, add yeast and salt to lukewarm water. Don't worry about getting it all to dissolve.

Add in all the flour at once. Mix with a wooden spoon (you can use very wet hands to help if needed) or a heavy-duty stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Don't knead the dough; just mix until it is uniformly moist without dry patches.
Cover with a lid that fits well, but is not airtight. Allow to rise at room temperature until it begins to collapse, about 2 hours. (You can let it go up to 5 hours.) The dough is ready to use at this point, but will be easier to shape if it is refrigerated at least 3 hours first.
On baking day:
Prepare a pizza peel by sprinkling it liberally with cornmeal (or line it with parchment).
Sprinkle the surface of your refrigerated dough with flour.
Pull up and cut off a 1 pound (grapefruit-size) piece of dough, using a serrated knife.
Hold the mass of dough in your hands and add a little more flour as needed so it won't stick to your hands. Gently stretch the surface of the dough around to the bottom on all four sides, rotating the ball a quarter-turn as you go. (Most of the dusting flour will fall off.) The bottom of the loaf may appear to be a collection of bunched ends, but it will flatten and adhere during resting and baking. Handle the dough as little as possible.
Place the shaped ball on the cornmeal-covered pizza peel. Allow the loaf to rest on the peel for about 40 minutes, uncovered. Depending on the age of the dough, you may not see much rise (more will occur during baking).
20 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 450 degrees, with a baking stone placed on the middle rack. Place an empty broiler tray for holding water on any other shelf that won't interfere with the rising bread.

Dust the top of the loaf liberally with flour. Slash a ¼-inch-deep cross, scallop or tic-tac-toe pattern into the top, using a serrated bread knife.
With a quick forward jerking motion of the wrist, slide the loaf off the pizza peel and onto the preheated baking stone. Quickly but carefully pour about 1 cup of hot water from the tap into the broiler tray and close the oven door to trap the steam.
Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the crust is nicely browned and firm to the touch. Allow to cool completely, preferably on a wire rack.
Store the remaining dough in the refrigerator in your lidded (not airtight) container. Cut off and shape more loaves as you need them anytime over the next 14 days. The flavor and texture will improve after even one day's storage.

Burgers for the New Frugality

I don't know what I love more about this video - that Josh Ozersky works Puff Daddy and Mordor into the same conversation or that he's at The Spotted Pig.

There wasn't a video I could grab - but ABC has it, just click on the photo below: Favorite quotes, "Gastronomic fundamentalism;" and "(the burgers is) better than filet mignon, because it has flavor."

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Two Great Tastes...

There is a long list of places I've wanted to try in Portland. On a recent weekend excursion, we finally made it to Voodoo Doughnuts. I've seen this place on TV and read all about it. A big part of me was skeptical and wanted to hate it.

As it got later and later on our first night in town, we found ourselves in a small alley filled with bars and clubs. Our friend Scott was spinning records at one, so we enjoyed some drinks before heading out into the cold, crisp air. The unmistakeable aroma of deep fried dough hit our noses and we realized Voodoo was just around the corner.

I knew I needed to try the maple bar with bacon. Sweet Jesus! All I could think of was a take on that quote from Twin Peaks, "Nothing beat the taste sensation when maple bars collide with bacon."

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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Cooking Resolutions

I love the start of the New Year. It is like buying a new journal and putting pen to paper on that first page, or crawling into a bed with crisp, clean sheets, or cleaning out the fridge and opening the door to clutter-free shelves.

If you can relate to these things, then you and I are probably alike and both make New Years' resolutions. I don't know about you though, but I have come to a point in my life where I've started to feel that goals should be more about rewards than sacrifice. More about fulfillment than deprivation.

Last month marked the one year anniversary of this blog (and my 100th post!). It only makes sense to begin my second year with some goals in mind. Look for posts on these topics in 2009:

  1. Know your Cuts of Beef
    It is no secret, I love a good steak. I am familiar with many cuts of beef, but mostly just the primal cuts. You throw a blade steak or flat iron at me and I start to get confused. Don't even start with the name variations between the East and West coasts.

  2. Cake
    I love to bake, but my repertoire is limited to pies, tarts, mousses, cookies, et al. I have yet to tackle cakes. To be honest, I don't like cake that much, but they are so darn pretty plus you can make miniature versions. I'd like to tackle frosting, fondant and ganache, but that is all part of it, right?

  3. Croissants
    This may be a skill I end up regretting. Like when I learned how easy Hollandaise and Bearnaise sauces were and started making them ALL THE TIME. I love me some flaky pastry and it just so happens that the latest issue of Fine Cooking arrived in my mailbox today with an entire article on making homemade croissants. Chocolate and ham & cheese versions too.

  4. Homemade Mozzarella
    Don't start with me. I know this sounds ridiculous, but you should know by now that I love complex cooking tasks. The more from scratch the better. Of course I love cheese too. The November issue of Saveur had a step-by-step recipe that I am dying to try. Hey - it looks easier than the demi-glace that graced the cover.

  5. Homemade Bread
    A couple of years back, "No-Knead" bread was all the rage, now there is even 5-minute bread. Pretty soon, the bread will be making itself. There is really no excuse for not making bread. Especially when it costs about 50 cents to make a crusty, artisan loaf at home versus about $4 to buy it at the store.

  6. Produce Delivery
    I've done produce delivery and pick-up yourself CSAs in the past. It is kind of a commitment and it has kicked my butt, but I am going to give it another try. I've signed up for a produce basket every other week with Full Circle Farm. They have a pick-up location near my new office. I love the inspiration an unknown box of produce provides, not to mention how it forces me to eat my fruits and veggies.

  7. Herb Garden
    Last fall we finally finished our front yard which includes two raised beds. I planted a few herbs (though I doubt they'll survive the winter), but plan to give it my all come springtime. I am done paying $2-3 for those ridiculous packets of fresh herbs.

  8. Cuss Less
    Don't laugh. I really do want to try to cuss less, but sometimes a cuss word provides the exact emphasis I need. I am DEAD fucking serious.

  9. Eat More Fish
    I ate a lot of fish growing up - at least 3 times a week. Gavin didn't eat any seafood though, so now we are down to about once a week. We try. Heck, I even signed up for seafood delivery at one point to jump start my inspiration. I don't want to go overboard and get all Jeremy Piven, but eating fish twice as much as I currently do would be an improvement.

  10. Food Lit
    My shelves are lined with books I've started and stopped, books I've been meaning to read and magazines fill my mailbox every month. Food Lit tops my "to read" list: The Jungle, How to Pick a Peach, The Soul of a Chef, Meatpaper, Appetite for Life...the list goes on and on and on.