Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Sweet Potato Biscuits

I'm still shocked by this, but I think I might like these sweet potato biscuits even more than my favorite cornmeal biscuits that I've made about a dozen times by now. As you'll see, they don't require many ingredients and very little work as far as stamped biscuits go. The sweet potato flavor is mellowed by baking, yet strong and satisfying.

When I make simple, healthy soups, I love--love!--to serve them with a buttery bread. Having a reason to whip up homemade quick bread becomes a major motivation for the soup-making. I had already decided on the celery root soup with Swiss chard from the last post, and started thinking about delicious fresh-baked accompaniments. And from a magazine story I was working on involving Thanksgiving recipes, I happened to have an abundance of whipped sweet potatoes (to serve 10, of course) hanging out in the fridge...

I've been aware of sweet potato biscuits for years, but the opportunity to make them never arose until now. I suspected they might be valued more for the novelty than the taste. I was totally wrong. They are really tasty, and somehow less fussy than my other favorite biscuits. I adapted a recipe from the eminently reliable Dorie Greenspan, so that may have had something to do with it. I used some whole wheat flour and reduced the sugar a bit, to add some substance and cut the sweetness. They are now a permanent part of my biscuit rotation.

Have you ever baked or eaten sweet potato biscuits? If not, try these and report back!

Sweet Potato Biscuits

Adapted from Baking by Dorie Greenspan
Dorie's recipe calls for 2 (15-oz) cans of sweet potatoes in light syrup, drained and mashed. I cook sweet potatoes often and tend to hand leftovers, so that is what I used here. Mine were seasoned rather elaborately with ginger, cloves, cinnamon, cayenne vanilla, salt and pepper plus a bit of coconut milk and chopped pecans...whew. But just salt and pepper would be fine.

Makes 9 to 12

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Pinch of ground cinnamon
1 Tbs. (packed) brown sugar
6 Tbs. unsalted butter, cut into cubes and chilled
1 cup seasoned, mashed sweet potatoes
1 egg, for egg wash (optional)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk the flours, salt, cinnamon and brown sugar together in a large bowl. Add the butter and toss to coat it with flour. Using your fingertips or a pastry blender, pinch and toss the butter and flour until you have a rough, sandy mixture with some pea-size lumps of butter, some ragged flakes and a variety of odd-shaped bits. Do not over work the butter.

Add the sweet potatoes and toss gently with a fork until all the flour is moistened and you have a soft dough. Knead dough inside the bowl 3 or 4 times so that you have a fairly uniform consistency. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and sprinkle lightly with more flour. Flatten dough with your hand and roll it out into a 1/2-inch thick disk. Flour a 2 to 2-1/4 inch biscuit cutter and stamp out as many biscuits as you can, pushing firmly into the dough and flouring the biscuit cutter each time. Transfer biscuits to prepared baking sheet. Quickly re-roll the dough scraps and make more biscuits until you've used it all up.

If using egg wash, crack egg into a small bowl, add 1 Tbs. water and beat. Using a pastry brush, lightly coat tops of biscuits with egg wash. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until puffed and golden brown on the bottom. Transfer to a rack to cool. If you can wait, cool 15 to 20 minutes before serving. Dorie says the sweet potato flavor grows more pronounced, and I agree! Serve with butter.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Creamy Celery Root Soup with Swiss Chard

Here is the perfect dish for the current meteorological moment. This soup is rich and warm on a cold day, but it's full of fresh spring flavor. As gnarly and uninviting as celery root looks, it has the bright, herbaceous taste of, well, celery. Simmered in a quick soup with some potatoes to make it extra creamy, it is equal parts light and satisfying.

I love making pureed soups with my trusty hand blender. A regular blender works fine too. You can build a fantastic soup using all sorts of different veggies--no recipe required. Use this recipe to get the hang of it, then create new soups whenever the mood strikes. Here are some tips on getting it right:

1) Build flavor with aromatics - Start your soup by sauteeing garlic, onions, shallots, ginger, dried herbs, fresh or dried chiles, or spices in some oil. Any combination of these is great. If you feeling fancy, add a splash of wine and reduce it before you add the broth (I love dry Sherry for this--it keeps in the fridge forever).

2) Pick blendable veggies - I love chunky soups too, but the idea here is smooth and creamy. Artichokes and asparagus need to be pushed through a sieve to remove all the fibrous bits that won't puree. Carrots, potatoes, eggplant (discard the skin), fava beans, mushrooms, peas and cauliflower get smooth without straining.

3) Add something starchy - I prefer Russet potatoes, but white rice or Cannellini beans can also be used to thicken and add a stick-to-your-ribs quality to healthy soups without using cream.

4) Do a fun garnish - I had a jar of vacuum-packed roasted chestnuts on hand, which were a great complement to the mellow celery root. However, you can also use chopped olives, a dollop of pesto, chopped onion, roasted and chopped nuts, yogurt or sour cream, diced sun-dried tomatoes...and a fresh herb is always right.

5) For more inspiration, take a look at these soups: Carrot Curry Soup, Creamy Eggplant-Lentil Soup, Creamy Fava Bean Soup with Mint.

Do you ever make soup on the fly? Is it still soup weather where you live? Share recipes in the comments!

Creamy Celery Root Soup with Swiss Chard

My supermarket, to my grateful amazement, stocks these fantastic chestnuts year round (we're talking the roasted and shelled European type, not water chestnuts). If they are not available, try any of the garnish ideas mentioned above (walnuts would be nice), or just stick with parsley. Use a vegetable peeler to peel the celery root (also called celeriac), then trim any veins of skin running through the flesh with a paring knife.

Serves 4

2 Tbs. olive oil, divided
1/2 white onion, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
Pinch of coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
Dried red pepper flakes to taste
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
2 Tbs. chopped Italian parsley, plus additional for garnish
1/4 cup dry Sherry (optional, but encouraged)
5 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 celery root, peeled and chopped into 3/4-inch pieces
1 1/2 medium Russet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 3/4-inch pieces
Cooking spray
1/3 cup chopped roasted chestnuts (optional)
1 bunch Swiss chard (8 to 10 leaves)
1/2 lemon

Heat one tablespoon of the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the onion and shallot, season lightly with salt (broth will add additional salt) and pepper, and cook until soft and lightly browned. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, thyme and parsley and cook for 1 minute. Add the Sherry, and simmer until reduced by about three-quarters. Add the chicken broth, celery root and potatoes; raise the heat and cover to bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, until vegetables are very tender, 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a skillet over medium-low heat and coat with cooking spray. Add the chestnuts and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and set aside. Heat remaining oil in the skillet and add the Swiss chard. Season with pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until tender, 4 to 5 minutes.

Remove soup pot from heat and puree with an immersion blender until very smooth. Alternatively, you can puree in a blender, working in batches. Return pot to low heat and stir in the Swiss chard. Add lemon juice to taste. Check seasoning. Ladle into bowls and top with chestnuts and parsley leaves before serving.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Slow-Simmered Calamari with Spaghetti & Spinach

I'm so excited about this recipe because it's the perfect example of how you can build layers of flavor with the simplest ingredients and good technique. And, it's incredibly good!

I can't take the credit for this one; it's from Falling Cloudberries: A World of Family Recipes, a new cookbook by Tessa Kiros. The book is gorgeous with tons of photos, and chapters are devoted to dishes from the places that played a role the author's life and family history: Finland, Cyprus, Greece and Italy.

Though it's a different style of organization, I quickly began to appreciate the eclecticism. One of the first things I noticed was the variety of interesting lamb dishes. Considering the regions covered in the book, naturally there are a lot of seafood dishes and Mediterranean flavors as well. This book is also Gourmet magazine's Cookbook Club book of the month for May, so I'm not the only one impressed with Kiros' work! You can see more recipes from the book on the Gourmet website if you register.

I chose this particular recipe because I almost never cook squid. Why, I don't know--it's cheap and easy to find. I do know that you should either cook squid very fast (like over a hot grill or deep fried) or very slow to avoid a rubbery texture. This recipe employs the slow method, and it made me a squid enthusiast.

Simmering the squid along with garlic, chile flakes, parsley, white wine, tomatoes and fish stock in a covered skillet on low heat for an hour creates a supple, tender texture that remains firm, rather than mushy. But not only does time do wonderful things to the squid, it creates deeply a flavorful sauce with a slightly red tint from the tomatoes that melt away in the cooking. My advice is not to omit any of the ingredients--the wine is mandatory unless you have a health-related excuse--and fresh Italian parsley is also a must. Buy a good imported brand of dried spaghetti and make sure it's cooked al dente. With just a few simple ingredients, each one must contribute maximum deliciousness!

Do you cook squid at home? If so, how? If you have a blog, leave a link to your fave squid recipe in the comments or drop me an email.

Slow-Simmered Calamari with Spaghetti
Adapted from Falling Cloudberries by Tessa Kiros
I used Kitchen Basics brand fish stock, which is widely available and lower in sodium than many brands. If you can't find fish stock, use water.

Serves 4

1 lb. calamari (squid)
3 Tbs. olive oil
1/8 to 1/4 tsp. dried chile flakes
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley, plus additional for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine (such as Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet, Pinot Grigio)
2 whole canned tomatoes, chopped
1 cup fish stock or broth, plus 1 additional cup (optional; see below)
4 cups firmly packed spinach leaves, chopped
Coarse salt
12 oz. spaghetti

Cut the squid bodies into 1/2-inch wide rings and leave the tentacles intact. Pat dry with paper towel. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the chile flakes and two-thirds of the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the squid and parsley and continue cooking for 10 minutes, stirring often. Season with black pepper.

Add the wine and simmer until nearly absorbed. Add the tomatoes and simmer for 1 minute. Add about 1/3 cup of the fish stock, wait until it has reduced a bit and add another 1/3 cup and let it reduce. Add yet another 1/3 cup, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 1 hour. Check the squid frequently and add water and/or stock to the skillet so there is always a layer of simmering liquid. To keep the sauce from getting too salty, alternate between adding water and stock. If it tastes salty, just add water. When squid is done, you want a thin layer of liquid in the skillet.

Meanwhile, heat remaining oil in another skillet on medium-low heat. Add remaining garlic, cook for 1 minute and add the spinach. Cook until tender and season with pepper. Add to the squid during the final 5 minutes of cooking.

Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling, salted water until al dente. Reserve a cup of the cooking water, drain and add pasta to the skillet with the squid. Toss well and add a bit of the pasta cooking water if it is too dry. Taste for seasoning and serve immediately. Garnish with additional parsley.

Review copy of Falling Cloudberries generously provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Fig and Goat Cheese Squares

I've said before that figs are my one of my very favorite foods. Fresh ones send me to culinary nirvana, but they're only in available for a few short weeks every season. So, during the rest of the year, I made do with dried figs to get my fix. If I manage to block out my memory of late summer's juicy, succulent, sweet fresh figs, the dried variety are awfully tasty in their own right.

These fig bars are the perfect way to enjoy dried figs while you're waiting for fresh one's to come into season. Figs and creamy goat cheese (or blue cheese or Feta cheese, for that matter) are a perfect sweet and savory match. The cheese, along with chopped walnuts stirred into the pureed figs, makes these squares straddle the line between dessert and nutritious snack. Luckily, a buttery brown sugar base guarantees you won't confuse them with health food.

These squares were served at the food conference I attended just over a week ago. Besides the meals served by hotel catering staff, a nearly constant array of snacks were provided by organizations that sponsored the the Valley Fig Growers. I'm pretty good about only eating when I'm actually hungry, but when I saw these fig squares about 90 minutes after breakfast, I chowed down and loved every bite.

The recipe for Fig and Goat Cheese Squares is conveniently located on their website. I'm in no way affiliated with the Valley Fig association, but I personally think I should be, considering that I could eat figs 3 meals a day...I wonder if they're looking for a spokesperson:)

Here's more evidence of my fig fixation:

Perfection is a Fresh Fig. Essay and recipes on
Quick Refrigerator Fig Jam
Fig Gelato. I used fresh, but dried figs soaked in juice or liquor would work too.
Herb-Crusted Pork Tenderloin with Spiced Fig Compote

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Teriyaki Striped Bass with Bok Choy

Don't you love my artfully drizzled teriyaki sauce around the plate??? I'll work on my food styling next time! The other components of this recipe, however, are definitely worthy of your culinary consideration.

They come straight out of the a new cookbook I've been enjoying--Golden Door Cooks at Home: Favorite recipes from the celebrated spa. I have a review copy, so the many photos are black and white, but I don't really need pictures to be excited about these recipes--they sound totally delicious. I interviewed the Golden Door's executive chef, Dean Rucker, a while back for an article, and he was genuinely enthusiastic about sensible, healthy eating where moderation is key. There aren't too many spa tricks in his book (no fake butter or 101 ideas for tofu), just fresh, unprocessed ingredients to create meals that would appeal to anyone.

It's a very comprehensive cookbook from basics to appetizers to meat and fish, as well as chapters full of yummy and thoughtful breakfasts and desserts. There are even some yeast bread recipes. I hate it when cookbooks depict recipes on some kind of gorgeous artisan bread that you know you'll never be able to find! Not the case here.

This happens to be the only "spa food" cookbook I own. If you're discouraged by the idea of spa food, this book might change your mind. I'd equate it more to a gourmet healthy cookbook. The serving sizes are smaller than is typical (4 ounces of fish instead of 6, for example), but the meals don't feel spartan or at all diet-like.

I really want to make the Golden Door's ketchup with juniper berries (even though Mike would think it utterly pointless to make something you can purchase so easily and cheaply). A couple more I bookmarked to try are "Crispy potato cakes with chive scrambled eggs and smoked salmon," and "Parmesan chicken schnitzel with warm potato and garden bean salad and creamy mustard sauce." A lot of long recipe titles in this book...

I think the authors really made an effort make it accessible to home cooks, although a few of the main dishes have multiple components, which may be a lot of work to pull off. That was the case in the teriyaki recipe (it included little sauteed rice cakes make with sushi rice), so I streamlined it and served the fish and bok choy with simple steamed brown rice instead. If you've never made bok choy, it's easy (just blanche and sear) and delicious with the teriyaki glaze.

Now, would it be totally ridiculous to go on a spa vacation just to eat the food?

Teriyaki Striped Bass with Bok Choy
Adapted from Golden Door Cooks at Home by Dean Rucker with Marah Stets
The original recipe called for black cod, which was unavailable. Look for firm white fish fillets or steaks, about 1-inch thick. To serve 2, I used one large striped bass steak, which has a nice amount of fat and meaty, soft flesh. Rucker also suggests Alaskan cod, true cod, or sablefish.

Serves 2

3 baby bok choy, halved lengthwise

1/2 cup low sodium soy sauce
3/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup mirin
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
2 (6-ounce) skinless striped bass or black cod fillets or one large bass steak
Cooking spray
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/3 cup sliced scallions, for garnish
1 Tablespoon toasted sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)

Blanche the bok choy: Bring a large pot of water to a boil and fill a large bowl with ice water. Add the bok choy to the boiling water, wait for water to return to boiling and cook 1 minute (bok choy shouldn't be in water more than about 2 minutes total). Transfer to ice water to stop the cooking, 2 minutes. Drain and transfer to paper towels to dry.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. To make the teriyaki sauce, combine the soy, orange juice, mirin and ginger in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer until reduced by half. In a small bowl, stir together the cornstarch and 1 teaspoon water; stir in the simmering teriyaki, cook for 30 seconds more and remove from heat.

Season the fish with a very small amount of salt (remember the teriyaki sauce is salty; you can always add more later) and black pepper. Heat an oven proof skillet over medium-high heat and coat with cooking spray. Add the fish flesh side down (opposite where the skin was) and cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Turn the fish, remove from heat and drizzle one half of the teriyaki over the top, swirling the pan to thoroughly coat the fish. Transfer to the oven and cook until the fish is just cooked through, 6 to 8 minutes.

To finish the bok choy, heat a large skillet over medium heat and coat with cooking spray. Add the bok choy, cut side down and cook until browned, about 3 to 4 minutes. Turn and brown opposite side, 2 to 3 minutes more. Transfer to plates, season with a small amount of salt and black pepper and drizzle with remaining teriyaki. Serve with striped bass and sprinkle with scallions and sesame seeds if using.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Easter Menus

I am back from the IACP conference in Denver and slowly recovering from 5 days of talking about food, writing about food, and especially eating food. Really good food. And now Easter is just a few days away. Wanna know what I want for the holiday? Bourbon. I went to a fantastic seminar/tasting at the conference (which I'll post about later), and I've been having happy Bourbon dreams ever since.

Wanna know what I'll actually have for Easter? Turkey. But not just any turkey--full-on Thanksgiving roast turkey with all the trimmings. It's for a magazine assignment, and I'm sort of looking forward to it. It's not unusual for magazines to work 6 or more months ahead, especially when it comes to holiday stories. Luckily, I bought an extra bag of fresh cranberries and stuck them in the freezer, in case of emergency.

I will, however, miss cooking an Easter ham. It's what we always ate when I was growing up, so it just feels like the right thing to have on Easter. For those who celebrate Easter, do you have a specific food tradition?

If you're in search of ideas, I put together a brunch menu and a lunch/dinner menu from my archives. This was fun to do and makes me want to cook this stuff, turkey or no turkey! Oh, well. Maybe I'll try a ham in a week or two after all the turkey leftovers are finished.

A Mingling of Tastes Easter Brunch

Thursday, April 02, 2009

DAM (Denver Art Museum) & A Food Celeb!

Not surprisingly, I'm having a blast hanging out with food people at the IACP conference in Denver. The opening reception last night was at the Denver Art Museum, which has a beautiful new wing designed by Daniel Libeskind (below).

A lot of you will probably recognize the lady in the picture at the top of the post: Shirley Corriher, food scientist extraordinaire and author of 2 tomes on the hows and whys of cooking, Cookwise and the newly released Bakewise. Near the end of the evening, I spotted her relaxing in one of the museum's comfy seating areas. I told her how much I liked her books, and she was lovely. When I asked for a picture, she was happy to oblige, provided that we do what Julia Child always did for pictures: instead of "cheese!" we had to say, "1, 2, 3, sex!" Why would I argue?!

For the reception, chefs from Denver and Boulder's restaurant community set up stations and turned out fabulous food all night. Honestly, there was so much good stuff, I just wandered around for two hours in a haze of gastronomic nirvana. Very impressive, and I was thrilled to see Jennifer Jasinski, chef at Rioja, plating up spectacular salmon tartar with orange gastrique and arugula ravioli with almond sauce.

Other highlights were the beet mousse with local goat cheese from Root Down and everything, especially duck liver pate and a beautiful vanilla bean panna cotta dessert from the soon to be opened Olivea (chefs from sister restaurant, Duo, were helping out). The dessert was garnished with "candied mangold," and since I had no idea what that is, I asked the pastry chef and learned that it's the pink stem of rainbow Swiss chard! As soon as she told me, I tasted mild chard flavor. She dips thin pieces in simple syrup with a lot of lemon and bakes it in a low oven to make it light and crisp--fantastic!

Other restaurants that represented were Black Cat and Frasca Food and Wine (winner of the Beard award for Best Chef Southwest in 2008), as well as Cure Organic Farm, all in Boulder. I'd love to go have a meal at every one. Even better, all these restaurants are focused on sustainable and local ingredients as much as possible.

The picture above is a whimsical sculpture right outside the museum. You'll notice it snowed in Denver yesterday! Of course today is bright and sunny. Looking forward to more culinary revelations in the next couple days. After last night, I'd recommend Denver to anyone looking for a great foodie destination!