Sunday, November 29, 2009

Learning What's Seasonal

The scariest part of learning to cook was memorizing what was in season when. The cookbooks said that any good cook should know, and I believed them. But fruits and vegetables came from the grocery store, and the grocery store in my neighborhood had the same stuff pretty much year round. The seasonality charts made my head spin. How hopeless.

It sounds so hilarious to me know—a silly college kid determined to learn to cook by reading recipes and “memorizing” seasonality charts. After all, study is what you’re supposed to do when you’re in college, right? Nobody ever tells you that experience, practice, and just paying attention to the rhythm of the world are really what’s important. I sometimes think about, actually chuckle about, the naïve would-be cook I once was. The appearance of Meyer lemons and pomegranates, both coming into season now, reminded me once again.

Meyer Lemon Verrines with Pomegranate
Printable Recipe

¾ cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons gelatin
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon grated Meyer lemon zest
¾ cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons Limoncello
1/3 cup freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice
¼ cup pomegranate arils

Measure ¼ cup of the cream into a small bowl and slowly sprinkle over 1 ¼ teaspoons of the gelatin. Combine the remaining ½ cup of cream, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, and lemon zest in a small saucepan. Heat to a bare simmer. Whisk in the gelatin mixture and strain through a fine mesh sieve. Whisk in the buttermilk and chill over an ice bath until just beginning to thicken. Divide among 3 dessert cups. Refrigerate for about an hour, or until set.

Slowly sprinkle the remaining ¾ teaspoon of gelatin over the Limoncello. Combine the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Heat to a bare simmer. Whisk in the gelatin mixture and strain through a fine mesh sieve. Chill over an ice bath until just beginning to thicken. Divide among the dessert cups. Refrigerate for about an hour, or until set.

Divide the pomegranate arils among the dessert cups and serve immediately.

Makes 3 servings. Read this if you’re curious about verrines. You will need about 2 large Meyer lemons for this recipe.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Day After Thanksgiving

Did you have a happy and filling Thanksgiving? I know I did. After two-and-a-half days of frenzied cooking, one over-indulgent, seam-splitting meal, and a nearly insurmountable pile of dishes, I’m beat but content. I’m not cooking today, but I am looking forward to some very tasty leftovers…

Butternut Squash Soup with Sage Pesto
Printable Recipe

1 2 ½-pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into ¾-inch cubes
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 tablespoons white wine
1 ½ quarts water
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
1 sprig Italian parsley
2 tablespoons heavy cream
¼ cup fresh sage leaves
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 tablespoons grated Parmegiano-Reggiano
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Toss together the butternut squash and 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large bowl. Spread on a baking tray and roast for about 45 to 50 minutes, or until tender.

Heat a large, heavy pot over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pot. Add the onion and celery and sauté for 8 to 9 minutes, or until soft. Add the wine and simmer for a minute or so, scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan with a heat-proof spatula. Add the butternut squash, water, bay leaf, thyme, parsley, and cream and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the flavors come together.

Meanwhile, combine the sage, garlic, pine nuts, Parmegiano, and the remaining ¼ cup of oil in a food processor and pulse until smooth.

Discard the bay leaf, thyme sprig, and parsley sprig from the soup, remove from the heat, and puree with an immersion blender until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle into bowls, drizzle with the pesto, and serve immediately.

Serves 6 as a first course. If you don’t have an immersion blender, you can use a regular blender but remember: never fill a blender more than half way with hot liquid. This means you will need to blend the soup in batches and reheat it before serving. Fall flavors dance in a bowl of soup. Sage pesto with a generous amount of olive oil floats as a brilliant emerald garnish on the surface of the soup and adds needed richness, elevating the simple pottage to delicious heights. Pass the remaining pesto at the table for diners to stir into their soup as they desire. Leftover sage pesto, should there be any, would be great on turkey sandwiches. This is a vegetarian soup.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Thanksgiving Idea

Can you believe it’s Thanksgiving week already? I know I can’t. Dare I ask how the menu planning is going? Well, in case you need a little inspiration, here’s an idea for you.

This deliciously different cranberry sauce has been a Thanksgiving tradition at my house ever since I learned the recipe during my Cooking Connection days.

Have a very happy and very tasty Thanksgiving everybody!

Cranberry-Apricot Chutney
Printable Recipe

½ cup water
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup packed light brown sugar
12 ounces cranberries
1 cup diced dried apricots
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon grated ginger

Combine the water, sugar, and brown sugar in a medium, heavy saucepan. Heat until the sugar dissolves. Add the cranberries, apricots, cider vinegar, and ginger. Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until thickened and saucy.

Makes about 2 ½ cups, serving 10 to 12. Serve warm or at room temperature. Can be made a few days ahead of time and kept tightly sealed in the refrigerator.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Eating in Texas

How to fit four dinners into just three nights? This is the sort of problem that confronts us when I get together with my family in Texas. I just went to see them. During my week-and-a-half trip, I spent nearly every minute cooking with them and for them and eating. It’s all about food, that’s the way it works in my family.

This visit may have been the most indulgent ever. It began with my parents taking me out for crawfish bisque and crawfish po’ boys to remedy the crawfish deficiency I suffer from here in the Pacific Northwest. Then it continued with a sort of Russian boiled meat dumpling called pelimeni, seafood pasta with two-and-a-half pounds of shrimp, scallops, and crab, rib-eye steaks (grilled on my father’s gleaming new Weber, which can reach temperatures so hot it can give Hell a run for its money) with garlic butter and gorgonzola butter, three rotisserie chickens (also cooked to succulent, crispy-skinned perfection on said grill), eleven pounds of mussels in saffron broth, cheesecake baked by my little brother, veal parmigiana and homemade extruded bucatini with red sauce, biscuits and sausage gravy, and a smattering of gorgonzola dolce, very ripe Brie, Roquefort, truffle salami, and wine. The visit culminated in a big pot of Texas chili and homemade cheese fries (a joint effort with my little brother and a bonding experience indeed). So much food, so little time.

It’s been a mere twenty-four hours since I left them, and I miss the fam already. I miss eating like that too.

Real Texas Chili
Printable Recipe

4 ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
4 pasilla chiles, stemmed and seeded
¼ cup canola oil
3 pounds ground beef chuck, preferably chili grind
2 yellow onions, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 poblano, diced
3 jalapenos, seeded and minced
10 to 12 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup tomato paste
¼ cup mild New Mexico chile powder
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
¼ to ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ cup beer, preferably a pale ale
1 14 ½-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
1 quart beef broth
Juice of 1 lime
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

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 and 2 cups boiling water in a medium bowl and let soak for 10 to 12 minutes, or until rehydrated. Transfer to a blender and blend until smooth. Strain through a fine mesh sieve.

Heat a large, heavy pot over high heat until very hot but not smoking. Add the oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pot. Add half of the beef and cook for 7 to 8 minutes, tossing about 2 times, until crusty and brown in spots.* Using a slotted spoon, remove the beef to a plate. Sear the remaining beef in the same manner and set aside. Reduce the heat to medium, add the onions, and sauté for 8 to 9 minutes, or until soft. Add the bell peppers, poblano, and jalapenos and sauté for another 6 to 7 minutes, or until soft. Add the garlic, tomato paste, chile powder, cumin, Mexican oregano, and cayenne and sauté 1 to 2 minutes more, or until fragrant. Add the beer and simmer for a minute or so, scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan with a heat-proof spatula. Return the beef to the pot and add the tomatoes, broth, and chile puree. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 2 hours, or until thickened and saucy and the flavors come together. Remove from the heat and skim off any fat from the surface of the chili. Stir in the lime juice and season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle into bowls and serve immediately.

Serves 8 to 10. A true bowl of red. Chili grind is coarsely ground beef and makes for a chunkier chili than regular ground beef. New Mexico chile powder brings a distinct flavor to the chili, but if you can’t find it, substitute another mild pure chile powder such as ancho or pasilla. (Also keep in mind that most “chile powders” marketed in stores are actually blends of chile and other spices such as cumin, garlic, oregano, cinnamon, cloves, and salt. These are to be avoided.) 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. This chili is pleasantly spicy but not too hot, at least in my opinion. If you like it hotter, add more cayenne pepper. Add some chipotle if you like a smokey flavor. The chili is perfect all by itself, but it can be topped with diced onions, sour cream, and/or shredded cheddar. And in case you’re wondering, real chili does not have beans.

*Searing the beef 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, November 4, 2009

Butternut Squash Gnocchi

Call it dedication, call it the pursuit of perfection, or call me crazy.

Over the last three days I’ve made four batches of gnocchi so that I could give you the ultimate Butternut Squash Gnocchi recipe.

Butternut Squash Gnocchi
Printable Recipe

½ large butternut squash (about 2 ¼ pounds), seeded
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Place the butternut squash cut side down on a baking tray and roast for about 30 minutes. Turn and roast another 45 minutes, or until very tender. Let rest for about 15 minutes, or until just cool enough to handle. Peel and puree in a food mill using a fine disc. Spread evenly on the baking tray and let cool to room temperature.

Transfer the butternut squash puree to a large bowl, season to taste with salt and pepper, and stir in the flour. Transfer to a work surface and knead briefly until smooth. Cut the dough into eighths. Roll 1 portion of dough into a ½-inch thick rope and sprinkle lightly with flour. Using a bench knife, cut the rope into ½-inch pieces. Roll 1 side of each piece of dough against a lightly floured gnocchi board or the back of the tines of a fork, pressing the other side lightly with your thumb as you roll. Make more gnocchi with the remaining dough in the same manner. As you work, arrange the gnocchi in a single layer on lightly floured parchment-lined baking trays. Let dry for up to 2 hours.

Cook the gnocchi in 2 or 3 batches in a large pot of boiling, salted water, stirring occasionally, for 2 to 3 minutes, or until they float to the surface of the water. Remove the gnocchi from the pot using a wire skimmer. Serve immediately as desired.

Serves 4 as a main course. Select a 4 ½-pound butternut squash and use the second half for another purpose. The key to making light, fluffy gnocchi is to drive off as much of the moisture from the butternut squash as possible during roasting and cooling and to incorporate as little flour into the dough as possible. It seems that the squash puree absorbs the least flour if it’s left to cool at room temperature for at least a couple of hours. The dough will be a bit soft and sticky, but it should be smooth and fairly easy to knead and form. Keep your hands, work surface, tools, and dough lightly floured as you work but avoid adding excess flour.

Serve the gnocchi tossed with plain butter, brown butter and sage, or your favorite pasta sauce and sprinkled with grated Parmegiano-Reggiano. Perfect in the fall when squash is abundant. Uncooked gnocchi may be frozen in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking tray and transferred to a zip-top bag when frozen solid. Gnocchi keep for several weeks frozen. Cook them straight from the freezer—do not thaw.

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