Monday, June 29, 2009

Intrigued by Tonka Beans and a Giveaway

Have you ever heard of tonka beans? I read about them on Cannelle et Vanille, Tartelette, La Tartine Gourmand, and Dessert First, some of my favorite food blogs. They said that tonka beans smell and taste like a mix of almond, vanilla, and clove. Let’s just say that I was more than a little bit intrigued.

So, you know me, I decided I had to get my hands on some and try them for myself. I started poking around and immediately discovered that, while tonka beans are legal and even quite fashionable to use in desserts in France and other parts of Europe, they have been banned in the U.S. from use in food. Yeah, I’m sure we know something that the Europeans don’t. Anyway, I read up about the little tonka bean and figured that anything will kill you if you eat enough of it.

I boldly continued my search and found that tonka beans are readily available on the internet, just ask Google. I hit the jackpot at an obscure local herb shop. The owner said that he stocked the tonka beans to sell to a lady who uses them for voodoo. Not for food use, so I guess that makes it OK.

I can’t tell you how exciting it was to finally score some illicit tonka beans. The smell hit me even before I even opened the bag—it’s no wonder the scientific name is odorata. Their fragrance made me flash back to eating apricots and peaches as a little girl. I remembered being at my Baba and Deda’s house and eating the sweet, juicy flesh and then the bitter kernel from inside the pit.

It’s that same bitter almond quality…

Funny how a certain smell or food can make you feel someone’s presence again…

The memory of eating apricot kernels is what inspired me to pair tonka beans and fresh apricots together in these cakelettes.

It was a happy marriage, and even my husband, who hates almonds (crazy, I know), loved it.

I would love to do a giveaway to share my tonka beans with you, but I figure I shouldn’t stray that far to the wrong side of the law. Instead, I’ll be giving away a set of 6 mini brioche tins, just like the ones I used to make these cakelettes, to one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter the giveaway is leave a comment between now and Sunday, July 5 telling me if you are willing to consume tonka beans or not. One winner will be chosen at random from the commenters (so don’t sign in anonymously!). Good luck! I will announce the winner on Monday, July 6, so be sure to stop by to see if you’ve won.

Apricot-Tonka Bean Cakelettes
Printable Recipe

5 ounces (1 ¼ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pans
All-purpose flour, for dusting the pans
9 ounces cake flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon freshly grated tonka bean
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
10 ounces sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 ounces crème fraîche, at room temperature
12 apricots, peeled, halved, and pitted

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Butter and flour 2 standard 12-cup muffin pans or 24 3 ¼-inch brioche tins. Sift together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, tonka bean, and salt.

In a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together the butter and sugar on high for 3 to 4 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time until thoroughly combined and then beat in the vanilla extract. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture, then ½ of the crème fraîche, then 1/3 of the flour mixture, then the remaining ½ of the crème fraîche, and then the remaining 1/3 of the flour mixture, mixing on low for only a few seconds after each addition until just combined, and stopping the mixer once or twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Do not overmix. Divide the batter among the muffin cups or brioche tins. Press 1 apricot half cut side down into the center of each one. Bake for 22 to 24 minutes, or until the edges of the cakelettes start to shrink away from the pans and a toothpick inserted into the center of a cakelette comes out clean. Let the cakelettes cool in the pans for about 10 minutes. Invert onto cooling racks and finish cooling completely.

Makes 24 cakelettes. You can substitute a few drops of almond extract and a pinch of ground cloves for the tonka bean. If you are using muffin pans, feel free to use paper liners instead of greasing and flouring them.

Friday, June 26, 2009

New Potatoes

You may not think it, but there’s as big a difference between store-bought and farmers market potatoes as there is between tomatoes. Freshly dug potatoes are still moist from the soil, and their flesh seems luminous. They have whisper-thin skin, so there’s no need to peel them. And, of course, they are intensely flavorful, tasting of the earth they came from. Try them once, and it’ll be hard to go back to the grocery store.

Here’s a recipe inspired by the beautiful potatoes at the farmers market and my favorite flavor of chips growing up.

Crème Fraîche & Chive Potato Cakes
Printable Recipe

1 pound small red new potatoes
Kosher salt
¼ cup crème fraîche
¼ cup minced fresh chives
1 large egg
¼ cup all-purpose flour
Freshly ground black pepper
Canola oil or extra virgin olive oil, for frying

Place the potatoes into a medium pot and add enough water to cover by several inches. Add several large pinches of salt. Bring to a boil and simmer for 12 to 14 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the potatoes to a bowl. Lightly mash the potatoes and let cool slightly. Stir in the crème fraîche, chives, egg, and flour and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Add enough oil to a large, heavy frying pan to come to a depth of ¼ inch. Heat over medium heat until a bit of the potato mixture sizzles immediately when added. Scoop the mixture into the pan by the ¼ cup, spacing the cakes a couple of inches apart. Flatten each pancake slightly with a spatula and fry without disturbing for 3 to 4 minutes, or until golden brown. Using a spatula, turn the pancakes and fry another 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate and immediately season to taste with salt. Fry the remaining potato mixture in the same manner. Transfer to a platter and serve immediately.

Serves 4. These potato cakes have a crunchy crust and tender, creamy center.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Always Inspiring

My latest inspiration from the farmers market. Oh, how I love the farmers market in the springtime. But you already knew that, right?

Pea Tendril & Lapchong Stir-Fry
Printable Recipe

2 tablespoons canola oil
4 ounces lapchong, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
Several pinches red chile flakes
8 ounces pea tendrils
1 tablespoon soy sauce

Heat a wok over medium-high heat until very hot but not smoking. Add the oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the wok. Add the lapchong and stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes, or until golden brown. Add the garlic and chile flakes and stir-fry for another 30 seconds, or until fragrant. Add the pea tendrils and stir-fry 2 to 3 minutes more, or until wilted. Toss in the soy sauce. Transfer to a platter and serve immediately.

Serves 4. Serve with sticky rice. Pea tendrils are also known as pea shoots, pea vines, or pea tips. They have a mild, sweet pea-like flavor. Select tendrils that are actually tender—mature tendrils can be very fibrous, and no amount of cooking will tenderize them. Both pea tendrils and Chinese lapchong sausage are available in Asian markets.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Happy Father's Day and Jalapeno Poppers

I hatched the perfect plot for this Father’s Day, and everyone—except Dad, of course—was in on it. At the heart of the plan is a small, cheap (let’s hear it for cheap!) gadget. It’s gimmicky and cheesy (literally!) and fun, requires the use of a hot grill, and produces manly man food, all of which makes it just the thing for Father’s Day. It’s a jalapeno rack with corer. Like I said, perfect for Father’s Day.

I ordered the gift and then, since I live half a country away from the parentals, I put in a phone call to my little brother, “I’ll buy and you cook.” He immediately agreed, “OK. I’ll do it because I want to eat them.” The conversation *rubbing hands together* went exactly according to plan. But now that I think about it, I should’ve told him to mix up some Traditional Margaritas too. I promised I would write out my jalapeno recipe.

Then Mother signed on to receive and hide the package, which, as it turns out, included a little white lie about mail ordering hair care products. Mom’s a master of counterintelligence. She also volunteered to do the grocery shopping if I sent her a list.

So, with this recipe, I officially complete my part of the mission. Dad, happy Father’s Day! I miss you and wish I could be there. I hope you love your brand new shiny toy and your Father’s Day jalapeno popper meal, even though it includes something green!

And happy Father’s Day to all you Dads out there!

Grilled Jalapeno Poppers
Printable Recipe

2 links Mexican chorizo
1 ½ cups shredded Monterey jack
1 ½ cups shredded sharp cheddar
½ cup minced cilantro
36 medium jalapenos and/or large Fresno chiles, stemmed and seeded

Heat the grill to medium-low. Add the chorizo and cook, covered, without disturbing for 8 to 9 minutes, or until it releases from the grate and is crusty and brown. Using tongs, turn the chorizo and continue to cook, covered, over medium-low heat another 6 to 7 minutes, or until cooked through. Remove the chorizo to a plate and let cool to room temperature.

Dice the chorizo when it is cool. Mix together the chorizo, jack, cheddar, and cilantro in a large bowl. Divide the stuffing among the chiles, lightly packing it in. As you work, place the stuffed chiles into the rack. Grill, covered, over medium-low heat for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the chiles are tender. Transfer the rack to a serving platter and serve immediately.

Serves 8 to 10 as an appetizer or 4 to 6 as a main course with Mexican Rice on the side. Not as spicy as you might think. The heat level of jalapenos varies, but seeding, cooking, and smothering them with cheese tones down their heat. Wear gloves when handling chiles. Skewer any small chiles with a toothpick across the top to keep them from slipping through the rack as they soften. If you don’t have a grill, place the rack of chiles onto a baking tray and cook in a 400˚F oven. Jalapeno poppers are especially popular in Texas. They are frequently breaded and deep-fried.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Invasion of the Alien Vegetables!

Kohlrabi always makes me think of space aliens. Just look at it. It’s probably the single weirdest vegetable, except for maybe Brussels sprouts on the stalk. Kohlrabi looks like it’s from another planet, and I can imagine hundreds of kohlrabies parachuting down from the sky, leaves spread wide and blocking out the rays of the sun, on their way to invade planet Earth. But their sweet and mild cabbage/turnip-like flavor assures me the kohlrabies come on a mission of good, not evil.

Kohlrabi-Carrot Slaw
Printable Recipe

¼ cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 kohlrabi bulbs trimmed, peeled, and julienned
2 carrots, julienned
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Whisk together the mayonnaise, mustard, and lemon juice in a large bowl. Add the kohlrabi and carrot and toss to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper, transfer to a serving bowl, and serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6. If possible, select kohlrabies with the greens attached—kohlrabi greens are great cooked like Garlicky Braised Kale.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Purple Asparagus

Asparagus season is still going strong, and I’m eating up while I can. Now the purple asparagus has made its appearance at the farmers market.

I had to get some just because it’s so pretty. It’s fun to watch it turn magically from purple to green as it cooks.

Purple Asparagus with Brown Butter & Herbs
Printable Recipe

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
¾ pound purple asparagus, trimmed of woody ends and blanched
3 tablespoons minced fresh chives
2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat a large, heavy sauté pan over medium heat until very hot but not smoking. Add the butter and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, or until browned. Add the asparagus, chives, parsley, and thyme and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the asparagus is heated through. Toss in the lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a platter and serve immediately.

Serves 2 to 4 as a side dish. Just as tasty with green asparagus.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

My Little Brother

My little brother just got hitched. I’m pretty sure that she only married him for his cooking *wink, wink*. Anyway, it’s hard for me to think of my little brother as all grown up and married. No matter what, I’ll always think of him as my “little” brother.

My brother is 9 years younger than me. I didn’t want a little brother—I was really hoping for a little sister. And I certainly didn’t want a brother so little that I would always get stuck babysitting. He was a real drag by the time I was a teenager. But now that we’re both mature *another wink* adults, we genuinely care for one another. You can tell because whenever we get together, we do nothing but tease each other, poke each other in the ribs, and generally give each other grief. We’re the best of friends.

It seems that my little brother thinks I’m his personal 24-hour cooking hotline. He’ll call me at all hours, and he always starts, “I have a quick question for you…” It’ll be something completely random like, “Can I substitute whole wheat orzo in your recipe?” or, “Why did the fresh mozzarella I made turn slimy?” or even, “What do you need for decorating a wedding cake, and by the way, will you decorate ours?” Once he gets his answer, it’s, “Thanks, bye.” Just like that and he’s gone. I love that he loves to cook, and don't tell him I said so, but it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside that he looks to me for advice.

Though he may not always stick around to chat, I know he appreciates my help. He will call me out of the blue and tell me to expect a package. He’s very generous, but I know he’s not above telling white lies to figure out what to get me. I recently got packages of the cutest lemon-yellow and chocolate-brown espresso cups* that I had been wanting for forever. I’ve already used them to make 3 different batches of pot de crème, 2 of which included lots of espresso. And I made tuiles to go with them.

I feel lucky to have such a clever, fun, giving little brother. His wedding was beautiful, and I cried at the ceremony. But I was really an embarrassing, weepy mess right after, when one of his best friends told me, “Your brother is your biggest fan.” My heart overflowed with love and joy.

Now I’m going to have to get that little brother of mine back for making me cry…

Espresso Pot de Crème
Printable Recipe

8 ounces heavy cream
6 ounces milk
6 ounces freshly brewed espresso
4 ounces eggs
2 ounces egg yolks
4 ounces sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 325˚F. Combine the cream, milk, and espresso in a small saucepan and heat to a simmer. Whisk together the eggs, yolks, and sugar in a medium bowl. Continue whisking while adding the hot cream mixture in a thin stream. Strain through a fine mesh sieve. Stir in the vanilla and salt and skim off any foam from the surface. Divide the mixture among 8 ramekins and place them into a roasting pan. Add enough hot water to the roasting pan to come half way up the sides of the ramekins and bake for 24 to 26 minutes, or until just set. Remove from the water bath and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours, or until firm.

Serves 8. Can be made a day or two in advance and kept covered with plastic wrap in the refrigerator.

*ASA Selection Hot + Fresh espresso/sorbet cups are available from einmaleins (tell Mathias I said hi!) and Joanne Hudson Basics.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Game Sausage Recipe Challenge

Did someone say “challenge”? Bring it on! I can’t help it if I have a bit of a competitive streak. Besides, who’s gonna pass up a chance for free sausage?

OK, let me backtrack for a second…I was invited to enter this thing, and I thought why the heck not? The sausage varieties, especially the buffalo with chipotle, which sounded like a dressed-up version of Mexican chorizo, sounded tasty enough. As luck would have it, I was not only chosen to participate in the recipe contest, but I got the buffalo sausage to work with. And they say it was random.

Anyway, I figured that nobody could resist melty cheese, so *ahem* here’s the winning recipe…

Please vote for it here! The poll will be open from June 8th through the 12th.

By the way, if you would like to try some of that buffalo with chipotle sausage for yourself, visit Marx Foods. (The sausage itself was of good quality but a bit on the sweet side, and, to my taste, it could've been a whole lot spicier.) Otherwise, just use fresh Mexican chorizo.

Queso Fundido con Chorizo
Printable Recipe

1 tablespoon canola oil
6 ounces bulk Mexican chorizo, crumbled
½ yellow onion, diced
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon pure chile powder
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon Mexican oregano
1 cup shredded Monterey jack
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
2 tablespoons minced cilantro

Heat a medium, heavy sauté pan over medium-high heat until very hot but not smoking. Add the oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the sausage and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, tossing about 2 times, until nearly cooked through and crusty and brown in spots.* Reduce the heat to medium, add the onion, and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes, or until soft. Add the garlic, chile powder, cumin, and Mexican oregano and sauté for another 1 to 2 minutes, or until fragrant. Transfer to a large bowl and let cool.

Preheat the broiler. Add the jack and cheddar to the sausage mixture and toss to combine. Divide among 4 individual baking dishes, arrange the baking dishes on a baking tray, and broil for about 3 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and golden brown. Sprinkle the fundidos with the cilantro and serve immediately.

Serves 4. Serve with plenty of Guajillo Salsa to spice it up, warm flour or corn tortillas for scooping, and possibly some Traditional Margaritas. Makes a great appetizer for any Mexican or Southwestern meal. If you can’t find bulk chorizo sausage, get some links of chorizo and remove the casings. Dried Mexican oregano, which has a unique floral character, can be found at some gourmet grocers and (usually for less than a dollar) at any Mexican market. If you can’t find it, just omit it from the recipe; don’t substitute common oregano. Also delicious with smoked cheddar.

*Searing the chorizo in this manner adds tons of flavor to the finished dish. For everything you ever wanted to know about searing, plus dozens of fabulous searing recipes, look for my book Seared to Perfection in stores in the fall of 2010.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Salsa Series: Guajillo Salsa

This is the first post in a series on salsas.

Salsa isn’t just for corn chips any more. This was my sudden mind-blowing, earth-shattering realization. It came way back during my college days after a working interview at one very famous Southwestern restaurant. They fed me dinner—a grilled tenderloin steak smothered in a smokey salsa—in exchange for my night’s work. I had only ever eaten steak plain, and my life would never be the same. I got the job. But more importantly, I opened my eyes to the possibilities of salsa.

Salsas, whether they’re made from chiles, tomatoes, tomatillos, avocados, or fruit, are an integral part of Mexican and Southwestern cuisines. They vary from mild to medium to spicy, and they can be served hot, at room temperature, or cold. Salsas can function as either dip or sauce (in fact, salsa is Spanish for sauce), and they are the perfect accompaniment to everything from eggs to tacos to rice and beans. They can transform a simple grilled steak, pork chop, chicken breast, fish fillet, or even veggie into a spectacular meal. It’s no wonder that salsa has overtaken ketchup as the most popular condiment in the U.S.

But while I’m singing the praises of salsa, I want to make clear that I mean homemade, from-scratch salsa. Homemade salsa is vibrant and fresh and delicious and healthy, and it can perk up anything you put it on. (In comparison, the store-bought stuff is appallingly expensive and completely tasteless.) And if there’s a batch in the fridge, it’s sure to inspire many amazing meals.

Guajillo Salsa
Printable Recipe

8 guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ¾ cups water
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
Kosher salt

Heat a medium, heavy sauté pan or griddle over medium heat until very hot but not smoking. Add 2 of the chiles and toast, pressing down on them firmly with a spatula, for 10 to 15 seconds, or until golden brown. Turn the chiles and continue to toast, pressing down on them firmly with the spatula, another 10 to 15 seconds, or until fragrant, golden brown, and pliable. Remove the toasted chiles to a bowl and toast the remaining chiles in the same manner.

Combine the chiles, garlic, water, and lime juice in a blender and blend until smooth. Season to taste with salt.

Makes about 2 ¼ cups. Heat level: medium. This salsa is good on everything from chips to meat to seafood. It’s especially fantastic with cheesy dishes. Guajillos are a type of dried chile distinguishable by their red color, elongated shape, and smooth skin. Wear gloves when handling chiles. To stem and seed a dried chile, simply pop off the stem and shake out as many of the seeds as possible from the stem end. Toast the chiles carefully so that they don’t burn. Like most salsas, this one’s best the day after it’s made, once the flavors have had time to mingle. Keeps for several days tightly sealed in the refrigerator. Serve at room temperature.

More salsa recipes are available here.

Now, if you’re going to have great homemade salsa, you probably want some of this Guacamole to go with it.

Monday, June 1, 2009

My First and Last Sunchoke

Have you ever tried a sunchoke? I hadn’t, not until just recently. I’d been wanting to try them for some time, but they can be a little hard to come by. So when I spotted the curious, knobby vegetables at the farmers market, I picked some up. They looked innocent enough.

I had always read that sunchokes are good in a potato puree, but I wanted to taste them all by themselves. The point was to experience pure sunchoke, without the flavor being masked by gobs of cream and butter. And to be honest, I’m sort of a purist when it comes to my mashed potatoes.

I decided that the best way to get to know my sunchokes was to roast them with nothing but a bit of olive oil. Of course, I tasted them raw, too. Roasted, they had an unusual texture, somewhere between that of a potato and a water chestnut. They were tasty, with a sweet, nutty flavor. Definitely good enough to add to my repertoire, but…

It turns out that consuming large quantities of sunchokes can have very, very uncomfortable consequences. Let’s just say—oh, how to put this delicately?—that they caused my insides to react just like the Hindenburg. Which is to say, explosively. My guts were all tied up in knots for no less than 24 hours. I’m no doctor, but I believe that’s what’s known as gastrointestinal distress. My husband only experienced mild symptoms.

The fact that sunchokes are still widely considered food and that cookbooks are loaded with sunchoke recipes tells me that lots of people eat them with little or no ill effects. I, however, am not one of those people. And if you are still willing to give sunchokes a try, let me give you this little word of advice: just don’t eat a whole half a pound your first time out.

Roasted Sunchokes
Printable Recipe

2 pounds sunchokes, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch pieces
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Toss together the sunchokes and oil in a large bowl. Season generously with salt and pepper. Spread on a baking tray and roast for 35 to 40 minutes, or until tender and golden brown. Transfer to a bowl and serve immediately.

Serves 6 to 8. Sunchokes are also known as Jerusalem artichokes. For the best results, be sure not to overcrowd the pan.
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