Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010 II: Herbed Stuffing with Celery Sausage, Dried Cranberries, and Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

I should have taken a picture of this dish because I was so pleased with how it came out, especially because I didn't really follow a recipe. I'm blogging about it now mainly because I want to record the recipe in case I ever want to make it again! To me, it had all the essentials: meatiness from the sausage, flavor from the aromatics, sweetness from the dried cranberries, and texture from the crispy croutons, plus an added punch of texture and umami from toasted pumpkin seeds.

After the pre-Thanksgiving Splendid Table program I'd listened to on NPR in which New York Times food writer Melissa Clark had broken down the stuffing essentials, I figured I had the basics pretty much down. She emphasized that stuffing must at a minimum include the classic mirepoix of onions, carrots, and celery and of course dry bread (this is basically my Mom's stuffing, which goes into her bird and is always delicious when flavored with turkey stock she makes from the neck and giblets). Additional flavor can be added from sausage, bacon, prosciutto, oysters, etc. and crunch from some kind of nut, preferably toasted. The mixture is then moistened with some flavorful stock or broth and either stuffed into the bird for even more heightened deliciousness or cooked in a separate dish, which is required if you're doing a vegetarian version for some of the guests at your table. Cooking a stuffed bird adds to the turkey cooking time, but cooking outside the bird means one more thing has to go into the oven, where space may be at a premium.

Originally I'd conceived of stuffing my acorn squash with this stuffing, hence the idea of using pumpkin seeds instead of another nut like walnuts or pecans. The pumpkin seed idea came from watching a new Food Network show, Mexican Made Easy, in which the hostess used toasted pumpkin seeds (or was it pine nuts?) in a brussel sprout preparation, which just seemed so New World to me. Pumpkins seeds toast much quicker in the oven than other nuts BTW. I put in my first half cup and set the timer for 15 minutes, thinking they'd be done in about 20. Ha! After just 8 or 9 minutes the kitchen started smelling like bacon or roast chicken oddly enough. It wasn't until something smelled like it was burning that I remembered my pumpkin seeds in the oven! Fortunately I had more on hand, which I toasted in the oven for only 5 minutes and they were perfect. The first batch was put out as a finger snack which everyone kind of liked actually so I guess they weren't burnt black and inedible, just dark brown and kind of smoky. Likewise the addition of the dried cranberries was also an homage to another quintessential fall food from the New World. Apples, raisins, or currants might have likewise been used but the cranberries are a natural complement to the Thanksgiving table, which you may really appreciate if their only other presences is in that tired old canned cranberry sauce.

At its core, stuffing is like a savory bread pudding. So of course the quality of the bread matters. I've a good friend who bakes a fresh sandwich loaf of white bread just to make his stuffing. In the past I've preferred to make cornbread stuffing with a homemade herbed cornbread that my mother absolutely loves and nibbles at even as I'm trying to let it dry out for the stuffing. Combined with about half a baguette, the cornbread stuffing rocks. However, I was able to get a bag of dried out herbed croutons at the farmers market that were perfect for the bread portion of the stuffing. The bread has to be dry if it's to absorb the stock, so if you start with a fresh baguette, you have a chance to add your own herbs and toast the bread in the oven to make sure it is suitably dried out.

Herbed Stuffing with Sausage, Dried Cranberries and Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
Serves 10-12 as a Thanksgiving side

1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
1 bag of herbed croutons if available, else half a baguette, cut into 3/4 inch cubes and left out to air dry for 1 day
4 tablespoons of olive oil, divided
1 pound of sausage (celery, sage, or Italian)
1 large onion, diced
2 large carrots diced
2 large stalks of celery diced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 cups of stock, plus additional if necessary
1 egg
1/2 cup dried cranberries

Toasting the Pumpkin Seeds and Optionally, the Baguette: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the pumpkin seeds in a skillet or metal pan large enough to hold the seeds in a single layer. Let toast in the oven for 5 minutes, checking after 3. When you can smell the seeds they're about ready and will have turned from dark green to golden brown. For the croutons, in a large mixing bowl combine 1/4 cup olive oil with a heaping tablespoon of an herb mix such as poultry seasoning, herbes de provence or any other combination of dried herbs you may like. Toss the dried bread in the herb oil mixture to evenly coat the pieces. Spread out in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes. After 10 minutes stir the croutons around and continue baking for another 10 to 15 minutes. When lightly browned, turn off the oven, leave the door slightly ajar and let the croutons cool and dry out in the oven.

Brown the sausage and vegetables: Heat the olive oil over medium high heat in a wide skillet or saute pan. Remove the sausage from the casing if necessary and brown for 5 to 8 minutes, breaking up the sausage into smaller and smaller pieces while moving it around to brown evenly. Keeping as much oil in the pan as possible, remove the sausage from the pan using a slotted spoon and set aside in a bowl large enough to mix the stuffing. Heat the pan over medium heat and add the diced onion stirring to coat with the oil in the pan. Cook over medium heat until translucent, about 7 minutes. Add the carrots and celery to the pan, adding all or part of the remaining two tablespoons of oil if necessary to coat them as well. Let cook until softened, about another 7 minutes, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. De-glaze the pan with half a cup of chicken stock, using a wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Reduce the liquid by half. Transfer the vegetables and any residual liquid to the bowl with the sausage.

Finishing the Stuffing and Baking it Off: Raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Lightly butter a 9 inch square baking dish. Toss the croutons, pumpkin seeds, and dried cranberries with the reserved vegetables and sausage. Break the egg into a separate bowl and mix with a fork or a whisk. Whisk the egg and stock together and combine with the vegetables, croutons, and cranberries. Stir until the bread is evenly moistened but not soaked. Spread the mixture into the buttered baking dish, pressing down to absorb the liquid. Bake uncovered for 30 to 40 minutes until browned and crispy on top. Let cool slightly and then serve on the side with your perfectly roasted turkey, some gravy, and some cranberry chutney!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010 I: Three Sisters Stuffed Squash

Saturday before Thanksgiving: main ingredients for squash stuffed with beans, corn, and mushrooms served on Thanksgiving Day and roasted mini cauliflower with apples, caramelized onions, dried cranberries, and dill served the night before were purchased at the farmers market

It was about three years and 65 blog posts ago that I began Ganbaru Cook around Thanksgiving 2007. How time flies! For the food obsessed, Thanksgiving is the big kahuna, and this year we happily found ourselves at Brian's cousin's house in North Carolina for the second year in a row. Yay! We love spending time with her and her hubby outside Charlotte as they're a laid back couple just like we are. What started out as dinner for just the four of us turned into dinner for six when friends from their golf club were invited at the last minute. The more the merrier, which also gave you-know-who another excuse to add to a menu that was already more than ample, I assure you.

So here was the menu for the day. Items with an asterisk (*) were either brought or prepared by your itinerant blogger.
Monocacy ash goat cheese* with cranberry quince chutney*
Boursin cheese
Spicy pickled green beans*

Roast breast of turkey (we had numerous discussions about the required cooking time for turkey but Epicurious had the best guide based on stuffed/unstuffed and preferred oven temp. The turkey packaging would have guaranteed a dry bird, recommending three hours for an 8 pound bone-in breast!)*
Smashed red potatoes
Stuffing with celery sausage, cranberries, and toasted pumpkin seeds*
Corn pudding
Slow cooked green beans
Acorn squash stuffed with leeks, beans, corn and mushrooms (pictured)*
Jellied cranberry sauce
Onion gravy*

Apple pie (homemade)
Carrot Cake (not)
Vanilla ice cream
Cool whip

I hadn't done Thanksgiving at home since 2008 when we last hosted my family, but since we'd taken an extended family trip to Florida in September it only seemed fair to spend this holiday with Brian's family. I'd bought the cauliflower and acorn squash at the farmers market this past Saturday wanting to make both for Thanksgiving this year because last year I missed having something orange at Thanksgiving (either squash or sweet potatoes) and more veggies are always a good idea since the meal can be so carb centric with the stuffing, potatoes, and biscuits. When we finally listed all the dishes in mind for Thursday, Brian's cousin "Stacy" balked at having so many items on the menu, so the roasted cauliflower with apples, onions, cranberries, and dill was prepared on Wednesday night along with meatloaf and black rice, which worked out fine as the oven was going to be crowded enough already on Thursday.

I didn't bring any recipes or cookbooks with me this go-round deciding to let my memory and the ingredients themselves determine preparations. Along with my santoku, carving set, fat separator, kitchen scale, French press, and oven thermometer (you're reading a blog post of the food obsessed don't forget), I also brought along my own all-purpose fennel spice rub, a quart of homemade chicken stock, and caramelized onions, the last of which were a god send for when I got lazy and didn't feel like chopping and sauteing another onion. In fact anything you read about preparing a big feast like Thanksgiving will advise doing ahead as much as possible and the onions caramelized in a slow cooker over 12 hours are a no brainer. I used them in the roasted cauliflower in lieu of fresh sliced onion and minced them into my gravy and stuffing as well and still had plenty to freeze for a French onion soup I'm envisioning this winter.

The other dish I wanted to contribute was a squash dish on the three sisters theme: corn, beans, and squash. As these are foods that Native Americans grew together, they are natural complements when cooked together too. Last fall I was somewhat obsessed with the concept and realized at the the time that with winter squash instead of summer, a three sisters dish belongs on the Thanksgiving table. I'm most proud of this dish because I winged it. It's also substantial enough to be a vegetable main for any vegetarians at your table and omitting the cream cheese would make it vegan. The three main steps below (roasting the squash, preparing the stuffing, and finishing in the oven) can all be accomplished in stages and need not be completed at the same time.

Acorn Squash Stuffed with Mushrooms, Corn and Beans
Serves 8

4 small to medium acorn or delicata squash, halved, seeds removed
olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
8 to 10 shiitake mushrooms, stems trimmed, and then quartered
2 leeks, white and light green parts only, halved, washed, and sliced crosswise into quarter inch pieces
1 fennel bulb, cored and diced
2 tablespoons finely chopped sage
1 cup of stock, white wine, or water [I used a combination of wine and chicken stock]
1 cup of beans, canned, frozen, or fresh [I used a combo of fresh garbanzos and frozen shelled edamame]
1 cup of corn
2 ounces (about 1/4 cup) of cream cheese, softened to room temperature, or sour cream
salt and pepper to taste

Garnish (optional):
16 sage leaves
1/4 cup olive oil

Pre-cook the Squash: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Drizzle a little bit of olive oil onto each squash half and season with salt and pepper. Arrange the squash flesh side down in a single layer in a large baking dish. [I squeezed mine into a 13 x 9 pan.] Pour about half an inch of water into the pan and place on a rack in the middle of the oven. Roast for 30 minutes and remove from the oven. Let cool in the pan until able to handle. [I prepared mine the night before and left at room temperature covered with waxed paper as there was no room in the fridge!]

Prepare the filling while the squash is roasting: Heat the olive oil and melt the butter in a wide skillet on medium high heat. Add the mushrooms in a single layer and let cook undisturbed for 5 minutes until lightly browned on one side. Stir and let cook undisturbed for five minutes more. Add the leeks, fennel, and chopped sage and stir to combine. Add more oil if necessary so the vegetables are lightly coated. Season with salt and pepper and let cook until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. De-glaze the pan with the wine or stock, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan using a wooden spoon. Add the beans of your choice and the corn kernels. Reduce the heat and let simmer 10 minutes until the liquid has reduced by half and the beans and corn are cooked or heated through. Turn off the heat, let cool slightly, and stir in the cream cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste. [Can be prepared a day ahead. Let cool to room temperature and then cover and refrigerate.]

Finishing the dish: When cool enough to handle spoon the vegetable stuffing into each squash half, distributing evenly and mounding as high as possible. Cover with aluminum foil and return to the 400 degree oven for 30 minutes. Optionally, garnish with whole or crushed fried sage leaves (optional next step) or other chopped fresh herbs such as parsley or chives and serve immediately.

Optional fried sage leaf garnish: This is a two-for-one deal as you are creating sage oil, which can and should be reserved for other uses (I used mine in a spice rub for the turkey breast), in addition to the crispy fried sage leaves. In fact the quarter cup of olive oil is only the minimum amount to use. If you'd like additional sage oil for dipping bread, garnishing a soup , or making a salad dressing, by all means use more oil and more sage leaves and even the stems to infuse the oil. To simply make the sage leaf garnish, heat the olive oil over medium high heat in a skillet or wide saucepan. Add the sage leaves in a single layer and let cook until they no longer sizzle, about 3 minutes. Carefully remove to a plate lined with a paper towel and let cool to room temperature. These can be prepared a day ahead and stored in an airtight container. To make sage oil, to the same pot or skillet, bruise a few sprigs of sage in your hands by rolling them into a loose ball. Add to the heated oil and let sizzle for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the sage and oil infuse by cooling to room temperature, about 1 hour. Discard the sage sprigs and store the reserved oil in the refrigerator in a jar. To kick it up a notch, you could also fry a clove or two of unpeeled garlic or strips of lemon or orange peel along with the sage or any other fresh herb such as basil, thyme, or rosemary. Let your palate and your menu be your guide!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Coleslaw with "Creamy" Buttermilk Dressing

Regular readers of this blog (you know who you are, right, Mom?) will likely have discerned that my culinary emphasis is on flavor and creativity in the kitchen first and foremost. Healthfulness certainly comes in third after simplicity, which is also of great importance to me. To my partner of 18 years, however, healthfulness is undoubtedly number one. He exercises like mad and seeks to fuel his body with only things that are "good" for him, whatever that means! Having lived that lifestyle I can respect it, and frankly, many benefits of his dogged exercise regimen accrue to me directly, as many friends of mine who've seen pictures of Brian at the beach note with envy! Although I exercise a lot less nowadays, I believe that through mindful eating and an active lifestyle everything will balance out. I therefore will not categorically eliminate foods from my diet that are deemed unhealthy by the food police. I just (try to) exercise self-control and move towards healthful--and of course flavorful--alternatives.

For that reason my partner and I recently discovered that we enjoy eating vegetarian dinners one or two nights of the four to six dinners we make at home every week. We didn't declare that we want to give up red meat (that means bison in our house anyway, not beef) or anything. We just decided that we wanted to move in a positive direction towards an alternative. Partly this was born of wanting to eat less meat and save a big chunk of our weekly farmers market food bill as it can cost a bit of coin to buy chicken and meat from local producers only. But mostly the idea was born out of trying to ensure that the produce we'd purchased would be used up over the course of the week and there would be nothing lingering over into the next week and cutting into that week's farmers market haul. Even worse would be letting good food go bad for never having gotten around to preparing it. So many recipes, so little time!

Eating what is on hand all goes along with another predominant kitchen ethos of mine to eat down the fridge every week anyway. Most of us go to the market (whether a farmers market or a supermarket) and buy a week's worth of food and stuff it into the fridge, freezer, and pantry. Supermarket shoppers want to avoid going to the dreaded grocery store because it's usually such a hassle, and we farmers market goers usually have one shot a week on the weekend to bring home the week's ingredients for who knows what meal. Then, because we've packed everything into the fridge/freezer/pantry, we can't see or remember what's already been purchased and may end up letting it go bad, having to buy more of what we already had on hand! Eating down the fridge is the only way to combat this tendency, unless you're in the habit of buying on a daily rather than a weekly basis. However, with that approach, I just don't think that food that's been shipped from some central distribution center is going to be as fresh as what you can get at the farmers market, which was most likely picked the day before and will therefore have a longer shelf life in your fridge than what you might buy from the store anyway.

So this week's eating down the fridge challenge was to use up half of a very large head of cabbage whose other half was sauteed and simmered to make a sublime cabbage and rice soup/cabbage risotto for one of last week's vegetarian dinners. I had my favorite coleslaw with apple, fennel, and dill on my mind, but was also wistfully remembering the colesaw I'd had over Labor Day weekend at my sister-in-law's parents' house. She had made a slaw with mayonnaise that perfectly complemented the BEST SMOKED PULLED PORK SANDWICH I'VE EVER TASTED (pardon my shouting but that's how good that sandwich and meal under the stars were that evening)! My own slaw is healthy and vegan and delicious (are those listed in the wrong order?), but her version made with mayonnaise had something to say about what makes for a great coleslaw and I think the Hellman's real mayo was the most vociferous!

Apparently sister-in-law's mayo based slaw was in the recesses of my mind when I was contemplating my half head of cabbage when another foodie friend of mine said that he'd made his own interpretation of a turnip and apple slaw recipe in which he wanted to use up the bounty of turnips he'd gotten from our farmers market this past Saturday. Mindful that I also had some turnips to use up I asked for the recipe, which he shared, but that recipe also linked to another cabbage and turnip slaw recipe that had a buttermilk dressing.

The author of the buttermilk slaw recipe decried how heavy on the mayo many coleslaws are so she wanted a creamy dressing not laden with mayo. Hence her buttermilk slaw, which was a revelation to me! I think this is technically a ranch dressing, but it's not heavy at all, and is quite close to Ellie Krieger's take on the same riff, which would therefore make it Brian (my partner) approved. Frankly, I would make this dressing for any salad, not just coleslaw. I would even substitute yogurt, which we always have on hand, for the buttermilk, which I only had on hand so that I could make cornbread to serve at the women's shelter with the chili we made this past Monday. Since I have half a bottle of buttermilk still on hand, this dressing will be made again in the near future, along with some muffins or biscuits or something to use up the rest of that buttermilk (eating down the fridge as usual).

Brian howled when he saw me using mayo at all, even though mine is reduced fat. He started haranguing me about good fats and bad fats even though I was making the concession of low fat light mayo, which I normally wouldn't advocate but it has half the fat of regular mayo and a third of the fat of olive oil even. Those are my only arguments when he starts to balk at the thought of mayonnaise passing his lips. I should just buy the Hellman's Real, which at least has a recognizable list of ingredients!

I also like to make coleslaw because it's a good excuse to pull out my food processor and use its slicing and shredding accessories. Of course all of that slicing and shredding could have been done by hand but I don't award points just for doing something by hand. Simplicity demands the use of the processor, plus you get a finer shred with your knuckles intact. Maybe I could have used my mandolin to get matchsticks of the turnips, but I just shredded those and sliced the carrots and radishes. Unfortunately I didn't photograph my slaw but linked is a picture borrowed from the web. Below is my take on this delicious coleslaw, Joy of Cooking style:

Coleslaw with "Creamy" Buttermilk Dressing

Serves 6 to 8

In a bowl large enough to mix the coleslaw, whisk together
1/2 cup of buttermilk
3 tablespoons of mayonnaise
2 tablespoons of cider vinegar and
1 teaspoon of honey [I omitted]
until smooth. Season to taste with
salt and pepper
and set aside.

Using a sharp knife, quarter and core a
2 pound head of cabbage.
Rinse and trim the the tops and bottoms of
5 to 8 radishes
4 to 6 turnips [hakurei recommended] and
2 large carrots.
Using the slicing disk of a food processor with a large work bowl, thinly slice the cabbage and radishes. Peel the carrots. Using the shredding disk, shred the turnips and carrots. [Note: empty the food processor bowl as needed so that the sliced and shredded contents do not push up on the disk possibly cause your processor to seize up in its cover, which happened to me once and rendered my processor inoperable. Miraculously, Kitchen-Aid replaced it for free!] Combine the vegetables with the dressing and sprinkle with
1 teaspoon celery seeds.
Mix thoroughly and garnish with your choice of fresh herbs such as chopped
parsley, chives, cilantro, tarragon, or dill.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Revisit to Summer's Quintessence: Tomato Tart with Corn, Basil, and Chevre

It was nearly a year ago that I blogged with profuse apologies about making a corn and tomato galette over the first weekend of November. I'd just discovered a blog with the full monty of beautiful food porn called Alexandra's Kitchen. Her photos are just so gorgeous that I just wanted to start making her recipes on the spot, they looked that delicious. While the result of my November undertaking was pretty damn good, I've been wanting to revisit the same recipe all summer long this year to atone for having made the dish in the fall when both tomatoes and corn were past their prime. This tart is for me the quintessence of summer's bounty, but I guess I'm just too busy going to the beach to actually make it in the summer!

Well, this past weekend was fall by the calendar yet sunny and warm during the day. And having bought on Saturday what is probably the last of the season's corn at the farmers market (this corn is not for eating off the cob but rather cooking in soups and in my favorite succotash that I will probably use as stuffing in some globe zucchini as a final good-bye to summer, but I digress) along with some pretty nice looking tomatoes, I knew Sunday morning had to be a revisit to this corn and tomato galette. (I know, late to the party again, but truth be told I was only able last year to make the galette in November because I'd bought corn and kept it past its prime in the fridge for two weeks! And while it was still good enough to cook and eat, this recipe deserves quality ingredients--and a nice side salad, and the warm sun on your cheek as you enjoy it with a bellini to capture the summer's best offerings.)

As per my usual of late in maintaining my ethos of "eating down the fridge," I was also inclined to make this recipe because I had two cheeses in my fridge I wanted to make good use of before they might go bad, in this case goat cheese and ricotta I'd purchased at the farmers market the previous week. Having made this recipe just once and blogged about the result, I'd thought that it had a layer of creme fraiche on its bottom that was then layered with sauteed corn and onion before being topped by the thick tomato slices. Only after I'd made the crust did I realize that my memory had failed me slightly in that I was combining the ingredients for Alexandra's quiche recipe, which has homemade creme fraiche, with the ingredients for the tomato galette, which has no cheese base but has lots of grated cheese either above or below the tomatoes. No worries! A quick whisk to combine the chevre and ricotta on hand with a dash or two of goat's milk and an egg, some dried thyme, and salt and pepper and I had a beautiful cheese bed upon which to lay my sauteed corn and onion and the sliced tomatoes.

Also, I keep referring to this recipe as a galette, i.e. a free form tart that is not baked in a special pan. The ingredients are laid in the middle of the rolled-out dough, leaving a two inch border that is then folded and pleated over the contents to form a rustic tart that is baked and sliced up almost like a thick piece of pizza. However, I wanted to make the dish in my rectangular tart pan which I'd bought for an asparagus recipe of Jamie Oliver's that is delicious but a bit too much work so I've only ever used the pan once before. Added bonus is that rolling the dough out into a rectangle vs. a circle is rather easy so getting the dough to fit into my tart pan was quite easy. Ironically, Alexandra's galette recipe was a redux of her original tart preparation, which she had first made in a round tart pan. What with the addition of my cheesy base layer, I guess I can call this recipe my own for my return trip, which I happily present below. Also, do yourself a favor and double the pastry recipe, which I foolishly did not do. I can guarantee that you'll want to make it again for this recipe or a quiche or even a peach pie!

Tomato Tart with Corn, Basil, and Chevre
Serves 4 to 6

Pastry recipe
Adapted from Alexandra Stafford's adaptation from Fine Cooking, August 2000
  • 1-1/4 cups (5 oz.) all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup (1-1/2 oz.) fine yellow cornmeal [I used masa harina as I tend to buy medium rather than fine corn meal]
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 6 T. (3 oz.) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
  • 3 T. olive oil
  • 1/4 cup ice water
In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, and salt. Cut in the chilled butter using a stand mixer, a food processor, or a pastry blender until it’s evenly distributed but still in large, visible pieces. Add the olive oil and ice water a tablespoon at a time and mix until the dough begins to come together. It should still be separate crumbs mostly. Gather the dough with your hands and shape it into a disk. Wrap the disk in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. [Tip: It's best to make this dough the day before you need it because of the blind baking step which adds to the prep time. If impatient like me you can place the dough in the freezer for 20 minutes and then put in the fridge until ready to use.]

  • 1 large and 2 small to medium ripe tomatoes (about 1 pound total) cut into 1/3-inch slices, lightly salted and draining on paper towels as you go about preparing the onions and corn
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 large red onion, roughly chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Kernels from 2 ears of corn (generous 1 cup) [Tip: to cut corn off the cob without the kernels flying everywhere, hold the ear upright on your cutting board, but start cutting halfway down the ear, rotating to remove all the corn from one half of the ear; turn the ear over and repeat for the half you were holding. Voila! Corn on the cutting board (mostly) and not on your counter, plus your fingertips are well away from your knife blade!]
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 bunch basil coarsely chopped to yield about 1/2 cup
  • 8 oz. soft cheese such as goat cheese or ricotta
  • 2 -3 Tbs. milk
  • 2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme or 1 tsp. dried
  • 1 egg
  • salt and pepper to taste.
  • 1 recipe cornmeal pastry (see above)
  • 1/4 cup grated semi-hard or hard cheese, such as manchego or parmesan
  • Garnish of your choice: chopped parsley, chives, basil or scallion, optional
Adjust an oven rack to the center position and heat the oven to 375°F.
Prep the onions and corn: Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan, over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until softened but not browned, about 10 min. Season with salt and pepper. Add the corn and cook another 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and mix in the garlic and chopped basil, letting the mixture cool in the pan.
Blind bake the tart shell: Meanwhile, if it's been long enough to firm up the dough, roll it out on a floured surface until big enough to fit your tart pan. Transfer the pastry to your tart pan and fit it into the sides without stretching. Trim off any excess and if necessary patch the dough where needed by moistening the edge with water and fitting the extra piece into the bare spot. Prick the bottom all over with a fork and lay a piece of parchment paper larger than the tart pan into the bottom. Fill the parchment paper with pie weights (I use about a pound of beans and rice reserved for this purpose) and bake in the oven for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes remove the parchment and pie weights to a bowl and let cool for use another day. Return the tart to the oven for another 10 minutes until it becomes golden brown. Let cool slightly. [Tart crust can be prepared a day in advance. Wrap the tart pan in plastic wrap once cool and store at room temperature.]
Prep the chevre base layer: Whisk together the goat cheese, egg, thyme, salt and pepper with 2 tablespoons of the milk until a smooth spreadable consistency. If too thick, add some milk a little bit at at a time until the mixture is spreadable like cake frosting. Spread the cheese mixture into the bottom of the slightly cooled tart crust using a rubber spatula or the back of a spoon. Layer the onion and corn mixture on top. Pat the tomato slices dry with a paper towel and arrange decoratively on top of the corn mixture. Fit the tomatoes snugly without overlapping as they will shrink as the tart bakes. Sprinkle or grate some parmesan or other cheese over the top of the tomatoes.
Bake and serve: Bake until the crust has browned and the tomatoes have roasted and shriveled slightly, 35 to 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes. Slice the tart and serve with the herb or scallion garnish of your choice (which I forgot to do as you see in the picture below cuz I was so eager to taste this bad boy).

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ina Garten's Chocolate Cupcakes with Chocolate Hazelnut Buttercream

The other day I offered to bring cupcakes to work for a co-worker's last day celebration. Volunteering for this duty turned out to be fortuitous on many levels as I'll explain below, but let me tell you that these bad boys turned out to be a frabjous (word of the day on my Droid dictionary app) treat enjoyed by all. Moist and chocolatey, they're a great thing in a small package, somewhere smack in the middle of cake-like and fudge-like, which is a description so often used to describe brownies. They're moist AND light without being dense. In fact, because the chocolate in this recipe comes from Hershey's syrup and uses only one cup of flour, the batter was much thinner than I expected,* but they came together just fine.

The cupcake trend--shops galore, cupcakes in lieu of wedding cakes, etc.--has more than worn out its welcome in my book. But because I get so tired of being subjected to the many store bought items that come into the office, and because the person leaving was someone I'd worked with closely over the last few months, I wanted to make the gift a bit more personal, and so I volunteered.

Mind you I was more than a bit tired perusing my cupcake repertoire after dinner the other night because I'd been out to the Washington Nationals' penultimate home game the night before in which they beat the Phillies the day after the Phillies beat the Nats to clinch the NL East title. I only had enough mojo to settle on a cupcake recipe of Ina's though I did not intend to make the chocolate ganache frosting (video here) she recommended to go along with them and couldn't even make her peanut butter frosting as we were out of peanut butter! Since my partner Brian warned me (correctly) that tahini might not be a good substitution for the peanut butter in this instance, I had to find an alternative that was quick and easy and wouldn't use an excess of butter since most of mine was frozen. I was too tired to find a frosting recipe to go with but resolved to find something on the web that would use chocolate hazelnut spread, i.e. Nutella, and went to bed, planning to get up at 5:00 the next morning to start baking. (Personally, I've always done better getting up early rather than staying up late when I need extra hours to get something done.)

Very often when I offer to bring something to share it's because I've a benign ulterior motive to make use of something at home that I have in excess or that I want to use before I forget about it and it ends up at the back of the cupboard, expiration date long since overdue! I went a bit crazy at Chocolate World at Hershey Park over the summer and hadn't used any of the special dark cocoa powder I'd purchased, not to mention the cinnamon chips! But the clincher for me was that this particular cupcake recipe uses neither cocoa nor melted chocolate but rather chocolate syrup, Hershey's recommended.

As it happened, I'd also purchased Hershey's special dark syrup and was dismayed upon first using it and looking at the ingredient list that it's sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. "Corn sugar" is not something we consume unless it comes with the corn itself, so I was more than happy to use up almost all of this chocolate syrup to make cupcakes for my co-workers. I'd never seen this particular type of chocolate syrup anywhere before which made me buy it, and according to some of the reviews on Amazon, it's apparently hard to find and somewhat expensive (I think I paid $3-$4 for 22 ounces). Even Wal-Mart won't tell you what the price is unless you're willing to go to one of their stores with the UPC in hand!

Reading some of the reviews, I wonder now if it was this special dark syrup that made the cupcakes so delicious. One person said of this syrup that it's "chocolate syrup for adults. It is not overly sweet, with a rich chocolate taste, but not bitter as you usually imagine dark chocolate to be." That is exactly how my cupcakes tasted. So I was definitely pleased that I was able to use up nearly all of this special dark syrup and I'm sure it made better cupcakes than the canned version of the syrup recommended by Ms. Ina.

Deciding to use the chocolate syrup and to make Nutella frosting were based on a similar line of thinking on my part of wanting to "eat down the fridge" as it were. I've always loved Nutella, especially after a trip we took to the Netherlands a few years back for a bike trip and learned to appreciate how the Dutch and other Europeans use it to spread on bread and bananas for breakfast and snacking just as we Amerians do with peanut butter. But the chocolate hazelnuttiness of it all just makes it seem so much more sophisticated! Still, I have been known to let it languish on the shelf and one time had to throw a jar away as it smelled and tasted way off. I think people let items in the pantry, fridge, and spice rack accumulate for fear that when something is needed it might mean a trip to the store. This "bird in the hand" mentality--which I first heard from my grandmother I'm sure--leads to holding onto things rather than letting them go so new things can come into your now opened hands. Besides, I know that I have a well stocked pantry/fridge/spice rack so I'm just not afraid of making substitutions.

In looking for the Nutella frosting recipe I found a website dedicated to this foodstuff that had numerous recipes in honor of World Nutella Day on February 5th each year. Who knew of this annual commemoration and didn't tell me? I've already marked my calendar though! I found one frosting recipe that only used 5 tablespoons of butter, a cup of Nutella, and a cup of confectioners sugar, as opposed to other recipes that used more sugar and butter. However, it also called for cream which I didn't have. Thanks to the internet, I learned that cream can be substituted in a recipe by using butter (I ended up using the whole stick) and whole milk. Voila!

As it happened, a friend gave us another brand of chocolate hazelnut spread that requires refrigeration so I was all too happy to use up all of the Nutella on hand plus more than half the jar of the other spread, which means I'm nearly ready to buy new when I see it on sale or I see another brand that I might like to try. So, here is my take on one of the many Barefoot Contessa cupcake recipes with Nutella frosting on top just for fun.

Chocolate cupcake by way of Hershey Park and Nutella.

Chocolate Cupcakes Made with Hershey's Special Dark Syrup

Makes 12 [my recipe produced 16 cupcakes actually*]

1/4 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
11 fluid ounces chocolate syrup (recommended: Hershey's)
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour

  • Line muffin pans with paper liners. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
  • Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, 1 at a time. Mix in the chocolate syrup and vanilla. Add the flour and mix until just combined. Don't overbeat, or the cupcakes will be tough.
  • Scoop the batter into the muffin cups and bake for 30 minutes, or until just set in the middle. Don't overbake! Let the cupcakes cool thoroughly in the pan.
Nutella Frosting
Courtesy The Unrepentant Carbivore for World Nutella Day
Makes more than enough for 16 cupcakes

1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 cup Nutella
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature [I used a whole stick...]
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup heavy cream [...and used 2 tablespoons whole milk instead of the cream]

Place the confectioners' sugar, Nutella, butter, vanilla, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on medium-low speed until creamy, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula as you work. Add the cream and beat on high speed until the mixture is light and smooth.

* Egads! The cooking time to bring this chocolatey magic together was 15 minutes longer for me than the recommended time. But that's because I printed this recipe in 2006(yes that means I'd banked this recipe for four years!), and my printout says 16 ounces of chocolate syrup. However, on the FN website today 11 ounces of syrup is in the recipe. No wonder my batter was so fluid and I got four additional cupcakes out of the recipe! I even had to increase the oven temperature for the last 15 minutes and was going to therefore recommend 350 degrees for the duration rather than 325. However, with less syrup in the batter, the cupcake batter won't be so wet and might finish baking in 30 minutes. Still, no one complained about the results, which were more than worth the time and effort.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Winter Comfort Food I: Molly Stevens' Braised Stuffed Lamb

It's winter on the East Coast and it's supposed to be cold I always say! But DC has been walloped with three storms in 8 days making this winter the snowiest on record ever. The capital of the free world has been shut down for four and a half days as I write this, and we have been hunkered down in our condo for seven days!

At the beginning it was all fun and novel. There were tweets for mass snowball fights at Dupont Circle and other locales. Brian and I went cross country skiing out our front door and were interviewed by journalists from Finland and Belgium. I was even photographed by the AP! Back before the cabin fever set in, we even decided to have some friends over for dinner on the Saturday night of Snow-pocalypse. No one would be going out to the movies or to any bars or anything. So why stay home watching the tube when you can hang out with friends over some cozy comfort food?

Comfort food usually involves two things: the oven and foods from childhood, including Sunday suppers like roasted chicken, meatloaf, casseroles, etc. and for me, especially something braised in red wine using my French (nee Dutch) oven. And so it was that I consulted my braising bible (All About Braising by Molly Stevens) and my freezer to see what might intersect. I was thinking about revisiting my EDF (eating down the fridge) meal of beef burgundy which I love to make, but the freezer only gave up a ham and a boneless lamb leg, which I'd bought last summer (gasp!) imagining I'd be grilling it with a yogurt marinade. Molly's recipe for the lamb is actually the cover recipe for her cookbook. It was a little less complicated than the ham recipe that calls for madeira, which I don't have, while the lamb preparation called for a red wine braise, and our wine cabinet is still full of bottles received at our annual holiday party.

Molly's braised lamb stuffed with herbs was an uncomplicated preparation with simple, accessible ingredients. Most braised meat dishes follow a simple five step cooking process:
  1. Brown the meat on the outside and set aside
  2. Cook the aromatic vegetables (usually, onions, carrots, garlic, etc.)
  3. Deglaze with wine and stock and reduce
  4. Return the meat to the pan and simmer for two plus hours until the meat is super tender
  5. Finish the sauce by reducing and thickening if desired
Normally I like to do a braised meat dish a day ahead, letting it cool in its braising liquid and really soak up the flavors. A simple reheat before serving and no one would complain about being served leftovers. This post cooking marinade guarantees tenderness and full umami as most braised dishes do indeed taste better the next day. But Friday evening was taken up with baking bread, so I decided to just make the lamb the evening it would be served. Give yourself a good 45 minutes to prepare the stuffing, brown the lamb, saute the veggies, and reduce the braising liquid before the dish is to go in the oven for its two and a half hours. Molly doesn't recommend it here, but I also decided to marinate the lamb in red wine for almost a day. Not a requirement but just my take that marinading up front is also beneficial.

Molly's recipe calls for a 5 pound boneless leg of lamb, while I had on hand a frozen 3.25 pound boneless leg. I kept all her proportions the same for the aromatics and the stuffing, figuring that any extra sauce would make a delicious soup the next day (which it did with aplomb with a simple addition of some additional aromatics, stock, tomatoes, leftover green beans, and leftover penne!).

The only substitution I had to make was curly parsley for flat leaf. I never buy curly parsley! Who would have thought that my local Yes Organic Market would have had a run on the flat leaf parsley during the storms? Herbiage not withstanding, here is this very simple and delicious meal, perfect for a cold winter night. Serving it with polenta and green beans couldn't have been homier!

Herb Stuffed Leg of Lamb Braised in Red Wine

Adapted from All About Braising by Molly Stevens

Yield: Serves 6 to 8

Cooking Time: 2 to 2 ½ hours


One 5-pound boneless leg of lamb (plus reserved bones, sawed or chopped into 1-inch pieces; optional); [Mine was just 3¼ pounds]
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

The stuffing:

½ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley; stems reserved [I had to use curly!]
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, mint, rosemary, and/or sage (in any combination) [I used all except the sage]
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
¼ teaspoon ground allspice

The braise:

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion (about 8 ounces), coarsely chopped
2 large carrots, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, mint, rosemary, and/or sage (the same combination you used in the stuffing)
2 bay leaves
Reserved parsley stems from the stuffing, torn into 4-inch lengths
1 cup dry red wine
2 cups lamb, veal, or chicken stock, homemade or store-bought [I happened to have a combo of homemade beef and lamb stock that I'd made after Christmas using bones from a rib roast and a leg of lamb.]


1. Trimming the lamb: open the lamb out flat, fat side down, on your work surface. If there are any especially thick spots, make a lengthwise incision with a knife, without cutting through the meat, and lay it open like a book. You want to get the meat as even in thickness as possible while keeping it intact. Season the cut side generously with salt and pepper.

2. The stuffing: in a small bowl, combine the parsley, mixed herbs, shallot, garlic, and allspice. Stir until evenly mixed together.

3. Stuffing and shaping the lamb: spread the stuffing over the cut side of the leg of lamb with a rubber spatula [I used my hands]. Press the stuffing into the meat with your hands to make it adhere, and spread it around so that it covers the entire inside surface. Roll the lamb up into a cylinder, and tie it neatly and snugly with kitchen string. Season the outside of the meat with salt and pepper. (The lamb can be prepared to this point and refrigate for up to 18 hours before braising. When you are ready to braise the lamb, remove it from the refrigerator, and let it sit at room temperature while you heat the oven.)

4. Heat the oven to 325 degrees.

5. Browning the lamb: add the oil to a heavy lidded Dutch oven or braising pan just large enough to hold the lamb (5-quart), and heat it over medium-high heat until it simmers. Lower the lamb into the pot with tongs, and brown it evenly, turning to brown all sides, until mahogany in spots but not at all burnt, 10 to 12 minutes total. Transfer the lamb to a platter. Add the bones to the pot if you have them, and brown them as best you can without charring, turning them ever 4 minutes, for about 12 minutes. Set aside with the lamb. Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of fat from the pot. If the bottom is at all blackened, wipe those bits out with a damp paper towel, doing your best to leave behind the caramelized juices.

6. The aromatics and braising liquid: return the pot to medium-high heat, add the onion and carrots, and sauté, stirring, until beginning to brown, about 4 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir it in with a wooden spoon so it coats the carrots and onions. Add the teaspoon of herbs, the bay leaves, and parsley stems. Pour in the wine and bring it to a boil, stirring and scraping with the spoon to dislodge all those wonderful caramelized bits stuck to the bottom of the pot from browning the lab. Boil to reduce the wine by about half, about 2 minutes. Pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Continue to boil, stirring occasionally, for about 4 minutes allowing the flavors to meld.

7. The braise: return the lamb to the pot, along with any juices that have seeped from the meat, and tuck the bones, if using, around the meat. Cover with a piece of parchment paper, pressing down so the paper nearly touched the meat and the edges extend over the sides of the pot by about an inch. Then put the lid in place, and slide the pot onto a rack in the lower third of the oven. After about 15 minutes, check to see that the liquid is simmering gently, not aggressively. If it’s simmering too vigorously, lower the oven heat 10 or 15 degrees. Continue to braise, turning the lamb with tongs and basting once or twice, until the meat is fork-tender and cooked through, 2 to 2 ½ hours.

8. The finish: transfer the lamb to a carving board with moat or platter to catch the juices, and cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Strain the pan juices into a saucepan, and skim off and discard excess fat – there may be as much ½ cup, so it’s a good chance to use your gravy separator, if you have one. Bring the sauce to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes t concentrate the flavor and thicken it some. Taste: if it tastes too brothy, boil for another 3 or 4 minutes. Taste again for salt and pepper.

9. Serving: remove the string from the lamb, pour any juices that have accumulated on the carving board into the sauce, and carve the lamb into ½ inch slices. Arrange the slices on dinner plates or a serving platter, and pour over enough sauce to moisten. Pass the remaining sauce at the table.

Note on working ahead: The lamb can be seasoned, rolled, tied, covered, and refrigerated up to 18 hours before braising (steps 1 and 2) [I simply marinated mine in the red wine.]