Thursday, December 31, 2009

Nibbly Bits...

I'm not one to go out on New Years Eve. (Who am I kidding? I'm not one to go out most times, it's so odd to imagine that there was once a time that I was a bit of a party girl? Who talks like that? but I digress) And I think New Years Eve is probably one of the worst times to go out. It's cold, people who do not know how to drink are drinking copious amounts with the seemingly single minded purpose of vomiting in the street and then there's the driving...thankssomuch, I think I'll pass.

What I do like to do is rather boring but it's perhaps my most favorite thing to do in the world. Renting movies and eating finger foods washed down with champagne; or realistically sparkling wine as I doubt whatever I end up drinking will come from the region that produces true champagne. I won't even be able to buy it myself as there's a snowstorm raging outside and so I will dispatch the significant other/partner to pick some up on his way home from work. And he doesn't drink. Can't wait to see what I end up drinking this evening. And watching for that matter, our taste in movies is wildly divergent. The last movie he rented was District 9, which from what I gathered involved aliens and many dismembered limbs. The last movie I rented was Every Little Step, a biography of A Chorus Line.

But on to the food, the nibbly bits, as in, a wide variety of savory foods that can be eaten with your hands. I'm aware that nibbly is not a word, well, in my lexicon it is but hors d’oeuvres sounds pretentious and appetizers sounds well, unappetizing and since they are not a pre meal nibble but the actual meal themselves I was forced to invent.

And since there is that raging snowstorm that I mentioned, I have had to be creative. The original plan called for driving to the Italian import store to pick up the makings of an antipasto tray and Mrs. London's for good bread (really good bread, probably the best in the capital region) and rounding that out with nibbly bits that I would thrown together at home. My options are now whatever can be purchased from Hannaford and I don't quite trust that I'd be able to pull off a good antipasto tray from there. So the revised menu will include Pioneer Woman's bacon wrapped, cream cheese stuffed jalapeno peppers, sweet lord I do love them and some of The Barefoot Contessa's pan fried onion dip, there is no excuse for making onion dip out of a packet of dehydrated onion soup mix, no excuse at all. And we have to have some of these yummy stuffed mushrooms that I found on Epicurious. I am thinking of rounding the whole thing out with some roasted red peppers and fresh mozzarella, maybe some roasted cauliflower so we can get a vegetable in there. Although, roasted cauliflower barely qualifies as a vegetable- it's too good. We eat it as a snack.

Washed down with whatever dubious sparkling wine the partner comes home with and accompanied by whatever silly films are rented, I think we have the makings of a fabulous New Years Eve! Enjoy yours, we will be enjoying ours...Have a fabulous 2010!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Candied Orange Peel

As much as I enjoyed the last candied peel recipe, I couldn't help but wonder what I could do to make them even better. I thought it would be nice to have the peels less crinkly/curly and more substantial, maybe with more chewiness to them. Back to the internet I went. I came across a woman on egullet (a truly fabulous foodie resource if there ever was one) who seemed to know everything about all manner of candying citrus peels. Her recipe was markedly different than the one I originally followed and was done in the microwave.

There is a wealth of information in that thread. People were candying kumquats, Buddha's Hand, galangal (the latter two I had to look up) and now I'm cursing myself for not buying that five dollar Buddha's Hand we found at Whole Foods last week! Though it's not like I wouldn't make another two and a half hour trip if I really wanted one. There are a lot of reasons to visit Northampton, MA and if I can score chicken tamales and pork tacos from La Veracruzana, a Buddha's Hand and a trip to Trader Joe's then I'd say it's a trip worth taking. Although, perhaps I should check the weather this time and try to avoid a "wintry mix" forecast.

On to the candy...

I decided to do a small batch since it was my first attempt at this style of candying citrus and I didn't want to waste fruit. All I had in the house at the time were two non organic Cara Cara oranges (I'm trying not to think about the pesticides I have been consuming...) and I washed those as well as possible.

~Cut the top and bottom off your citrus. From here make vertical cuts all along the fruit and then carefully pull the fruit (pith and all) from the flesh. Cut the peel into 1/2 inch slices.

~Placed the orange peel in a microwave safe bowl (I used a 2.5 quart Pyrex) and cover with water. Boil on high for 10 minutes

~Drain the peels and repeat with fresh water.

~Drain the peels and repeat with fresh water.

~Taste. Is the bitterness mostly gone? If not, repeat until the peels are to your liking. I personally feel like it should have a slightly bitter edge. Slightly.

~Drain the peels and mix 1 cup sugar with 1 1/2 to 2 cups water. Boil on high for 3 minutes. Stir to mix.

~Add the orange peels to the simple syrup and microwave 5 minutes. Stir.

~Microwave 5 more minutes. Stir.

~Let the peels cool in the syrup for 30 minutes

~Microwave the peels in the syrup for 5 more minutes. Stir.

~Microwave 5 more minutes. Stir. Taste a piece. The pith should be completely translucent by this time.

~Remove the pieces to a wire rack set over a baking sheet to catch drips.

~Allow the peel to dry until it's only slightly tacky to the touch and then toss a few pieces at a time in sugar.

After it was completely dried and sugared I tasted a piece and found it to be a little too bitter for my tastes. I decided to dip the pieces in chocolate to offset some of the bitterness. I wanted the peels to be completely dry for that step so I left them on a rack on my kitchen counter for 24 hours. At that point I tempered some dark chocolate and dipped one piece at a time, leaving the ends uncovered for easier grabbing. Once the chocolate was set I took another taste and this time I loved it. The chocolate did exactly what I wanted it to, the orange was less bitter tasting and the chocolate added an intriguing dark and slightly smoky quality to the confection. Definitely a candy for grown ups although my teenage brother enjoyed some. I think they would make beautiful gifts for your discerning foodie friends.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Candied Lemon Peel

What is it about Christmas that makes one think they need to make all manner of candy? I don't know, maybe everyone else is not thinking that, maybe it's just me. This time of year I become obsessed with all things sweet and yummy. And what perfect luck that on a recent trip to Whole Foods (my first, actually) I found some lovely organic, unwaxed lemons. I never seem to find them anywhere. I didn't have anything in mind when I found them, I just knew I would find something to do with them. I thought of limoncello and I still do want to try that one of these days but I wanted something that I could appreciate now and limoncello takes a while.

And that's when I remembered the candied lemon peels. I don't remember where I saw them, I know I've seen them for sale in fancy chocolate places and I had a teeny bit on top of a pastry that I tried recently that totally distracted me and made me wish for more. What better way to showcase organic, unwaxed lemons than by using their peel. There are a bunch of recipes on the net. There's an Epicurious one, a Bon Appetit one, a Martha Stewart one...All the usual suspects had some variation of a similar recipe, some more laborious than others. I used the Epicurious one as a template and took it from there.

They're really simple to make and I think they would make great holiday gifts in little cellophane bags tied with ribbon. They're delicious on their own and would be great chopped up and sprinkled on top of scones or mixed into cookie batter.

~Candied Lemon Peel

6 unwaxed, organic lemons, washed well.
3 cups sugar, plus another 1/2 cup or so for tossing the candied peels.

~Using your sharpest vegetable peeler or a good paring knife carefully remove the peels from the lemons. I used a vegetable peeler because I found mine was super shard and it peeled the peel with hardly any pith. I was less successful with a paring knife.

~In a medium sized sauce pan, bring a quart or so of water to a boil. Drop in the peels and boil for 2 minutes. Drain the peels (and this is where I departed from other recipes, I did not boil my peels more than once because they had almost no pith and were not very bitter, if you are unsure go ahead and taste a piece, if it's bitter, repeat the boiling process with fresh water 2 or 3 more times.) and set aside on a paper towel.

~Bring 3 cups of sugar and 2 cups of water to a boil, whisking to dissolve the sugar. Do not let the syrup change colors, you just want to boil it until the sugar is completely dissolved and the syrup is clear.

~Add your lemon peels and turn the heat to a medium low simmer. Simmer the peels until they turn mostly translucent, this took me about 15 minutes.

~Set out a baking sheet with a rack over it and pour a 1/2 cup or so of sugar into a shallow bowl.

~Using tongs, drop a few pieces of candied peel at a time into the sugar tossing or using a fork to coat.

~Transfer to sugared peels to the rack and allow to dry. Mine were ready in about an hour.

~I stored mine in a pretty glass jar on the counter, some recipes call for refrigeration but I'm thinking that might make them moist. Mine will stay on the counter. I doubt it will be very long.

Now, you will end up with some leftovers. The leftover sugar that I dipped the candied peels in had little bits of broken peel in it so I pulsed it in the food processor. I think it will make a nice topping to sprinkle on baked goods. You'll also have a ton of beautiful lemon colored simple syrup. I'm storing mine in a mason jar in the fridge. I have plans for it that involve alcohol. I think it's going to make a fabulous lemon drop!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Constant cravings...

It seems like most of the things I end up cooking stem from one craving or another. And loving food as I do, I am almost constantly craving something. The other day I realized I still had a container of herbs left over from Thanksgiving in my refrigerator. Why I had store bought herbs when I had all of those herbs in plant form in my house is another story, but I digress. And why those herbs were still as fresh seeming as the day I bought them is not something I wish to ponder right now.

In the container there were a few sprigs of rosemary. I love rosemary, it's one of my favorite herbs. Rosemary is an herb that doesn't mess around. It's bold, if you use it, there's no disguising it. It's there in the forefront making it's presence known. Which is probably why it pairs so wonderfully with things that are on the bland side. Potatoes, chicken, foccacia, white beans...they all benefit from rosemary's herbal woodiness. As I stood there holding the rosemary, the smell tickling my nose, I thought there must be something else. Something that really let's the rosemary shine.

Just then I remembered that I had occasionally seen recipes for cookies that contained rosemary and brushed them off as being odd. Even too precious. Too food snobby. I went back to doing other things and put the whole thing out of my mind. I played some Scrabble, puttered around the house and all the while kept thinking of cookies with rosemary in them. Soon I was searching the internet for recipes. I found a butter cookie recipe on Martha Stewart that I liked the sound of. And then, as I always do I wondered how it could be improved and my thoughts turned to lemon. Lemon and rosemary are wonderful together. And thus a cookie was born.

I think they would make a fabulous addition to your Christmas (or whatever you celebrate, Festivus?) cookie platter. The cookies are delicious- buttery, lightly sweet with crunchy sugared edges. They taste of lemon with a lingering, pleasant herbal finish. Not overwhelming but you know it's there. To make the cookies I used this recipe and made a few changes. I used half soft white wheat flour and half white flour. I added all the zest from one large lemon. I omitted the vanilla and replaced it with an equal amount of lemon oil. And I very generously brushed the outside of the dough log with the egg white and pressed a lot of turbinado sugar into it because I love the contrast of textures.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Baby it's cold outside...

There's something about the snow falling and the kids being home from school that makes me feel like I should slap on an apron and get baking...or roasting or braising or simmering or whatever has the oven going good and hot and causes scrumptious smells to waft through the house. It's just what I do. A compulsion if you will.

And nothing says yes, it's cold outside but we are warm and snuggly inside more than pot roast. Pot roast, a quintessentially all American meal. I grew up eating it. My grandfather used to save the ends of the meat for me because they were my favorite. And of course, being the cook, I now claim them for myself. I'm selfish like that. And caramelized bits of meat have long been my downfall. Well, those and gluttonous amounts of pasta.

And nothing is as easy to make and makes the people you love feel loved than a large piece of braised beef. At least in my world that's how I show them I love them. Kind of twisted if you think about it.

~Coffee Braised Pot Roast

1 3-4 pound beef chuck roast, generously salted and peppered on all sides
2 TBS olive oil
2-3 large onions, thinly sliced

1 pkg baby portabella mushrooms, sliced thinly
6 cloves chopped garlic
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 cup coffee, leftover from the morning is fine
2 TBS balsamic vinegar
2 TBS cornstarch mixed with 2 TBS cold water

Heat oven to 300 degrees

In a dutch oven or medium soup pot (I used a 7qt Le Creuset) heat the oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add the beef and brown on all sides. Don't be afraid to get it good and caramelized, if your meat is sticking when you try to turn it, let it cook a couple more minutes.

When the meat is browned on all sides, remove it to a platter.

Add the onions to the pan and keeping the heat on med-high, use tongs to toss them around. When they get light golden, add the garlic and thyme and cook a 2-3 more minutes.

Add the coffee and vinegar and scrape up the browned bits for a minute or so.

Add the beef to the pot and top with the thinly sliced mushrooms.

Cover and transfer the pot to the oven.

Braise the beef for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, checking it half way through. At the half way point I flip the meat and spoon some of the liquid over it.

The meat is ready when it's fork tender, transfer it to a cutting board and let it rest while you move the pot back to the stove top. Bring the liquid in the pot to a boil and add the cornstarch and water mixture. Whisk rapidly to avoid lumps.

Slice the meat and you can add it back to the top or serve it topped with the gravy. We eat ours with buttered egg noodles, it's also delicious over mashed potatoes, polenta or rice.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Not a pretty cake...

I love when you discover a recipe that is so utterly simple, so yummy and so unique. That's what I thought when I was reading this blog on the Times Union's website. While I was familiar with Rose Levy Beranbaum, I had never heard of her Whipped Cream Cake. Which is not really hers at all but a recipe she adapted for a Delaware restaurateur. There's very little to it, some cream, flour, eggs, sugar...notice I didn't mention butter? Weird, right? Apparently there is enough fat in the cream to make butter unnecessary. The cake comes out ethereally light and sweet. Not at all like angel food cake but not like pound cake either. I've made it twice now and I find that it's great the first day and good the second but gets a bit dry by the third. Of course, you can make sure it all gets eaten in the first two days but that's a lot of cake. What I did was serve it on the third day with some macerated strawberries and freshly whipped cream. Simply delicious, no matter how you have it.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Quick Comfort

When I am short on time, feeling blue, needing something healthy, or just plain hungry my favorite thing to eat is perhaps the simplest thing I make, short of scrambling an egg...sauteed frozen spinach. Hardly something that requires much of a recipe or needs to be photographed, spinach; much less the frozen kind; is hardly photogenic but man is it delicious.

It can't be just any frozen spinach. I am partial to Cascadian Farms organic frozen spinach (and I've tried them all). The Cascadian Farms frozen spinach is the best unless you are buying a bunch of spinach from the farmer's market and then there's all that submerging, swishing and draining to be done. I don't have time for that. I'm hungry now. And in less than five minutes I will be eating.

Here's what I do...grab a non stick skillet and start heating it (medium high on my electric stove) swirl in a bit of olive oil (if I was Rachael Ray I'd grin like the Joker, laugh maniacally and cackle "EVOO"...then I'd go count my money while my pretend husband rubs my feet) drop in a thick slice of butter (tablespoon?) and as soon as it's good and hot I dump in my bag of spinach (oh yeah- the whole thing, this makes a meal for one as far as I am concerned). I sprinkle the whole thing with kosher salt and a palm full of red pepper flakes, (I like a kick and I don't find the flakes particularly hot) and then I go at it with my tongs, tossing it around until it's not icy and feels hot. I squeeze a lemon wedge over the top and plate it. Breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack is served.

Maybe I'm weird but when I need comfort the softness of the spinach does the trick and I don't have to feel guilty like when I eat the whole package of ramen or macaroni and cheese.