Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Most Entertaining Recipe I've Seen in a Long Time

Who doesn't crave familiar, comforting food, especially after a long holiday weekend? Surely even the most skilled cooks occasionally like to fall back on a meal that is so simple to prepare it requires little more equipment than a spoon, a saucepan and a toaster. I came across a certain kitchen maverick who did just that. Without further ado, check out this recipe for Bunnies & Dogs, complete with fantastic illustrative step-by-step photos. Don't worry, this IS safe for vegetarians.

One disclaimer: This blog belongs to my fabulous sister- and brother-in-law. I think they're tired of me being known as the gourmet in the family. I'm going to have to start making my recipes more entertaining to compete with this...

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Future of Wine Tasting

Welcome to the ultimate wine store for gadget-mavens, wine-swilling techies and boys who love toys. It's also pretty great if you are a wine lover who subscribes to the try-before-you-buy theory. Even if you have little interest in wine, 7th Street Wine Company is so cool, it could turn you into an amateur sommelier.

The best comparison is to a grown-up video arcade where you plunk down some cash that gets loaded onto a debit card by the cashier who hands you a glass and leaves you to run wild from machine to machine. However, instead of chances to earn a high score on Golden Tee, your little card buys you tastes from the store's selection of 1100 different wines. At any given time, about 100 bottles are "on tap." The sleek, futuristic enomatic wine dispensing machines are imported from Italy and calibrated to mete out a perfect tasting pour.

A taste of a priced bottle will be in the $1 to $3 range, while others, like a Canadian ice wine, will run you about $9 for a frosty swig. Mike and I tend to stick to the lower end of the price range and compare France to California or Riesling to Gewurztraminer. We usually load about $25 onto our debit card, and taste enough different wines to leave us feeling very content. If we did happen to be in the market for a special bottle, we might not mind spending $10 or so on a taste before we spend considerably more to bring it home with us.

The picture above shows Mike inserting our debit card into one of the enomatics that holds all the white wine selections in a temperature-controlled environment. I have to admit that we actually purchase almost all of our wine at our other favorite wine shop in Fort Lauderdale because they have phenomenal prices, a knowledgable staff and a great selection. Mike gets such a kick out of the enomatics at 7th Street however, that we keep coming back for the novelty, as well as the sleek atmosphere of this beautifully designed space.

7th Street has frequent free tastings, often hosted by one of their distributors. There are usually more than a few couples on dates or groups of friends enjoying the casual ambience, complete with jazzy mood music and low, blue-tinted lighting.

I do not think there are many set-ups like this yet in the United States, but it is bound to catch on quickly. Hopefully not too quickly, though. It's nice to be ahead of the curve down here in sunny Fort Lauderdale for a change.

7th Street Wine Company
701 S. Federal Highway
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Orange-Sage Sauce for Roast Turkey

I’ve finally made it to the turkey. Having prepared all these dishes and written about them throughout the week, I have to keep reminding myself that the real Thanksgiving holiday is still to come. With all the Christmas food displays and decorations that have gone up in the past week, I feel like Thanksgiving is already behind us. Happily, my mind is just playing tricks on me. I will be able to eat all this fantastic food again on Thursday with my big extended family.

When I cooked the whole T-Day spread for Mike and me, a 10 lb. turkey wasn’t practical, even for someone who loves leftovers as much as I do. A mere fraction of a bird does the job, so I like to roast a large turkey breast, bone-in, when it’s just the two of us. The one we bought was big-about four pounds, and it provided enough gorgeous, juicy meat for a feast and several sandwiches afterwards. I coat the bird (or partial bird) with olive oil, salt and pepper, over and under the skin; squeeze the juice of half an orange all over it and nestle the spent orange in the cavity; and stuff a bunch of sage between the skin and breast meat. I follow the cooking guidelines in my Betty Crocker cookbook (about 1 ¾ hours at 325 degrees), covering the bird with foil once it browns on top, and otherwise I don’t touch it.

The breast meat, often derided for being dry and stringy, is incredibly moist and succulent. We honestly didn’t need any sort of gravy, but I love my orange-sage sauce. It’s perfect if you don’t care to recycle your turkey drippings, or you’re just not crazy about basic, brown gravy. Now that it’s almost time for Mike and I to head off to Connecticut, I can’t wait for the cooking and feasting to begin again. I have had one of the busiest, happiest years of my life in 2006, so I have more than a lot to be thankful for.

Orange-Sage Sauce for Roast Turkey
Makes 1 cup. Double recipe to serve more.

½ tblsp. olive oil
½ tblsp. unsalted butter
2 tblsp. minced shallot
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. no pulp orange juice
¾ c. low sodium chicken broth
1 bunch of sage (or small handful leaves) plus 2 tblsp. chopped sage leaves
1 tblsp. corn starch mixed with 2 tblsp. water
Salt and pepper to taste

Add the oil and butter to a small saucepan over medium heat. When butter is melted, add the shallot and garlic and cook, stirring often, for 3 minutes. Add the orange juice, chicken broth and bunch of sage. You don’t have to take the sage leaves off the branch; just leave the whole piece to infuse the sauce. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat so the sauce is at a steady simmer. Cook until the sauce is reduced to about one cup. Remove the sage.

Add slightly less than half of the cornstarch mixture and stir to thicken. If you want the sauce to thicken further, keep adding more of the cornstarch mixture. Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper. Serve hot over roast turkey and garnish with chopped sage leaves.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Chestnut, Cranberry & Pear Stuffing: Countdown to T-Day!

When trying to come up with the title of this recipe for my absolute favorite stuffing, I could not determine which of the main ingredients was most important, so I just put them all in alphabetical order. I was first attracted to the original version of this recipe for the chestnuts, which are a unique textural addition to a lot of dishes. Then I prepared it and loved the sweetness coaxed out of the pears in baking. I have never had a particular fondness for dried cranberries (Sorry, Ocean Spray, I mean, “Craisins.”), but the bursts of sweet-tart flavor are absolutely perfect when you take a bite of this addictive stuffing.

Technically, this should really be called a “dressing,” since I do not stuff it into anything aside from my mouth. Calling it, dressing, makes me feel like a Southern belle (no offense to my Southern friends, I love Gone With the Wind), so I am just going to stick with “stuffing,” misnomer, or not. All the ingredients from the pears to the chunks of whole wheat bread are cut into fairly large pieces, about ½ to ¾ inch, because I like to see and taste all the individual components with their distinctive textures.

I like to think that this is stuffing for those of us who aren’t exactly “stuffing people.” With whole wheat bread and not much fat, this is a really nutritious side dish, so don’t even think about following the typical T-Day diet advice and measuring out a dainty half cup portion. You don’t have to peel the pears, you can use fresh or dried thyme and feel free to bake on whatever temp your oven happens to be at for your other dishes. I like this stuffing so much, I’m afraid I sound a little evangelical about it. Just one last thing: it tastes amazing left over.

Chestnut, Cranberry & Pear Stuffing
Originally adapted from Redbook magazine. Serves 6

Soft supermarket whole wheat from the bread aisle works well in this recipe; I don't remove the crusts. I have used different varieties of pears here, and they are all delicious. This stuffing can be used to fill a turkey as well! You'll have some left over, so bake it separately.

11 slices whole wheat bread, cut into ¾ inch pieces
1 tblsp. unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped or a 3/4 cup chopped scallions
1 c. sliced celery
1/2 cup thinly sliced carrots
12 oz cooked, peeled chestnuts, broken into chunks
½ c. dried cranberries
1/2 tsp dried thyme
2 semi-firm pears, cored and cut into ½ inch pieces
¼ c. red wine, white wine or chicken broth
salt and pepper
1 c. chicken broth

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put the bread pieces into a large bowl. In a skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and celery, season with salt and pepper and cook until soft and lightly browned, about 6 minutes. Add chestnuts, cranberries and thyme and cook for 2 more minutes, stirring gently. Add the pears and wine, season again with salt and pepper and cook for an additional 1-2 minutes to allow the wine to reduce a bit.

Add the contents of the skillet to the bowl of bread and toss to combine. Pour the broth over the stuffing and toss again. Coat a 2 qt. baking dish with nonstick spray and add the stuffing. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking for an additional 5-10 minutes until the stuffing is lightly browned and slightly crisp on top.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Sweet Potato Galette with Spinach and Fontina: Countdown to T-Day!

For Thanksgiving, I absolutely must have a sweet potato side dish, but I am forever baffled as to why anyone would insist on sweetening this delicious, nutritious vegetable to within an inch of its life, then topping it with mini marshmallows as a final insult. I don’t mind lightly candied sweet potatoes done in a skillet with butter and a bit of brown sugar, but a savory preparation is so much less cloying and heavy, especially when a good serving of fresh spinach is tucked into the package.

This galette, crisp and caramelized on the outside and tender within, is a new recipe that turned out to be my favorite in our pre-Thanksgiving feast. Richness comes not from cream and sugar, but a layer of aged fontina cheese. A good fontina melts without a fight, adding an earthiness to the bright, garlicky spinach and sweet spuds. The galette can be completely cooked hours ahead and re-warmed in a low oven or even a microwave, if you’re hard pressed. It is delicious just slightly warm or at room temperature.

The most important trick to cooking this galette is cutting the potatoes as thinly as you possibly can (Thank you, Mike!). A mandoline would make easy work of this, but we did fine without one. Although, after cutting all those paper-thin potato slices, Mike might be in the market for an adjustable blade slicer as one of my Christmas gifts. What I like most about this galette, aside from the fabulous taste, is that it looks like much more of a hassle than it really is. I could eat this as a meal with bread and salad, but it is definitely a classy take on the requisite sweet potato side dish.

Sweet Potato Galette with Spinach and Fontina
Making this for the first time, I let the first layer of potatoes cook for a while before building the rest of galette. This would account for the particularly burnished appearance of the finished dish, but I love veggies caramelized to the point of blackened, so I didn’t mind. For a lighter coloring, just proceed immediately with the rest of the layers and transfer to the oven as soon as the potatoes on the bottom start to take on some color, as directed below.

Inspired by two recipes in Gourmet, Sept. ‘06
Serves 4-6

2 tsp. olive oil
1-10oz. bag baby spinach, thick stems removed
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper

1 tblsp. olive oil
½ tblsp. butter
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced crosswise, 1/16 inch thick
¾ c. grated fontina cheese
½ tblsp. melted butter

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees (if your oven is on a lower temp. for the turkey, just extend the cooking time of the galette slightly). Heat 2 tsp. oil in a heavy, nonstick, oven-proof skillet over medium heat. Add the spinach (in batches, if necessary) and sauté until beginning to wilt. Add the garlic and continue cooking for 2 minutes or until the spinach is completely wilted. Remove to a bowl and wipe out the skillet.

Heat 1 tblsp. oil and the butter in the skillet over medium heat. Arrange slices of sweet potato in a circular pattern in the skillet. Crowd the slices over the whole surface area, overlapping them, as they will shrink up a little when cooked. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cover the sweet potatoes with the spinach. Arrange another layer of sweet potatoes the same way and season with salt and pepper. Cover with the fontina and a final layer of sweet potatoes and seasoning. Press down with a spatula or your hands to help mesh the layers. When the bottom layer of potatoes starts turning golden, drizzle the melted butter over the top and transfer the skillet to the oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the galette is tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife. If you like, you can run the galette under the broiler for a minute at the end to crisp the top, but be careful not to burn the potatoes. Let the galette cool in the skillet for 10-15 minutes. Fit a plate over the galette, and invert the skillet to release it. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms: Countdown to T-Day

I have Bobby Flay to thank for this one, but not in the way that you think. Zucchini blossoms have been one of my culinary obsessions, like truffles, figs and mizithra cheese. It kills me that I lived in Southern California for the first 18 years of my life and didn’t grow these myself. Now, they are one of those things I look for at markets and hope to see on restaurant menus in the summertime.

I still haven’t found a source for them here in Florida (if only I could garden in my condo!), but last week, Mike saw good old Bobby Flay giving the macho grill treatment to some gorgeous zucchini blossoms. While stuffing his blossoms with a ridiculous pork mixture (those blossoms must have been on steroids), Flay mentioned that zucchini flowers, like everything else nowadays, can be ordered via the internet.

Knowing how I’ve yearned for zucchini blossoms of my own, Mike called and told me the news, and we googled until we found an organic produce source in California. I have never ordered produce online before, much less paid to have an out-of-season, perishable food overnighted to my kitchen. It kind of goes against my principles, but there was no turning back. We were planning our pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving dinner, and we knew that delicate zucchini flowers, stuffed with a seasoned ricotta filling, lightly battered and pan-fried would be a perfect appetizer. These could not have turned out better. We hoped they would be good, but these lovely blossoms were totally worth going to extreme measures for. I guess I really have Mike to thank for this one. Sorry, Iron Chef Flay...

If you don’t reside in warmer climes, save this recipe for summer, and absolutely enjoy it with champagne.

Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms
The method used here of beating the egg white until stiff peaks form, then folding in the beaten yolk is a genius trick that we learned from Saveur magazine when Mike made chiles rellenos. It makes the batter light, crisp and helps it adhere to the blossoms.

Serves 2-4

½ c. ricotta cheese
2 tblsp. fresh basil, chopped
5 to 6 sun-dried tomato halves, packed in oil, chopped
2 tblsp. parmigiano reggiano, grated
¼ tsp. coarse salt
½ tsp. pepper
12 zucchini blossoms

2 eggs, separated
½ c. flower
salt and pepper
½ tsp. cayenne pepper or chili powder
Canola oil, for frying (I use Spectrum expeller-pressed)

In a bowl, combine the ricotta, basil, sun-dried tomatoes, parmigiano reggiano, salt and pepper.

Gently pry open the zucchini blossoms or cut a slit on one side to open. With your fingers, stuff about 2 tsp. of the ricotta mixture into each blossom. Twist the tips of the petals to close. You will have leftover ricotta.

Using a hand mixer, beat the egg whites until foamy and somewhat stiff. Lightly beat the yolks and fold them into the whites. Put the flour into a shallow bowl and season with salt, pepper and cayenne. Dip one zucchini blossom into the egg mixture, then into the flour, coating it well all over. Set the blossom on a plate and proceed with the rest of the blossoms.

Meanwhile, heat about ¼ to ½ inch of canola oil in a heavy skillet (I use cast iron) to medium high. The oil needs only to cover the zucchini blossoms about half way. Add six of the zucchini blossoms to the skillet and fry until golden, then turn with a spatula and fry the opposite sides. Watch closely as the first side takes 2-4 minutes and the second side slightly less. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain and fry remaining zucchini blossoms in the same oil. Serve immediately. No accompaniments are needed other than a glass of sparkling wine.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Baked Oysters - Countdown to T-Day!

Last night, Mike and I had Thanksgiving dinner. It's not that we were confused or couldn't wait two weeks for the real holiday. It's just that we like to cook (and eat), and our house is filled with stacks of food magazines with beautifully styled, golden birds on their covers. Notwithstanding the enticements of the food media, I like to make time to do Thanksgiving on my own. When T-Day does roll around, I'll be in Cheshire, Connecticut with Mike's, and now my, extended family. We will eat lasagna on Wednesday, cook and eat the traditional Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday and hike up The Sleeping Giant on Friday. Somewhere along the way, we will fit in a highly competitive beer pong tournament.

I LOVE spending Thanksgiving in Connecticut. But, being the foodie that I am, I can't resist the urge to roast a turkey in my own oven, cook my favorite side dishes and try a few new ones. Last year, I did it a couple of weeks after Thanksgiving, when we were sufficiently recovered. This year, I decided to do it ahead of time so I could share the menu here.

Instead of trying to orchestrate half a dozen side dishes to be ready at the same time as our bird, we took the more leisurely approach and made some appetizers in the early afternoon. It's a great idea if you want to pop open a pre-dinner bottle of champagne and start the fun a little early. We bought a dozen oysters on the half shell at the fish market near our house, calling ahead to have them freshly shucked and waiting for us. Baking the shells on a bed of rock salt makes a great presentation, but you could also buy the oysters in a jar, sans shell, and arrange them in a baking dish. This is a lighter version of Oysters Rockefeller, which leaves plenty of room for the rest of the feast!

Baked Oysters
Adapted from Cooking Light magazine
Serves 2-4

1 dozen oysters, either on the half shell or shelled
2 tblsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. olive oil
2 thin slices proscuitto, chopped into small pieces
2 large handfuls baby spinach, thick stems removed
coarsely ground pepper
2 tblsp. pine nuts, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Arrange the oysters in a baking dish either on a bed of salt if they are in their shells or alone with a bit of nonstick cooking spray to prevent sticking. Drizzle the lemon juice over the oysters.

Heat the oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the proscuitto and cook, stirring often, for 1 minute. Add the spinach and continue cooking until spinach is wilted and proscuitto is lightly browned on the edges. Season with pepper.

Top each oyster with a bit of the spinach mixture. Sprinkle the pine nuts on top. Bake for 5 minutes, or until oysters are slightly firm around the edges.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Guess the Secret Ingredient in This Bolognese

Perfect for the season, they are often a supporting player in fall cooking. They are hard to categorize, so they rarely get the respect they deserve. They are encased within a shell, have a unique, firm texture and taste incredible when roasted on an open fire (or in a 350 degree oven). They are chestnuts, the holiday nut that has a nutritional profile similar to brown rice, with more carbohydrates than fats, and vitamins not found in other nuts. Barely noticeable to the eye once you stir them into the slow-simmered sauce, the chestnuts add a special sweet meatiness, similar to a thick, roasted portobella mushroom.

The first time I had a chestnut was when my mom roasted fresh ones in the oven when we were decorating our Christmas tree on an early December weekend (we didn’t have a fireplace in Southern California). I tried this myself a couple years ago, but forgot to make slits in the shells that would have allowed steam to escape. When I took them out of the oven, they started exploding, and I thought I was going to be blinded by chestnut shrapnel. Thankfully, I was unscathed, but now I buy canned chestnuts, usually imported from France, that have already been cooked and peeled. Ready-to-use chestnuts are also sold in jars or vacuum-packed and are easy to find in stores at this time of year.

I adapted this recipe from Food & Wine magazine, which previously adapted it from Daniel Boulud. I used a whole 10 oz. can of chestnuts and a combination of ground turkey, ground sirloin and pancetta for the meat. Because of the 45 minutes of simmering time, this is best done on a weekend when you want a warm pot of something cooking on the stove. It also makes a ton of sauce, but freezes very well. The lucky people you feed with this may not be able to put their fingers on the secret ingredient, but they will love this Bolognese.

Spaghetti Bolognese with Chestnuts
Serves 6 to 8

1 lb. lean ground turkey
¾ lb. ground sirloin
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
4 oz. pancetta, cut into small pieces
1 rib celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 white or yellow onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tblsp. fresh rosemary, finely chopped
½ tsp. dried basil
¼ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 ½ c. dry red wine
1-28 oz. can tomato puree
2 c. low sodium chicken broth
¼ tsp. sugar
1 lb. spaghetti
½ c. heavy cream
10 oz. can cooked chestnuts, drained and roughly chopped
parsley, chopped, for serving
parmigiano reggiano, for serving

In a large pot or dutch oven, cook the turkey and sirloin over medium heat just until the meat is no longer pink (If your pot is not nonstick, cook the meat in a small amount of olive oil). Season with salt and pepper. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towel to drain. Pour out any remaining fat from the pot. Add the pancetta to the pot and cook until lightly browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Drain off all but a tablespoon of the pancetta fat from the pan and add the celery, carrot and onion. Cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are soft and beginning to brown. Add the garlic, rosemary, basil and crushed red pepper flakes and cook for one more minute. Season with pepper and a pinch of salt. Add the turkey and sirloin back to the pot. Stir to combine and add the red wine. Raise the heat to bring the liquid to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the liquid is almost evaporated, about 10 minutes.

Add the tomato puree, chicken broth and sugar. Season with pepper and raise the heat to bring to a boil. Lower the heat again and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce is reduced by half, about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water.

Stir the heavy cream into the sauce and add the chestnuts, reserved pancetta and a small handful of chopped parsley. Drain the pasta and serve, topped with the Bolognese sauce, additional parsley and grated parmigiano reggiano.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Secret of Gourmet Travel

How do you feel civilized when you’re squished into a musty airplane seat that reclines all of two inches and is in startlingly close proximity to a public bathroom? The answer is NOT schlepping your own germ-proof seat cover or a personal blanket with foot slots to keep your toes warm (these are real products, people). The thing I’ve found to keep me feeling like the clever, discerning traveler that I am, as opposed to a piece of vacuum-packed ahi, is my homemade tapenade.

Imagine the seatbelt sign being extinguished by the captain as you rub a generous squirt of hand sanitizer between your palms and unwrap an ingeniously packed (to prevent smooshing) ciabatta roll laden with roasted vegetables, a slice or two of prosciutto, fresh mozzarella cheese and a schmear of salty tapenade. As you dab a bit of eggplant juice from your chin with the corner of a napkin, the fellow-passengers in your row will wince at their own lack of planning as well as the after-effects of the Cinnabon they scarfed down before boarding.

Sometimes I use pita bread; sometimes I switch the prosciutto for salami. I change up the tapenade as well. We were feeling like something particularly pungent when we created the recipe here, so we included some anchovy fillets for a fuller, more complex saltiness. They are offset nicely by about half a cup of sun-dried tomatoes (not the marinated ones) that we rehydrate in simmering water before adding them to the food processor along with the rest of the ingredients. We also use a generous handful of fresh basil leaves, making this nearly a cross between a tapenade and a pesto. I also find that I do not need nearly as much olive oil as most recipes call for. You can always add more oil or a bit of the water used to simmer the tomatoes for additional moisture. This spread can be used on anything from crostini to grilled meats, but when I take it along for a mid-flight meal, being a frequent flyer is a lot tastier.

Sun-Dried Tomato Tapenade
The sun-dried tomatoes are usually found in the produce section or near the tomato sauce. I used a mixture of green Queen olives and Kalamata olives, but use any kind of good Mediterranean olives you like.
Makes 1 ½ to 2 cups and keeps in the fridge for up to a week.

½ c. sun-dried tomatoes (not in marinade)
1 c. olives, pitted
3 anchovy fillets (packed in olive oil)
1 to 2 garlic cloves
1 rounded tsp. capers, rinsed
1 c. basil leaves
1 1/2 tblsp. lemon juice
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil, or more as needed

Put the sun-dried tomatoes in a small saucepan and add water to cover. Bring water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes and drain, reserving a couple tablespoons of the cooking liquid.

Add the rehydrated tomatoes, olives, anchovies, garlic, capers, basil, lemon juice and pepper to a food processor. Blitz for 20 seconds, scrape down the sides and keep blitzing until the contents is finely chopped. Turn the processor on and add the olive oil through the tube. Check for seasoning and consistency. You might want to add more pepper or lemon juice, additional olive oil or some of the reserved tomato cooking liquid if you think it is too dry. I like to be able to see tiny bits of the individual ingredients in the finished product, as opposed to a totally blended paste.