Monday, December 20, 2010

Deck the Tables

We decked the halls and the tables for a holiday party with friends, proving that celebrating this time of year doesn't have to be all frozen appetizers and bad Christmas sweaters. Here are my holiday party must-haves to ensure that your bash will be a royal success:
  • Fresh finger foods: the best party appetizers are those you can eat with your hands (or on the festive snowman napkins I got), and to help your guests avoid the holidays belly bulge, put out something light and healthy. We went with veggie crostinis, sauteed vegetables served on whole grain bread, and fresh and easy bruschetta. The real hit was the crostinis topped with artichoke spread, wild mushrooms, and sauteed leeks. Both healthy and delicious, these are simple to make ahead and set out for guests.

  • Seasonal drinks: it's best to have options for your guests to choose from, so in addition to wine and beer, we had eggnog with rum (buy the light kind!), peppermint schnapps for hot chocolate, classic mulled wine (just simmer red wine in a saucepan on low with seasonal spices like cloves and nutmeg with a cinnamon stick and orange peel), and my "poinsettia cocktails" - cranberry juice, champagne, and a splash of vodka - the more drinks, the more merry!

  • Something sweet: it's not the holidays without sweets, so I had to indulge a little here. I placed plates of chocolate cookies, homemade peppermint bark (this couldn't be easier to make - just melt white chocolate over a double boiler and add crumbled candy canes and pour over parchment paper to cool), and bowls of festive chocolate candies and candy canes scattered around. It's especially great to have something baking as guests arrive so the whole house smells like Christmas :)

  • Decorations: combine good food with festive decor and you've got yourself a party. I of course had to get a Christmas tree and adorn with ornaments:

string a plethora of holiday lights throughout the apartment, using extra ornaments to make table pieces:

 hang stockings with care (find creative places if you lack a fireplace as we do):

light candles and create centerpieces with fresh cranberries and pine:

and of course hang mistletoe!

~ Happy holidays from Princess Peach's Kitchen ~


Sunday, December 19, 2010

French Food at Home

Last night I made Coq au Vin for dinner, showing that gourmet French food doesn't have to be intimidating - it can be done simply at home.  Here's the recipe for my version of a classic chicken dish:

Coq au Vin Recipe

3 bacon slices

20 pearl onions, peeled

1 1/2 lbs chicken thighs, excess fat trimmed, skin ON

6 garlic cloves, peeled

Salt and pepper to taste

2 cups chicken stock (I use homemade stock I make ahead and freeze for later use; infused with white pepper)

1 cup red wine (burgundy works well)

1 bay leaf

Several fresh thyme sprigs

A brunch fresh parsley sprigs

1/2 cup button mushrooms, sliced (I used some dried porcini as well)

Carrots, sliced (quantity to taste - this is my addition)

Splash of Worcestershire sauce

2 tbsp butter

Chopped fresh parsley for garnish

1  Brown bacon on medium high heat in a dutch oven big enough to hold the chicken, about 10 minutes. Remove the cooked bacon, set aside. Keep the bacon fat in the pan. Working in batches if necessary, add chicken, skin side down. Season with salt and pepper. (Note: it is best to add salt while cooking, not just at the very end. It brings out the flavor of the chicken.)

2  Brown the chicken well, on all sides, about 10 minutes. Halfway through the browning, add the onions and garlic and then sliced carrots. 

3  Add the chicken stock, wine, and herbs. Add back the bacon, crumbled. Lower heat to a simmer, slow-cooking for 45 minutes to an hour, until chicken is tender and cooked through. Add mushrooms to the remaining liquid and bring to a boil. 

4  Boil quickly and reduce the liquid until it becomes thick and saucy. Remove the bay leaves, herb sprigs, garlic, and discard. Lower the heat, stir in the butter. 

5  Remove the broth and heat in small saucepan on high heat, whisking in flour and Worcestershire sauce to create a gravy. (This was G's idea.) Pour thickened gravy the pan to reheat and coat chicken. Adjust seasoning. Garnish with fresh parsley and serve.

Serves 4. Serve with potatoes or over egg noodles. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Betty Crocker Days

It's been a while since I've reviewed a cookbook, and this one is truly amazing - equally a historical relic from a long-ago cooking era as it is a source for recipes. I found this aging copy of Better Homes and Gardens Salad Book in my grandmother's apartment; the print date is 1957. The pages contain recipes from the classic American late 50s-early 60s period, a time of Jackie Kennedy fashion, anti-Communism, and the "Leave It to Beaver" culture - the apron-clad mother in the kitchen, cooking meatloaf and potatoes for her husband and children. Suffice to say, the level of culinary exploration in the average American kitchen during this time was minimal. The typical diet was dominated by staples like tuna noodle casserole, (actually all casseroles in general), frozen vegetables, and of course the infamous spam.

So what were the recipes for "salads" in this cookbook like? Hysterical, frankly. The majority of salads from that time apparently included either mayonnaise, jello, mini marshmallows, or all three. The selection of jello molds is expansive, and apparently appropriate for both sweet fruit salads and savory dishes. Apparently calorie-counting was not the objective, as Ranch-dressing smothered (defrosted frozen) vegetable salads clearly deemphasize nutritional value, and heavy cream is a key ingredient throughout the book. The most appalling were the corned-beef salad mold (with tomato jello) and the tangy tuna mousse squares - jello, mayo, and heavy cream with seafood.  Yum.

Throwing a kitchy cocktail party, I knew I'd need to start with punch and martini glasses, riddling the apartment with over-the-top decorations. Platters of appetizers, fun finger foods, and of course a few recipes from Grandmother's cookbook would make it really festive. I chose the cherry log, basically a cream cheese-mayonaise log with maraschino cherries and mini marshmallows - pretty much obscene:

To my shock people began eating it. Could my Grandmas have known something that my generation has overlooked? You got it. Apparently people love mayonnaise.

Of course I had to make a jello mold, filled with canned fruit (I used pineapple, peaches and mandarin oranges) which I filled swirly large muffin tins with, envisioning I'd unmold them and create an epic jello tower, along the lines of:

Not so much. My fridge is super cold so the jello came out as ice, which promptly melted to mush in the instant I submerged the pan in warm water (okay, it was probably too hot,) so I got ... jello soup! Again, it got eaten. (What can I say? I kind of like jello.)

To top it all off, I had to get the look, with a flowery cocktail dress and trusty apron:

Betty Crocker with cocktail in hand :)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Making Meatballs

Making Swedish meatballs is a three-part process: note the bowl of raw ground meat mixed with milk-soaked breadcrumbs and seasoning; the meatballs frying in the skillet, and draining before added to the sauce.  *My secret to making extra delicious meatballs: add copious amounts of white pepper and Worcestershire sauce, and even mix in some spicy Italian sausage with the traditional ground pork or beef to give it extra flavor.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Santa Lucia

Today is Santa Lucia day, a festival of lights celebrating Saint Lucia typically in Scandinavia. I experienced my first Swedish Lucia ten years ago when I visited Stockholm over December 13, traditionally the darkest day of the year, where they honor the winter solstice and go all out decorating with candles and of course, food. In Sweden the traditional celebration has a girl selected as the Santa Lucia to lead a candlelit procession wearing a wreath adorned with lit candles on her head (fire hazard, I know) bringing a tray of sweets and goodies. In Swedish homes this is the oldest daughter who brings coffee and sweet buns to her parents, wearing a white robe and singing a Lucia song. Nowadays they have public processions in the city as well, where they hand out steaming hot glogg, spiced holiday wine, and pepparkarkor, gingerbread. Nothing says the holidays to me like candles, singing, and sweets, so naturally I love to replicate the Swedish traditions back here in the States.

First I began by making mulled wine on Friday night, adding cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves to a deep red wine in a simmer pot on low, stirring in a clementine peel for an orange-zest infusion. Though real Nordic glogg can be tricky to find in the States, it's available if you know where to look - other than the food mart at Ikea (believe it or not, those products are authentic!) you can find glogg at European speciality shops in most major cities. My personal favorite is Cardullo's in Harvard Square. They also have classic Swedish food staples such as ligonberry jam and Marabou milk chocolate ... oh joy.

Next I baked a loaf of gingerbread last night (*my trick to making the best gingerbread: cook it two minutes less than the suggested cook time. Turn off the oven and leave the bread inside - with the center still uncooked - to finish baking slowly. The result is super moist gingerbread that's dense and rich and delicious.) This morning's Santa Lucia breakfast of fudgy gingerbread slices and hot coffee can't be beat! Next year I'll make sticky buns, too.

Tonight I will make the timeless favorite Swedish meatballs, which my mother taught me how to do right. The trick is to first soak breadcrumbs in milk and saute onions in butter, mixing with an egg and ground pork and/or beef into plump nuggets that you fry up and create a creamy, meaty sauce in the pan, serving over egg noodles. Swedish meatballs equal the holidays for me, a tradition that I will surely pass along just as my mother shared her heritage with me. Trevlig helg! (Happy holidays!)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sinfully Delicious Triple-Chocolate Cookies

In preparation for the onslaught of holiday parties in the upcoming weeks I knew it's that time of year again: cookie baking season. I started with easy homemade peppermint bark and began considering cookies to compliment - would I go for the classic sugar cookie this year? I think not. I wanted something with a little more panache.

So when I saw the segment of Nigella Lawson featuring her recipe for "Totally Chocolate Cookies," I knew I had found my winner. The premise of the clip is that Nigella makes these intense chocolate cookies for friends who have suffered bad break-ups, calling attention to the wondrous healing powers of chocolate. And these cookies layer it on, with melted dark chocolate, cocoa powder, and chocolate chips to reach a higher level of chocolatey goodness. I went about procuring the recipe for these over-the-top indulgent morsels and found, of course, the ingredient amounts listed in European measurements (I must point out that Nigella's British and not using the absurd English measures system so what's wrong with America, really?) so I set off converting the grams to cups, a new skill to add to my cooking ability repertoire. Then I made my own tweaks, substituting dark brown sugar for light, using a little less white sugar than called for, choosing a dark chocolate truffle bar (you can find this at Trader Joe's) for melting, and a mix of both semisweet and milk chocolate chips for fun. I doubled the recipe and baked about two thirds of the batter this way, and added white chocolate chips and tart dried Monterey cherries to the mixture, and cut down on the bake time by three minutes for this alternate version. The verdict? These cookies are to die for. As always, Nigella you are my supreme domestic goddess.

Here's the original recipe: 
http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/intensechocolatecook_87336

*Note the batter becomes increasingly thicker as you scoop it, appearing surprisingly dry and gummy but coming out chewy and soft when baked, don't you worry. Use an ice cream scoop for sure. You'll need milk!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

On Recipes

"I feel a recipe is only a theme, which an intelligent cook can play each time with variation." - Madame Benoit

Festival of Latkes

For Hannukah this year I decided to do a new twist on the staple food of the holiday: latkes. Here's the recipe I created for my interpretation of the tried-and-true potato pancakes:

Ingredients
6 (or so) "baby" red potatoes
1/2 large yellow onion
1 zucchini
3 baby carrots
1 egg
a few tablespoons flour
5+ tablespoons smoked Hungarian paprika
salt and pepper to taste

sour cream
applesauce topped with cinnamon

Method
1) Peel and grate potatoes and zucchini into large bowl, using paper towels to soak up the excess moisture. Dice the onion and grate the carrots, adding to the bowl. I added a few tablespoons of sour cream for extra binding.
2) Add flour and egg (lightly beaten), stirring with wooden spoon to distribute evenly. Season generously with salt and pepper and paprika to taste - I added a lot to spice up this otherwise typically bland-flavored dish - and let sit 10-15 minutes at room temperature so flavors meld.
3) Heat vegetable or peanut oil in a large skillet on medium high heat, forming mixture into small patties and adding to hot pan. Fry a few minutes on each side, when starting to crust golden brown, in batches until you have used all the filling. Drain hot latkes on paper towel-covered plates and serve warm with sour cream and apple sauce. *I added more paprika to the sour cream.
Makes three plates of latkes.

This version of the classic potato pancakes incorporates more vegetables for nutritional value, and the zucchini and carrots add an extra sweetness to the otherwise starchy potato. Next year I'll go wild and try even more different vegetables, such as turnips and parsnips!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Cafe Deluxe

Of all the restaurants that the culinary hub Bethesda has to offer, why would you go to Cafe Deluxe? In my opinion it is the "classic American cuisine" option lost in a sea of more tantalizing options. Within a three block radius of an Indian restaurant, Lebanese tavern, Irish pub, French bistro and Spanish tapas bar, Cafe Deluxe seems lackluster at best. It has an unimaginative menu to match its charming yet nondescript interior, with your run-of-the-mill dishes: soups, salads, sandwiches and pizza; the expected entree selection of steak, salmon, lamb and pasta. By now I've been trained to never even dream of getting pizza or pasta at an American restaurant. Blasphemy, to the Italian Boy.

So not surprisingly, I chose the salad with roasted beets, goat cheese, walnut and a blood orange vinaigrette - a nice flavor combination (though with me a dish really can't go wrong when there's beets involved.) My major complaint was that the beets were diced too small for my taste, losing the effect of the roasted veggie's fantastic texture. And I have to say that the vinaigrette, though tasty, could hardly be classified as "blood orange" - again, my inner elitist warns when not in Italy ...

The appetizers, including spring rolls and spinach and artichoke dip, were tasty but forgettable, but the pepper crusted rare Ahi tuna with frisee was excellent - good quality fish with excellent preparation somewhat unexpectedly at a place you wouldn't think of doing sashimi. This was the best dish of the night by far, followed by the distant second choice of the lump crab cake with corn and asparagus saute and sweet mustard cream; in the "when in Rome" mentality of course we had to order the crab cakes in Maryland, and enjoyed the refreshing take on this Chesapeake area staple. A true testament, though, to the uninspiring food at Cafe Deluxe was that no one was interested in seeing what desserts they had to offer, figuring nothing could wow us there. Nothing was outright bad, but nothing was truly exceptional, and though I don't expect an epic romance, I at least want an experience with my meal. So if you're going out to dine in Bethesda, I say go elsewhere.

3/5 stars.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bourbon-Brined Turkey

Here's the recipe from The Washington Post that we used for our Thanksgiving turkey this year:

Bourbon-Brined (Smoked) Turkey

Ingredients:

  • One 15-pound turkey (giblets removed)
  • For the brine

    • 14 cups water
    • 4 cups apple juice, preferably unsweetened and unfiltered
    • 1 cup bourbon
    • 1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
    • 1 1/4 cups salt
    • 4 bay leaves
    • 12 whole black peppercorns
    • 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
    • 4 medium cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
    • 4 strips lemon peel (little or no pith)
    For the rub
    • 2 tablespoons ground sage
    • 2 tablespoons dried rosemary
    • 2 tablespoons dried thyme
    • 2 tablespoons salt
    • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

    Directions:

    For the brine: Line a large mixing bowl or clean bucket with a 2-gallon resealable plastic food storage bag or a large brining bag; add the water, apple juice, bourbon, brown sugar, salt, bay leaves, peppercorns, onion, garlic and strips of lemon peel, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Place the turkey in the brine and seal, pressing out as much air as possible. Refrigerate for 12 to 20 hours, repositioning the turkey halfway through as needed to make sure the bird is evenly brined.

    Rinse the turkey and pat it dry; discard the brine.

    For the rub: Combine the sage, rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper in a small bowl. 

    Coat the cavity and skin of the turkey with butter. Coat the cavity with 2 tablespoons of the rub, then use the remainder of the rub to coat the buttered skin of the bird. Place desired vegetables or stuffing in the cavity. 

    *Note: The original recipe has the turkey smoked over applewood chips on a charcoal grill, but we roasted the turkey in traditional fashion in the oven, which took about four and a half hours for a 19-lb bird.

    This was the moistest, most succulent turkey meat I have ever eaten, with the sweet apple cider-bourbon flavor infused into the meat over night to leave it soft and flavorful - the best Thanksgiving turkey I've ever had!

    A Menu to be Thankful For

    Our Thanksgiving Menu:

    Appetizers
    Spinach balls (a family favorite)
    Vegetable platter with homemade roasted red pepper dip
    Puffed pastry pinwheels with pesto and sundried tomatoes
    Dates stuffed with chorizo and wrapped in bacon
    Fried pumpkin "french fries" served with cranberry salsa - made to order with a deep fryer ... oh America

    Cocktails (because it's not a holiday without a drink)
    Apple cider punch: with cranberry juice, champagne, apple liqueur and fresh lemon juice
    Pear bubbly: brandy-infused pear nectar simple syrup topped with Prosecco and Pelligrino
    "Dirty Shirley": Shirley Temples with vodka - my new guilty pleasure :)

    Dinner
    Bourbon-brined turkey (recipe follows)
    Homemade gravy: secret ingredient - splash of Worchestershire sauce
    Stuffing: My Mama's style with bread crumbs, celery and dried cranberries; both stuffed into turkey and served dry on the side
    Cranberry sauce: authentic, no cans in my kitchen! - I made with spices, fresh grated ginger, orange juice and zest, and golden raisins
    Mashed potatoes: whipped and without the skins, the way I like it, thank you
    Southern green beans: tossed with caramelized red onion, crumbled bacon, walnuts, red wine vinegar and mushrooms
    Butternut squash casserole: sweet, topped with brown sugar and pecans
    Yellow squash casserole: savory, with salty cracker crumbs mixed in and topped with cheese
    Rolls: made from the same classic dinner rolls recipe my mother has used for 20 years

    Dessert
    Pumpkin pie: classic. Naturally I made two.
    Pumpkin chiffon pie: fluffy in gingerbread graham cracker crust, topped with whipped cream
    Pear cranberry crisp: served warm with vanilla ice cream
    Caramel pecan cake: surprisingly moist considering my aunt made it with rice crackers to be gluten-free
    Flourless chocolate bars: because my sister believes there should be a chocolate dessert option at every holiday
    Homemade cinnamon ice cream

    Secret family recipes available upon request.

    Monday, November 22, 2010

    Fall Dinner Party

    For our dinner party Friday night we whipped up a tasty menu featuring seasonal ingredients:

    First course: butternut squash risotto topped with grated asiago cheese. Secret ingredient: a dash of curry powder spices up this dish, complimenting the naturally bright orange hue of the squash and adding depth of flavor. Chop and saute the butternut squash first before starting the risotto (you can even make this ahead and refrigerate so it's ready in advance) and in the final stage when the risotto's ready and piping hot, stir in a soft cheese such as the fontina we chose, for absolute creaminess.
    Second course: creamed spinach topped with caramelized eggplant, sundried tomatoes and fresh gorgonzola. Secret ingredient: a pinch of sugar caramelized the diced eggplant as it sautees, browning it wonderfully to perfection. It's best to toss the eggplant with sea salt and let sit for as long as possible before cooking, to soak up its natural moisture to achieve the desired caramelized consistency. I also add minced garlic to the eggplant when cooking (and minced shallots to the creamed spinach because, in the words of my chef friend Bennett, "shallot makes food taste good.")
    Dessert: poached pears drizzled with hazelnut liquor served over vanilla ice cream. Secret ingredient: a spoonful of honey in the poaching liquid. This plates as such an elegant dessert and yet it couldn't be easier - peel and core pears, keeping the stems in, and submerge in a pot of sweet wine and water (I used half a bottle of Muscato with about two cups of water), vanilla and a cinnamon stick and turn heat up to simmer, about 15 minutes. In a small saucepan I made a simple syrup with hazelnut liquor and sugar, whisking until smooth. For presentation I placed two scoops of vanilla ice cream in each bowl, sitting the pears upright in the center, and drizzle the hazelnut simple syrup over top. *Tip: I found it helps to slice the bottoms off the pears to create a flat base so that they sit up while poaching and plating. The combination of the hot pear and cool ice cream is delectable, the fruit so soft it scoops up in your spoon ...

    Using fresh produce and seasonal ingredients such as butternut squash and pears, this dinner is a perfect example of how one can serve a farm fresh vegetarian meal to entertain in style.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    Ginger Carrot Soup

    This soup was another one of my experimental cooking creations - it was time to use up the copious amount of leftovers, and necessity is the mother of invention. So here's my process:

    1) Had a bag of baby carrots were pushing ... not baby. So I sliced a third of them and sauteed them in brown butter in a heavy skillet (add brown sugar to melted butter and stir with wooded spoon) with sage, black pepper and a splash of maple syrup. Serve them hot.
    2) Take the remaining cup(?) of baby carrots and give them a whirl in the blender to chop them up a bit. Add them to saucepan with bottom coated in olive oil on medium heat.
    3) Add half a chopped onion and a small pear, diced, to mix the savory with sweet. Add a few tablespoons minced ginger and season with salt and pepper. Saute until onions are translucent and then add a cup of water and turn the heat up to simmer.
    4) Next I poured the remaining maple brown butter leftover in the skillet into the pot, stirring in a pinch of nutmeg and a generous dash of white pepper. We had leftover rice in a mild curry broth in the fridge, so I stirred that in with the carrots as well.
    5) I added a splash of rice vinegar and sesame seed oil, stirring to combine. Then I poured in a can of chicken broth and simmered for 20 minutes to half and hour, the pot cracked to let the soup reduce. I stirred in a little apple cider and salted to taste.
    6) When the kitchen smelled deliciously of spicy sweet carrots I took the soup off the heat and poured it into the blender to puree. Then I poured the puree back into the hot pot and topped with freshly ground pepper.

    This ginger carrot soup is healthy and delicious, packed with the all the carrots' nutrients and delicious flavor - ginger eases the stomach and the soup warms you up!

    Monday, November 15, 2010

    Wine and Cheese Party

    The cheese platter I created for our wine and cheese party Saturday night:

    Juicy grapes, two kinds of pear, walnuts, dried figs and honey accompany nine cheeses: blue cheese, smoked taleggio, herbed goat cheese, fontina, two types of brie, havarti with dill, smoked gouda, gorgonzola dulce, and an artisinal goat cheese.

    Sunday, November 14, 2010

    Curried Sweet Potato Apple Soup

    Here's my take on Curried Sweet Potato Apple Soup - I decided to combine chunky and smooth textures with both sweet potato puree and chunks of fresh sweet potato, as well as both applesauce and diced apple for the extra layers; the juxtaposition of spicy savory curry and sweet apple works surprisingly well.

    Ingredients

    1 medium sweet potato

    1 can sweet potato puree

    1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and diced (my personal touch for a more chunky soup)

    1 tablespoon unsalted butter

    1 small onion, chopped

    2 cloves garlic, smashed

    1 2-inch piece ginger, peeled and grated

    1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, plus more for garnish

     Madras curry powder to taste (original recipe calls for 1 1/2 teaspoons but I used closer to 1/4 cup)

    Pinch smoked paprika

    Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

    1 can low-sodium chicken broth

    1 1/4 cups chunky applesauce

    3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

    Chopped fresh parsley garnish

    Directions

    Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the ginger, nutmeg, a few teaspoons curry powder, and salt and pepper to taste and cook until toasted, 1 more minute. Microwave sweet potato and scoop out flesh with a spoon. Peel and dice green apple and add to pot.

    Add the  sweet potato pieces and puree, chicken broth and 2 cups water to the pot, cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium low and stir in the applesauce. Simmer, covered, until the sweet potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, stirring to soften potato chunks and adjust spices to taste. *I added a pinch of Hungarian smoked paprika for extra zing and more curry powder as the soup cooked. I finished it with a baby pinch of brown sugar - so good with the spicy and sweet in this soup - and served the soup in a hollowed out loaf of Tuscan bread, homemade bread bowl with bread pieces tossed in to sop up the succulent soup, and garnished with fresh parsley, toasted pumpkin seeds, nutmeg and freshly ground pepper on top.  It was literally finger-licking good!

    Friday, November 12, 2010

    Hamersley Cooks

    A fun video of Gordon Hamersley, chef and owner of Hamersley's Bistro, preparing simple gourmet fall recipes with  pumpkin: http://www.bu.edu/bostonia/web/hamersley/

    Watch as he makes curried pumpkin soup with roasted apple and creme fraiche, pickled pumpkin salad, and roasted pumpkin with lentils, wheat berries, and romesco sauce.  Now that's my kind of seasonal cooking! 

    Thursday, November 11, 2010

    Community Supported Agriculture

    My boss has a CSA share, which we like to refer to as the "magic box." Basically you pay for a season's worth of regular produce from the participating farm, which you can pick up directly at the farm or designated locations throughout the city for the urban clientele. It's a great deal: pay a flat fee and then receive 20 weeks of fresh fruits and vegetables, whatever crops the farm is harvesting that week. Not to mention the surprise factor is great - you never know what will arrive in your box!

    But what is Community Supported Agriculture?

    CSA is a model that has been implemented by many small farms as a mutually beneficial partnership between the business and the consumer. The consumer purchases a share of the coming season's harvest. Typically, the share is paid for well in advance of the season. Consumers receive a good value for fresh, local vegetables and an enhanced relationship with their local farm. The farm receives income in the winter months when the seed, plant and supply bills are piling up and other farm income is minimal or non-existent. CSA also provides the farm an important avenue to supply product directly to the people eating it.

    For us city folks who don't have the space to grow our own gardens, a CSA share is the perfect way to eat fresh year-round, while supporting our local growers. Look for a CSA pick-up location near you!

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010

    On Food Exploration

    "I am not a glutton - I am an explorer of food." ~Erma Bombeck

    Monday, November 8, 2010

    New York Bites

    This weekend we went to the city that never sleeps, which is, above all things in my mind, a literal "melting pot" and culinary mecca! The sights, the smells - there's such a great variety of food in New York City that the real problem is deciding what to try next. So in our quick trip, a "New York minute," we ate our way through the city. Here are my recommendations:
    • Best bagel: Bagel Smith in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. New York's known for bagels, so this is a breakfast must! Interestingly NYC was the first place I saw orders for hollowed-out bagels, for those opting to scoop out some of those extra "evil white carbs." My favorites are toasted everything bagels with light cream cheese or poppyseed with hummus and sprouts.
    • Best hamburger and fries: Shake Shack in Madison Square. You eat at picnic tables out in the square, enjoying the city sights, while enjoying the all-American classic meal. Get the double stack and be prepared for a monster of a burger - two large patties, not overcooked like most fast food joints, stacked on top of each other and dripping with juicy goodness. I'm not a big meat eater and even I had to take a bite of this one. The fries are nice golden ripple fries (no limp, greasy thin fries here) and of course there's milkshakes ...
    • Best French onion soup: Steak Frites in Chelsea - tasty French food at an affordable price. The French onion soup is cooked in a clay pot with the gruyere cheese bubbling on top and the rich broth below, the onions so soft they melt in your mouth. Perfect on a cold night with a glass of wine and a table of good friends - the restaurant's cozy atmosphere is perfect for groups or date nights alike.
    • Best hot chocolate: City Bakery on West 18th. The hot chocolate is so rich and creamy, like a melted milk chocolate bar poured in a teacup with a homemade marshmallow that just soaks up the chocolatey goodness. In addition to their assortment of tantalizing bakery items (their classic chocolate chip cookie is huge, soft, and pretty much perfect), City Bakery also has a savory food buffet serving everything from brussel sprouts to scrambled tofu; we stayed from the brunch wave through lunch time and their menu shifts to serve up hot meals to all crowds. But it's the hot chocolate that really shines - you have to try it!
    • Best quick-fix Italian meal: Eataly, the behemouth Italian food market from the vision of the famed chef Mario Batali, which features a number of fine-dining restaurants as well as assorted counters for espresso, panini, gelato, gourmet cheeses, fresh pasta, a butchery, fish counter, and even produce. Having just opened a few months ago, the new 50,000-square-foot market is "pazzo" as they say in Italian - crazy - busy filled to the brim, but totally worth the hype in my opinion. The atmosphere really emulates the Italian eating experience with tables of people enjoying prosciutto and figs and glasses of red wine, and the food is actually authentic (according to my Italian experts) and delicious!
    • Best cupcake: Magnolia of course. Interestingly I saw my first cupcake van on this trip to New York; riding the growing popularity of food trucks that's booming especially in large cities like LA and NYC right now, rather than offering up hot Vietnamese food, this truck offers sexy little cupcakes! Desserts on the move? Now that's sweet.
    City Bakery's heavenly hot chocolate:

    Thursday, November 4, 2010

    Southwestern Three-Squash Stew

    We had a plethora of squash decorating our dining room as the autumnal table centerpiece, but as they were nearing "over the hill" I decided to cook them up into something delicious. While perusing Alicia Silverstone's pro-vegan lifestyle cookbook The Kind Diet I came across a recipe for kabocha squash and soybean soup, with a photograph so enticing I couldn't wait to try it.

    While Alicia's recipe calls for soybeans and shoyu, or a variation with azuki beans - Asian red beans that they use to make red bean paste - for a Japanese flavor base, I decided to do a Southwestern interpretation. I used a kabocha squash, carnival squash, and acorn squash for my three-squash stew, to combine a variety of different squash flavors with spices and hearty beans, creating a dish that warms you up these chilly November nights!

    Ingredients:
    3 squash (I used acorn, carnivale, and kabocha, but other winter squash will work)
    1/2 yellow onion, diced
    1/2 red onion, diced
    3-4 tbsp. minced garlic
    salt to taste
    red pepper flakes to taste
    1/4 cup cumin (approx.)
    1/4 cup chili powder (approx.)
    15-oz. can diced tomatoes
    2 cans black beans
    1/2 can kidney beans
    chicken/vegetable stock on hand
    tsp. cilantro
    pinch dark brown sugar
    grated cheddar cheese

    Here's my method:

    1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and cut squash into halves, laying them facedown on the baking pan and roasting them for an hour in the oven, or until soft and tender.
    2) Scoop out the squash flesh with a spoon, carefully so as not to tear the skin, reserving the remaining shell for squash "cups" to serve in.
    3) Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pot on medium-high heat and dice an onion - I used half a yellow onion and half a red - adding to oil and stirring until translucent. Throw in a few tablespoons of minced garlic, a pinch of salt and dash of crushed red pepper flakes.
    4) Add cumin and chili powder - *note I used at least 1/4 cup of each to start and added more as the stew came along, because I'm a spicy girl, but if you can't take the heat, go moderately here!
    5) Pour in a can of diced tomatoes, stirring to combine, along with two cans of black beans and half a can of kidney beans. I had originally planned to use just black beans for their smaller shape (and because I thought the flavors of a rich black bean soup would pair nicely with squash) but in her blog The Kind Life Alicia mentioned that she tried her recipe with kidney beans so I thought adding some of these sweeter red beans would add another flavor dimension. If you want this stew to be soupier rather than like a vegetarian chili, don't drain off all the liquid and you can even add chicken or vegetable stock to the beans and tomatoes to make it wetter.
    6) Add the pieces of squash to the stew and stir into bean-tomato-onion mixture. I found that the softer pieces of squash broke down and melded into the sauce while I left some of the larger chunks still intact (as Alicia's recipe pictured) to have sweet squash nuggets among the spicy base. Season to taste (I added dried cilantro and more hot chili flakes, as well as a pinch of brown sugar to balance the heat) and simmer on low until your desired consistency - this depends on preference, whether you want it soupier or chunkier - and let the flavors meld.
    7) Scoop stew into hollowed squash skin shells and top with grated cheddar cheese, heating under broiler a few minutes before serving.


    This meal really hit the spot after this cold and rainy weather we've been having, as the spicy hot stew clears out the sinuses and warms the belly. It's also jam-packed with fiber, from two kinds of beans and three kinds of squash - you get the protein and nutrients, and it fills you up! This was my first time cooking with kabocha squash and I absolutely love it, as the sweet orange flesh has the flavor of a soft sweet potato or even slow-cooked carrot - it's seriously addictive. Combining this with the yellower, woodier winter squash varieties made a great flavor fusion in the pot, the different tastes mingling to create a really wonderful result. Not to mention serving it up in the little squash cups is such a festive fall presentation!

    Monday, November 1, 2010

    Boston Vegetarian Food Festival

    We went to the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival this weekend, for a herbivore escapade. There was an impressive array of exhibitors in attendance, with a multitude of vegetarian and vegan products, and of course the best part of all - free samples! From vegan cookies to organic tea to vegetarian cookbooks to the Herbivore Clothing Company's eco-friendly clothing and accessories, the festival had a multitude to enjoy. Whether tantalizing the tastebuds or informing the masses about a Green lifestyle, the vendors had a ton of new tastes (and ideas) to try.

    After sampling the lot I think it's fair to say I've now tried a considerable variety of vegetarian products. Like all things, they are not made the same. Some of my favorite brands at the festival were:
    • Looking for a healthy snack? Try Sarah's Seaweed Salsa: the seaweed salsa is suprisingly delicious - who ever thought algae would taste good on chips? But mixed with spicy green peppers it really works - we had some on scrambled eggs and tofu for brunch the next morning and it was excellent. Now I love seaweed salad, but those who aren't lovers of the marine taste will find this product isn't overwhelmingly "fishy" tasting. This brand was by far my pick of the many seaweed offerings at the festival!
    • Missing that meat? Try May Wah Healthy Vegetarian Food: there were many vendors offering imitation meat and "tofurky" samples, but the best by far was May Wah. They cooked the faux-meat on the steaming griddle right in front of you, with an expansive variety of flavors such as chicken nuggets, tuna, salmon, ginger beef and BBQ pork. The most authentic for me was the teryaki beef - it tasted just like meat! If you have a chance to stop by their restaurant in New York City I recommend you stop by.
    • Craving something sweet? Go for Luna and Larry's Coconut Bliss: this ice cream made from coconut milk is rich, creamy, literally melt-in-your-mouth good and beats the soy ice cream brands I've tried, hands down. With such sexy flavors as Naked Almond Fudge, Dark Chocolate and Cherry Amaretto, how can you not be enticed? I tried Cappuccino and loved it so much I want to taste them all. It's sold at Whole Foods.
    • Want something truly out of the ordinary? The most far-out exhibitor at the festival by far was Crazy Camel Dessert Hummus, made right up in New Hampshire. Their wacky flavors do a sweet take on the traditionally savory snack, such as chocolate mousse, peanut butter, and toasted almond; we tried their pumpkin pie and caramel apple - perfect for autumn. It's low fat and high in fiber, and one of the creators Bonnie informed us that they use 95% chickpeas, pretty hard to believe when you taste how smooth and creamy the hummus is - this is a totally unconventional approach but you have to give it a try!

    Pumpkin Bread

    I wanted to bake a festive fall treat for Halloween, (with some nutritional value) so I decided to make organic pumpkin bread with a maple cream cheese glaze. Here's the recipe I created:

    1/2 cup safflower oil (vegetable oil works if you can't find this)
    1 cup granulated sugar
    3/4 cup brown sugar, loosely packed (I used dark brown sugar for a richer, more molasses-y flavor)
    2 eggs
    2/3 can organic pumpkin puree (I used Trader Joe's brand - be sure to get unseasoned pumpkin puree and not pumpkin pie mix, which already has added sweeteners)
    1 tsp. ground cinnamon
    1 tsp. ground nutmeg
    1/2 tsp. ground cloves
    1/2 cup all-purpose flour
    1 cup buckwheat flour (I used vegan pancake mix we got at the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival)
    1 tsp. baking soda
    1/2 tsp. baking powder
    1 tsp. salt
    *Can add walnuts to taste but I went nut-free to celebrate the pumpkin flavor

    1.) Preheat oven 350 degrees and grease and flower loaf pan.
    2.) Mix safflower oil and sugars in large bowl. Add two lightly beated eggs and pumpkin puree.
    3.) Add seasoning to taste and stir to combine. Add dry ingredients and mix until just incorporated - should have the consistency of cake batter and nice amber color.
    4.) Pour into loaf pan and bake for 35-40 minutes.
    5.) Cool on rack at least 15 minutes before topping with maple cream cheese glaze. Serve warm or at room temperature.

    To make the glaze: beat cream cheese with about 2 tbsp. real maple syrup and half cup sugar or to taste. Let sit at room temperature to soften while bread bakes. Use spatula to spread over warm bread to drip over edges. So good!

    This pumpkin bread is rich and moist and truly to die for - this one got demolished. Yet I constructed a recipe that still has a healthy flare; between the fiber-filled organic pumpkin, wholesome buckwheat flour, and minimal safflower oil so the bread is butter-free, it's relatively low in fat and retains some nutrients. Of course I indulged my sweet tooth with the sugar, but as my creation is super-sweet you can try the recipe using less sugar if you prefer. Combine soft fluffy pumpkin bread with the tangy cream cheese and a hint of maple flavor, and you have the most incredible Halloween treat!

    Friday, October 29, 2010

    The Great Pumpkin

    Halloween time evokes thoughts of sweets, of course, candy and and clever cupcakes and candied apples, sugar galore! Pumpkins turn into sweet breads, muffins and pies; it's a time for decadence. But October can also be a time for savory foods as well, such as the roasted acorn squash with sage brown butter I made this week, or my experimentation with the classic Halloween favorite: the pumpkin. Now I might not be Charlie, but this was a Great Pumpkin!

    Here's the pumpkin process:

    1) I carved out the pumpkin, scooping out and reserving the seeds. I toasted the seeds on a sheet pan at 350 degrees, sprinkled with salt, ground cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves to taste, shaking the seeds every few minutes to toast them evenly. I added pine nuts and almonds for an extra nutty crunch.

    2) I put half the pumpkin seeds and nuts in a serving dish with extra salt for a savory snack (note pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of iron!) and spread the other half on the pan with a bit of maple oat granola. I melted caramel and poured it over the pumpkin seed mixture, letting cool for 5 minutes. Then I broke the hardened mixture into pieces: pumpkin seed brittle!

    3) The next night I decided to use the hollowed pumpkin as a vessel for a hearty vegetarian dinner, my stuffed pumpkin creation. I started by cooking a cup of quinoa, grain-like seeds originating from the Andes, pairing the pumpkin flavor with an Incan staple to build a truly "New World" flavored dish. While the quinoa cooked I stirred in ground cumin, smoked paprika, and a pinch of curry to spice up the mild, nutty flavor. Once the water had boiled off I stirred in a spoonful of pumpkin butter to mirror the visual with the flavor, combining the spicy with a hint of sweet. I added diced hot red pepper and green onions and a bit of olive oil as I fluffed the quinoa with a fork. Then I added a dash of salt and squeezed half a lemon's fresh juice over top.

    While cooking the quinoa I heated some olive oil in a heavy skillet on medium high and sauteed about half a diced onion until tender, adding minced garlic and drained garbanzo beans to the skillet. I added a little more cumin and a generous palmful of smoked paprika, stirring around to evenly distribute the spices. I tossed in crumbled walnuts to release their natural nut oils into the mixture and then a bag of baby spinach leaves, stirring to wilt the dark leafy greens into the spiced oil and proteins. *Fun fact: quinoa and spinach are both chenopods and thus closely related plant species. So are beets! (some of my personal veggie favorites) so they work well together in this dish.

    For the pumpkin stuffing: I set the broiler on low and moved the oven rack down to the bottom third of the oven. Then I set the hollowed pumpkin in a shallow glass baking dish and filled it about half to 2/3 full with the spiced quinoa and topped it with the spinach mixture, surrounding the pumpkin with excess filling on the dish to create a nice presentation. I put the stuffed pumpkin in the oven about ten minutes, just to warm it through (note to not leave it in too long or the spinach becomes too crispy) and before serving I crumbled fresh feta cheese and a few parsley sprigs on top for garnish.


    Not your typical ghoulish gourd ... but wonderfully delicious.

    As quinoa is a complete protein and full of fiber, this is an incredibly nutritious meal. With the chickpeas and nuts this meal is filled with protein and vegetables, leaving you feeling nourished and satisfied (before the candy to come!)

    Wednesday, October 20, 2010

    Love What You Eat


    Today (October 20th) is the National Organization for Women's "Love Your Body Day," and what better way to show your body love than take pride in what you eat? Here are my favorite "super foods" for superwomen:


    • Low-fat yogurt: let's begin with breakfast, which I NEVER skip! Yogurt has naturally occuring probiotics that really make a difference, trust me; not to mention calcium for strong bones. With the growing fad of frozen yogurt shops that freeze real yogurt rather than the processed fro-yo filled with chemical additives, you can turn this breakfast food into a delicious frozen treat, top with fresh fruit, and you've got a great healthy dessert.

    • Spinach: Popeyes had it right - this leafy green really energizes me and can be used in so many ways. From fresh spinach salads topped with fruit, nuts and blue cheese to sauteed spinach paired with any protein, really, spinach is my go-to vegetable for weeknight dinners that never fails to fill me up.

    • Fish: the claims that "fish makes you smart" and the good press for omega-3 fatty acids' benefits aside, I love fish because it's a tasty lean protein that leaves me feeling good. Unlike red meat or fried chicken that weighs down on the stomach (and the figure), a nice piece of salmon gives you that needed protein without the cholesterol, and when cooked right can taste down-right delicious. If you think you're not a fish person, start small by trying grilled teryaki salmon - tastes like chicken, I swear - and slowly try other white fish like cod and halibut. You'll be eating sushi in no time!

    • Berries: my longtime favorite foods have always been strawberries and raspberries, and add blackberries and blueberries to the mix and you have an incredible source of vitamin C and antioxidants that tastes like nature's candy. Fresh are the best but in winter you can get them frozen and even bake them into muffins and pies ...

    • Dark chocolate: Recent research has indicated a small amount of dark chocolate regularly aids the cardiovascular system, even lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. But for me what I love about chocolate is that it triggers endorphins, making you feel good, and contains serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressent. So give in to the chocolate craving with a small piece of dark chocolate, guilt free - loving yourself means feeling happy.

    Monday, October 18, 2010

    The Daily Planet

    When looking for a restaurant for dinner in Burlington, Vermont I wanted to find a down-to-earth place serving the fresh organic produce of the New England sustainable agriculturists, which has a strong presence in the "crunchy granola-outdoorsy" town. What I found was the gourmet produce-filled menu, but not exactly the down-to-earth ...


    The Daily Planet restaurant is a hush eatery, funky bar and chic solarium rolled into one. Tucked away on a non-descript sidestreet right off the main pedestrian walkway and commercial strip in downtown Burlington, The Daily Planet has a great atmosphere with "celestial surroundings and orb lamps" to pepper the trendy art deco decor and create a comfortable atmosphere for its diners.


    The colorful alleyway eatery has an ever-evolving seasonal menu that the owners describe as "out of this world," and it's pretty tasty indeed. We began with a cheese tasting course (after all, when in ... Vermont):


    From left: Vermont brie, "gor-dawn-zola" blue cheese, cellar-aged goat cheese and a bonne bouche hand-crafted cheese.

    The brie was too acidic for our taste - overripe brie has an ammoniac aroma and bitter flavor, likely the culprit of this displeasing taste. (Underripe brie, in contrast, is chalky and flavorless; the perfect brie is creamy with a velvety "bloom.") The blue cheese was a surprisingly hard cheese compared to the softer Italian cow's milk cheese, while still retaining such blue mold veins that flavor this pungent cheese type. The aged goat cheese is a relatively recent venture for American agriculturists, compared to the French who mastered it centuries ago, no doubt why it lacked the perfection of depth of flavor that a French chevre attains. The bonne bouche, an ash-ripened cheese, was the favorite of the sampler, a true tasty morsel!

    The rotating seasonal menu featured some classic fall favorites, including applewood smoked shrimp with apple butter and gouda, lamb rack with sweet potatoes and swiss chard and walnut-crusted salmon. The "Northern Lights" menu reflects that it really is where the locals dine, with grilled tofu - seitan crackling, honey crisp apple, and baby turnip greens - to cater to the herbivore clientele. For those who eat meat I recommend the pistachio-crusted pork schnitzel that we had, a nice thin crunchy crust with a hint of green, with a delightful pear-parsnip mash (with an unexpected hint of horseradish), celeriac remoulade, and topped with fresh cranberries. I ordered the butternut squash gnocchi:


    Instead of a plate of gnocchi as one would expect, it was a halved baby butternut squash roasted with maple and nutmeg, topped with royal trumpet mushrooms, crispy sage, cauliflower florets and a balsamic reduction drizzled over top - a few gnocchi scattered amongst the flavorful veggies created for a rich and delightful healthy dish. So The Daily Planet hit the spot, fulfilling my desire to follow a seasonal diet (squash, apples, turnips, pears, parsnips and more throughout their wonderful fall menu) and eat fresh and local!

    Vermonster Weekend


    We took a weekend trip up to Vermont to see the New England fall foliage, hike the mountains, and of course taste some of the local fare. Here's the whirlwind Vermont culinary tour in a nutshell:
    • Cold Hollow Cider Mill: watch the cider press the apples into cider (see photo), and sample it fresh and cold or steaming hot on a nippy fall day. In addition to handpicked apples they have the gamut of local farm products including classic maple syrup, honey, homemade fruit jams and mustards, and of course the infamous apple cider donuts.
    • Cabot Creamery: here you can sample a extensive variety of Vermont cheddar cheese, from sharp to extra sharp to seriously sharp (my favorite), to the milder Colby and Muenster cheeses, to the flavored cheddars such as chipotle, jalapeno Monterey Jack, "Tuscan" herbs and garlic, and sage.
    • Lake Champlain Chocolates: from organic truffles to chocolate bars filled with nuts and berries, these Vermont chocolates are handcrafted to perfection with an all-natural gourmet seal. They have festive autumn chocolates and holiday samplers, but my favorite is the classic 5 Star chocolate bar, which Vogue calls "the ultimate chocolate bar" - and it is.
    • Ben and Jerry's: A trip to Vermont wouldn't be complete without a trip to the famed ice creamery. We stopped at the factory out in rural Waterbury to glimpse where the magic happens, and then visited the original Ben and Jerry's shop in downtown Burlington where I had to sample the decadent Chocolate Therapy ice cream flavor. (Chocolate really is therapy, isn't it, ladies? Don't deny.)

    The theme of Vermont cuisine: dairy, dairy, dairy! From cheese to chocolate to ice cream (and a few apples and maple syrup thrown in for more sugar) Vermont is sure to give you a real sugar rush! Who can deny the holy combination of cheese and chocolate, the perfect combination of savory and sweet? It's enough to turn anyone into a food Vermonster ...

    Friday, October 15, 2010

    Scallops Two Ways

    I decided to do some culinary experimentation and present a food face-off - secret ingredient: scallops. Here's what I came up with:

    1.) Seared sea scallops with sauteed chanterelle and baby porcini mushrooms with a roasted red pepper coulis, served over mixed greens:


    How to do it: Lightly salt and marinate scallops in good olive oil and minced garlic and shallots to taste, at least 30 min. in a ziploc bag in the fridge before cooking. Slice and saute mushrooms, with red pepper roasting in the broiler. Remove mushrooms from heat and take the red pepper out of the oven to cool, dice and mix into mushrooms. Add fresh thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Sear the scallops on high heat in the marinade oil until golden brown on each side, serving with mushrooms and sprig of fresh parsley on top.


    2.) "South of the border" scallops in chili spice rub with tequila lime butter and pepper rings garnish:


    How to do it: mix spices in a shallow bowl to create the spice rub - I used equal parts chili powder, cayenne, cumin and a dash of hot paprika for a spicy mixture - and coat scallops evenly with spice rub. Chill scallops, and create the tequila lime butter by pouring dash of tequila (I used Jose Cuervo gold) over about 1-2 tablespoons of butter with the juice of half a lime and grated lime zest to taste. Sear scallops on high heat - the spices will create a crusty blackened edge - and flip to other side, pouring tequila lime butter over top. *Be mindful to stand back from the hot pan when pouring alcohol in it!* Plate the scallops with thinly-sliced pepper rings (I used banana peppers but other varieties will do) and lime wedges with a spring of fresh cilantro.

    Taste test these recipes and choose your favorite!

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010

    Love the 'Shrooms

    At our trip to Russo's Market this weekend we splurged and got three types of mushrooms: portobello, porcini, and chanterelle. Though here in Boston we don't have the luxury of going "mushroom-seeking" in the forest as we do back in Tuscany, in my mind Russo's is the next best thing. Over the years I've grown to love good mushrooms (unlike my childhood response: "ick!"), but it was on our trip to Italy this summer that I came to appreciate them on a whole new level. A good, raw mushroom salad, when using the freshest best-quality mushrooms drizzled in olive oil and tossed with shaved parmesan and fresh herbs, can be a wondrously rich and flavorful dish, no cooking required. I had the privilege of tasting some of the rarest mushrooms there, X, which practically melted on the tongue, they were so delicate yet rich in flavor. As I've learned more about mushrooms in my culinary exploration I've come to discover a myriad of kinds, from fun little shiitakes to creamy creminis to traditional buttons to lobster mushrooms - we discovered these at Russo's and they actually smell like lobster! Add that to a seafood pasta dish and let the flavors fly! Experiment and try cooking with oyster mushrooms, morefan-shaped oyster mushrooms, earthy morels, or go bold with black trumpets!

    Of the mushrooms we selected this time, they each have different characteristics to contribute to a dish. The portobello mushrooms are the "meatiest," with both their larger shape and thicker texture and beefier flavor that bring a hearty taste to a meal. I often substitute portobello mushrooms for meat in my vegetarian cooking, such as in grilled burgers, and have even seen a vegetarian shephard's pie that uses portobellos instead of ground beef!

    Porcini mushrooms, though smaller than portobello caps, have a rich, almost musty flavor. These were our real "splurge" of the day as they were the most expensive, but even two of these bulbous babies go a long way. We also selected a bunch of fresh chanterelles, which look like little gold trumpets. They are soft and delicate in flavor, for some even evoking the smell of apricots. Here is a photo of our fresh chanterelles before we sliced them:


    We decided to make a three-mushroom risotto, using each kind to build a depth of flavor. After soaking the mushrooms in water to remove the grit and sauteeing them with garlic, sweet onions and olive oil, we started the risotto base (keep adding stock to arborio rice and stir to keep from sticking) and added the mushrooms halfway through the cooking process to infuse the risotto with their flavor. The combination of the meaty portobello, rich porcini, and delicate chanterelles melded to create a pot of mouth-watering goodness:


    The meal was hearty enough to satisfy even an avid meat-eater, laden with earthy flavors from the mushrooms and finished with fresh thyme and fontina cheese stirred in to give it a creamy texture. We paired the dinner with a nice Malbec, as the portobellos can stand up to red wine, and topped the risotto with some shaved pecorino for natural salt - note this meal uses very little butter or salt in our case, so the richness comes from the mushrooms themselves.



    Next I used a few of the little porcinis and chanterelles for a seafood dinner, sauteeing them with a red pepper coulis to top seared sea scallops served over mixed greens:


    These 'shrooms sent us into a nice psychadelic trip ... of food ecstasy.

    Fall Fare


    As I like to cook and eat seasonally and locally-grown produce as much as possible, we've transitioned from the summertime meals (of grilled fish, corn and tomatoes, etc.) to the fall meal season in my kitchen. Here are some fresh ideas for fall that I've whipped up that I recommend you try:
    • Roasted pear and fig salad over fresh arugula with walnuts and gorgonzola: pears are a great fall fruit that taste lovely fresh and cooked, if you haven't tried it. For this salad I sliced Bosc pears (Asian pears or Anjous also work well in salads) and gave them a quick roasting to caramelize the sides, so the fruit juices dripped on to the greens to flavor the plate. A nice quick dressing for this salad is to whisk olive oil with apple cider vinegar and a bit of Dijon mustard for a nice fall flavor drizzled over every bite.

    • Brussel sprouts sauteed with green apple, pumpkin butter and raisins: this side dish combines autumn vegetables and fruits with the nutty-sweet pumpkin undertone and smattering of raisins like plump little nuggets of sweetness throughout the savory sprouts. I added some red pepper flakes to this to give it an extra kick, as I'm a spicy girl, but it stands alone either way. Brussel sprouts pair well with proteins like pork chops, but I served it with crispy baked tofu topped with applewood barbeque sauce. Delish.

    • Mashed sweet potatoes topped with sauteed baby bok choy, maple-glazed carrots, and dried cranberries: this dish celebrates the colors of fall with the bright orange sweet potatoes and carrots mixed with the dark leafy greens, and fuses the flavors of savory and sweet. I mashed the sweet potatoes with some cayenne and cumin to spice up the natural sweetness, with a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg and roasted turnips to add another healthy veggie to the meal. This meal would work just as well with kale or swiss chard, whatever you find at your local farmer's market that day. Be creative and see what you create!

    Next concept I'm excited to try:

    • Pumpkin kibbeh: sauteed spinach with chickpeas and walnuts served inside of a pumpkin - the gourd doubles as a festive bowl!

    Autumn Produce Fest

    We went for our fall trip to Russo's and stocked up on all the fabulous autumn produce, getting pumpkins, three kinds of squash, apple cider, leeks, walnuts (as we are squirrels stocking up for the winter, or so it would seem), an assortment of rare mushrooms and peppers, and at the deli exquisite meats and cheeses, and more ...

    My festive autumnal centerpiece for our kitchen table, with leaves I collected outside:

    The squash, now decorating our dining room, to experiment with by cooking in fantastic ways:



    An assortment of cheeses (clockwise from left: gouda, goat cheese, gorgonzola, scamorza, pecorino romana, fontina - center ):


    We even got a star fruit! Went a little wild at the market again, as always had a fabulous time.

    Saturday, October 9, 2010

    Fun with Butternut Squash

    In the spirit of fall, here are some of my favorite butternut squash recipes:

    Butternut Squash Soup

    Yield: 
8 servings 1 hr 40 min

    Ingredients

    1 tablespoons unsalted butter

    2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

    1 onion, thinly sliced

    2 sage leaves

    1 tablespoon minced garlic

    1 medium butternut squash, peeled and roughly diced

    3 cups peeled and roughly diced apples

    2 teaspoons Toasted Spice Rub, recipe follows

    4 cups low-sodium chicken broth or water

    Sea salt, Freshly ground black pepper

    Directions

    Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat, and cook until it turns nut brown. Add the onion and cook until slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and saute briefly to release its fragrance, add sage, 1 teaspoon of the salt and season with pepper, to taste.

    Add the squash and apples, raise the heat to high, and cook, stirring, until the vegetables begin to caramelize, about 5 minutes. Stir in the Toasted Spice Rub and cook briefly to toast it, about 1 minute.

    Add the broth-water mixture, bring to a simmer, and partially cover. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until the squash and apples are tender, about 40 minutes.

    Transfer in batches to a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Return to the pot, reheat to serving temperature, and season with salt.

    Divide the soup among warmed bowls and garnish each portion with some walnuts, parmesan, green onions. Serve immediately.

    Toasted Spice Rub:

    1/4 cup fennel seeds

    1 tablespoon coriander seeds

    1 tablespoon black peppercorns

    1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

    1/4 cup pure California chili powder (about 1-ounce)

    2 tablespoons kosher salt

    2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

    In a small heavy pan over medium heat, combine the fennel seeds, coriander seeds, and peppercorns. When the fennel turns light brown, work quickly. Turn on the exhaust fan, add the red pepper flakes, and toss, toss, toss, always under the fan. Immediately turn the spice mixture out onto a plate to cool. Put in a blender with the chili powder, salt, and cinnamon and blend until the spices are evenly ground. If you have a small spice mill or a coffee grinder dedicated to grinding spices, grind only the fennel, coriander, pepper, and chili flakes. Pour into a bowl and toss with the remaining ingredients.

     

    Butternut Squash with Apples and Maple Syrup

    This is a lovely side dish with roasted pork, braised chicken thighs, or lamb: the sweetness of the vegetables complements the rich flavors of the meat.... and it’s super easy to make! Leftovers reheat well.

    ½ c fresh parsley
4 large shallots
1 large leek, incl. green parts
1 medium butternut squash, peeled
1/4 c unsalted butter
1 Mutsu or Granny Smith apple, peeled
1 ½ T maple syrup
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

    Mince parsley and set aside. Mince shallots. Quarter leek lengthwise, wash well, and slice thinly. Quarter squash and cut into ½-inch slices. Peel and quarter apple, slice thinly.
Melt butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat, saute shallots and leek for a minute or so, till beginning to soften. Add sliced squash and stir; cover skillet and cook until crisp-tender, about 8 minutes. Add apple, maple syrup, and nutmeg to skillet, season with salt and pepper. Toss lightly to combine and cook, stirring now and then, until apples have softened slightly.
Stir in parsley, adjust seasoning, and serve.