Saturday, July 30, 2011

Persia...exotic and truly sexy food

Twenty years ago or more, a young Persian man--a visiting professor--rented a room in a boyfriend's house.  One night, he treated us to the food of his homeland: ground meat kabobs, steamed rice with a well that held an egg yolk and chopped onion, and some rich, buttery pastry infused with rosewater.  The meal was simple and utterly delicious.  I have never forgotten the aromas and the creamy richness of that egg yolk blended with the hot rice and onions, nor the simple and aromatic pungency of the kabobs, which he prepared in a large, sided cookie sheet, then sliced into squares..  Not being a dessert person, the rosewater pastry didn't resonate with me, lovely though it was.  What I wanted was more kabob meat and rice with egg yolk!

Recently, I attempted to recreate that meal for some food and wine-loving friends.  Did I succeed?  I don't know.  The recipes I researched were far more sophisticated than the young professor's.  His food had a simple, intense, rustic appeal that provoked a visceral response in me.  Mine were good, but never could be as good as that original experience.  Perhaps it was the stories he told of his childhood in Iran that enhanced the meal so much.  I don't know.

But on this particular recent evening, we started with dry, apple-laced bubbles: the excellent Segura Viudas Aria Estate Brut.   We nibbled olives and cashews while the meal came together.  While still waiting for the meal to come together--its progress slowed by tangents of conversation and laughter--we enjoyed a bottle of Pascal & Nicolas Reverdy Sancerre Cuvee "Les Coutes" 2008 (France).  Bracingly crisp and dry with an intensely limey finish (in both the mineral and citrus sense), we got a nose full of green olives and salt that held its own against the olive-bar mix and salty cashews.

Then, at the dinner table, two whites that supported the spice and floral aromas in the food: KungFu Girl Riesling 2010 (Washington State), an off-dry riesling floral and the flowery Asian pear dancing amidst crispness and minerality; and the lovely Ballet of Angels (Conneticutt), a blend of several varietals beautifully presented in its frosted bottle with early 19th c. art on its label.  I first tried this surprising wine from the eastern seaboard (which claims to be the best selling wine in New England) at the Hyde Park Diner, a solidly established restaurant in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Austin, TX.   Ballet of Angels is full of fruit and flowers, slightly sweet, and flirts shamelessly with grapefruit.  We tasted these wines side by side during dinner and although I loved the crispness of the riesling, I thought that the roundness of the east coast wine was an impressive match with the menu.  As I recall, my friends thought much the same.  Needless to say, no wine was left to savor the next day.

The recipes for this dinner are below.  In future, I would change the texture of the lamb kofta by adding fresh breadcrumbs and egg (1/2 cup soft breadcrumbs and one egg well beaten per lb. of ground meat) since the kofta were too dense.  Also, the amount of gelatin called for in the Honey Panna Cotta is incorrect.  The correct proportions are 1 envelope of gelatin to approximately 2 cups cream.  I would like a redo of this recipe and will get back to all of you in future about the results.

May your tastebuds dance!

Kofta Kebabs

Note:  If you want a softer textured kebab, add 1/2 soft breadcrumbs and one egg, well beaten to the ground meat mixture.

Tzatziki with Mint

Saffron Rice with Rose Water

1 1/2 cups basmati or other long grain white rice
3 cups water
1 Tbs. butter
generous pinch saffron (bloom in 1 Tbs. hot water first)
1/2 tsp. rose water (optional)
4 egg yolks
finely chopped sweet onion for serving

1.  Combine rice, water and butter in a covered saucepan and bring to boil.
2.  Add saffron and rosewater.
3.  Cover, reduce heat and cook for about 18 minutes.
4.  Fluff with a fork, then divide rice between four plates.
5.  Make a well in the center of each serving.
6.  Place an egg yolk in the center.
7.  Pass chopped onions.  Serves 4.

Persian Baked Zucchini

Honey Panna Cotta  

Note:  Please adjust the gelatin as instructed above.  Also, you can steep 1 tsp. of cardamom seeds in the honey and cream mixture when you're dissolving the honey for a "Middle Eastern tweak" on this dessert.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Nick's Blue Cheese and Jalapeno Burgers

I love it when my friends pass on their favorite recipes.  Especially if those friends have exceptional taste buds.  One of my wine guys at my local Spec's passed on a recipe to me from someone he knows--gave it a glowing review, in fact.  Made it difficult for me not to try it.  So although I'm not so much of a hamburger person, I had to try Nick's Blue Cheese and Jalapeno Burgers.

Whatever hamburgers you have had before, they can meekly recede to the back of your mind when you make Nick's.  Your previous burgers may have been good, even great, but I think that Nick's burgers are Most Excellent.  In fact the first run was so good that I had to do a second run (and here I will admit that the first run was a tad bit overcooked).  The second run was pure carnivorous heaven!!

I served these burgers as directed in the recipe--on onion buns that were lightly toasted.  And I served pan-fried new potatoes with plenty of onions.  Sliced tomatoes and red onions on the side.  And of course, mayo and ketchup.  I drank a "supermarket beaujolais, " and by that I mean something readily available at your local supermarket if it has a decent wine department.   The wine I drank was Maison Louis Latour Beaujolais-Villages "Chameroy" 2009 (France), deep garnet in color, rich, intense and full of smoked cherries, this is not your typical beaujolais.  It was the perfect pick with the burgers, which had benefited from being seared over flames and hardwood charcoal smoke.

Do try this recipe.  I am publishing it in its entirety, as originally written, in Nick's vernacular and because it is within the public domain.  My only tweaks were toasting the onion buns and using hardwood charcoal... 

Nick's Blue Cheese and Jalapeño Burgers

1 lb. Ground beef
3 Large jalapeños
4 oz. Crumbled blue cheese
1 Tbs. Onion powder
1 Tbs. Garlic powder
1 Tbs. Soy sauce (or Tamari)
1 Tsp. Salt
Swiss cheese slices
Onion buns

1. Get yourself 3 large jalapeños. Slice in half lengthwise and remove the seeds and threads. If you need some kick, leave some seeds.
2. Dice them up and throw them into a mixing bowl.
3. Purchase 1lb of ground beef. I like the fattier variety because it tastes better - say 73% Lean, 27% Fat.
4. Place into mixing bowl with jalapeños.
5. Purchase a 4 oz. package of crumbled blue cheese.
6. Pour 2 oz. to 4 oz. of blue cheese into mixing bowl depending on your preference.
7. Get the following ingredients: Onion powder, garlic powder, soy sauce (or Tamari for better flavor), and salt (kosher salt for better flavor).
8. To the mixing bowl, add 1 tablespoon of onion powder, 1 tablespoon of garlic powder, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, and 1 teaspoon of salt (or 1 tablespoon if you like it saltier).
9. Knead together well.
10. Form into 2 or 3 patties.
11. Get a Rum & Coke (or Margarita, whatever floats your boat) while your grill heats up.
12. Cook the burgers to your liking. I like mine medium.
13. Throw 2 or 3 slices of Swiss cheese on each burger and close the lid.
14. Get that cheese good and melted.
15. Adorn with your condiments of choice and enjoy.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

I can't resist a good cookie

I can turn down many desserts (except a well-made tira misu, of course, and the occasional piece of homemade fruit pie) because sugar just isn't my thing.  But put a plate of homemade cookies in front of me and my knees turn to jelly.

Cookies were a staple in my childhood home.  Rich chocolate chip cookies filled with walnuts and semi-sweet morsels, snickerdoodles with their cinnamon crunch and cream of tartar tang, soft, date-filled cookies that my grandmother made, enormous sugar cookies with a fat Muscat raisin in the middle of each one, crisp, spicy gingersnaps, and my mother's Christmas cookies--which deserve their own chapter--my favorite being kolachki, the dainty cream cheese-butter pastries filled with lekvar, chopped walnuts, or apricot butter.

I love cookies.  In my opinion, no sweet is so humble and so noble.  A cookie can be a simple concoction of spices, nuts, molasses and flour, like the hermit, or it can be pristine and elegant like miniature Linzer tarts.  Whenever I see beautifully decorated cookies on the covers of magazines, I'm enchanted.  Usually, they're sugar cookies, elegantly adorned with royal icing and silver non-pareils.  I admire the skill and patience that it took to create that gorgeous plate of cookies.  They are so pretty, I feel like it is a sacrilege to eat them.  I would, however, like to serve those cookies and let other people grapple with the moral dilemma of eating them.

I guess that's why I prefer a humble, earthy cookie like an oatmeal cookie.  There is just something about the toothsome satisfaction of biting into a soft, chewy homemade oatmeal cookie.  The butter, the brown sugar, the oats--they all come together in my mouth in such a solid, satisfying way.  I've made many oatmeal cookies in my lifetime, but the recipe I like best is the one from the Quaker Oats box.  It just seems to have a perfect balance of butter, sugar and oats and there's also just a little warmth from the cinnamon and nutmeg.  I've also been able to tweak the recipe over the years just a bit, enhancing it with peanut butter, or molasses, or enrich it with chocolate chips, chopped dates or chopped nuts.  It's just a fabulous cookie recipe all the way around.

Here it is:

Quaker's Best Oatmeal Cookies

1 1/4 c. softened butter or margarine (I often sub 2 Tbs. of creamy peanut butter for part of the fat--just enough to add a hint of nuttiness without being "peanut butter cookie flavor")
3/4 c. firmly packed brown sugar (I often sub 2 Tbs. molasses for 2 Tbs. brown sugar; it adds incredible depth)
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
3 c. uncooked oatmeal (I always use old-fashioned oats--great texture--or you can mill these in a food processor for a very finely grained, soft cookie)

Optional add-ins:  raisins, craisins, chocolate chips, walnuts, pecans, chopped Medjool dates, chopped dried figs, etc.)

1.  Heat oven to 375 degrees.
2.  Beat butter and sugars together until creamy (add peanut butter and molasses here).
3.  Beat in egg and vanilla extract.
4.  Combine flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg; add to creamed mixture and blend well.
5.  Stir in oatmeal and any other additional ingredients you choose.
6.  Drop by rounded spoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets.
7.  Bake 8 to 9 minutes for a chewy cookie; 10 to 11 minutes for a crispy cookie.
8.  Cool for 1 minute on cookie sheet; remove to wire rack and cool.
9.  Makes about 4 1/2 dozen cookies.


I have to tell you about one more cookie recipe.  I made these recently and I literally had to talk sternly to myself to stop from eating the dough.  They are a bit more labor intensive than the oatmeal cookie recipe, but the end result is a cookie that is rich, intense and entirely luscious.  Filled with chopped, crystalized ginger, toasted walnuts and rich with butter, this is a very grown-up cookie.  I added freshly ground black pepper (you can add up to 1 tsp. with great results) to the dough in order to boost the spice content.  Let me know what you think if this try this recipe for Ginger Walnut Cookies.

Enjoy your cookies!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I made a quasi quiche

Say the word "quiche" and I immediately recall swanky luncheon spots of the 80's, decked out in chrome and glass, a carafe of chablis, Big Hair, and shoulder pads.  But I happen to like quiche, or any kind of savory pie, and every so often, I enjoy putting one together.  If I'm feeling industrious, I make my own pastry.  If I'm feeling lazy, I buy a frozen deep-dish pie shell.  Either way, quiche is fabulous.  Anytime.  Warm or room temperature, it's satisfyingly solid with just enough richness from the cheese, eggs and pastry.

So I decided to make a quiche.  I made it strictly from ingredients on hand.  Now, I don't have these ingredients on hand all the time, but often, after dinner parties and other events, I have food in my freezer, refrigerator and pantry that comes together in serendipitous harmony.  Such was the case with my quiche.  But wait, I need to 'fess up here.  I didn't really make a quiche.  I made a quasi quiche.

Michael Ruhlman states that quiche has been misunderstood in the United States since Americans have insisted on trying to fit its contents in a pie shell.  "A proper quiche shell must be deep enough to allow you to cook the custard properly, which is why it is traditionally cooked in a 2-inch by 9-inch ring mold. Ring molds are inexpensive and can be found in many kitchenware stores, but you might also use a 2-inch cake pan provided you line the bottom with parchment paper. If you cook a custard in a pie shell, even if you cook it perfectly and don't overcook it — which is easy to do — when it's so thin, the custard is too shallow to offer its fundamental pleasure, which is a luxurious texture."  Read Mr. Ruhlman's full story and find his recipe for classic Quiche Lorraine here

So while I plan to tackle Mr. Ruhlman's recipe in the very near future, I thought that my quasi quiche was quite nice.  And although it wasn't technically The Real Deal, it was more than a reasonable facsimile thereof.  Basically, you can make a (quasi) quiche that contains just about any edible ingredient as long as you follow the rule for the egg custard that binds the ingredients.  The ratio of eggs to cream/milk/half-and-half needs to be 2:1 (i.e., 2 eggs to 1 cup cream, etc.).  I use large eggs.  And I usually use half-and-half (and sometimes evaporated milk) to ensure that the egg custard is properly dense and rich.

To accompany my quasi quiche, I cut up a mango and tossed it with blueberries, raspberries and mint in a dressing of fresh lime juice, honey, oil and a little garlic and then spooned the dressed fruit over mixed baby greens.  I also served a sparkling riesling spiked with elderflower liqueur.  It was a lovely lunch, and I plan to repeat it again soon.  Only the next rendition will be The Real Deal, at which point I will ask Mr. Ruhlman for a critique.  What??  You think he's much too busy to come to my house for lunch?  Oh, pish.  I bet he'd have a great time at Vindaloo's.

White Flower Sparkling Cocktail

1 oz. St. Germain Elderflower liqueur
5 to 6 oz. Pacific Rim White Flowers Brut Sparkling Riesling, chilled

Pour elderflower liqueur into a chilled champagne flute.  Add sparkling riesling.  Makes one cocktail.

Dressed Fruit and Baby Greens
         You can use strawberries and blackberries if you wish, but the mango is key.

Dressing: Whisk together 2 Tbs. each fresh lime juice, honey, canola oil.  Add 1 clove of garlic, smashed and 1 tsp. poppy seeds (optional).

1 large, ripe mango, flesh sliced away from pit, skin removed and cut into bite-size pieces
1/4 cup fresh blueberries 
1/4 cup fresh raspberries
6 to 8 fresh mint leaves, in chiffonade
4 cups mixed baby greens

1.  Prepare dressing.
2.  Combine mango, blueberries and raspberries in a small bowl.
3.  Drizzle with 1/4 cup dressing and toss.
4.  Stir in mint leaves.  Set aside.
5.  Divide and arrange baby greens on two chilled salad plates.
6.  Divide dressed fruit between salads, spooning over the top.
7.  Drizzle with additional dressing, if desired.  Makes two salads.

Quasi Quiche with Mixed Seafood

You can substitute an equal amount of sauteed vegetables such as zucchini, yellow squash or asparagus, seafood and/or cheese for the leftover filling called for below.

1 leek, ends trimmed, sliced lengthwise and washed well, then cut into 1/4" slices
2 Tbs. butter
salt and white pepper to taste
1/2 cup small, cooked cocktail shrimp, peeled and deveined (I buy these frozen and thaw them)
1/2 cup imitation lobster or crab meat, pulled into small pieces
1 cup leftover filling from stuffed piquillo peppers recipe
1 cup shredded mild white cheese (I used a mixture of mozzarella and jack)
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup half-and-half, whole milk, cream, evaporated milk or a combination
2 tsp. dried dill weed
salt and white pepper to taste
1 9" deep dish pastry shell (or make your own)

1 medium tomato, cut into 8 wedges, for garnish
sprigs of flat leaf parsley, for garnish
1/4 cup grated or shredded Parmesan cheese, for garnish

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2.  Saute leeks in butter until slightly caramelized, seasoning well with salt and ground white pepper.  Set aside to cool slightly.
3.  In a medium-sized bowl, combine shrimp, crab or lobster meat, filling (or your substitution), shredded mild white cheese, eggs, and half-and-half.
4.  Stir in dill weed and add sauteed leeks.
5.  Season to taste with salt and ground white pepper.
6.  Pour into pastry shell which you have placed onto a sided baking sheet.

7.  Arrange tomato wedges and parsley over the top of the filling.
8.  Scatter Parmesan cheese over all.
9.  Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the filling is puffed and golden.
10.  Cool for at least 30 minutes to allow filling to set.  Can be served warm or at room temperature.  Serves 6 to 8.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

My mother's baking smelled like love

I've been having lots of sentimental thoughts about my mother recently.  About her love, her constant care, and especially about how she cooked for us.  My mother is a wonderful cook and I can remember many delicious meals together.  But what stands out most in my mind, I suppose, is her skill at baking.  Before she went back to work full time, I remember coming into the house on a cold, snowy afternoon after school and smelling cinnamon, brown sugar and some other incredible lusciousness.  Following my nose, I always wound up in the kitchen where some treat was waiting for us.  It smelled like love.

We didn't eat a lot of sweets when I was a child.  My mother didn't believe in purchasing store-bought cakes and cookies--they were made from scratch in her own kitchen.  Of course, I didn't pass through childhood without sampling a fair share of Oreo cookies and Entenmann's powdered sugar donuts.  But for the most part, desserts and sweets were homemade.  I can't say enough about her fruit pies, and I have never been able to duplicate her pastry, always made with Crisco.  She was a fabulous and prolific baker.

Two of my mother's sweets stand out in my memory and they are the two recipes that I will make myself to this day.  The first recipe, Raisin Bars, are moist, rich and full of plumped raisins and deep, dark spice.  They are wonderful with a cup of coffee just about anytime and have the perfect amount of confectioner's sugar-based vanilla glaze to enhance the spices.  The second recipe for Cinnamon Bars is a classic shortbread enhanced with cinnamon and toasted almonds.  Rich and crisp with butter, they are sleek and tan, with a classy sheen from their egg white wash.  Both of these recipes are easy because they are bar cookies made in jelly roll pans.  But they are also deceptively impressive and you can proudly serve them to company.

So I am passing my mother's love on to you.  I hope your tastebuds dance, and I hope you enjoy these recipes as much as I have.

Raisin Bars

1 cup raisins
1 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1 egg, beaten
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. each cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon
1 tsp. baking soda

Vanilla Glaze:

Combine the following ingredients until smooth and of drizzling consistency

1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
2-4 Tbs. milk (more or less to desired consistency)
1 tsp. good quality vanilla extract
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts (optional)

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2.  Combine raisins, water and butter in a medium-sized saucepan.  Heat to boiling, then remove from heat and let cool until lukewarm.  Alternatively, combine raisins, water and butter in a medium-sized glass bowl and heat for 2 minutes in the microwave.  Let cook until lukewarm.
3.  Stir in beaten egg.
4.  Combine remaining ingredients well and stir into liquid ingredients. 
5.  Pour batter into a greased jelly roll pan (approximately 10 1/2" x 15 1/2").
6.  Bake at 350 degrees for 22 to 25 minutes or until top springs back when touched lightly with a finger.
7.  Let cool to room temperature and then drizzle or spread with vanilla glaze and chopped walnuts, if desired. 
8.  Cut on the diagonal when glaze has hardened.  Makes about 18 bar cookies.

Cinnamon Bars

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg, separated
2 cups flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup sliced almonds

1.  Preheat oven to 275 degrees. 
2.  Combine butter, sugar and egg yolk and mix well.
3.  Combine flour and cinnamon and blend well with butter/sugar mixture.
4.  Press dough into a lightly greased jelly roll pan (approximately 10 1/2" x 15 1/2").
5.  Beat egg white until frothy and spread evenly over dough with a pastry brush.
6.  Sprinkle with sliced almonds.
7.  Bake for 1 hour. 
8.  Remove from oven and let cool for about 20 minutes, then cut on the diagonal while still warm.  Makes about 18 bar cookies.