Sunday, November 27, 2016

Thoughts on Thanksgiving, part 3 - Leftovers

I love to entertain in my home. I love getting the house ready for a party. I love setting out a great spread of food. I love seeing a group of people having a great time in my living room. I also love leftovers. A fridge full of leftovers is the number one fringe benefit of having a party. It means you don't have to cook the next day!

In the case of Thanksgiving, the leftovers represent weeks worth of future meals.  The day after Thanksgiving turkey sandwich is almost as important as the holiday dinner itself.  I like mine with just turkey, mayo and cranberry sauce and the bread has to be soft and fluffy. Leftovers give both the food and the cook a second chance. Here are some of the things I did with my leftovers.

MASHED POTATO PATTIES:

Leftover mashed potatoes are extremely versatile.  They can be used to make gnocci, dumplings or other kinds of dough. They're great mixed with gravy or in a shepherds pie. I like to use mine for breakfast. I shaped my mashed potatoes into small patties. Then I grated a little fresh potato and pressed it into the outside of the patties to give them that fried potato crunch. I dusted them in flour, then sauteed them in a little bit of vegetable oil. I served my golden brown and crispy potato patties with fried eggs on top and kielbasa on the side. Nothing beats a runny-yolk egg on top of a crispy potato patty. Its heaven on a plate.

VEGGIE GRATIN

As an appetizer, I served a crudite of fresh fennel, carrots, celery and broccoli with a blue cheese dip. I made kale as a side with dinner and I also served some roasted shallots and fennel. The next day, I had several containers of different kinds of veggies in my fridge and I decided to combine a few of them in a cream sauce. I made a roux by cooking one tablespoon of flour with one tablespoon of butter over medium heat, just long enough to cook a little of the raw flour taste out. Then I added a cup of milk and whisked it into the roux. As soon as it came to the boil, it thickened nicely. I added a little grated sharp cheddar and seasoned it with a little cayenne pepper and freshly grated nutmeg and set it aside. I steamed the broccoli and tossed it together with a little kale, a few sliced roasted shallots and a few leftover mushrooms. Then I poured the cream sauce over it and popped it in the oven briefly. It was warm and satisfying and made great use of the leftover veggies.

TURKEY STOCK

For me, this is the absolute best part. I take all the scraps - the turkey carcass, wings and legs I don't intend to eat, carrots, celery, parsley, yellow onions with their skins, garlic cloves and pepper corns. I put everything in a big pot and cover it with water. Today my stock pot was completely filled to the brim. I bring the soup to a simmer and cook it over very low heat for a minimum of four hours. The longer you simmer the stock, the stronger it will be. Today's yield was three quarts, two of which went into the freezer for a future preparation. I placed one quart of the stock in the fridge and will finish it with vegetables and maybe noodles later in the week. It never hurts to keep your own stock in the freezer. In fact, I save all my chicken scraps in the freezer - backs, bones and wing tips - and when I get enough I make chicken stock.

When I was a kid, my mother always made turkey tetrazzini with the Thanksgiving leftovers. Her recipe featured canned cream of mushroom soup, which I consider to be the most repulsive, the most hideous and the most gag-o-licious thing you can buy in the grocery store. But made the right way, it could end up in my leftover repertoire. With leftovers, the sky is the limit. Give your dinner a second chance and let me know how it turns out.



Saturday, November 26, 2016

Thoughts on Thanksgiving, part 2 - Pearl Onions

In my mind, Thanksgiving is defined by the family holiday dinners of my childhood. I grew up in suburban New Jersey about an hour away from New York City, where my parents grew up.  Both of my parents were second generation American Jews whose grandparents immigrated from eastern Europe in the late 1800's.  We celebrated Jewish holidays with local cousins and friends in New Jersey, but the biggest annual family gathering occurred at Thanksgiving. My mother would get up at the butt-crack of dawn to get the turkey in the oven. Grandma Bella, my maternal grandmother, would arrive at about 9:00 am with my great uncle Irvy in tow. Uncle Irvy would watch the entire Macy's Thanksgiving day parade while my mother and grandmother slaved away in the kitchen. At around midday, my paternal grandmother Grandma Dag would arrive with Aunt Barbara and Aunt Marion. Other friends and relatives would filter in during the afternoon. Sometimes my older siblings would bring their high school or college pals and sometimes we'd have a new wave of people just for dessert. It was a bit of a marathon.

The Thanksgiving dinner menu in my house always included certain dishes. Appetizers were always celery sticks smeared with cream cheese and green olives, sticky dates stuffed with half a walnut and rolled in sugar, a dish of canned jumbo black olives and a bowl of nuts in their shells. Of course, there was an enormous turkey and two kinds of cranberry sauce - whole berry and jelly straight out of the can sliced into perfect rounds. There was always bread stuffing made with lots of paprika and cooked inside the bird. There was always canned yams cooked in maple syrup and a few baked potatoes for the people who didn't like yams. We always had a pumpkin pie and an apple pie for dessert. 

The one dish that I associate most closely with Thanksgiving is pearl onions in cheese sauce. My mother would boil the tiny onions until they were soft, then bathe them in a white sauce flavored with Velveeta cheese. Yes.Velveeta. This was standard fare on the Goldstein family holiday table. It just wasn't Thanksgiving dinner without onions in cheese sauce. Funny thing about boiled onions, however, is the carnage they wreak as they pass through your GI track. If the weather was cooperative, it was not unusual to find people wandering out to the porch for a few minutes. I distinctly recall my mother letting a dainty, little utterance go while serving pie when I was about 9 or 10 years old. I was sitting next to her and with the animated conversation going on at the table, I was the only one who heard it. I gave her a big-eye look of amusement and she said "shhhhh" and winked at me. It was our little secret. 

When I got into high school and college, some of my friends became regulars at the Thanksgiving table. Onions in cheese sauce became my friend Jenny's favorite holiday side. During my college years I hosted a late night jazz show on the campus public radio station. My show started at 11 pm and I was scheduled to work on Thanksgiving day. Being the great friend that she is, Jenny agreed to accompany me to the radio station. We'd both eaten large helpings of onions in cheese sauce and on the way to the station we did our best to purge ourselves before spending two hours in a small windowless control room. But the onions are a worthy opponent. About half way through the show, I looked over at Jenny who was reading the newspaper. She was shaking with laughter and tears were rolling down her face. I was about 30 seconds away from doing a live break when she showed me the source of the hilarity - an ad for a home air filtration system that said "TOXIC ODOROUS AND OFFENSIVE GASSES?". As I opened the microphone, laughter poured out of me and I choked.

To make this dish, peel a couple bags of small pearl onions and boil them they are soft. In a small saucepan, melt two tablespoons of butter over medium heat and mix in two tablespoons of flour. Cook them together briefly, stirring constantly, until the flour begins to stick to the bottom of the pan. Add a cup and a half of whole milk and whisk them together until the mixture is smooth. As soon as the sauce comes to the boil, it will thicken. Don't boil it for too long, just a moment. Take the pot off the heat and add small cubes of Velveeta cheese until the sauce reaches your desired taste. It should take a little less than the smallest block of Velveeta you can buy. Of course, you can use another kind of melting cheese like Monterrey jack or mild cheddar, but the Velveeta is intertwined with my Thanksgiving memories. 

My brother long ago forbade the serving of onions in cheese sauce at his holiday table and I have to admit that I can no longer tolerate them either. I did serve roasted shallots this year, but its not the same. Maybe you can carry this tradition forward in our honor. Just make sure the back porch is ready for company. 

Friday, November 25, 2016

Thoughts on Thanksgiving, part 1

It is the day after Thanksgiving, I write a food blog and I haven't posted anything about my dinner. Doesn't that seem odd to you? Given that Thanksgiving is kind of the holy grail of foodie holidays, it certainly seems like a bad strategy not to share any recipes, photos or other inspiration for curious home cooks looking for ideas. I did, in fact, host Thanksgiving at my house with my family this year. It's the first time I've hosted Thanksgiving with my family since 1998. I did a ton of cooking over the past week, but captured very few photos and didn't take a single page of notes for this blog. I'll explain that in a moment,

Thanksgiving has always played a big role in my family life. When I was a kid, my mother hosted Thanksgiving and we usually had anywhere from 8 to 14 people at the table. My mother's menu included dishes that she only cooked for Thanksgiving. She had serving dishes that only came out for Thanksgiving. We used the good china and silver and crystal. It took us a week of cleaning and polishing and prepping to get ready for Thanksgiving. It was big hairy deal. In my teen years, we moved from New Jersey to Texas and being the outgoing and fearless person my mother was, she and my father made new friends. Our Thanksgiving dinners in Texas were somewhat interesting and eclectic with new people at the table every year. When two Russian families moved into town and joined the synagogue, they celebrated their first Thanksgiving dinner at my parents dining room table.  

I eventually moved to Dallas, about 5 hours by car from my folks house. My friend Paul was also living in Dallas and our families had known each other for many years. My parents would drive up to Dallas and we'd go to Paul's house for Thanksgiving dinner. Those are some of my favorite holiday memories, those huge, elaborate dinners. Paul's family is Sicilian and the meal included no less than five courses. We'd start with cocktails and appetizers - fresh boiled shrimp and all kinds of pickles, salads and dips. The actual dinner started with an antipasta of the best quality Italian sliced meats and cheeses, followed by a fresh, handmade pasta course, then turkey and all the sides. At this point many of us would be too full to sit upright and we'd take a break. There would be short naps in front of the football game and much rolling around on the floor rubbing our bellies. During this respite, there would be a big bowl of nuts, a platter of fruit and a bowl of sliced fennel on the table. People would stop by the table and nibble on roasted chestnuts or ice cold fennel, which helps settle the stomach. Finally, everyone would gather back at the table for dessert, coffee and cordials. It was during dessert one year that my father made what has become known as "the fart toast". In short, he emitted a well timed blast of flatus during the end of the meal toast and the story has become notorious in my family. 

Eventually, Paul's folks stopped traveling for the holidays. In 1998, I convinced my parents, sister and brother to come to my house for Thanksgiving. It was a small gathering, but I was so excited and honored to cook Thanksgiving dinner for my family. In the following years, all our lives changed dramatically. My mother passed, my brother Alan fell in love and moved to New Jersey, I met my future husband. My father remarried for a very brief period, I moved to New Hampshire and our family kind of splintered. My brothers and I started a new Thanksgiving tradition when we all lived relatively close to each other.  My brother Art lived in upstate New York and he hosted once; Alan hosted a couple of times while he lived in New Jersey. But when he and his wife moved back to Texas, we resumed Thanksgiving at his house with my dad and sister. 

For me, traveling for Thanksgiving had become the new normal. We were either at my brother's house in Austin, my in-laws house in Dallas/Ft. Worth or with my husband's extended family in New Jersey. Year after year, I'd sit in some airport and yearn to plan my own menu, to dazzle my family with superior kitchen skills and to make memories we would cherish for a lifetime. Year after year, I'd come home after Thanksgiving and cook a small turkey, just to have some leftovers in the fridge. With each passing year, the dream seemed to get farther out of reach, but when we moved to Pittsburgh a few years ago and bought a perfect house for entertaining, I started to think that maybe, one day, I'd actually be able to talk my brothers into coming to my house for Thanksgiving.  Art and I now live just a few hours apart and it didn't take much convincing to get Alan on board. Finally, it was my time.  

I cooked a great dinner. I brined and roasted a fresh 17 pound turkey, I made stuffing and roasted veggies and mashed potatoes. I baked a pumpkin cheesecake and sugar-free apple crumble for dessert. I used my grandmother's silverware and my mother-in-law's crystal. I had both my brothers and their wives here for three days and a good time was had by all, which brings me back to the beginning of this post. It struck me after everyone had left and I was making my day-after-Thanksgiving leftover turkey sandwich. There are only a couple of photos and no notes about my menu because I was busy living in the moment. I was busy making those memories that I will cherish forever. I unplugged. Food and cooking is a very primal way to show someone that you want to nourish them and feed their soul as well as their body. Food is a magic time machine that transports you back in time with pinpoint accuracy to relive emotional memories you associate with food. Food brings people together. This Thanksgiving, I was busy giving thanks for the relationships I have built, looking upon the smiling faces of my family gathered around the holiday table and celebrating with a giant, swinging bowl of mashed potatoes. 

And really, isn't that what its all about? 


Sunday, November 13, 2016

Spaghetti Squash

This is such an interesting vegetable. Its a squash whose flesh pulls away from the skin like strands of thin spaghetti when its cooked. On the outside, it looks like a mild-mannered winter squash. Many  of the common varieties of winter squash we see in the store tend to have somewhat starchy flesh and they become soft when they are cooked. But this yellow wonder transforms into something completely different when its cooked. I've eaten spaghetti squash before and have watched it being prepared, but I have never cooked it myself. My husband has cooked spaghetti squash many times and he likes to serve it like pasta - with tomato sauce and cheese. My Sunday dinner plans featured pork enchiladas and I thought this squash might be lovely either inside or along side. I'm long overdue to try my hand at this unique veggie, so I went for it.

In my research I found all kinds of preparations for this squash from steaming to boiling, but it seems that the most effective and preferred way to cook this thing is to cut it in half and roast it in the oven until it becomes soft. This was also the suggestion I got from my husband and my friend Jenny, who both have way more experience with this product than me. I set my oven to 325, got my biggest, sharpest knife and started sawing at the squash to cut the ends off. It was impossibly hard, but I managed the get the ends off without butchering my own hands. Surprisingly, the knife passed effortlessly right through the center of the squash. On the inside, this squash looked much like every other with large seeds in the center.
I scooped out the seeds to expose the yellowish flesh inside. Jenny suggested a light coating of olive oil and some seasonings that would match well with enchiladas. I opted for salt, pepper, ancho chili powder and a little cumin. The squash gets roasted on a sheet tray cut side down so the inside steams while it roasts. I put some foil on my baking sheet and placed the squash on the foil. I put it in the oven and walked away as it takes anywhere from 45 to 60 minutes to roast. 

Sure enough, an hour later I opened the oven and poked at the squash with my finger. It was soft to the touch and there was a dent in the skin where I'd poked it. I took it out and turned one over. It was piping hot and steaming, but I probed it with a fork just to see how it felt. The flesh came away easily in beautiful pasta-like strands. Perfect. I left the squash to cool while I worked on the rest of my dinner ingredients. The squash was delicious in enchiladas with a little sharp cheddar and salsa verde.
However, this slightly sweet and succulent squash would be excellent with any number of different flavorings. It would be great with just a little butter and salt. I can imagine this squash being great in a curry sauce. It would be delicious with olive oil, garlic, Parmesan cheese and fresh herbs. It would be excellent mixed with mushrooms and breadcrumbs and stuffed inside chicken breasts. I would like to try adding this squash to a vegetable stew or a soup with zucchini and tomatoes. It would make a nice bed for a piece of salmon or arctic char. This squash is neutral enough to blend well with other flavors, but its got enough of its own distinctive flavor to shine through. I'm sold on the spaghetti squash. I'm a fan and I can't wait to play around with it more in the future. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

An Ugly Vegetable

Have you ever seen something in the grocery store and thought "what in the name of Sandra Day O'Connor is that weird looking thing"? If so, you may have uttered similar words at the sight of a celery root. Celery root, also called celeriac, is exactly what it sounds like. It is the root of the celery plant and it has the same texture and flavor as the heart of a head of celery. Its an ugly little bulb, usually about the size of a softball, that is kind of hairy and lumpy on the outside but white and crunchy on the inside. Celery root can be used any number of ways. You can dice it up and roast it in the oven, slice it thinly and fry it like chips or shred it and mix it into coleslaw. Its a really versatile veggie that can be served raw or cooked. If you can get past the appearance, you'll be amazed at how tasty this thing can be.

I'm hosting Thanksgiving this year and have been testing recipes. When I saw celery root in the produce section, I decided to bring it home and add it to mashed potatoes for a little zing. To prepare this thing, I cut the top and bottom off and ran a sharp knife down the sides to expose the white flesh inside. The celery root I bought was rather large and it was really too much for the small amount of mashed potatoes I was making for dinner. I decided to try pickling some of the celery root to see how it turned out.  I cut the bulb in half and set one half aside for the mashed potatoes. I made a quick brine with white vinegar, water, sugar, a little bit of salt and spices like bay leaf, red pepper flake, dill seed, celery seed, a pinch of tumeric and a couple of allspice berries.

I put the brine on the stove over medium heat and brought it up to a boil. I sliced the celery root thinly along with a clove of garlic and a small chunk of onion. When the brine was boiling, I put the sliced vegetables in and let them boil in the brine for about 5 minutes, then moved the pot off the heat and let it cool before pouring everything into a container and putting it in the fridge.

I cubed the other half of the celery root and added it to a bowl with two peeled and cubed Russet potatoes. Here is a great technique for making perfectly fluffy mashed potatoes. I noticed that when I boil potatoes, my mashed potatoes seem kind of soggy. Instead of boiling them, cube the potatoes and put them in a glass bowl. Add a small splash of water in the bottom of the bowl, cover it with plastic wrap and microwave it on high until the potatoes are tender. It only takes a tiny bit of water to steam the potatoes, which keeps them fluffy. The smaller you cut the potatoes, the more quickly they cook. I put my cubed celery root and potatoes in the microwave and in 10 minutes they were soft.

When they were cooked, I drained off the water, added a couple tablespoons of butter and whipped it all up with my trusty hand mixer. The mashed potatoes were delicious served with roasted chicken and steamed green beans. They has that unique vegetal flavor but the texture was fluffy. It was a nice alternative to plain old mashed potatoes. A little while later, I tasted the pickled celery root and it was also quite tasty. Because this vegetable is kind of spongy, it soaked up the brine really nicely. And since I had boiled it briefly in the brine, it got a little softer and picked up the spices. It will make a lovely addition to a pickle tray for Thanksgiving. So the next time you see some weird, ugly vegetable in the store, buy it and try it. It might just surprise you.



Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sticky Toffee Pudding

For the past couple of months, I've had sticky toffee pudding on my mind. I've only had this dessert once before. I found a pre-made pan of sticky toffee pudding in Whole Foods and I bought it on a whim. Even though I knew it was probably a poor substitute for the real thing, I thought it was delicious.

This sweet treat is a modern English recipe, thus the use of the word "pudding", which our neighbors over the big pond use to describe a number of different styles of dessert.  It involves a moist and fluffy cake, traditionally steamed, bathed in a buttery toffee sauce and served with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. The secret ingredient, the thing that gives the cake its sticky texture and fruity richness, is chopped dates. 

I was watching Kevin Dundon's show on PBS and he prepared this dessert. I became somewhat obsessed. My mind would wander and I would find myself thinking sticky toffee pudding.  Just the words "sticky toffee pudding" evoke images in my mind of this unique dessert.  I'd been reading recipes and reviews and finally had a free weekend to experiment. 

I poked through a number of different recipes and settled on one that yielded the smallest quantity, just in case my first attempt was a failure. All the recipes I'd seen called for the large and meaty medjool variety of dates, which I found at my favorite gourmet store. Since this recipe uses a lot of butter, I chose high quality Plugra Europpean style butter. 

THE CAKE:

1 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 cup pitted, chopped dates
1 cup boiling water
1/4 cup unsalted butter at room temp, very soft
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp cinnamon 

THE TOFFEE SAUCE:
1 stick butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup light brown sugar, packed

The recipe starts with the cake. I set the oven to 350 and greased a 10 inch square baking pan. I chopped up the dates, placed them in a bowl and poured the boiling water over them. Following the recipe, I added the baking soda to the dates and set them aside to soften. This step helps to activate the baking soda, which makes the cake rise in the oven. Next I sifted together the flour, cinnamon and baking powder and set it aside. In the bowl of the mixer, I creamed the butter and sugar together until they were fluffy and well mixed. Then I added the egg and vanilla and mixed it until well blended. Then it was time for the dates. 

Some recipes suggested adding the dates in pieces, which would result in sticky little chunks in the finished cake. Kevin Dundon pureed the dates and blended the puree into the batter, resulting in a dark and dense cake. My approach was to blend the dates but to leave them still just a bit chunky. I added the blended dates to the batter and mixed well.  Finally, I added the dry ingredients and mixed them in by hand to avoid over-mixing.The batter was speckled with date pieces and it had a golden color. I poured the batter into the greased pan and put it in the oven. The recipe called for a 35 minute bake time, but my cake was done in about 25 minutes. The cake is done when the top is slightly springy, it starts to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. 

While the cake was baking, I turned my attention to the toffee sauce. I had a moment of panic when I started to assemble the ingredients and realized that I'd forgotten to buy heavy cream. I substituted half and half, but I think my sauce would have turned out better if I'd had proper cream. I used the same proportions and put the ingredients into a small saucepan over medium low heat. The recipe instructed to let the sauce simmer until it began to thicken and turn a rich caramel color. Mine cooked for about 10 minutes and it looked good to me when I took it off the heat. By the time my sauce was done, the cake had come out of the oven and I poured a thin layer of the sauce over the top of the cake while it was hot from the oven. I let it cool for about 15 minutes, but by the time the cake had cooled, the sauce had started to seize up in the pot, so I put it back over low heat to remelt it. 

To serve, I poured a little sauce on the plate, placed a square of cake over the sauce and poured more sauce on top. I added a scoop of vanilla gelato to the side. The cake itself was fluffy and ethereal with little sticky pieces of dates studded throughout. The sauce was not exactly as I'd hoped - the consistency was just a little too thick for my taste, but it tasted wonderful, especially with the vanilla ice cream. I definitely have room for improvement, but this was a good first attempt. I have family coming for Thanksgiving this year. Guess what I'll be serving for dessert? 


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Jumbo Shrimp

Fresh, local ingredients are the backbone of great cooking. When you buy local, you can be assured your food will be the very freshest it can be, right from its source to your kitchen. For almost thirty years, I lived near the Texas gulf coast and for another six years, I lived in New England just an hour from the Atlantic ocean. The seafood I bought pretty much came right out of the ocean and into my cooler. Close proximity to fresh seafood also has a huge impact on prices. In New England, even the largest lobsters were about $8 a pound, compared to $15 a pound inland,. We may have eaten our own body weight in steamers, which we could find for about $4 a pound. In Texas, its all about the shrimp. The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico yield the largest, most succulent shrimp you can imagine. When I lived in Dallas, I'd visit my father who lives very close to the gulf coast. I'd fill a small cooler with the biggest shrimp I could find, 8-10 count for about $6 per pound. I always had fresh gulf shrimp in my freezer.

On a recent trip to the gulf coast, I had shrimp in the brain. Our vacation included a two-day visit with my sister and 93 year old dad followed by three days in a lovely beach house on the Bolivar Peninsula with my oldest and dearest friends. Before we set out on the hour-long drive from my dad's to the beach, we took a detour to a bait shop where I've been buying shrimp for 25 years. There is no name on the storefront, you just have to know where it is. The family that runs the shop also has a shrimp boat and for $7 a pound head-on, they sell the biggest, freshest and most mind-blowing gulf shrimp that have ever tap-danced across my taste buds. We bought 4 pounds of jumbos, a bag of ice and a pair of cheap sunglasses and hit the road. We stopped for a few grocery items, like lemons, cocktail sauce and margarita ingredients, before meeting up with my friends at our retreat on the beach. Once we got settled in and had a few adult beverages, I put a large pot on the stove to boil. 

There are many different ways to prepare jumbo shrimp. It is absolutely yummy sauteed in garlic butter with a squeeze of lemon and served with crusty bread or over pasta. It is fabulous in a tomato broth or a gumbo served over rice. But what I craved was plain boiled shrimp, the best way to enjoy its pure essential flavor. However you choose to serve your shrimp, the worst thing you can do is overcook it. Overcooked shrimp has a hard and mealy texture that is very off-putting. You know your shrimp is ready as soon as it floats and it needs to be plunged into ice water the minute its done to stop the cooking.  We cleaned the shrimp by removing the heads and rinsing them under cold water.
Normally, I would use those heads to make shrimp stock and put it in the freezer for a future soup or sauce, but that wasn't an option this time. I cut up two lemons and two limes and dropped them in the water, along with a bag of Louisiana seafood boil. When the water just began to simmer, I dropped the shrimp in and got my bowl of ice ready.  It took less than 10 minutes for those big boys to come to the surface of the water. I scooped them out with a slotted spoon and dropped them into the bowl of ice. Just a few hours after the shrimp entered my life, they were being dipped in spicy cocktail sauce and enjoyed by me and my grateful friends. 

We ate about half of them on the first night and put the rest in the fridge. For the next three days, we nibbled on shrimp for lunch and in the afternoon with our adult beverages. We also went to dinner one night at a local seafood restaurant where I ate more shrimp. By the time our vacation was over, I was staring to grow antennae, a tail and tiny flippers on my belly. Now I'm back at home and taking advantage of the local ingredients that are in season here in western Pennsylvania. My next trip to Texas is in just a few months and you can bet that wherever I am dining, there will be shrimp on the table. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Peach Mango Crumble

I have what you might call a cognitive disconnect between the concepts of grocery shopping and going on vacation. I have this annoying habit of buying perishable fruits and veggies right before we leave on a trip. I lose my mind in the grocery store or hit a local farmers market on my way home and we end up having to frantically cook and eat all this produce in a matter of days. My husband has made me aware of this issue a number of times, but when I see those Chambersburg peaches for $1 a pound, I can't control myself, which brings me to the subject at hand.

I had three big, lovely Pennsylvania peaches ripening on the counter. I also had a mango that was about twenty minutes away from going bad. We were leaving for vacation in less than a week so I needed to dispose of this fruit post haste. Since I've been doing so much baking lately, my pantry is stocked and luckily, we are both big fans of fruit desserts. There are so many wonderful recipes from pies to tarts to ice creams, but I opted for one of the easiest and most scrumptious - the crumble. Now, there always seems to be a bit of confusion about the difference between crumbles, crisps and cobblers. They are all baked fruit desserts, but each has a different topping. The cobbler has a biscuit topping which is usually dropped in small dollops on top of the fruit. When it bakes, the juice from the fruit permeates the bottom of the biscuit and the browned top resembles a cobbled road, thus the name. The crumble has a streussel topping made with flour, butter and sugar that gets very crunchy when it bakes. The topping for the crisp has the same ingredients as the crumble with the addition of oats, which I just happened to not have in my otherwise well stocked pantry. I did, however, have a big bag of walnuts in the freezer, so I decided to add a little extra crunch to my topping.

PEACH MANGO CRUMBLE:

3-5 ripe peaches
1 ripe mango
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
6 tbsp very soft butter
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts

The amount of fruit you have will determine the size of your baking dish and that is actually an important part of the preparation. The layer of fruit needs to be deep so it doesn't cook away to nothing before the topping browns. The deeper the dish, the saucier the fruit will become while baking, which is exactly what you want. Choose a baking dish that has high sides, like a gratin dish or small casserole, and one that is small enough to keep your fruit from spreading out into a thin layer. Of course, if you have a lot of fruit, you will need to make more topping to compensate. For 6 to 8 large peaches, try doubling the topping recipe.

Preheat your oven to 350. Split, peel and slice the peaches and mango and toss them with the vanilla and a tablespoon each of four and sugar. Set them aside while you work on your topping. In a medium sized bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon and chopped walnuts. Mix them together briefly with a fork, then add the butter in small pieces. Start working the butter into the dry ingredients to form a loose dough. The texture of your dough is critical to the success of this dessert. If you can squeeze the dough together and it stays together, you've got it right. If your dough is too dry and crumbly, add a tablespoon of water and work it in until you can squeeze the dough and it keeps its shape. Your dough should be in clumps when you put it on top of the fruit, Those clumps will absorb the fruit juice underneath and get all golden brown and crunchy on top. Yum.

Dump your fruit into your baking dish and make sure you have a nice thick and even layer. Then start piling the clumps of dough on top, making sure all the fruit gets covered completely. I like a thick topping, but that is all a matter of personal taste. Some people like just a small bit of crumb topping, some people like as much topping as fruit. Its all up to you.  Once you have all the fruit covered, put the baking dish on a baking sheet covered with foil. This dessert tends to bubble up while baking and the juices will destroy the bottom of your oven if you don't take this step. Bake it for 30-40 minutes until you can see the juices bubbling at the sides of the dish and the top is beautifully browned.

The crumble will be as hot as the surface of the sun when it comes out of the oven and while it will be almost impossible to resist sticking a spoon (or your finger) into this magnificent dessert, it is best served warm, but not scalding hot. You will save yourself from a nasty burn if you let it cool off for half an hour before you eat it. For pure heaven in a bowl, serve this with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and make sure you spoon some of that warm fruit juice all over the top. I didn't have ice cream in my freezer, so I served it with a spoonful of plain Greek yogurt, which was also outrageously good.  This might be my favorite summer dessert. Its a great way to use fresh berries, stone fruits or even apples and pears. Try this once and I think you'll want to make again and again.



Monday, August 29, 2016

End of Summer Dinner

Well, this is it. Its the final week of August and while it still feels like summer, it won't for long. The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting cooler and I'm starting to see pumpkin spice flavored everything on the grocery store shelves. In just a few short weeks I'll be putting my sandals and shorts away to make room for boots and jeans.

The end of summer also means the end of summer produce. No more garden tomatoes, no more fresh corn and no more inexpensive peaches and berries. I've been harvesting what I can and getting it processed for the winter. My basil and parsley plants have been tremendously productive this summer and they needed to get trimmed back. I also had a hell of a time last weekend trying to fit everything in my freezer and I decided to cook some of my stored stuff to make room for more.

Our garden was a bit of a disaster this year. Most of our tomato plants came down with late blight and one of them was a variety that was developed specifically for the Heinz company. It is a super Roma that is quite fleshy and has very few seeds, so it is perfect for thick sauces. Before the plant succumbed to blight, it has started to bear fruit and there were about 30 green tomatoes on it. I left the plant alone and let most of the tomatoes ripen. Once they were ripe, I blanched them in hot water, shocked them in ice water, peeled them and put them in containers in the freezer. I had two quarts of those special Roma tomatoes taking up space in the freezer and I also had a huge amount of fresh basil and parsley still growing in my garden. Based on those ingredients, my game plan was to make tomato sauce and fresh pesto for some kind of Italian dinner. After a brief discussion with my husband, we settled on chicken Parmesan and angel hair pasta.

I started with the tomatoes. I'd never grown this variety before, so I wasn't sure how they would taste. I left them to defrost on the kitchen counter for a few hours and as they defrosted I noticed that water was collecting in the bottom of each container. Normally tomatoes put off some juice, but it is typically red just like the tomatoes. This liquid was completely clear, but it had the flavor of sweet tomato juice. I chopped half a yellow onion and sauteed it in olive oil with a little salt, pepper and oregano until it was just starting to brown, then added two cloves of thinly sliced garlic. As soon as the garlic started to brown ever so slightly, I dumped in that clear tomato water and let it reduce for a few minutes to concentrate the flavor. Then I added the still partially frozen tomatoes and let that all simmer together until the tomatoes were completely defrosted. I mashed them a bit with a potato masher and left it to simmer over low heat for about an hour to let some of that liquid reduce. Finally, I used my immersion blender to make a chunky sauce. I was surprised at how sweet these tomatoes were and how much body the sauce had given the amount of juice there was. I set this yummy sauce aside and moved on to the pesto.

I made the pesto following the directions from Tami Dixon who'd made pesto in my kitchen just a few weeks earlier. I wanted to recreate that rough and chunky pesto that Tami made, so I filled my food processor with basil and parsley leaves, added some pine nuts, walnuts, three big cloves of garlic and just pulsed the processor a few times to break everything up. Then I added the olive oil, cheese, salt and pepper and pulsed it just until it was blended. It was chunky and bright green and fragrant just like Tami's. There was quite a bit of pesto and some went directly in the freezer for a future preparation. Once the sauces were made, I moved on to the chicken. I sliced a couple of chicken breasts into cutlets and pounded them out to about half an inch thick.  Each chicken breast yielded four cutlets and I floured them lightly, dipped them in beaten egg and then pressed them into a dish of seasoned Panko breadcrumbs. I pan fried them until they were golden brown and set them on a sheet tray. Once they were all cooked, I covered each one with a healthy dollop of tomato sauce and some shredded provolone cheese and popped them into a 350 oven. After about 10 minutes, I turned the oven off while I boiled the angel hair pasta. When the pasta was cooked, I tossed it with a couple of big spoonfuls of pesto and the rest of the tomato sauce.  I served this delicious dinner with a salad on the side.

The tomato sauce had a very bright, sweet flavor and the tomatoes maintained a nice texture during cooking. If I'd had more of them, I may have cooked a giant pot of tomato sauce and let it boil down to a deep red, rich consistency. Perhaps I will grow them again and next time I will have a bigger yield. The pesto had just the right texture and still had little bits of crunchy walnuts and pine nuts floating around in it.  The earthy and herbaceous flavor of the pesto blended beautifully with the bright tomato sauce and the contrast in texture between the crispy chicken and the soft pasta was a marriage made in heaven. It was simple fare, but made with love from things I grew in my own backyard. You just can't get that kind of fulfillment from a jar or can. When you grow it yourself or buy from a local farmer, you can always trust the quality of your ingredients and your meal will taste that much better when you know where your food came from.




Monday, August 22, 2016

World Peace Cookies

It's all Dorie Greenspan's fault.  You see, not only is Dorie Greenspan a food columnist for the Washington Post, has published 12 cookbooks and won numerous James Beard awards, but she authored what has become my go-to source for baking bread - Baking with Julia.  My copy of Baking with Julia is a mess, its pages smeared with dried egg wash and smudges of butter, and it now automatically opens to the challah recipe. I'm officially a Dorie Greenspan fan. She's getting ready to release her newest book "Dorie's Cookies" and she's been posting recipes on her blog. That's how I found the recipe for World Peace Cookies.

We're living in turbulent times and I have found myself feeling worried and apprehensive about the future. The world could use a little peace, so why not put some good karma out there with a batch of cookies?  As I lined up my ingredients, I started to feel a sense of peace come over me.

Dorie Greenspan's World Peace Cookies

1 1/4 cups AP flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 stick + 3 tbsp unsalted butter at room temp
2/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup white granulated sugar
1/2 tsp sea salt (Dorie suggests fluer de sel)
1 tsp vanilla extract (use the good stuff, please)
5 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped into pieces (I used Giardelli 60% chips)

Now, Dorie has a lot of little tips that helped tremendously when I put this dough together. This is a rolled cookie dough that gets refrigerated and sliced for baking. Its quite crumbly, but can easily be squeezed back together to form the cookies. If your dough falls apart at any time, don't worry about it. Just press the crumbled bits back together and your cookies will come out just fine.

Sift the flour, cocoa powder and baking soda together and set it aside. Working with the paddle attachment on your mixer or with your hand mixer, cream the butter and two sugars together on medium speed until they are fluffy, soft and well blended. You will probably need to scrape down the bowl once during mixing, just to make sure everything gets well incorporated. Beat in the salt and vanilla. Then stop the mixer, add all the dry ingredients at once and turn the mixer back on low speed so the flour doesn't fly all over the kitchen. It won't take long for this dough to come together. When you can't see any more flour and the dough has formed moist chunks, its done. The dough may or may not form a ball, but don't wait for that to happen. Once it has formed the chunks or curds, its mixed enough. Put in your chocolate pieces and mix for about 15 seconds just to incorporate them.

Now, turn the dough out on your work surface and using your hands, bring it together into a mass. It will feel a little crumbly, but it should not feel dry. You should be able to bring it together easily without it falling apart. I enjoyed working with this dough because its texture resembles playdough and it kind of took me back to my childhood. I shaped mine into a loaf to start, then cut the loaf in half. I took one of the loaves of dough and started shaping it into a log, using my bench scraper to released it as it does stick to the work surface. Dorie is very specific on the size of the log - 11/2 inches in diameter. I have no idea how big mine were, but I would say they were about the size of a medium cucumber. I made two even logs with flat ends, wrapped them in waxed paper and put them in the fridge for at least 3 hours. They can also go in the freezer for a couple of hours. Either way, they need to be very chilled before they get baked. If you have frozen your dough, take it out of the freezer and let it sit out for about half an hour before you slice.

I took my dough out of the fridge, placed an oven rack in the very center of my oven and preheated it to 325 degrees. With a sharp knife, I cut half-inch slices out of the dough. The chocolate chunks make this task a little tricky. Use a sawing motion with your knife to cut through the chocolate chunks. And if the rounds of dough fall apart, just press them back together. I placed the dough rounds on a cookie sheet covered with a silicon baking sheet. I highly recommend you purchase one or more of these tools. It will make your life as a cookie baker so much easier! I only cut enough slices to fill one cookie sheet, then re-wrapped the dough and put it back in the fridge.

The cookies bake for 12 minutes - no more and no less. They will not look set when you take them out of the oven, but that's how they are supposed to look.  DO NOT remove the cookies right away. Let them cool off on the cookie sheet until they are just barely warm, at which point you will not be able to resist popping one in your mouth. They are amazing warm, but the texture changes as they cool and they are just as delightful cold. The texture is mostly crunchy with the slightest bit of chew in the center. The chocolate pieces are soft and melty when the cookies are warm, but they firm up as the cookies sit.

The dough can be stored for several months in the freezer, which means you can make a double batch and always have cookie dough ready to bake at a moment's notice. This is one of the most chocolaty cookies I've ever eaten. I ate four of them without a pause and suddenly felt a wave of peaceful vibes wash over me. Next time, I think I'll add a touch of Vietnamese cinnamon or maybe a little ancho chili powder for that mysterious Mexican chocolate flavor....and for a touch of international flare. Can we actually achieve world peace with a batch of cookies?  If Dorie Greenspan thinks so, I'm inclined to agree.













Monday, August 15, 2016

A Very Special Dinner

It was a boiling hot Friday in August and I was hosting a dinner party at my house. This wasn't just any dinner party.  I had donated the use of my house for this dinner party as a silent auction item to benefit Bricolage, a most wonderful and unique theater company in Pittsburgh. Bricolage is the brain child of two extremely talented and creative people, Jeffrey Carpenter and Tami Dixon, and after seeing a few of their stellar productions I jumped at the chance to serve on their board. As it turns out, Tami also loves to cook. So, on this particular Friday in August, Jason and I opened our home to the winning bidders and two of their friends and Tami and I cooked them a wonderful meal. This was truly a special evening.

Once we set a date, Tami and I discussed the menu. I told her I had a pasta maker and an ice cream machine and that was all she needed to hear. Tami's menu included a huge salad, homemade pasta with pesto and mint ice cream, all made with greens and herbs she'd grown in her garden. She also planned a special cocktail to go with appetizers and chose grilled steak to serve along side the pasta. The mint ice cream would be served with angel food cake and berry compote. It was a fabulous herb-based menu featuring simple yet stunning food and we had our work cut out for us. 

Tami arrived at my house at about 2 pm, our guests were set to arrive at 6:30 and dinner would be served at 7.  Knowing it needed time to chill, churn and set, we started with the ice cream. 

Tami's Mint Ice Cream

1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2/3 cups sugar
About a cup of mint leaves (basil would also be nice)
6 egg yolks
a pinch of salt

I've made ice cream many times, but never with fresh mint. Tami had never made ice cream before, so I'd sent her a link to a recipe I'd found online.  It called for making mint sugar, which is an excellent technique that allows the essential oils of the herb to permeate the ice cream. Tami jumped right in and made the the mint sugar while I separated the eggs. She combined the milk and cream in a pot, added the mint sugar and the salt, then put it over medium low heat. While the cream was heating up, she beat the egg yolks with a whisk. This being her first time, I coached Tami as she drizzled the hot cream into the egg yolks while whisking, tempering them like a pro, then adding them back to the pot with the rest of the hot cream. The mint added quite a lot of green color and we could see lots of lovely little flecks of mint leaf floating around in the custard. The custard must be heated slowly and stirred constantly so the eggs don't scramble. I stirred while Tami made the pesto. 

Tami's Double Garden Pesto

A lot of fresh basil, enough to pack the bowl of your food processor to the rim 
Two or three cloves of garlic
about half a cup of pine nuts
1 1/2 cups of good quality olive oil
a good handful of grated Parmesan and Romano cheeses
Salt and pepper

We both had basil in our gardens, so Tami combined them into her "double garden" pesto. I've made pesto before but I usually overdo it in the food processor and it tends to be smooth and runny instead of thick and chunky. Her technique is to barely pulse the food processor, starting with the basil, pine nuts and garlic, then adding the olive oil and cheeses making sure not to blend them all too finely. The texture of Tami's pesto was perfect. She added salt and pepper and put it in the fridge while I strained the thickened ice cream base and cooled it down in a bowl over ice. 

With the ice cream base cooling, Tami made a quick marinade and got the steaks into the fridge, then turned her attention to her bountiful salad, brimming with kale and peppery arugula she'd grown in her garden.  By 3:30 pm, the ice cream base was cooling, the pesto and salad were done, the steaks were marinating and we were able to sit down and take a break. It was so pleasant and relaxing to sit in the living room on that hot afternoon in August, watching the thunderstorms roll in and enjoying an easy and comfortable conversation with a new friend. 

When the rain stopped I ran out for a bag of charcoal and, of all things, a jar of maraschino cherries for the cocktails. I must have been the only person in America without a jar of maraschino cherries in my fridge - not any more! When I returned from the store, we got back into the kitchen to make pasta and we used the recipe I posted here. I think this was the most fun part of the day, getting our hands in the dough and taking turns kneading it until it was smooth and pliable.  We worked as a team to roll the dough into thin sheets, Tami cranking and me feeding the dough into the pasta machine. We rolled the sheets of pasta into logs, cut them into thin ribbons and set them under a damp towel until we were ready to cook them.

By this time, it was about 5:15 pm and things started to move really quickly. Jason got home from work and jumped into the kitchen to take care of the appetizers. Jeffrey arrived at about 6 pm and jumped into the kitchen to make cocktails. I started the charcoal for the steaks and somewhere in there I churned the ice cream and put it in the freezer to set. It was a whirlwind of activity!  And of course, there was the cocktail.

The Dirty Shirley

1 jigger vodka
squeeze of lime
Splash of Izzy cherry soda
Serve over ice
Lime wedge and maraschino cherry in the glass

Our guests, whom I'd never met before, arrived right on time. They were delightful, intelligent, passionate supporters of theater and the arts. While Jeffrey mixed cocktails for everyone in the kitchen, I grilled the steaks and by the time they were done, everyone had settled into the living room for an assortment of cheeses, sausage, olives, crackers and other tasty nibbles. The last thing to cook was the pasta, which we did just before we sat down at the table. I dropped the pasta into a big pot of boiling salted water, cooked it until it was al dente and dropped it into a big bowl with pesto in the bottom. Using tongs I rolled the pasta around in the pesto until it was all fully coated, Tami topped the bowl with chopped tomatoes and dinner was served.

Jeffrey, Margie, Abby and Linda in the front,
Alan, Jay, Tami and Jason in the back. 
Its hard to explain just how delicious your own fresh pasta tastes until you've tasted it and this one was especially good because of the amazing teamwork that went into making it. Dinner was a resounding success and Tami knocked it out of the ballpark with that mint ice cream. It was smooth and creamy and surprisingly herbaceous. We served it while it was still a little soft with angel food cake and berry compote for a refreshing end to a hot August evening. It was simply yummy. Everything was yummy. The conversation was excellent and our guests were having such a great time they didn't leave until after 11 pm. Jeffrey insisted on washing the dishes before going home. I finally dragged myself to bed at midnight, feeling incredibly proud of our accomplishment and honored to have played host to such a unique evening. Tami and I shared a pretty incredible day and we had a fabulous dinner for a generous Bricolage donor to show for it. That jar of maraschino cherries will probably still be in my fridge fifteen years from now and every time I see it, I'll think of this special dinner and smile.


  





Monday, August 8, 2016

Summer squash and corn casserole

When I married my husband, I inherited a whole new repertoire of family recipes.  My father-in-law's ancestors settled in southern NJ, farmed the land for generations and their family tree has deep roots and many branches. Old farm recipes, skills and techniques have been passed down from mother to daughter. Some years ago, my mother-in-law put together a family cookbook filled with the most beloved recipes from multiple generations. On a recent family visit to New Jersey, Jason's Aunt Sandy made one of her favorites, a lovely summer squash casserole.

August is prime time for summer produce. The most perfect and flavorful zucchini, tomatoes, corn, peaches and all manner of fruits and veggies adorn the tables of farmers markets across the city. Grocery store prices on summer produce are as low as they'll get all year. One of Jason's favorite recipes in the family cookbook is his grandmother's pickle recipe, which is made with sliced zucchini. He came home from the store with about 6 pounds of zucchini and yellow squash, made a dozen jars of pickles and had some squash left over. He had the family cookbook open to the pickle recipe and on the next page was the recipe for Aunt Sandy's summer squash casserole.  It was meant to be. 

Before I go any further, I'll just apologize in advance for jacking with this family recipe. I know its a perceived sin to screw around with a beloved recipe and I know I run the risk of insulting Aunt Sandy by doing it my way. I also know that I'm going to come off as a food snob when I say this, but the recipe includes an ingredient that I just can't bring myself to buy - canned cream of chicken soup. With the exception of canned New England clam chowder, I have a visceral dislike of canned cream soups. Canned cream of mushroom soup is one of the most horrifying, revolting things I can imagine eating. My parents loved the stuff and I remember tasting it as a kid and shuddering with disgust. Yet it is a very common ingredient and when I ate Aunt Sandy's squash casserole, I had no idea there was cream of chicken soup in it. Despite my aversion, the dish is delicious just as Aunt Sandy made it, but given a choice between using a highly processed canned item or making it myself, I'll choose the latter. I'm sorry, Aunt Sandy, but instead of canned cream soup, I made my own bechamel sauce, which also allowed me to control the seasoning a little better. I had some leftover ears of corn in the fridge and since I'd already changed the recipe, I figured it wouldn't hurt to add the corn too.  

SUMMER SQUASH & CORN CASSEROLE:

For the bechamel sauce:
2 cups milk
3 tbsp flour
3 tbsp butter
1/2 cup of grated cheddar cheese
2/3 cup of sour cream or Greek yogurt
salt, pepper, cayenne, a couple grates of nutmeg or any other seasonings you might like. 

For the topping:
1 cup panko bread crumbs
2 tbsp melted butter or olive oil
salt, pepper or any herbs or spices you like. I used a little fresh thyme

For the filling:
3 medium yellow squash, cubed
Half a white onion, chopped
2 ears of corn, kernels removed
1/2 cup of grated cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper

I prepared the squash and onions exactly as the recipe stated. I quartered the squash, cut them into chunks, put a medium chop on the onion and boiled them in lightly salted water until they just started to soften. I drained them and put them into a big mixing bowl. I cut the corn off the cob and added it to the squash. Next I turned my attention to the bechamel sauce. A bechamel sauce is basically milk or cream thickened with a roux, which is butter and flour cooked together. I put the butter and flour in a small saucepan over medium heat to make the roux. I cooked the butter and flour together for just a few minutes, then poured in the milk and whisked it to break up any lumps. In order the get the sauce to thicken, it has to come to the boil and it can burn very easily so it needs to be stirred constantly. Once the sauce thickened, I added the spices and cheese off heat and let it cool a bit while I made the topping. 

I like to moisten my bread crumbs with a little butter or olive oil before topping the casserole, which helps the topping brown in the oven. In a small bowl I tossed the bread crumbs with the oil or butter and a pinch of salt and pepper. Finally, it was time for assembly. Aunt Sandy uses sour cream in her recipe, but I just happened to have Greek yogurt, so I whisked it into the bechamel sauce, poured it over the squash, threw in the rest of the grated cheese and mixed it all together. I spooned the squash mixture into a buttered casserole dish and it looked pretty soupy and loose. I was concerned about my proportions and thought my sauce to vegetable ratio may result in a runny casserole. Nobody likes a runny casserole. But I forged ahead, topping it with the breadcrumbs and baking it in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. It was bubbling beautifully at the edges and I set it on the counter to cool a bit before digging in.  

The casserole was delicious. It had firmed up perfectly and was creamy without being runny at all. The predominant flavor was yellow squash with the corn playing a sweet supporting role. I changed the recipe so much that it really isn't Aunt Sandy's squash casserole anymore. Its something new and unique, yet still familiar. This is the art of great cooking - interpreting a recipe, respecting its origins then putting your own spin on it. Inspiration comes from many places and this time it popped out of a family cookbook. Always keep your taste buds open to new ideas! 




Saturday, August 6, 2016

Vanilla Brown Sugar Ice Cream

When we got married back in 2005, my older brother sent us an ice cream maker as a gift and I used it quite often back in those days. As we've moved around the country in the last decade, we've jettisoned quite a few household items along the way. We've lived in several small abodes with minimal storage space and I have to admit I have looked at that ice cream maker several times and wondered if I should schlep it to the next locale or make someone very happy at our next garage sale. Thankfully, its still part of my culinary toolkit and with a particularly hot summer embracing us, I decided it was time to give the old gal a work out. 

In a recent spice purge I'd found a package of very good quality vanilla beans that I'd had for a number of years. I purchased them at  Le Rendez Vous french bakery and gourmet shop in, of all places, Colebrook, New Hampshire, where the human population of 2,300 people matches the moose population. Its quite an unlikely place to find the kind of high-end nibbles you'll find in Le Rendez Vous, yet there it is, an amazing shop in the middle of nowhere. The town sits just a few miles from the Vermont border and about 10 miles from the Canadian border and every year Colebrook plays host to the North Country Moose Festival, which is how I happened to come by these amazing vanilla beans. The radio network I worked for in NH sponsored the festival one year and I volunteered to man the booth and generally represent the station. Finding this package of vanilla beans transported me right back to the vintage car parade, moose calling competition and maple syrup tasting that I'd experienced that weekend. 

Vanilla is such a lovely vehicle for a wide pallet of other flavors. As I pondered my basic vanilla ice cream recipe and rummaged through my pantry, I decided to augment the vanilla with brown sugar and Vietnamese cinnamon. Knowing I'd be making ice cream in the evening, I put the tub of my ice cream maker in the freezer that morning to ensure it was frozen when I needed it.  

VANILLA BROWN SUGAR ICE CREAM
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 vanilla bean
4 large egg yolks
1 tbsp corn starch
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
pinch of salt

The secret to smooth, lucious, rich ice cream is finding the perfect balance of butterfat. I have experimented with a number of different combinations of milk, half and half, heavy cream and light cream with varying results. Too much fat and the final product leaves an unpleasant film on the roof of your mouth. Not enough fat and your ice cream will form ice crystals, making for a grainy final product. I have found that the best balance comes from equal proportions of whole milk and heavy whipping cream. However, I encourage you to mix it up and find the proportions that you like best. 

This recipe begins with the classic French creme anglaise, which is basically a loose egg custard that can be used on its own as a sauce or as a base for other desserts, such as creme brulee or ice cream. The cornstarch is not a typical ingredient in creme anglaise, but in a frozen preparation, it makes the custard a little thicker and helps it maintain a creamy texture once its frozen. Begin by putting the milk and cream in a heavy bottom sauce pan over low heat. Slice the vanilla bean down the middle and scrape the sticky seeds out of the center with the tip of your knife. Scoop all that vanilla goodness into the milk, along with the scraped pod, and heat it gently until tiny bubbles begin to form around the edges and steam begins to rise from the surface. Don't let the milk boil! While your milk is heating, put the egg yolks in a shallow bowl and add the brown sugar, corn starch, cinnamon, salt and just a small splash of the milk before it gets warm. Whisk the egg yolk mixture until it lightens slightly in color and the sugar is mostly dissolved. 

Once the milk is hot, you're ready to temper the eggs. Tempering brings the eggs up to temperature slowly so they don't scramble. Take a ladle full of hot milk and drizzle it slowly into the egg mixture while whisking vigorously. Go very slowly at first as you introduce the hot milk into the eggs, adding a couple ladles of milk slowly while whisking, then adding a couple more ladles before pouring this mixture back into the pot with the rest of the hot milk. Now switch to a wooden spoon and heat the custard over medium low while stirring.  If you don't keep stirring, the custard will stick to the bottom of the pot and become lumpy. Stir until the custard thickens and coats the back of the wooden spoon. Again, don't let this mixture boil! When its ready, strain it back into the bowl, cover the surface of the custard with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming and put it in the fridge to get super cold. This mixture needs to be well chilled before it goes into the ice cream maker. By the way, that vanilla bean still had some flavor to impart. Pull it out of the strainer, let it dry a little bit, then put it into a jar of sugar and in a couple of weeks you'll have vanilla sugar to sprinkle on your pies and crumbles. 

Once the custard is fully chilled, follow the instructions for your ice cream maker and you'll be eating delicious, homemade ice cream in about an hour. Once the ice cream is churned, I like to put it into a loaf pan and let it firm up in the freezer for about half an hour and I serve it with a cookie or chopped candied nuts on top for a much needed crunch. The predominant flavor is vanilla, but the brown sugar and cinnamon make it deep and complex. Trust me, this ice cream won't last long, so get it while its.....um....cold.




Sunday, July 31, 2016

Banana Bread

It all started with my friend Lori. We'd had a very busy month and when I finally had a free weekend, I wanted to do some baking. I posted a suggestion on Facebook that I might make cinnamon rolls and my fellow bakers chimed in. I happened to mention that I had a few over-ripe bananas in the fridge and Lori offered her banana chocolate chip cupcake recipe.   

Lori in the middle row, green sweater, me behind her in a blue tank top
Lori and I grew up together in a tiny, middle class community in northern New Jersey. It was an idyllic place to be a kid. The community was built around a small, shallow lake complete with a clubhouse, several small private beaches and lots of hilly streets perfect for bike riding and woods to get lost in. Lori and I were part of huge group of friends and until my family relocated to Texas in 1978, that community and those friends were my entire world. We went to kindergarten together, attended summer camp together, went to the same doctors and dentists, sold girl scout cookies together, attended each other's bar and bat mitzvahs and we stayed close all through grade school, middle school and into high school. I was 16 years old when we moved to southeast Texas and by the time I graduated from high school, I had fallen out of touch with the friends I'd shared so much of my childhood with. 

Twenty-five years later, we reunited and since then, we've kept up with each other through social media. I have watched Lori's boys grow up and she has watched me move around the country. Through social media, we have discovered we share a passion for baking. Though we have not seen each other for about a decade, Lori and I have reconnected through baking. This is a sterling example of how food brings people together to share our common bonds. 

Back to the bananas. After I cleaned the kitchen, I was ready to bake and Lori had shared her cupcake recipe with me on Facebook. 

LORI'S BANANA CHOCOLATE CHIP CUPCAKES

3 medium ripe bananas
1 tbsp milk
1 tsp cinnamon
1 generous tsp vanilla
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1 stick room temperature butter
2 large eggs
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
Mini chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional - not in Lori's recipe, but I thought it sounded good)

According to Lori's recipe, I set the oven to to 325 degrees. The bananas, milk, cinnamon and vanilla get mashed together and set aside. My bananas were far beyond ripe, the skin was black and the fruit was barely holding together. The aroma from the mashed banana mixture was intoxicating. Next, I mixed the dry ingredients together and set them aside. I creamed the butter and sugar together in the mixer, adding the eggs one at a time, then alternated adding the dry ingredients with the mashed bananas. The batter was quite loose and absolutely reeked of bananas. Finally, I added the chocolate chips and chopped walnuts. 

Now, had I followed Lori's recipe, I would have ended up with cupcakes, but I decided to bake this batter in a loaf pan like a traditional banana bread. It took about 90 minutes to bake and when I took it out of the oven, the toothpick I'd used to test the loaf was still slightly moist. The outside was deep brown and I was concerned it would burn if I left it in the oven any longer. The banana bread was absolutely delicious. It was impossibly moist with a tight crumb and the cinnamon, banana and chocolate created an unusually complex flavor. But this batter would have made a fluffy and delicate cupcake. I would have been wise to follow's Lori's recipe.   

Lori and I will keep baking together in different states, sharing recipes and experiences on social media. Who knows, maybe one day we'll actually bake together in the same kitchen. Our friendship certainly goes far beyond our recipes, but I cherish the relationship we have built through food and I love that we are able to inspire each other to try new things. Thanks for the inspiration, Lori, keep it coming!   


Monday, July 25, 2016

Garden Potatoes

This year my husband Jason decided he wanted to grow potatoes in the garden. He'd been harboring this idea for years and when we expanded the garden in the spring, he claimed space for his potato experiment. After doing some research to understand the structure of the potato plant, Jason had a plan to grow them in tall cages that he would fill with dirt as the plants matured, hopefully promoting the growth of potatoes in the cages as the roots developed. He found some multi-colored potato starts and set up two cages, each containing two starts. He planted three more starts without cages in another part of the garden.  As the foliage grew inside the cages, he dumped dirt on top of it, covering it up with the idea of building more roots, thus making more potatoes. The potatoes that were not in cages got a little more dirt mounded on top, but not as much as the caged ones.

According to the research, potatoes take at least 12 weeks to mature. Jason lovingly ensconced his potatoes in extra dirt every couple of weeks and I planted my tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs. As the potatoes grew, so did my curiosity. The dilemma with potatoes, or any root veggie for that matter, is that you can't see them growing so you don't know if they are actually producing anything. After about 8 weeks, I couldn't help myself. I dug up the smallest plant that was in the ground and found three walnut sized potatoes under there. Jason was not happy about it, but at least we knew something was happening. 

Finally, Jason decided the time had come to unearth his experiment. He pushed the cages over on their sides and started digging from the bottom. Lo and behold, there were potatoes! They were not big or plentiful, but they were there. Interestingly, the plant that had the highest yielded and the largest potatoes was a purple potato plant that was not in a cage. We determined that the cages were a great experiment, but didn't produce the desired effect. The other interesting aspect to this experiment has to do with pest control. We have a healthy rabbit population in our neighborhood and they devour anything that isn't protected by chicken wire. They munch my flowers regularly and the herbs in pots get destroyed if they are not placed on plant stands. We also saw a groundhog in the backyard this year and I'm certain he joined the rabbits in laying waste to my radishes. But the leaves of the potato are poisonous and they stayed in tact while other plants got became a salad bar for the critters. 

Once all the plants were harvested, we had a couple pounds of red, white and purple potatoes. I made a big bowl of potato salad and served it to Jason's family who were visiting from Texas. We decided that they did taste better and more fresh than store bought potatoes. Plus, the purple ones are uniquely lovely and make an impressive presentation when placed on the table. We'll certainly plant potatoes again and maybe I'll find a recipe that is a little more exotic to showcase their beauty.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Best Waffles Ever

Last summer I caught a segment on Food Network that captured my attention. It was about a company in eastern Pennsylvania that makes Belgian Liege style waffles and they ship them all over the country. I was so intrigued that I went on their website and ordered a box of waffles before the segment was over. Two weeks later, my waffles arrived and I fell in love. 

Waffatopia is the object of my waffle affection. Brian and Andrea Polizzi discovered this style of waffle on a trip to Brussels and decided to replicate it in their home. Their waffles were an instant hit with friends and family, inspiring them to chuck their corporate lives and see how far they could follow their dream. Their production facility is based in Conshohocken, PA and they ship their handmade goodness near and far. 

What makes these waffles so special? Its a unique recipe that Brian and Andrea have perfected and their combination of flavors are spot on. The waffles we are used to eating in America are made with a poured batter and we drown them in syrup. Waffatopia waffles are made with a yeast dough, which creates a chewy, bread-like texture. Their secret weapon is pearl sugar that they import from Belgium. The sugar stays in tact and caramelizes as the dough cooks, giving the waffles a sweet crunch with every bite. You can order flavors like maple bacon, vanilla cinnamon and banana and Nutella, which are all delicious. They also have special seasonal flavors, like strawberry banana, birthday cake and lemon blueberry. They use the best ingredients they can find which results in a superior product. This waffle is street food at its finest, meant to be eaten without syrup. 

The other thing that Brian and Andrea have done right is their branding. Their logo is vibrant and charming and they designed fabulous packaging with wonderful slogans like "Sharing is optional" and "Syrup? We don't need no stinkin' syrup".  When that orange box arrives in the mail, I get a huge grin just from looking at the packaging. Each box of waffles arrives with a small supply of wax paper sleeves that you can use to carry your warm waffle with you. I am hoping they start making t-shirts and baseball caps so I can proudly show off my Waffatopia love.  

I have shipped these waffles to people in three states and all the recipients were thrilled. My sister-in-law in Texas declared them the "best holiday gift ever".  My cousin in Virginia was equally impressed.  I had a box of waffles in the fridge when my brother and his wife came to visit this summer.  They devoured them and took the packaging home so they can order their own. I am a shameless Waffatopian and once you try these waffles, you will be too.