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Monday, January 25, 2010

Ready. Set. Roast!

As I mentioned in my year end post, I've been roasting.

There really is not much I have not tried to roast...

Artichokes.  Check.  (With Meyer lemons...a tasty addition if I do say so...)

A giant bag full of garlic and four types of shallots, given to us by a college friend, who's become quite the gardener and has the good fortune to live in Oregon.  Check.

(Sprinkle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  Roast.  Pile the resulting, heavenly 'marmalade' on bread or roast chicken.)

Cauliflower.  Check.  (Thought you didn't like cauliflower?  Have I got news for you!)

Ok, these sound good, but really...not that radical, right?

So try this....
how about Clam Sauce?!


Yes, the past month, I've come across two new roasting recipes that have me I thought I'd share.

First.  Yes, you heard me.  Pasta with Clam Sauce.  ROASTED!
Ridiculously easy and oh so delicious, that it had me asking, where-oh-where has this recipe been all my life?  The magical thing that happens here is with the tomatoes...fresh, cherry tomatoes love being in the oven.  (Live clams?  Hmmm, maybe not so much, but hey.... that's the food chain for you.)  For a Clam Sauce lover like me, this was nothing short of nirvana.

You start an oven-safe pan on the stove with some pancetta and then, while your spaghetti is cooking in another pot, toss the remaining ingredients into your skillet before popping the whole thing into the oven.  Presto!  The result is perfect broth-y goodness.  The clams release their natural juices into the sauce, an intoxicating blend of pancetta balanced with the brightness of tomatoes and white wine.  A shower of torn fresh basil leaves and chopped parsley as garnish at the end.  Lean over, close your eyes and take a are in Italy.   The recipe is from a Tyler Florence book, and I have to say...yes, it is indeed The Ultimate Spaghetti with Clams.

But maybe you're like my brother, and you live in that arctic tundra known as Minneapolis...and you're thinking, "yeah, well, that's all great, but umm, where are we supposed to get fresh clams?!', or maybe you don't even like clams or clam sauce.

Then I say to you, Roast Pears!

And I mean, underripe pears.  (We can ALL find those, right?!)  This roasted pear recipe (from Sally Schneider on The Atlantic's food channel) is so wonderful, I urge you to get pears as soon as is humanly possible--do not pass GO--get your hands on a real vanilla bean (the true hero in Roasted Pears) and pre-'pear' to be amazed.  (sorry, just couldn't help myself there...)

Here, the most humble ingredients (pears, water, sugar, butter, lemon juice and the vanilla bean) are completely transformed in a hot oven.  What you get are meltingly wonderful, carmelized pears...perfect spooned over ice cream, OR, drizzled with chocolate sauce and topped with toasted slivered almonds, OR drizzled over oatmeal, or pancakes...there is no stopping these pears and their magical powers to make people swoon.  The vanilla-flecked pear juices which become like a caramel sauce in the oven...they alone are worth the effort.  Trust me on this.

Now go on...get out there and start roasting...and don't look back!

About vanilla beans...skip the shriveled, dried up specimens packaged in expensive little bottles you find at the supermarket.  You want plump, moist vanilla beans so consider either your fancy grocery store where you'll find them sold individually in glass tubes, or I've been using mail order (I used to buy vanilla beans at Trader Joe's, but mine has stopped carrying them -- they were a total steal and pretty good quality, but alas, no more.) and the quality has been impeccable.  It really does make a difference.
My favorite source is Spice House and they have several locations in Illinois and Wisconsin, if you live out that way.

Essential Roasted Pears
adapted from Sally Schneider

Serves 4

    • 1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar
    • 1/2 vanilla bean (optional)
    • 1 1/2 pounds slightly-under-ripe, fragrant, medium pears, peeled if desired and halved though the stem
    • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
    • 2 tablespoons water
    • 2 tablespoon unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Place the sugar in a small bowl. With a thin, sharp knife, split the vanilla bean lengthwise in half and scrape out the seeds. Stir the seeds into the sugar.

Arrange the pears in a large baking dish, cut-side up. Drizzle the lemon juice evenly over the fruit, then sprinkle with the sugar. Nestle the vanilla pod among the fruit. Pour the water into the dish. Dot each pear with some butter.

Roast the pears 30 minutes brushing them occasionally with the pan juices. Turn the pears over and continue roasting, basting once or twice, until tender and caramelized, 25 to 30 minutes longer (if the pears are small, test for doneness after 35 or 40 minutes of cooking; a paring knife poked into the thickest part of one should meet with no resistance). Serve warm.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dining In

Let me say right off the bat here that I love eating out.  I've always loved it.

When I was about eight, my family spent a long weekend on Mackinac Island at the Grand Hotel.  On our first morning there, we sat in the hotel's formal dining room for breakfast and were treated to our plates of scrambled eggs and French toast delivered to the table topped with high-domed silver covers, which the waiters removed with a flourish.  My mother loves to tell the story of how I turned to her after first seeing this and  said  "I feel like a queen!"

It is indeed a treat to have someone prepare and serve your meal...BUT...(you knew there was going to be a but, right?!) for the past several years, I've been championing a different style of eating out.  I can't pinpoint exactly which overcrowded Saturday night out at a 'hot' restaurant with an hour-and-a-half wait converted me, but there was indeed a turning point.  No more going out on Friday or Saturday.  It had simply become unpleasant to eat out during the weekend.  And, remember Anthony Bourdain's book, Kitchen Confidential?   I've taken to heart his admonishment that weekend diners are getting the worst service and food.  

So for some time now, we've been following the George Costanza rule -- Do The Opposite -- and eating out on the occasional weekday, while saving weekends for cooking and having friends over.  So here I am...ready to convert you, first, by telling you that this schedule is AWESOME!  No more jostling in the bar with the crowds, no more trying to flag the overworked wait staff for a water refill or another glass of wine.  And, think about really does make sense.  If you cook or entertain over the weekend, you'll have time to shop and when your friends are over and enjoying a leisurely dessert, no one will be pushing you out hoping to turn the table quickly.

Over the holiday weekend, we were cleaning out a closet filled with moving boxes and I came across my long-missing file folder boxes of Cook's Illustrated magazines.  It was as if I had found a long lost friend.  These were back issues I'd saved from when the magazine first started and I affectionately referred to them as The Cooking Nerds.  So I spent a highly entertaining hour sitting on the hallway floor reading and, wouldn't you know one of my favorite 'recreate-a-restaurant-dish-at-home' recipes ever!

Remember when Italian restaurants were just that?  Typically they had red checkered tablecloths and things like Veal Scallopine, Eggplant Parmigiana and Spaghetti with Meatballs on the menu.  (...reminds me of Rao's Cookbook!)  If you grew up in Chicago, or New York, Italian restaurant menus often included Shrimp Scampi.

This was always my favorite--tender shrimp, bathed in a delicious garlicky, lemony, sauce, perfect for mopping up with a slice of Italian bread.  Mark Bittman is also apparently a fan of Shrimp Scampi, and he put together the recipe below for Cook's Illustrated.  It's fantastic and ridiculously easy--my favorite combination.  I had it marked from the January 1999 issue where it first appeared, and made it pretty regularly.  Since moving almost two years ago, the recipe has been sadly out of sight, and out of mind.

That very afternoon I found the magazines, I made the shrimp scampi and served it right from the pan.  With a nice salad and a loaf of good bread for soaking up the lovely sauce, it was the perfect 'restaurant' meal, at home.

I'm happy to report...there was no wait for a good table.

*          *           *           *

Simple Shrimp Scampi
serves 4
adapted from Mark Bittman, in Cook's Illustrated

NOTE:  My own adjustment is to use a larger skillet (Bittman originally suggests 10-inch).  Make sure you have all your ingredients prepped and ready to go -- this dish takes just minutes.

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 medium garlic cloves, minced
2 pounds large shrimp (21-25 count per pound) peeled, deveined and rinsed
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
2 tablespoons juice from 1 lemon
Cayenne pepper

Heat oil and garlic in a large (I used 12-inch) skillet over medium heat until garlic begins to sizzle.

Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until fragrant and pale gold, about 2 minutes.
Add shrimp, increase heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp turn pink, about 7 minutes.  Be careful not to overcook or the shrimp will become tough.

Off heat, stir in parsely, lemon juice, and salt and cayenne pepper to taste.  Serve immediately.

Dining out photos, above:
Tacos at Tacubaya, Berkeley, CA
Fish and Chips at Fish in Sausalito, CA
Vegetable kabobs at Greens, San Francisco, CA

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Leaving Your Comfort Zone

I used to have one iron-clad rule when it came to cooking.

If, when reading through a recipe, I came across the words "candy thermometer"...
well, in the words of 30 Rock's Liz Lemon... "Deal Breaker!!".

My candy thermometer neurosis was not caused by any traumatic event that I can recall.  Candy thermometers are pretty affordable, and even easily found in the cooking utensil aisle of one's local supermarket.   

So what was up?  

By banning any kind of cooking that required a candy thermometer, I figured I was saving myself from certain heartbreak and disaster.  Recipes that require candy thermometers somehow seemed daunting with the odds of success definitely not in my favor.  We're talking about things like caramel and syrups and fudge and things needing to "set"...  Yikes.  If I'm going to be absolutely honest, I should tell you there's something about culinary failure that, unlike in other aspects of my life, really throws me for a loop.  I sulk.  I brood.  I keep going over and over it in my mind...what went wrong?  I boycott the stove.  We eat out for a stretch.  And then gradually, I get back on the horse, so to speak.  So, isn't it understandable if I go out of my way to avoid messing up in the kitchen? 

The thing that initially did me in and led to the purchase of a...(ahem)...candy thermometer (shocking, I know!) was fried chicken. Go figure.  Over the past few years I have been gradually preparing myself to make fried chicken.  This plan was part of my 2007 obsession with Southern cooking--our Christmas meal that year was a full, Southern brunch, which left my Eastern European family, vaguely puzzled, yet amenable to exploring the world of pickled green onions and shrimp-and-grits.  Sigh.  I should also mention, there was ham...welcome and familiar to everyone.  But, I digress...

So...I have yet to make fried chicken.  (Still researching.)  But, get this... I did buy a "deep fry" thermometer, in preparation for said Fried Chicken Experiment, which, lo and behold, is also a "candy thermometer".   Baby steps, steps...

Just having it in the kitchen drawer somehow made the possibility of using it slightly less menacing. 

It was a simple buttermilk cake with caramel glaze and the encouraging words of fellow blogger Deb, of Smitten Kitchen, that got me to go out on the limb.  (Oh, the beauty of food blogging!  I can't tell you how many times I've been willing to try a recipe based on the honest appraisal of a trusted food blogger.)  The cake worked out like a charm--of course!-- and was incredibly delicious to boot.  And the candy thermometer?  I'm happy to report, it was no big deal!  Ahh, confidence.

This is the path that led me to boldly tear a recipe for panettone from the pages of December's Martha Stewart Living.  Something like panettone would suffice in the 'high-difficulty' category I like to tackle for holiday baking and this looked like an exceptionally delicious version.

You know panettone, right?  Usually mass-produced and kind of blah-tasting, it's an eggy, brioche-type bread that always has golden raisins and some other type of too-chewy candied fruit, sold around the holidays at your local Italian grocery.  It's always packaged in those odd-shaped boxes...essentially, it's the Italian version of fruitcake.  Even Trader Joe's sells a version.  Panettone, I thought, could be like the holiday biscotti I make -- not something I would ordinarily like when someone else makes it, but customized... it could be heavenly. 

The recipe I tore out of the magazine called for candied orange peel, bought ready made, but I was convinced the way to go was to make my own.  Oh dear.  Cocky, no?

After a little internet research, I settled on David Lebovitz's recipe for the orange peel from his ice cream book, Perfect Scoop.   (Candy thermometer alert!!  Candy thermometer alert!!)  Unfazed, Operation Panettone marched onward.

A couple weekends ago it was time to seize the day, or rather, TWO days...step out of my comfort zone and look the possibility of failure straight in the eye.

It was a roller coaster ride that weekend.  The 'candied orange peel making incident' probably shaved a few years off my life, but was at the same time...exhilarating.  I overcooked it, thinking the syrup the orange peel was in was not look quite thick enough, (err, kind of disregarding the target temperature on said candy thermometer) and in the blink of an eye, the orange peel 'syrup' seized up and almost fully hardened.

Much frantic tugging, cursing, and scraping the now-near-taffy-like orange peel ensued, and I finally managed to dump it into the dough.  With a few swirls of the mixer paddle, the orange peel then balled itself up into a bowling ball sized lump in the center.  More cursing... then yanking of the gigantic orange peel ball from the dough followed.  Improvised step:  grab scissors and start snipping up the orange peel ball!  This seemed to work and it was with true relief that I folded the snipped orange peel into the dough and shoved the whole mess into the refrigerator for an overnight rise.

Long story short -- the panettone baked up the next day into two, (and I say this with all modesty) magnificent loaves.  The flavor combination of orange and bittersweet chocolate is one of my personal favorites and incorporated into the lovely moist brioche-style dough it turned out to be blockbuster. I don't know that I've ever had so many compliments on a baked good like this, and I must tell you the pride of seeing those two beautiful loaves resting out of the oven nearly made me burst.

So, heading into a new year, with all the talk of resolutions etc...I'd suggest instead of the usual half-hearted pledges to lose weight, or exercise more, blah blah blah...simply commit to the occasional stepping out of the comfortable, nothing-will-go-wrong routines you trust and do something that just might give you an unexpected outcome...and some thrills along the way.  Whether that does, or does not include a candy thermometer, is up to you.

Happy New Year.

*          *          *

1)  Recipe for homemade candied orange peel is below, although that's what I started working on first, during Operation: Panettone--Day One.

2)  I just might try soaking some golden raisins in hot water and adding them to the mix next time.

3)  Pretty (and festive) paper panettone molds with cardboard bottoms can be found at Sur La Table for 50 cents each, but my colleague and fellow baking afficionado, Mike G. suggested the option of a brown lunch sack, rolled down to about half height.

4)  The flour's weight is more important than its volume, so the recipe suggests using a kitchen scale for measuring your flour.

5)  A sturdy, stand mixer is a must with this recipe and get that dough-hook attachment ready! (This was my first-time-ever using it, since I'm not really a bread-baking type.

adapted from Martha Stewart Living and John Barricelli, host of Everyday Baking From Everyday Food
Makes two 5 1/4 inch round loaves

1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast (two 1/4 oz. envelopes)
1/3 cup whole milk, warmed
14 oz. unbleached bread flour (about 3 cups), plus more for surface
1/4 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten, plus 1 large egg (for glaze)
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
10 oz. (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
5 1/2 oz. bittersweet chocolate -- coarsely chopped -- about 1 1/4 cups (Valhrona is my favorite)
1 cup diced candied (glazed) orange peel)
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
1/2 teaspoon pure orange extract
Vegetable oil -- for the bowl

For the top: 
2 teaspoons best-quality unsweetened cocoa powder
Pearl sugar, for sprinkling (I couldn't find this anywhere, so didn't use it)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sliced almonds, for sprinkling

1.  Sprinkle yeast over milk in the bwl of a mixer fitted with the dough-hook attachment.  Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.  Sprinkle 2 ounces flour (about 1/2 cup) and 1 tablespoon granulated sugar over top.  Cover with plastic, and let stand for 1 hour.

2.  Add remaining 12 ounces flour and 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, the beaten eggs, and the salt.  Mix together on medium speed until dough forms a smooth, stiff ball, about 5 minutes.
Add butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing well after each addition.  (this takes a while, and there are moments where it almost seemed that the mixer was going to give out on me!)

3.  Switch to paddle attachment, and mix dough on medium-high speed for 5 minutes.  Reduce speed to low, and add chocolate, orange peel, and extracts.  Mix until combined.

4.  Turn out dough onto a clean surface, and form into a ball.  Transfer to a lightly oiled bowl.  Cover with plastic, and refrigerate overnight.

5.  Bring dough to room temperature, and divide in half.  Form each half into a ball; place each in a 5 1/4-by-3 3/4-inch paper panettone mold.  Transfer to a baking sheet.  Let stand in a warm place until doubled in volume -- about 2 hours.

**by this time it will feel like you have been making panettone for an eternity...but do not lose hope -- write some holiday cards... have a glass of wine... the fun is only getting started.

6.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees (finally!!).  Lightly beat remaining egg and the cocoa powder together.  Brush glaze mixture onto panettone dough, and sprinkle with pearl sugar (if you've got it) and sliced almonds.  Bake until golden brown, about 50 minutes.

7.  Remove molds from oven, and run a wooden skewer horizontally through the bottom of each panettone loaf.  Hang loaves upside down (wacky, I know!!) by propping ends of each skewer on 2 large heavy cans, or your flour/sugar cannisters.  Let cool completely.

Step back and admire.  You've done it!!

Panettone can be stored, wrapped in plastic, at room temperature for up to 3 days.
(I've been told it makes tremendous base for bread pudding, but alas, ours did not last that long.)

For the bold and unafraid -- 
Candied Orange Peel 
adapted from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz

(makes about 1 cup)

4 large oranges, preferably unsprayed--washed
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
Pinch of salt

With a vegetable peeler, remove strips of peel 1 inch wide from the oranges, cutting lengthwise down the fruit.  Remove just the colorful outer peel, leaving behind the bitter white pith.  Using a very sharp knife, slice the peel lenghtwise into very thin strips no wider than a toothpick.

Put the strips of peel in a small, nonreactive saucepan, add enough water to cover them by a few inches, and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a gentle boil and cook for 15 minutes.  Remove from the heat, strain the peel, and rinse with fresh water.

Combine the 2 cups water, sugar, corn syrup and salt in the saucepan.
Fit the pan with a candy thermometer (!) and bring to a boil.  Add blanched peel, reduce the heat and cook at a very low boil for about 25 minutes, until the thermometer reads 230 degrees F.  Turn off the heat and let peel cool in the syrup.

Once cool, lift peel out of syrup and snip into small pieces with scissors before adding to panettone dough.

Pan cleaning note:
This was a great tip I got from my aunt after I told her of the disastrous, sticky mess left behind in my fancy All-Clad saucepan.
Add tablespoon of Cascade dishwasher liquid to the pan with hot water and place over very low heat.
Stir and voila -- watch as the glued particles pull away from the pan.
Probably the best advice I've received in years!! Thank you!