Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fleur de Sel Caramels

Is there any better combination than sweet and salty? Before I even understood anything about complimentary flavors and tastes I knew that movie theater popcorn must be eaten with a tall, icy sweet Coca Cola. The oily, (well, we know it should be buttery but we are talking about mainstream movie theater popcorn here so let's face it, it's butter flavored oil) salty crunch of the popcorn just went so well with sips of the syrupy sweet Coca Cola. I couldn't explain it but I knew it was right. Ever since those first movie theater visits I have been hooked on salty and sweet.

Nothing brings those two tastes more into harmony with each other than salted caramels made with Fleur de Sel. Except for chocolate, chocolate is lovely with salt. The next time you are baking a tray of brownies, go ahead and throw in an extra pinch of salt. It enhances the'll thank me. But as I often do, I digress. This is about caramels. Rich, buttery, milky sweet caramels touched with a kiss of salt. Heaven. And so easy to make. Do you make candy? I grew up eating homemade candy, my Nana made wonderful caramels. Not frequently but when she did decide to make some, I would stuff my pockets and chubby cheeks with as many as I could get my hands on.

We had a snow day yesterday, we got well over a foot of snow! I happened to have some leftover heavy cream in the fridge from another cooking endeavor and while thumbing through my cooking binder, I came across my recipe for Fleur de Sel Caramels. I know you are not supposed to make candy on a rainy day, the humidity makes it hard to set up but I wasn't sure if that meant snow also. Luckily I am cool with winging it (and possibly failing) and it turned out wonderfully.

~Fleur de Sel Caramels~

1 cup heavy cream
5 TBSP unsalted butter, cut into pieces (I used salted)
1-2 TSP fleur de sel (mine had rather large grains so I used the 2 TSP)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup (I've read that you could use honey in it's place)
1/4 cup water

Line an 8" pan with foil and butter or spray the foil with cooking spray. I buttered mine because I firmly believe in gilding the lily.

Bring the cream, butter and salt just to a boil and set aside. I use cream from the Battenkill Valley Creamery. It's so thick that simply combined with the butter and salt and boiled, it looked like a thick sauce. How beautiful is that?

In a separate pan, combine the sugar, corn syrup and water, stirring to dissolve. Set over medium high heat and bring to a boil without stirring. For extra insurance, I like to wipe down the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water. Like so.

Swirl the pan every so often until the sugar turns golden. Like so. At this stage, be careful. It's a mere matter of seconds from golden to burnt. I know this too well.

When your sugar is golden brown, add the cream mixture. Stand back, pour carefully and make sure you've used a big enough pot as the mixture will violently boil and expand. Stir with a long handled spoon and clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan. Lower the heat to medium and simmer, stirring frequently until the mixture reaches 248 degrees.

Pour the caramel into your prepared pan and cool at least two hours before cutting.

When you are ready to cut the caramels, lift them out of the pan, peel off the foil and set them down on a cutting board. I like to spray my very sharp knife with cooking spray so I get clean cuts. I'm sure some people might get a ruler out at this point to ensure even pieces, but I am a big fan of eyeballing. I'm not aiming for perfection here, rustic will do.

Now to store these you have to wrap them. I know, how tedious. But if you try to store them loose in a jar or container, they will stick together. Heed my warning...learn from my mistakes. :)
I used to cut aluminum foil or waxed paper into small squares and wrap the candy that way but last Christmas I treated myself to precut foil wrappers from and I will never cut waxed paper again.

Now...ahem. There's a step missing here. This is real life and in my real life I forget things or get distracted. A lot. At some point after I poured the candy into the pan, after it's cooled a bit but before it's set, I should have sprinkled fleur de sel on top of the caramel. It's lovely, the crunchy grains of salt on top of the silky sweet caramel. It's a small touch that brings the caramels over the top. And I forgot it. Never mind, they are still wonderful and I still made them all by myself.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Roasted Tomato Soup

Just the thing for a blustery, snowy day, roasted tomato soup fills the house with the most intoxicating smells. And the best part is how easy it is to make. I used a recipe adapted from Cook's Illustrated.

Roasted Tomato Soup

1 28 ounce can whole, peeled tomatoes
1 TBS dark brown sugar
5 or 6 shallots, finely diced
2 TBS butter
2 TBS olive oil
1 TBS tomato paste
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1/4 cup sherry
1/4 cup heavy cream or half and half

Set your oven to 450 degrees.

Set a strainer over a bowl and pop open the tomatoes with your fingers and pull out as many seeds as you can. Don't worry if you miss a few. Let all the tomato juices strain into the bowl and set aside for later.

Spread the tomatoes out on a lined cookie sheet. I used two pieces of foil on a large cookie sheet. I don't recommend this as the juices got in the seam of the foil and made the foil stick to my cookie sheet. I wasn't happy. Next time I think I would use one sheet of parchment paper or I might just oil my cookie sheet and watch the tomatoes carefully. Sprinkle the tomatoes with the brown sugar and roast for 20-30 minutes or until most of the liquid they exude is gone.

Roasted tomatoes. I refrained from sticking a fork in there and eating my fill. I loved roasted tomatoes.

Heat a pot with the olive oil and butter in it. Add the finely chopped shallots and saute over medium low heat. You don't want to caramelize them, so watch carefully. Full disclosure: I burned the shallots. Oh, the shame...I forgot what I was doing and got distracted. So at the last minute I wiped out the pan and quickly chopped one small onion and sauteed it in fresh butter and olive oil.

When the shallots (onions) are translucent and just starting to color, add the tablespoon of tomato paste and mix it in with the onions. Add the reserved tomato juice and the caramelized tomatoes and raise the heat to bring to a boil. Add the chicken stock. As soon as it comes to a boil, lower the heat back to medium and let the soup cook for ten minutes. Add the sherry.

Now, you can either blend it in a blender or food processor in two batches or use an immersion blender to make the soup smooth and creamy. Once the soup is blended, put it back on the heat and add the cream or half and half.

Serve with olive oil drizzled on the top. I just had some at lunch and it's even better the next day. The next time I make it I think I will infuse some basil into it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Do you have a green thumb?

I don't. But for the last few years I've had a garden. The first two years I had one, I didn't do any planting myself. A kind neighbor who is a master gardener/farmer took pity on me and planted an abundance of vegetables and herbs in two raised beds that I had built in my back yard. They flourished, despite the fact that I pretty much had no clue how to care for them and weeded and watered them rather sporadically. Last year I moved, so sadly, no more raised beds. We tried a container garden and had mixed results. Most of our containers weren't deep enough but we did well with green beans, grape tomatoes and green peppers, we even managed to get a few baby eggplants. But one thing that absolutely flourishes in containers is herbs. And herbs are fantastic because when summertime is over you can bring them in the house and have fresh herbs all winter long.

This beauty is lemon thyme. We've survived together for three years now.

This is rosemary...note the snow falling in the background. So beautiful. I love this rosemary plant so much. I knew someone who had one in her kitchen that was like a little tree. That's what I am aiming for. I may need to stake this one as it's a little tippy.

More thyme and more snow. I love thyme, it's a versatile herb. Nice with pork, chicken, in beef stew, in stuffing, in minestrone and bean soups...

Flat leaf parsley that I picked up on a trip to Maine at the Portland Farmer's Market. I love Portland, Maine- a foodie paradise. And home to Rabelais, a book store entirely devoted to food books! Can you imagine? I could have stayed there all day...

Curly parsley. I don't care for it that much. It's a texture thing.

But Rosabelle loves it!

So do you have a green thumb? Are you thinking about gardening? I know I am.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Amerasian-ish Noodles

I make no claims to knowing how to cook Asian food, whether Chinese, Japanese or Thai. My knowledge of those cuisines is rudimentary at best. I love garlic chicken from Thai restaurants but most American style Chinese food leaves me cold. I don't eat seafood and I don't like heavy, sweet, cornstarch based sauces. That being said, I do love noodles. And there are a ton of good noodle dishes in Asian cuisine. I'm partial to vegetable yaki soba but having absolutely no idea what's in it and if it's even an authentic dish, I decided to make a noodle dish inspired by but actually nothing like it.

I bring you Amerasian-ish Noodles...

If you have soba noodles on hand- yay for you but I like whole wheat capellini. I have a thing for capellini. And you'll need sriracha for the sauce but the chili garlic sauce is optional.

I like a high ratio of veggies to pasta, roughly 50/50. What's wonderful about this meal is it's open to adaption. Use whatever you like. In the spring, I love this with tons of garlic scapes. I've used bok choy in place of the's wonderfully open to interpretation. This time I used one bunch of chopped broccolini, 4 or 5 carrots sliced on the bias, a couple of handfuls of snow peas, a sliced red pepper, 3 sliced stalks of celery, a small head of thinly sliced savoy cabbage and a tablespoon or so of chopped fresh ginger.

The sauce for the noodles is a half cup of soy sauce, a quarter cup of dark brown sugar, a tablespoon sriracha, a tablespoon garlic chili sauce, some red pepper flakes and about a tablespoon of sesame oil. If you're not a fan of heat, you may want to start out with smaller amounts of the sriracha and the chili sauce. Stir together and set aside.

Heat a large saute pan and add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. When it's good and hot add the ginger and saute for a minute or two. I added the broccolini and carrots first because they take the most time. I pop a lid on them for a minute or so to help them cook faster.

Once they give a little but are still crisp, I add the celery and red pepper. Give those a minute or two and then add the snow peas. Season everything with salt. The pasta cooks in no time and as soon as the pasta is done I drain it and spread the shredded cabbage in the pot. I toss the hot pasta right on top of it and let it sit for a minute to wilt slightly. I top the pasta with the vegetables and then I pour on my sauce. Toss it all together and check for seasonings. Maybe it needs a little more soy sauce, maybe a drizzle of sesame oil. It's delicious topped with a thinly sliced bunch of scallions but I didn't have any so I did without. It was still delicious.

It does seem like we eat a lot of pasta, doesn't it? I used to be a vegetarian and I never feel right or want to eat meat every day. Not to mention, if I was eating meat every day, it would be expensive and I would feel guilty if I wasn't eating hormone/antibiotic free...So we eat pasta but I try to only make whole grain pasta and I balance it with tons of vegetables. It works for us and even my Vermont raised, game eating partner doesn't mind.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The risotto that almost wasn't...

Recently my beloved teenager requested mushroom risotto for dinner. Feeling confident that I could throw that together in no time and that I had most of the ingredients already on hand, I grabbed a couple packs of mushrooms from the supermarket and headed home to peruse risotto recipes on the internet. Because no matter how well I already know how to make something, no cooking endeavor is complete until I have researched it to death. And then, more likely than not, proceeded to do it my way.

Mushroom risotto, while a little bit fussy, is easy to make. As long as you get everything that's going to go into your risotto prepared beforehand, you will be free to sip wine and listen to music while you idly stir your creation. You may even have time to switch the laundry, wash dishes and catch up on your twitter feed...although such extreme multitasking is not for the weak.

This risotto almost did not come to be our dinner because I realized as I was setting out to make it that I did not have dry white wine on hand. I was even out of trusty old vermouth (an excellent thing to keep in the fridge for just such an occasion) Reliant as I am on the internet, I asked my social media networking sites what to do. I did have a bottle of dry champagne on hand...and thus, a recipe was born- Mushroom Champagne Risotto!

Let's make it together, shall we?...

We'll need mushrooms, one container should do; and please do not be one of those silly people who cling blindly to the belief that mushrooms should not be washed. They should. They will be all right. Although, if you truly believe your fungus tastes better dirty, who am I to stop you from getting E-coli? Ahem.

Remove stems, slice and set aside.

We will also need onions, 2 small or one large. Finely diced.

And stock, 5 or 6 cups. I use chicken stock and in that I rehydrate some dried porcini mushrooms. You need to get it hot and then keep it at a simmer because you'll want it to be hot as you add it to the risotto.

In a saucepan, melt a bit of butter in some olive oil. About 1 TBS each. Add in half your onions and saute until translucent. Then add your mushrooms. Saute until golden brown and season with salt and pepper. When your mushrooms are at the lovely golden shade you prefer, remove them from the heat and set them aside for later.

Now to a fresh saute pan add a tiny bit of olive oil and saute the rest of your onions. You're not looking for these to caramelize, you just want them to turn translucent. When they are ready, melt a couple of tablespoons of butter and add two cups of aborio rice. You can find it in either the rice section or the Italian section of most supermarkets. Saute your rice for a couple of minutes until all of the grains are coated with butter.

And now we add one cup of dry white wine. I can say that dry champagne works beautifully, but white wine is traditional. Stir it into the rice until it's completely absorbed.

Now it's time to add the stock. One cup at a time. You can either strain out the mushrooms and chop them or you can do like I did and hack at them with kitchen shears right in the risotto pot as you add your stock.

And stir! Just kidding with the exclamation point there, it's nothing to be fanatical about. Basically you want to stir the stock into the rice because this releases the starch in the rice and is what gives the risotto it's creamy consistency. But don't get crazy about it. You can sip your wine (or champagne), change Pandora and then get right back to stirring.

You've stirred enough when the liquid is absorbed and the risotto starts to leave a starchy looking trail, like so

At that point, go ahead and add your next cup of stock. Keep repeating the same steps until all the stock has been used. Make sure you are tasting along the way. The point is not for a mushy rice dish. Proper risotto should be like correctly made pasta, slightly toothsome but not hard. You may find you don't need all the stock. I did use the full 5 cups.

Once the risotto has absorbed all the stock and is the right consistency, sprinkle on about a half cup finely grated Parmesan.

And stir.

And then add your reserved mushroom mixture.

And stir.

And taste. Mmmm, isn't that good? And not nearly as difficult as you thought. And so wonderfully variable. It's time to eat. We served our risotto with a simply dressed spinach salad with goat cheese and chopped pecans. And champagne...cold, bubbly champagne. So lovely.