Friday, April 23, 2010

Best Buttermilk Biscuits

I've updated my go-to buttermilk biscuit recipe, and I think it's just about perfect. This is a high-rising, flaky biscuit with a crisp, layered exterior and soft, light center. There's nothing fancy going on at all. You put this together in minutes, especially if you use a pastry blender, one of the most useful low-tech gadgets around.

I know a lot of you may not have a pastry blender, but at $10 or less, I definitely recommend it. I used to be all about making scones and tart dough in the food processor, but having one little bitty gadget to wash is so much better. Plus, you'll never over mix your delicate, buttery crusts and quick breads. A lot of recipes call for "two forks" if you don't have a pastry blender, but I don't see how this quite works. Possibly one fork. But, really, the second best tool for blending the butter and flour into a coarse, shaggy meal is your fingers.

The one thing I couldn't resist doing to dress up these biscuits was crowning them with a tiny sprinkle of sea salt. The dough already has plenty of salt (don't skimp--they'll taste flat!), but those few extra crystals are great little bursts of flavor when you bite into the buttery biscuits. It should go without saying that you may not want to eat these everyday. But when you do, slather 'em with butter and enjoy.

Best Buttermilk Biscuits
If you don't have a kitchen scale, use the spoon and sweep method to measure the flour. Although you should use good, unsalted butter, it's not the ingredients that make a great biscuit, but the technique. Use a light hand when mixing and rolling. The more practice you get, the more effortless it becomes to make perfect biscuits.

Makes 11 to 12 2-inch biscuits

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (250 g)
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 cup butter, cut into cubes and chilled
3/4 cup lowfat buttermilk, plus additional as needed
Sea salt for topping (optional)

Preheat oven to 425 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add the cold butter and use a pastry blender or your fingers to work it into the flour until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add 3/4 cup buttermilk and stir just until flour is moistened. If flour mixture is still too dry, drizzle in additional buttermilk one tablespoon at a time.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough 3 or 4 times, just until it comes together. With a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough 3/4 inch thick. Lightly flour a 2-inch biscuit cutter and stamp out as many biscuits as you can. Transfer to prepared baking sheet and quickly re-roll the remaining dough, handling it as little as possible. Continue making biscuits until you've used all the dough. Lightly sprinkle tops of biscuits with a few grains of sea salt if using. Bake for 11 to 14 minutes or until the bottoms of the biscuits are golden brown. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Poached Salmon, Fennel & Orange Salad

This is such a simple little salad. I made it for an easy, weeknight dinner, not thinking it would end up on the blog. As it turned out, there is something very special about this recipe, adapted from Bon Appetit magazine: it resulted in absolutely perfect poached salmon.

Since farmed Atlantic salmon is bad for us and bad for the environment, I only eat wild salmon now. The fresh stuff, unfortunately, is crazy expensive, and my general salmon consumption dwindled as a result. Then I figured out that packaged, frozen salmon, sold in the freezer case near the fish counter at my market, is a fraction of the cost. And it's great stuff! Alaskan sockeye salmon, cut into nice 6-ounce portions and frozen right after it was caught--convenient and super-healthy.

I started eating salmon a lot more often, but I struggled to find the best cooking method. For all its faults, farmed salmon was fatty and just about fool proof--I couldn't over cook it if I tried. The sockeye is much more apt to dry out. A quick saute in a cast iron skillet works well if you keep an close eye on things, but the poaching method I learned from this recipe tops it all. The trick is to take the pan off the heat as soon as you add the fish, so there's no danger of blasting the delicate flesh while you tinker with the heat level.

The toasty little bits you see flanking the salad are roasted potato crisps, which add a nice starchy element to this meal, but some whole grain bread would be good too; or serve it over grains like quinoa or barley. Ever since I wrote an article on cooking with citrus, I've gotten bizarre enjoyment out of supreming, or removing the sections from, fruit like oranges. This salad gave me an excuse to do that and to eat fresh fennel, which I don't do often enough! This simple weeknight meal turned out to be a real winner.

Poached Salmon, Fennel & Orange Salad
Adapted from this recipe in Bon Appetit magazine.

Serves 2 (may be doubled)

For the salmon:
2 to 3 cups cold water
2 Tbs sugar
2 Tbs vinegar (use either white, cider or unseasoned rice vinegar)
4 whole cloves
8 black peppercorns
1/2 tsp coarse salt
2 salmon fillets with skin (4 to 6 oz each)

For the salad:
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
5 ounce bag mixed baby greens
1 1/2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
1 large naval orange, supremed
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint (optional)
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a medium skillet with a tight-fitting lid, combine the water, sugar, vinegar, cloves, peppercorns and salt. You want the water to almost cover the fish, so eyeball it and use the amount that will get you there. Bring to a boil over high heat and stir until sugar dissolves. Add salmon, skin side up. Cover skillet and remove from heat. Let stand 10 minutes. Turn the fillets, cover and let stand until flesh is just opaque in the center, 5 to 6 minutes more. Remove fillets from cooking liquid and cool slightly. Flake the fish with a fork into bite-sized pieces and discard skin and any bones.

Combine the lettuce and fennel in a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice and toss well. Add the orange sections, mint (if using) and salmon; season with salt and pepper (your best sea salt would be nice here) and toss gently. Serve right away with roasted potatoes, steamed grains or bread, if desired.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Boston Baked Beans

First, a shameless plug: Remember last week's mouthwatering recipe for Morel-Barley Risotto with Sun-Dried Tomatoes & Peas? If so (and you agree with the "mouthwatering" part), will you take one minute right now to head over to Marx Foods' Morel Recipe Challenge and vote for me? I'll admit the other entries sound fantastic! And there's even something in it for you! Go now and get a coupon code for 10% off your order of fresh morels, not to mention all the creative recipe ideas. The polls close on Friday, so don't delay! And THANK YOU!

On to the beans: In case you're more interested in all the beautiful spring produce (and spring weather!), we're getting now than in NCAA hockey, let me say just one quick thing: GO EAGLES!

The hockey team of my awesome alma mater just won the national championship, so I'm celebrating with some Boston food! Believing in the power of food and drink to influence sporting events, I made some awesome lobsta rolls, as well as these beans, to eat during the qualifying round, and what do you know? Straight to victory!

Boston baked beans have an interesting history and are easy to make. If you're not convinced that homemade beans are a million times better than canned, just try these (do a comparison if you must!). A crock pot makes it so easy and frees up your oven or stovetop. You can also make it a day ahead so the flavors have extra time to mix and mingle. Boston baked beans are perfect for a summer (or spring!) barbecue, not to mention a hockey tourney.

Are there any B.C. alums out there reading this? Give me a shout out in the comments!

Boston Baked Beans
Traditionally, these are made with navy beans (small white beans), but preferences vary—I used easy-to-find pinto beans.

Serves 6 to 8

1 lb. dried pinto beans
1 large white or yellow onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
3-4 center-cut bacon slices, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 Tbs. dry mustard powder
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 cup molasses (not blackstrap)
1/4 cup dark brown sugar

Rinse beans and pick over. Place in a large Dutch oven or saucepan and add water to cover by 1 to 2 inches. Bring to a rapid boil and cook 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and soak 1 hour. Rinse and drain beans.

Place beans and remaining ingredients in crock pot. Add water to cover by 1 inch (about 7 cups). Cook on low 4 1/2 hours or until beans are tender (cook times vary WIDELY depending on your crock pot, as well as the freshness of the beans, so keep an eye on things if you've never cooked beans this way before). If too much liquid remains when beans are finished (very unlikely, but just in case) transfer to Dutch oven and simmer until reduced to your liking. Keep in mind that liquid will thicken slightly as it cools. Season with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. I like to make these a day ahead so liquid has time to thicken and flavors develop, but it’s not necessary.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Spanish Frittata

This is my favorite frittata in recent memory. To be honest, I usually end up declaring any frittata I've just made most delicious, most perfect, very favorite. I'm quite free with my superlatives when it comes to food. But really, this is a great one. It combines two similar and wonderful egg dishes, the Spanish tortilla and Italian frittata.

Potatoes, borrowed from the Spanish dish, are a great way to make your frittata more substantial. And if you roast them first, they add a lot of flavor. The other Spanish ingredient is piquillo peppers. Sold in a jar near the relish, they're slightly spicy with a unique, bright flavor. Caramelized red onion is my current favorite way to make practically any recipe more delicious, and Feta works great in frittatas. Though it's neither Spanish nor Italian, the firm, dry cheese holds its shape, add some salty tang, and is easy to find just about anywhere.

I made this frittata for a brunch party I threw a little while back, along with the mini goat cheese and lavender biscuits I told you about. It came out of the oven maybe 25 minutes before my first guests arrived. I had plenty of time to get it out of the skillet, and it was definitely room temperature by the time we ate it. Believe me, the frittata is ideal for this scenario. As it cools, the flavors just get better (if you eat it very hot, your taste buds can't take it all in). The texture won't suffer at all, and it looks awfully pretty sitting on the table to greet your guests.

No need to wait for a party either! The leftovers are great, and it's just as good for dinner as it is for breakfast. I did a very similar, slightly more Spanish version, of this frittata here. And if you've never made a frittata, check out this post for more tips and ideas.

Spanish Frittata

Serves 6 to 8

2 medium Russet potatoes, peeled
Cooking spray
1/2 tsp dried thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 Tbs olive oil
1 red onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
10 eggs
1/2 cup milk
3/4 cup piquillo peppers, chopped
1/2 cup chopped Feta
Chopped parsley for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 F. Line 2 baking sheets with foil and coat with cooking spray. Slice the potatoes as thin as you can, about 1/8-inch or less. A mandolin or V-slicer is ideal for this. Arrange slices in a single layer on baking sheets. Coat with cooking spray and sprinkle with thyme, salt and pepper. Roast in the upper and lower thirds of the oven until browned and tender, switching positions halfway through, 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a 10-inch oven-safe skillet over moderately low heat. Add the onions, season with salt and pepper and cook until very soft and golden, 20-30 minutes (if you rush this step, the onions will be browned/sauteed, rather than caramelized). Stir occasionally, and lower the heat if onions start browning too quickly.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Add the milk, 1/2 tsp salt and pepper to taste; whisk to combine. Stir in the piquillo peppers, onions and Feta. Preheat your oven's broiler to high and position a rack about 6 to 8 inches away from the heat source. Generously coat the empty skillet with nonstick spray and add potatoes in an even layer. Place over medium-low heat. Pour the egg mixture over the potatoes and cook until the eggs start to set around the edges. Tilt the skillet as you lift the edges of the tortilla with a spatula, letting the liquid egg run into the gaps. It's okay if you jostle around the potatoes and other fillings as you do this; just even it out before proceeding to the next step.

When most of the egg is set around the edges (this will take several minutes) transfer the skillet to the broiler. Cook until egg is just set in the center, about 2 to 4 minutes. The frittata should be lightly browned on top, but watch closely because it can start to burn fast. Remove from oven (skillet will be very hot!) and let it rest in the skillet for 10 to 15 minutes. Wearing heat-proof gloves, place a large plate over the skillet and, holding the plate securely, invert the skillet, releasing the frittata on the plate. Finally, put your serving plate over the frittata and invert again so frittata is right-side-up. Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with chopped parsley.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Morel-Barley Risotto with Sun-dried Tomatoes & Peas

Of all the gourmet ingredients that have are now commonplace in pantries across America--think gray salt, rose water or vanilla beans--I think dried mushrooms may be one of the more intimidating items. I've purchased them for a specific recipe, then left the extras untouched for years. Although you can rehydrate and use them as you would fresh mushrooms, the texture isn't always quite right. And why bother with dried at all when fresh mushrooms are available 365 days a year in supermarkets at an affordable price?

I'll give you a couple reasons: white mushrooms and portobellos may be easy to come by, but it's difficult to find exotic, seasonal varieties fresh if you live far from where they are grown. If you do find them, they are often rather pricey. But dried morels, chanterelles and other incredibly diverse types can be stocked year round in any part of the country for your enjoyment.

The other reason to use dried mushrooms, and the best reason I think, is for dishes that can handle more than one dimension of mushroom flavor. The broth you'll make when you reconstitute your dried 'shrooms can infuse soups, grains and sauces with unique, earthy goodness.

I know all this, yet I don't use dried mushrooms as often as I should. I was really glad to get some motivation when Marx Foods contacted me and asked if I would create a dish using a sample of their dried morels. Along with a handful of other bloggers, I'm sending them an original recipe to help showcase the delicious possibilities of dried mushrooms.

Risotto was one of the first things that came to mind, but I wanted to put a nutritious, springtime twist on the idea. To do it, I cooked hulled barley in the morel mushroom broth using the risotto-style absorption method. When adding dried mushrooms to any dish, it's critical that you season them well. After all, you wouldn't just boil fresh mushrooms and expect them to taste like much of anything. To pump up the mushroom flavor I sauteed the reconstituted morels with a fresh chopped portobello mushroom, dried thyme and plenty of salt and pepper. Sweet peas added fresh spring color, and sun dried tomatoes provided a hit of concentrated umami to complement the mushrooms.

The results were so satisfying and flavorful, thanks to all that umami (from the Feta too). I served it with large sauteed shrimp (more umami!), but it could be a side dish for nearly any protein, as well as a vegetarian main.

Finally, I have a little favor to ask: if this recipe is making you lick your lips, go over to the Marx Foods website between April 12 and 16th and vote for me (I'll remind you again when the polls are actually open). The blogger whose morel-inspired dish gets the most votes will win a shipment of FRESH morels. I may like the dried ones, but I surely won't complain about a prize like that.

Morel-Barley Risotto with Sun Dried Tomatoes & Peas

Whole-grain, hulled barley is the most nutritious type because the grain and bran are left intact. It takes longer to cook than pearled barley, which is not a whole grain due to the polishing or "pearling" process. You may substitute pearled for hulled barley, reducing the cooking time to 30 to 40 minutes. Do not use quick-cooking barley, which has a much lighter texture and won't hold up well to this cooking method.

Serves 4

1 oz dried morel mushrooms (about 1 cup)
2 tbs olive oil, divided
1 shallot, chopped
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup hulled barley
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 large portobello mushroom cap, chopped
1/4 tsp dried thyme
3/4 cup frozen peas
10 oil-packed sun dried tomato halves, patted dry and thinly sliced
1/2 cup crumbled Feta cheese
Fresh thyme or mint leaves (optional)

Rinse the morels thoroughly, rubbing with your fingers to remove any grit. Place in a large heat-proof bowl and add 5 cups boiling water; soak for 20 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove mushrooms and pat dry with paper towel; cut into bite-sized pieces and set aside. Transfer soaking liquid to a medium saucepan and keep warm over medium-low heat (do not simmer).

In a large pot, heat 1 tbs of the oil on medium-low. Add the shallot and cook until tender, 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute, stirring often. Add the barley and stir to combine. Toast the grains, stirring often, for 3 minutes. Add about 1 cup of warm mushroom broth and adjust heat to keep liquid at a simmer. Season with salt and pepper.

Continue simmering, stirring occasionally, until liquid is nearly evaporated. Add another cup of liquid and repeat until barley is done, 45 to 55 minutes (I have heard a range of cooking times quoted for hulled barley, so bear in mind that it can vary). You do not have to stir constantly, but keep an eye on it to prevent sticking. The grains will remain firm to the bite when fully cooked. If you run out of mushroom broth before barley is done, use hot water.

While barley is cooking, heat the remaining oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the portobello mushroom and cook until it releases some liquid, stirring often. Add the reserved morels and dried thyme, and season generously with salt and pepper. Continue cooking until portobellos are very tender and lightly browned. Remove from heat and set aside.

When barley is done, and with some liquid still remaining in the pot, add the peas and stir until heated through, about 2 minutes. Stir in the sun dried tomatoes and the mushroom mixture. Check seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed. The consistency of the finished barley should be slightly wet, but not soupy. Serve immediately, sprinkled with Feta and fresh herbs, if using.