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.  


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.  

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