Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Peanut Butter & Jelly Truffles

I am so excited to write about this little candy-making project! I had seen recipes for homemade Reese's style peanut butter cups, but was never remotely tempted to give them a try. As far as my tastes go, there is no improving on the perfection that is a dark chocolate Reese's peanut butter cup (and I've got no problem with the classic milk chocolate ones either). If I crave a high end version, I treat myself to Vosges' divine peanut butter bonbons.

These truffles might look like nothing more than a homemade peanut butter cup with some jam. And they sort of are. But the result is soooo much more than the sum of its parts. All the components just work. The flavors and textures together are amazing. The idea came from the December issue of Food and Wine magazine, but I ended up modifying the method and using a simpler and (I think) better peanut butter filling. Shockingly, they are not as much of a pain to make as I thought they'd be.  I would absolutely do it again!

Although I'm sure they exist in various other places, the only time I've had a peanut butter and jelly truffle was at the now sadly closed Ethel M chocolate cafe at The Shops at North Bridge on Michigan Avenue. Mike and I tried them on our first ever trip to Chicago before moving here, and we loved it. Ethel M makes great candy, but as far as the PB and J truffle goes, I like mine best. Do I have to mention that they'd make a perfect Valentine's gift?

Peanut Butter and Jelly Truffles
Adapted from Food and Wine magazine
I love Merck's dark coco disks for candy making because, unlike pure high-end chocolate, it does not need to be tempered and will set quickly and beautifully--just melt it in the microwave and go. It also tastes great. I've also used Wilton's candy melts, and they're good too. You can get the silver liners--mine were 1 inch high by 1 1/4 inches wide--at

Makes 18 to 30, doubles easily

Equipment: 18 to 22 mini foil cupcake liners (1" by 1 1/4")
Mini muffin pan (optional)

1/2 cup smooth peanut butter (not natural), preferably Jif
1/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch fine salt, or to taste
8 oz dark chocolate disks (see recipe head note)
18 to 22 mini foil cupcake liners (1" by 1 1/4")
1/2 cup seedless raspberry jam
flaky sea salt

Heat the peanut butter in the microwave on medium power for 30 second intervals until warm and soft. Add the sifted (this prevents lumps) powdered sugar, vanilla and salt to taste. Stir well, heating again briefly if desired, in order to thoroughly blend the ingredients. Chill.

Melt the chocolate in the microwave on low to medium power for 30 second intervals, stirring each time. With a small spoon, dab some chocolate into a foil liner and spread it around to coat the sides (I stopped about 1/4" from the top, but you can coat the whole cup if you want). Place in mini muffin pan to set. Repeat with remaining liners (I stopped at 18, but you can do more; just save enough chocolate for covering the fillings.). Chill  until well set, about 1 hour.

Fill each chocolate cup with about 1 tsp chilled peanut butter mixture. Top with about 1 tsp jam. Reheat remaining chocolate in the microwave so it is fluid again. Spoon chocolate over each cup to cover filling. Sprinkle with sea salt (do each cup immediately if using candy-making chocolate--it sets quickly). Chill  until completely set, at least 2 hours.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Best Beef Stew Tips

I made my best beef stew last weekend. I've made a lot of good ones, but this was just perfect. The meat was incredibly tender, I got deep flavor from the spices, and the braising liquid was thick and glossy (no weird thickening tricks required).

I don't exactly have a recipe for you. Since I've posted other stew recipes and wasn't planning anything novel for this one, I didn't think I'd use it on the blog. But it was so great I have to write about it. I didn't follow a recipe or keep strict track of ingredient quantities, so I'm going to set out a few guidelines and tips that I think made the difference.

First, this stew actually came about because I preserved (like this; maybe I used more salt than I should have...who knows.) some Meyer lemons a few weeks ago. I decided to do a stew with Moroccan flavors and serve the undoubtedly wondrous lemons as garnish. However, even after extensive rinsing, they were so salty and lacking in lemon flavor, that I considered them unfit to eat.

So much for that. It was no big deal. I had a fresh Meyer lemon in the fridge, so I sliced it into half moons and added it to a tray of spiced roast cauliflower with about 10 minutes of cooking time remaining (the cauliflower roasts at 425 F for 20 to 25 minutes total) . I LOVE Meyer lemons this way.

Now, here's what I did for the stew:

1) Brown the meat: dry it completely with paper towels and make sure it's at room temperature. Toss it in well-seasoned flour and add it to a pan that has been filmed with oil and preheated to just about high. I was determined not to crowd the pan (this impedes browning and the meat steams instead--in other words, you've wasted your time.), so I browned 1 1/2 pounds of meat in 3 batches using my Dutch oven and a large cast iron skillet. Also, sprinkle the meat with salt when you get it in the pan, even if you've salted the flour. This is your big chance to get some flavor in there.

2) Deglaze: Some of the meat stuck to my enamel-coated Dutch oven, and I had a lot of BLACK bits stuck to the pan. It needed to be washed out before I proceeded with the stew. My cast iron skillet, however, has a sort of nonstick quality. The 2 batches of meat I browned in the skillet left behind nice, tasty brown bits that could be added back to the stew. I deglazed the skillet with a little red wine, scraped them up and added this flavorful liquid to the stew when I added the broth. I also added a couple glugs of wine to the pot to deglaze the spiced onion/carrot/garlic/ginger mixture and let it reduce before adding the broth.

3) Season early, season often: Season each component of your dish. Any dish. Of course, you're staying mindful of added salt from the chicken broth or other salty ingredients. And always tasting as you go. When it comes to spices, I'm heavy handed. In the case of this stew, I may have jumbled up my Moroccan flavor profile a little, but it worked out great. I used freshly ground cumin and coriander, which I added to the vegetable saute at the beginning, AND again near the end of cooking to brighten up the flavor. I also used ground turmeric, ground ginger, ground cinnamon, mild chile powder, saffron threads and cayenne pepper.

4) Braise right: After you saute and deglaze the veggies, it's time to add your braising liquid. You want enough to just cover the meat. In this case, I needed 3 cups of broth (I'm really liking Kitchen Basics chicken stock. The flavor is good, it's low in sodium, and it's higher in protein due to the stock-like quality.). Once I added the meat to the simmering liquid, I went out of my way to keep it at a bare simmer. For my stove, that meant the burner was at the next-to-lowest setting and the Dutch oven was partially covered with its lid. A bare simmer means a few slow bubbles here and there. It took about 2 hours and 15 minutes of cooking to get the meat to the point where you could cut it with your soup spoon, but not going so far that the texture became grainy and overcooked. Near the end of cooking, I added 1 cup of unsalted diced tomatoes in their liquid. At this point, I did a final seasoning check and added the rest of my ground spices, plus the juice of half a lemon.

If you've made a few stews in your time, I'm hoping that made sense. If you have no idea what I was talking about, start by following one of these great stew recipes (and here are more helpful tips from thekitchn). The basic steps of cooking a stew are simple, but I'm hoping that my notes help enhance your already great technique.

Trying to stay a bit Moroccan, I garnished the stew with sliced green olives, fresh mint and fresh parsley. I served it with cous cous that I made as follows: In olive oil, saute finely chopped onion, garlic and ginger; season it. Stir in cous cous and stir it around constantly for 1 to 2 minutes. Add a handful of dried currants and season the cous cous (salt, pepper, cinnamon). Add your liquid (I used 2 parts broth and 1 part water), bring it to a boil, stirring often. Stir and cook over medium-low heat until absorbed, cover pot, turn OFF heat and steam 10 minutes.

Anyone still with me? If so, you must love stew as much as I do! Have any good recipes or tips to share? I'd love to hear them in the comments.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Chickpea, Parsnip and Wild Rice Soup

Here's a soup that looks similar to my white bean and kale ribollita, but with a few exceptions: it's made with canned beans, it's thickened and enriched by nutty wild rice, and it gets a final shot of flavor from lemon juice and ground cumin at the end of cooking.

I wanted to use up the wild rice blend I had leftover from making wild rice, chestnut and cherry stuffing. The stuffing was fantastic, but I also loved the earthy flavor and texture it brought to this soup. Paired with the sweet parsnips, it made a simple, everyday soup memorable.

Chickpea, Parsnip and Wild Rice Soup
A lot of ground cumin (if you're inclined to freshly grind your cumin, now is a good time to do it) and fresh lemon juice just before serving is the key to the bright, yet earthy flavor of this soup. If you don’t have fresh thyme and rosemary, you can add 1/4 to 1/2 tsp of each to the onions along with the other spices at the beginning.

Serves 4 to 6

1 Tbs olive oil
1 large white onion, chopped
1 cup chopped carrots
1/4 tsp salt, plus additional to taste
1 tsp ancho chile powder (or other mild chile powder)
Hot chile powder, such as Indian red chile or cayenne, to taste (about 1/4 to 1/2 tsp)
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp ground coriander
3 cloves garlic, chopped
4 cups reduced sodium chicken broth
5 cups water
2 fresh thyme sprigs (optional)
1 bay leaf
3/4 cup wild rice blend
5 parsnips, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch chunks
1 lb collard or other hearty greens, tough ribs removed, chopped
2 (14 oz) cans chickpeas, rinsed
Juice of 1 large, juicy lemon
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin (freshly ground if possible)
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
Chopped fresh parsley and chile flakes for serving (optional)

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or large pot on medium high. Add onion and carrot, 1/4 tsp salt, chile powder, cumin seeds, and coriander (if using dried herbs, add them now). Cook until onion is soft and lightly browned. Add garlic and cook, stirring often, for 2 minutes. Add broth, water, thyme sprigs and bay leaf; bring to a boil.

Add rice and simmer, covered, 30 minutes. Add parsnips and simmer 5 minutes. Add collards, in 2 batches if necessary, and continue cooking until vegetables are tender and rice is cooked, about 10 minutes (if liquid gets too low, add an additional cup). Add chickpeas and simmer just until heated through. Add lemon juice, ground cumin, thyme and rosemary. Check seasoning. Serve with parsley and chile flakes if desired.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Southern Style Buttermilk Biscuits and Pear Chutney

With all the soup-making going on around here, it's the perfect time for this recipe. I think biscuits are my favorite soup go-with, and these are awesome. I already have a buttermilk biscuit recipe that I like a lot, and although I didn't feel a great need for a better one, I do have a lot of cookbooks. Reading all these books inevitably leads me to try out recipes that involve an interesting technique or different ingredient.

In this case, I wanted to try out a biscuit made with shortening instead of all butter. Not only is shortening (or often lard) a very traditional ingredient in Southern baking, but it also has less saturated fat than butter (at least Crisco does). For me, fat content was not the issue--I just wanted to see what I might be missing out on in the universe of biscuits.

I prefer these biscuits to my all-butter version. I still used butter (4 tablespoons), as well as 3 tablespoons of Crisco. I think this effected the texture and structure for the better. However, I also used half whole wheat pastry flour and half all-purpose. In the past I've stuck to 100% AP. I think the whole wheat pastry gave the biscuits a tangible sweetness without adding "wheaty" flavor.

I loved the finished product and plan to make it this way from now on. And finally, to gild the lily, I baked these to eat with leftover Christmas ham and pear chutney. The ham biscuit can be made with something sweet like chutney (or fig jam), mustard, cheese, whatever you want. Or just plain. But it's the ultimate way to use up leftover ham. My recipe for pear chutney follows the biscuits!

One more thing: I also made a fantastic biscuit variation with Feta cheese and scallions that I included below. In fact, those are the ones we ate with that amazing chestnut, celery root and pear soup.

Southern Buttermilk Biscuits
Perfect for ham biscuits with pear chutney. Slightly adapted from the Gourmet cookbook.
Makes 8-9
Variation: replace shortening with 3 ounces chopped Feta cheese and 3 chopped scallions, plus generous freshly ground black pepper (whisk with dry ingredients). I used all whole wheat pastry flour for this version.

1 cup AP flour (120 g)
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour (120 g)
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp fine sea salt (or fine regular salt)
4 Tbs unsalted butter, cut into small chunks and chilled
3 Tbs vegetable shortening (36 g)
3/4 cup lowfat buttermilk, plus extra for brushing
Flaky sea salt/fleur de sel for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 425 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the butter and toss with the flour mixture a couple times. Break the shortening into small chunks and add to bowl. With a pastry blender or your fingers, blend until you have a shaggy mixture with some pea-sized chunks of fat remaining. Add buttermilk and stir just until flour is moistened (dough will not come together into a ball yet).

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Flour your hands and quickly knead dough into a ball and press into a thick disk. Lightly flour dough and roll out to a generous 3/4-inch thickness. With a 3-inch cutter, stamp out biscuits, dipping cutter into flour before each use; do not twist cutter. Transfer biscuits to baking sheet. Quickly re-roll remaining dough and make as many more biscuits as you can (you'll get about 8). Lightly brush tops of biscuits with buttermilk and sprinkle with flaky sea salt. Bake 14 minutes, or until bottoms are golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Serve immediately.

Pear Chutney
This recipe is not meant for canning. It keeps in the refrigerator for about 1 week.

Makes 1 1/2 to 2 cups

3 pears, cored and chopped
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 large jalapeno, seeded and chopped
1 Tbs minced fresh ginger
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbs black mustard seeds
3/4 tsp ground cardamom
Zest and juice of 1 orange
1 Tbs apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp salt, or to taste

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until mixture stars to bubble. When liquid has reduced a bit, turn heat to medium-low and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally until pears are very soft, about 30 minutes total (cooking time will vary depending on how ripe the fruit is). If too much liquid remains, simmer uncovered until you reach the desired consistency. Cool in pan, then transfer to an airtight container and chill.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chestnut, Celery Root and Pear Soup

I am crazy about chestnuts. While freshly roasted ones are great, I am more than happy with the cooked and peeled ones that are sold in jars and usually imported from France. I can eat them as is, but they are so fun to cook with. Fabulous with Brussels sprouts. Special in stuffing. Beautiful in Bolognese sauce (they are the secret ingredient!). And, of course, luscious in soups.

I first made chestnut soup about two years ago. While very good, chestnuts were the only main ingredient, and consequently, I found it a tad bit intense. So this time, I decided to contrast the rich, dense quality of the chestnuts with clean, crisp celery root and a pear, for a little extra intrigue. It worked really, really well. You'll get plently of chestnut flavor, but the other ingredients keep it interesting --you won't want to stop eating it.

For the final touch, I added a few drops of truffle oil to each serving. So nice. If you don't have any, you can skip it or just use some good extra-virgin olive oil. As soon as dinner was over, I sat down and typed up the recipe, so I wouldn't forget a single thing (which can happen when you make things up as you go along). Wishing I had some more of it right now...

Celery Root, Chestnut and Pear Soup
You can find jarred chestnuts at Whole Foods, specialty/gourmet markets, and many supermarkets, especially around the holidays. And here on amazon.

Makes 2 to 3 main dish servings or 4 to 6 first course servings (doubles easily)

1 Tbs olive oil
1 white onion, chopped
Pinch dried thyme
Pinch dried rosemary
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups reduced sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 cups water
1 small celery root (about 3-inch diameter), peeled and chopped
9 ounces jarred roasted and peeled chestnuts
1 large bartlett or anjou pear, peeled and chopped
1 tsp white wine vinegar
For garnish: chopped chestnuts, crumbled goat cheese, truffle oil

Heat the oil in a large pot on medium high. Add onion, thyme, rosemary and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until soft and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 minute more. Add broth and water and bring to a boil. Add celery root and simmer, covered until just tender, about 10 minutes. Add pear and chestnuts and simmer 10 to 15 minutes more, or until all ingredients are very soft (If you don’t have quite enough water to just cover ingredients, add 1/4 to 1/2 cup more. You want to use minimal liquid in order to make a thick soup.).

Remove from heat. Puree with an immersion blender or in a regular blender. Reheat soup on low to medium low heat. Add vinegar and check seasoning. Ladle into bowls and garnish with chopped chestnuts (about 1 per person), goat cheese and a few drops of truffle oil.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

White Bean & Kale Ribollita

Did you know it's National Soup Month? If you read as many food sites as I do, than you are well aware. I've been finding some great new recipes, which is awesome, because soup is all I want to cook these days. If you're in need of ideas, check out all the posts from soup week at (I found tons of great recipes and links here!),'s hot soup category, this round up at Words to Eat By, and Bon Appetit's soup slide show.

I have quite a few soup recipes coming as well, beginning with this Italian favorite. First, I did not set out to make ribollita; it was sort of a happy accident. This satisfying soup--made ultra-thick by cooking up dried beans and then pureeing a good scoop of them--comes close enough to take on the name.

Ribollita is most often thickened with leftover bread, and may or may not include pasta. I used pasta and no bread, and had no problems getting a soup that was thick enough to stand a spoon in after resting in the fridge overnight.

White Bean and Kale Ribollita
You can soak the beans overnight or do the quick-soak method: Cover beans with water in a large pot. Bring to a boil and boil hard for 10 minutes. Cover pot, turn off heat and soak 1 hour; rinse and drain. A parmesan rind adds umami and another tasty flavor dimension to the soup. If you don't want to go that route, grate plenty of good Parmigiano over each bowl when serving.

Serves 6

1 Tbs olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups chopped carrots
1/4 tsp EACH dried oregano, thyme, rosemary and basil
1 tsp ancho chile powder (or other mild chile powder)
red chile flakes to taste
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Tbs tomato paste
4 cups reduced sodium chicken broth
3 cups water, plus additional as needed
1 lb great northern beans, soaked, rinsed and drained
2 dried bay leaves
Parmesan rind, about 2 x 3 inches
28 ounces canned diced tomatoes (preferably no salt added)
8 oz small whole wheat pasta, such as corkscrews, ditalini or elbows
1 lb kale, thick stems removed, chopped
For serving: lemon wedges, toasted pine nuts, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

In a Dutch oven or large soup pot, heat the oil on medium-high. Add onion, carrot, dried herbs and chile powder. Cook until onion is tender and just lightly browned. Add chile flakes, garlic and tomato paste and cook 2 minutes, stirring well.

Add broth and water and bring to a boil. Add beans, parmesan rind and bay leaves, and simmer partially covered, stirring occasionally, until beans are tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. If the liquid gets too low, add additional water.

Ladle about 1 1/2 cups into a blender and puree (be careful when blending hot liquid). Return to pot. Add tomatoes and bring soup up to a boil. Now, you need to make sure there is enough liquid for the pasta to cook in; you may need another couple cups. When soup is boiling, add pasta and kale. Cover pot to quickly wilt kale, adding it in two batches if necessary. Simmer until pasta is al dente. Add salt and pepper to taste and discard bay leaves and rind. Serve with accompaniments. This soup makes great leftovers and will thicken a lot in the refrigerator--thin with water or broth as desired.