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November 30, 2005

Everyday Italian: Endive and Frisée Salad with Blood Oranges and Hazelnuts

A salad that's heavy on the bitter greens. Giada De Laurentiis dares readers to be more adventurous, saying, "Italians aren't afraid of using spicy and slightly bitter greens in their salads, and you shouldn't be either." But for my American palate, the combination of endive and frisée was too unrelentingly bitter. After I substituted some mild green butter lettuce, I liked this flavor combination a lot better.

If you've got a taste for the bitterness of frisée, by all means make the salad as originally written. But if you're like me, and prefer bitterness to be just an accent, try the substitution I've suggested.

Blood oranges look lovely in the salad, but if they're not available, regular oranges would work just as well. You could also try satsuma mandarins, or clementines, for a variation.

The dressing, nuts, orange segments, and greens can all be prepared in advance. Toss the salad together with the dressing just before serving.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 5 to 7 minutes for the hazelnuts
Yield: 6 side-dish servings

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp finely chopped shallots
1 Tbsp honey
1/3 cup olive oil or hazelnut oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 heads Belgian endive, trimmed and cut crosswise into thin slices
2 heads frisée lettuce, center leaves only, torn into pieces, OR 1 large head butter, Boston, Bibb, or other mild green lettuce, torn into pieces
2 blood oranges, segmented
1/2 cups hazelnuts, toasted and chopped (see note, below)

In a medium bowl, whisk the balsamic vinegar, shallots, and honey. Gradually whisk in the oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss the endive and frisée or other lettuce in a large bowl with enough vinaigrette to coat and season to taste with salt and pepper. Mound the greens on plates and surround with orange segments. Sprinkle with hazelnuts. Drizzle any remaining vinaigrette around the salads and serve immediately.


To toast hazelnuts: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the nuts on a large heavy baking sheet and toast in the oven, stirring once or twice, until they are fragrant and light golden brown in the middle, about 7 minutes. Let cool completely, then rub them between your palms to remove the brown skins (don't worry if you can't get the skins off completely. Remove as much as you can.) Chop the hazelnuts roughly. If made ahead, store at room temperature until ready to serve.

 

November 29, 2005

Everyday Italian: Chicken Parmesan

I've had a pretty high degree of success with Giada De Laurentiis so far; mainly, the problems I've encountered in her recipes have to do with technique. And with this recipe, we come to the sloppiest chapter in the book: Everyday Cutlets. While the dish itself is tasty and quick to make, I had quite a bit of frustration trying to figure out exactly how thin I was supposed to pound the chicken, or indeed if it even should be pounded at all.

The introductory page to the cutlet chapter describes cutlet as "any thin, boneless, skinless piece of veal, pork, or chicken." De Laurentiis then goes on to say that veal usually already comes in cutlets; for pork, she uses boneless chops pounded thin; and for chicken, boneless breasts pounded thin. No definition is given of what "thin" means -- 1/2 inch? 1/4 inch? And then in the Chicken Parmesan recipe, the ingredients list calls for "4 chicken cutlets (about 3 oz. each)." So I assume I'm supposed to pound out some chicken breasts, but that's definitely an assumption, because De Laurentiis doesn't give any other clues.

I searched through the rest of the cutlet recipes for hints. De Laurentiiis specifies that the chicken cutlets for Chicken Saltimbocca should be "pounded to flatten evenly," which made me wonder if the chicken cutlets for the Chicken Parmesan didn't need to be pounded, since it wasn't specified. And again, the term "evenly" isn't terribly helpful. Finally, on the page with the Pork Milanese recipe, there was a sidebar about pounding meat, with instructions to pound the meat between 2 pieces of plastic wrap until "approximately 1/2 inch thick."

Which is only sort of helpful, frankly. Because there's no indication in any of the other recipes that the cook should check page 159 for helpful hints on pounding meat, so if you haven't read every single page of the book, you won't know that the sidebar exists. And also because 1/2 inch thick is pretty damn thick. For chicken breasts, if you slice them in half crosswise, they'll already be 1/2 inch thick. Is further pounding necessary? In the end, the decision is up to you, because De Laurentiis? Ain't saying.

I ended up pounding out my chicken breasts to a thickness of 1/4 inch. To get 4 cutlets that were 3 oz. each, I started with 2 chicken breasts that were approximately 6 oz. each. First, slice each breast in half straight down through the middle, then slice each half crosswise through the thickest part. Place the meat between sheets of plastic and pound gently with a flat mallet. Four cutlets of this size will fit in a large skillet; if you use larger pieces of chicken, they won't fit.

The flavors were good, although I take issue with De Laurentiis' introductory paragraph, in which she states that in some restaurant versions of Chicken Parmesan, "if you can locate the actual 'Parmesan', you should win a huge prize." Because her version isn't terribly strong in Parmesan flavor either. In my revised version, below, I've increased the amount of Parmesan from 2 tsp per cutlet to 4 tsp per cutlet, for a stronger flavor. I've also made the butter topping optional, since I don't think it adds much to the finished dish.

De Laurentiis doesn't give serving recommendations; I served this chicken alongside the vegetable lasagna. It would also pair well with spaghetti or linguini.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: about 7 to 8 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
1 tsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
4 chicken cutlets, about 3 oz. each (see note, above)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup Marinara Sauce (use purchased sauce if desired)
1/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp unsalted butter, in pieces (optional)

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

In a small bowl, combine the olive oil, thyme, rosemary, and parsley. Brush both sides of the cutlets with the herb oil and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Heat a large ovenproof skillet over high heat. Add the cutlets and cook just until brown, about 1 minute per side. Remove from heat.

Spoon the marinara sauce over and around the cutlets. Sprinkle 1 Tbsp of mozzarella over each cutlet, then sprinkle about 4 tsp of Parmesan over each. Dot the tops with butter, if desired, and bake until the cheese melts and the chicken is cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes.

November 28, 2005

Everyday Italian: Chocolate Zabaglione

As Giada De Laurentiis notes in her introduction to this recipe, traditional zabaglione doesn't include chocolate. But its addition turns the light, frothy custard into something truly delectable. Served with fresh berries, this makes a sophisticated dessert.

The list of ingredients is short, and the zabaglione doesn't take a whole lot of time to make, but it's a completely hands-on cooking process. You've got to continuously whisk the eggs yolks, sugar, and Marsala over simmering water until they become thick and creamy. Have all your ingredients ready before you get started. An instant-read thermometer is useful, but not essential. You can estimate doneness by the texture and consistency of the custard.

De Laurentiis serves the zabaglione with strawberries, but it would also be delicious as a topping for pound cake, or to dip cookies into. Serve it either warm or cold, but don't try to rewarm it once it's been refrigerated, as it will curdle. When warm, its consistency is very soft and creamy. Once chilled, it sets up and has a texture more like chocolate mousse. The Marsala flavor is very strong; this isn't a dessert for kids!

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: about 5 minutes
Yield: 6 servings

1/4 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup dry Marsala wine
Pinch salt
8 large egg yolks
1 pound fresh hulled and quartered strawberries, or 6 slices of pound cake, or assorted cookies (amaretti, biscotti, ladyfingers, or any cookies that strike your fancy)

In a small heavy saucepan, bring the cream just to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat, add chocolate chips, and stir until melted and completely smooth. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, bring about 2 inches of water to a simmer. In a large metal mixing bowl, combine the sugar, Marsala, salt, and egg yolks. Set the bowl over the saucepan of simmering water, being careful that the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Whisk the egg mixture constantly until it is thick and creamy, about 4 to 5 minutes. (The mixture should register 160 degrees on the thermometer. If you're not using a thermometer, make sure that the zabaglione has lost all of its foamy bubbles and is a uniformly thick, light yellow custard.)

Remove from heat and fold the chocolate mixture into the custard with a large rubber spatula. If using warm, place strawberries or cake into coupe dishes or other dessert plates, and spoon the zabaglione over the top. If serving cold, cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, and up to 1 day, before serving alongside berries, cake, or cookies.

Everyday Italian: Individual Vegetable Lasagnas

Frankly, this isn't the best vegetable lasagna I've ever had. While the flavors are good, the texture is way too dry, and some of the technique is unnecessarily fussy. With a couple of simple changes to the recipe, the lasagna was much tastier, as well as easier to make, and to eat.

The main problem with the recipe is in the layering. Giada De Laurentiis layers the vegetables and pasta together without using any sauce or cheese until the very top. This means that the bottom and middle layers don't have any liquid ingredients to help bind them together, so they turn out somewhat dry. In my modified recipe, I've increased the amount of marinara sauce by a full cup, and added some additional cheese in between all the layers of the lasagna. This made for a much creamier texture.

As is obvious from the recipe title, this lasagna is meant to be cooked in individual dishes. After testing, however, I've decided that it's more trouble than it's worth to make 6 gratin dishes of lasagna. The novelty of the individual presentation doesn't trump the fact that it's a lot more work to prepare the dish this way. I advise you to scrap the idividual dish idea altogether and make this lasagna in one 9-by-13-inch pan.

De Laurentiis uses fresh lasagna sheets in this recipe, and has the cook boil them for 4 minutes before layering the lasagnas. I thought this might be problematic, and indeed, the cooked fresh pasta stuck together even though it was cooked with oil in the boiling water, and rinsed after draining. The only way to be absolutely certain that your pasta won't stick together is to cook it just before you're ready to assemble the lasagnas, and to quickly pull the sheets away from each other and lay them in one layer on a work surface as soon as you drain them. If the lasagna sheets spend any time sitting and waiting in the colander, their starch will cause them to stick together.

Some recipes that use fresh lasagna don't require that it be par-cooked before assembly, but I don't believe that this recipe has enough sauce to ensure that the lasagna will cook thoroughly in the oven. And even though the fresh pasta tastes great, it's a bit of a pain in the neck to use, since you have to be so careful with it. As an alternative, you could easily substitute dried lasagna noodles. These also have to be precooked, but they are much less likely to stick irrevocably together after draining, making them much easier to use. I don't recommend no-boil lasagna noodles, since the lack of a lot of sauce is just as problematic for them as it is for fresh pasta. A caveat, however: if you're going to go ahead and make individual lasagnas, you won't have the right-sized pasta to make 6-inch diameter circles if you use dry noodles. You can either fiddle with the pasta (slicing it to get pieces that you can fit into the gratin dishes for even coverage), or if the individual-serving presentation is really important to you, go ahead and use fresh pasta. Just be sure to follow my modified instructions about how to handle the pasta so the sheets don't stick together.

I made short work of the onion, carrots, squash, and zucchini by chopping them in a mini-chopper. If you chop them by hand, make sure that they are uniform and very fine, since large chunks of veggies can cause the lasagna not to cohere properly.

You can prepare the lasagna up to 1 day ahead. Once it is completely assembled and ready for the oven, cover and refrigerate. Remove the plastic wrap before baking.

Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes for individual dishes, 35 minutes for one large lasagna
Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Salt
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 pound fresh lasagna sheets, OR 9 dry lasagna noodles (about 8 oz.)
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 large zucchini, finely chopped
1 large yellow summer squash, finely chopped
1 bunch of asparagus, steamed and cut into 1/4-inch slices
3/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 cups Marinara Sauce (substitute purchased marinara sauce if desired)
15-oz. can white beans (cannellini, Great Northern, etc.), drained and rinsed
2 packages (10-oz. each) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
2 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into pieces (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the vegetable oil. If using fresh pasta, do this step after you have all your other ingredients prepped and ready to assemble: add the pasta sheets and cook about 4 minutes, then drain and rinse under cold water. Place the pasta sheets in an individual layer on your work surface and cut into 6-inch-diameter circles immediately.

If using dry pasta, cook the lasagna noodles until nearly al dente, about 9 minutes. Drain and reserve.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 3 minutes. Add the carrot and cook another 5 minutes, then add the zucchini and squash and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the asparagus, season with 1/2 tsp each salt and pepper, and stir to combine. Remove from heat and set aside.

To make individual lasagnas: Using a 6-inch diameter cookie cutter, cut the lasagna sheets into 18 circles. Coat the bottom of each of six 6-inch diameter gratin dishes with 1 tsp marinara sauce. Place 1 pasta circle in the bottom of each dish. In a medium bowl, toss the beans with 1/4 tsp each salt and pepper, then arrange the beans and then the spinach over the pasta circles in the dishes, dividing equally. Top each with about 2 Tbsp marinara sauce and sprinkle with about 2 Tbsp mozzarella. Top with another pasta circle, then spoon the sautéed vegetables over, dividing equally. Top with about 2 Tbsp marinara sauce and 2 Tbsp cheese. Place a third pasta circle atop each dish and spread equally with the remaining marinara sauce and cheese. Dot each dish with the butter. Place the dishes on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake until the filling is bubbling and the cheese is golden, about 20 minutes.

To make 1 large lasagna: Spread about 1/2 cup of marinara sauce over the bottom of the pan. Place 3 of the cooked lasagna noodles in the bottom. In a medium bowl, toss the beans with 1/4 tsp each salt and pepper, then arrange the beans and then the spinach over the pasta. Top with about 1/2 cup of marinara sauce and 1/2 cup of mozzarella. Place 3 more noodles over the top, then spread the sautéed vegetables evenly over the noodles. Top with about 1/2 cup of marinara sauce and 1/2 cup of mozzarella. Place the remaining 3 noodles on top, and spread the remaining 1 cup of marinara sauce over them. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 1/2 cups of mozzarella, and the Parmesan. Dot with butter if desired (this step isn't really necessary), and bake until the filling is bubbling and the cheese is golden, about 35 minutes.

November 22, 2005

Everyday Italian: Almond Cake

A somewhat dense, coarse-textured, intensely almond-flavored cake. It's tasty just as it is, and would also pair well with fresh berries.

You'll need a stand mixer for this recipe, as there's quite a bit of creaming and mixing. De Laurentiis notes that it's very important to cream the almond paste and butter together until they are completely smooth, otherwise the texture will suffer. To measure the almond paste, cut slices off (almond paste comes in a log) and press them into the measuring cup so that there are no air pockets. Fill the measuring cup so that the almond paste is even with the top edge, using a knife to trim off the excess, if necessary.

I've added the instruction to scrape the sides and bottom of the mixer bowl a couple of times, since De Laurentiis neglects this step even though it's clearly necessary. You want to make sure that all of the ingredients are completely integrated into the cake batter, otherwise you'll have weird pockets in the finished cake.

The cake would look particularly pretty topped with fresh raspberries that have been tossed in a bit of sugar and Amaretto. By itself, it's a nice companion to a cup of coffee or tea, or a glass of Sauternes.

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: about 30 to 35 minutes
Yield: One 8-inch cake, about 8 to 10 servings

1/2 cup fine yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup almond paste, cut into small pieces
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups confectioner's sugar, plus more for dusting
4 large egg yolks
2 large eggs
1/4 cup sour cream

Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8-inch round cake pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, flour, and baking powder. Using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and almond paste on high speed until smooth, about 3 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and beat in the vanilla extract. Gradually add 1 1/4 cups of confectioner's sugar, beating until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. Increase the speed to high and beat in the egg yolks and whole eggs, adding them one at a time. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl again. Reduce the speed to medium and add the sour cream and dry ingredients and mix until just incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake until the cake is golden and pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool. Invert the cake onto a plate or cake dish and dust with confectioner's sugar. Cut into wedges, and serve with berries, if desired.

The cake can be made 1 day ahead. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Everyday Italian: White Bean Dip with Pita Chips

The "Italian version of hummus," according to Giada De Laurentiis. It's an easy dip to make, and would make a nice addition to a buffet table or holiday dinner. Both the dip and the chips can be made ahead of time. The flavor of the white beans is a bit less assertive than hummus, and the oregano-coated pita chips make a good accompaniment.

The only question I had about this recipe was the discrepancy between the instruction to halve the pita breads horizontally, and the photo of the finished dish, which clearly shows pita chips that have not been halved. I simply cut the pita into wedges, without opening them up horizontally. I'm not sure that the cooking instructions would work for thinner chips, to be honest. My intact chips were golden and crisp in less time than the recipe called for. If the pitas were even thinner, I think they might burn if you cooked them for the full time that the recipe says. Use your best judgment; if you want to make really thin chips, then go ahead and slice the pita pockets apart through the middle before cutting them into wedges. But watch them carefully, as they will almost certainly cook more quickly than intact pita chips will.

I suggest that you line your baking sheet with foil, for easier clean-up. And if you make thinner pita chips, you'll need to use 2 baking sheets (that's not specified in Everyday Italian, but I don't see any way to cook that many wedges of pita bread in one layer on 1 standard-sized baking sheet. Even the un-halved pita wedges barely fit in a single layer on 1 sheet).

You could also serve this dip with other chips, crackers, or bread, if you don't want to bake your own pita chips.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: about 12 to 15 minutes
Yield: about 1 cup of dip, and about 2 cups of chips (approximately 6 appetizer servings)

4 pita breads, cut into 8 wedges each
2 Tbsp plus 1/3 cup olive oil
1 tsp dried oregano
1 1/2 tsp salt, plus more to taste
1 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
15-oz. can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice (from about 1/2 lemon)
1 garlic clove

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Arrange the pita wedges on a foil-lined baking sheet, and brush with 2 Tbsp olive oil. Sprinkle with the oregano, and 1 tsp each salt and pepper. Bake for 8 minutes, then turn the wedges over and bake until crisp and golden, about 5 minutes longer.

Meanwhile, combine the beans, parsley, lemon juice, garlic, and the remaining 1/2 tsp of salt and 1/4 tsp of pepper in a food processor. Pulse until coarsely chopped, then add the remaining 1/3 cup of olive oil through the feed tube with the machine running. Process until the mixture is creamy. Season the purée with more salt and pepper to taste. Serve the dip at room temperature, with warm or room-temperature pita chips.

If making 1 day ahead, cover and refrigerate the bean dip. Store the pita chips in an airtight container at room temperature.

Everyday Italian: Lemon Spaghetti

Everyday Italian has a few quick "from the pantry" pasta ideas, including this light, fresh-tasting spaghetti. The book recommends it as a side-dish for fish, and it also makes a lovely light lunch all by itself. All you need is dried pasta, a couple of lemons, some Parmesan cheese, and you're on your way to a quick and zesty meal.

De Laurentiis calls for fresh basil in the recipe, but if you're looking to make this dish one afternoon or evening when you've got very little time, and/or no fresh ingredients in the house, don't worry. The spaghetti tastes great even without the basil.

The recipe calls for the cook to save some of the pasta-cooking water, for use in thinning out the sauce. I found it unnecessary to use any of the reserved water, as the sauce coated the pasta just fine without it.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: about 10 minutes for the pasta
Yield: 4 main-course or 6 side-dish servings

2/3 cup olive oil
2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 2 lemons)
3/4 tsp salt, plus more to taste
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1 pound dried spaghetti (linguini would also work well)
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil, optional
1 Tbsp grated lemon zest (from about 2 lemons)

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.

In a large bowl, whisk the oil, cheese, lemon juice, 3/4 tsp of salt, and 1/2 tsp of pepper to blend. Set the lemon sauce aside. (The sauce can be made up to 8 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before serving.)

When water boils, add the spaghetti and cook, stirring often, until tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water. Add the spaghetti to the lemon sauce, and toss with the basil and lemon zest. If necessary, add the reserved cooking water, 1/4 cup at a time, to moisten. Season the pasta with more salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to bowls and serve.

Everyday Italian: Braciola

As Giada De Laurentiis notes in her introductory paragraph to this recipe, braciola can mean different dishes depending on which region of Italy you're in. This version uses flank steak wrapped around a cheese-and-bread-crumb filling. The meat is tasty and tender, and the filled slices look lovely. I did have a few issues with the technique, however.

De Laurentiis instructs the cook to cover the flank steak with the filling, and then "roll it up like a jelly roll, enclosing the filling completely." Flank steaks don't vary greatly in their dimensions, so I was surprised when I had too much filling. It didn't all fit when I rolled the steak up; about 1/4 to 1/3 of a cup ended up back on the work surface, squeezed out by the rolling-up process. I did the best I could to get all of the filling into the roll, but it didn't all fit.

Be extremely careful to get all of the filling completely contained within the flank steak. Some of my filling came out while I was browning the roll in the sauté pan, and it burned. I had to scrape the burnt stuff out of the pan before deglazing with the white wine, so that the bitter flavors wouldn't ruin the sauce. If you get some burnt crumbs and cheese in the pan despite your best efforts to be careful, make sure you remove it completely before adding the wine and marinara sauce.

This dish can be made a day ahead and reheated. I found that the flavors melded together nicely, and the braciola tasted even better the second day. Feel free to vary the cheeses -- mozzarella, fontina, Gorgonzola, or Parmesan would all work well.

De Laurentiis doesn't suggest accompaniments for the dish; I served it with buttered-and-parsleyed orzo. Any pasta would work well as a bed for the braciola slices. The recipe says to spoon the sauce over the top of the slices, but that covers up the attractive look of the filled steak. I suggest spooning the sauce around the edge of each slice.

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: about 2 hours
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

2/3 cup grated Pecorino-Romano cheese
1/3 cup grated Provolone cheese
1/2 cup dried Italian-style bread crumbs
2 Tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 garlic clove, minced
4 Tbsp olive oil
1 flank steak (1 1/2 pounds)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth
3 1/4 cups Marinara Sauce (use your favorite store-bought marinara if you don't want to make your own from scratch)

In a medium bowl, stir the cheeses, bread crumbs, parsley, and garlic to blend. Stir in 2 Tbsp olive oil, and set aside.

Lay the flank steak flat on the work surface, and sprinkle with 1/2 tsp each salt and pepper. Sprinkle the bread-crumb mixture evenly over the steak, leaving about a 1/2-inch border around the edges. Starting at a short end, roll the steak up around the filling, as for a jelly roll. Enclose the filling completely. If necessary, remove excess filling so that it doesn't leak out. Tie the roll with 2 or 3 lengths of kitchen string to secure. Sprinkle the roll with the remaining 1/2 tsp each of salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large, heavy, ovenproof skillet or sauté pan, heat the remaining 2 Tbsp olive oil over medium heat. Add the braciola and brown on all sides, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the wine or vermouth and bring to a boil. Stir in the 3 1/4 cups Marinara Sauce. Cover partially with foil and bake, turning the roll and basting with the sauce every 30 minutes, until the meat is almost tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Uncover and continue baking until tender, about 30 minutes longer. (The braciola can be made up to this point 1 day ahead. Cool, then cover with foil and refrigerate. Reheat in a 350-degree oven until warmed through, about 30 minutes.)

Remove the roll from the sauce. Cut the kitchen string with a knife and remove. Slice the braciola crosswise into 4 or 6 slices, approximately 1/2-inch thick (a serrated knife works well for this). Transfer the slices to plates, and spoon the sauce around each slice. If desired, serve the slices atop a bed of pasta, such as orzo or mini-penne.

November 21, 2005

Everyday Italian: Marinara Sauce

Giada De Laurentiis has a chapter of recipes for the backbone of her cuisine: sauces. This is the classic Italian "red sauce," and it's a nice, fresh, flavorful rendition. It can be made in a large batch and frozen in bags for use whenever you need it. It's also a crucial ingredient in many of De Laurentiis' recipes, and I couldn't get started on her book without it.

De Laurentiis recommends San Marzano tomatoes. These imported tomatoes really do have an outstanding flavor, but they're not available everywhere. If you can't find them, try to find Muir Glen tomatoes, which are also excellent. The recipe calls for 32-oz. cans of tomatoes, but domestic tomatoes usually come in 28-oz. cans, so add another 8-oz. can of crushed or diced tomatoes, or tomato sauce, if you're using domestic tomatoes.

The flavor is nicely balanced between the sweetness of the carrots and the acidity of the tomatoes. The texture is slightly chunky; if you prefer a smooth sauce, give it a whirl in the blender or food processor after cooking.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: about 1 1/2 hours
Yield: about 2 quarts

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 small onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 tsp salt, plus more to taste
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
2 (32-oz.) cans crushed tomatoes (or 2 cans domestic tomatoes, 28-oz. each, plus 1 8-oz. can tomatoes or tomato sauce, see note above)
2 dried bay leaves

In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and garlic and sauté until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the celery, carrots, and 1/2 tsp each salt and pepper. Cook until all the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and bay leaves, and simmer uncovered over low heat until the sauce thickens, about 1 hour. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Taste, and adjust seasonings.

If making ahead, cool, then cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day. Or transfer the cooled sauce to freezer bags and freeze for up to 3 months.

November 18, 2005

Roasted Green Beans

Another new recipe from the current issue of Cook's Illustrated magazine. These green beans are fantastic: the roasting process brings out their natural sweetness and converts tough, boring old supermarket beans into something special.

A caveat, however: if you have traditionalists at your Thanksgiving table, you may get some remarks about the look of this dish. The beans shrivel up and turn deep golden brown in the oven. They look nothing like the bright emerald-color green beans that you might be used to. But if you're willing to try something new, you won't be disappointed in the flavor. I ate nearly a half-pound of the beans straight out of the oven, all by myself, because their roasty goodness was so addictive.

As the Cook's Illustrated writer notes, sometimes grocery store green beans can be less than wonderful at this time of year. They can be tough and not very flavorful. With this roasting technique, you can reverse the aging process that green beans undergo as they mature. The high oven heat helps turn starches into sugars, making the beans sweeter. And the browning (known as the Maillard reaction) adds flavor to the beans that you just can't get by steaming or boiling. I highly recommend giving this technique a try. Even if you don't do it for Thanksgiving, try it another time. You won't be disappointed with the results.

The recipe below is for 1 pound of beans, enough for about 4 servings. If you need more beans, you can double or triple the recipe. Don't try to cook more than one pound of beans per baking sheet, however. They need to be spread out in a single layer to cook properly. Cook additional beans on additional baking sheets.

The magazine gives a couple of variations for the beans. I've listed one below, but didn't try it. I thought the beans were tasty enough straight out of the oven.

Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 15 to 20 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

1 pound green beans, stem ends snapped off
1 Tbsp olive oil
Table salt and ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spread the beans on the baking sheet and drizzle with the olive oil. Toss with your hands to coat. Sprinkle with 1/2 tsp of salt, toss again to coat evenly, and distribute the beans in an even layer. Roast for 10 minutes.

Using tongs, redistribute the beans on the baking sheet, and continue roasting another 5 to 10 minutes, until beans are beginning to shrivel and turn dark golden brown in spots. Grind some fresh black pepper over the top of the beans, transfer to a serving bowl, and enjoy.

Roasted Green Beans with Red Onion and Walnuts
Combine 1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar, 1 tsp honey, 1 tsp minced fresh thyme leaves, and 2 medium thinly-sliced garlic cloves in a small bowl; set aside. Follow recipe for Roasted Green Beans through the first 10 minutes of roasting, cooking 1/2 of a medium red onion, cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges, alongside the beans. Remove baking sheet from oven. Using tongs, coat beans and onion evenly with vinegar/honey mixture; redistribute in an even layer. Continue roasting until onions and beans are dark golden brown and beans have started to shrivel, about 8 to 10 minutes longer. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper and toss well to combine. Transfer to a serving dish, sprinkle with 1/3 cup toasted and chopped walnuts, and serve.

Mushroom and Apple Dressing

This is my favorite dressing for Thanksgiving. Take dressing mix from the store, fancy it up with some mushrooms and some fruit, and voilà-- it's a classic holiday side dish.

I use Mrs. Cubbison's seasoned dressing. My preference is to use fresh exotic mushrooms like chanterelles, lobster mushrooms, or chicken-of-the-woods, but these aren't always available. In that case, I make do with a combination of exotic dried mushrooms and fresh button mushrooms. This recipe is easily adaptable: try raisins, prunes, or dates in place of the apricots, and add walnuts or almonds if you desire.

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Yield: about 10 to 12 servings

2 bags (6 oz. each) seasoned dressing mix
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 ribs celery, finely sliced
1 pound fresh exotic mushrooms, such as chanterelle, porcini, or lobster (if not available, substitute 1 pound white button mushrooms and 1/2 to 3/4 oz. dried lobster, morel, or porcini mushrooms, reconstituted in hot water according to package directions)
1 large apple (Jonagold, Macintosh, Gala, etc.)
1/2 cup finely diced dried apricots
1 tsp poultry seasoning
1/2 tsp dried sage leaves
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 cup chicken stock

Pour the dressing mix into a large bowl.

Melt one stick of the butter in a large skillet. Add the onions and celery and cook over medium-low heat until tender and translucent, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, brush the mushrooms clean and chop into 1/2-inch dice (or slice the white button mushrooms and finely chop the drained reconstituted dried mushrooms). Add the mushrooms to the skillet, turn the heat up to medium-high, and cook until the mushrooms have given off their liquid and it is starting to evaporate, about 10 minutes.

Dice the apple into 1/4-inch dice. Add the apple, apricots, poultry seasoning, sage, and pepper to the dressing mix. Melt the remaining stick of butter; add it to the dressing mix. Transfer the vegetables in the skillet to the dressing mixture and stir to combine well. Pour in the chicken stock. Stir well, then spoon the dressing into a buttered baking dish, about 3 1/2- to 4-quart capacity. (If you don't have a big enough baking dish, it may be necessary to put the dressing into 2 smaller dishes.)

Cover and bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes, removing cover for last 15 minutes of baking time if you want a crisp top.

Sweet Potato Casserole

A very tasty new sweet potato recipe from the current issue of Cook's Illustrated magazine. Roasted sweet potatoes are puréed, then baked under a crunchy pecan streusel topping.

The streusel sounded awfully close to dessert territory to me, but it works. The dish is not cloyingly sweet, which is often a problem with sweet potato recipes. And the nutty topping adds a fun flavor.

Cook's Illustrated gives the yield for this recipe as 10 to 12 servings, but I think that for Thanksgiving dinner, it will probably serve as many as 16 people. It's quite rich, and a little will go a long way.

The sweet potatoes can be roasted up to 2 days ahead. And the casserole itself can be made the day before Thanksgiving. Reheat it in a 400-degree oven for about 25 minutes before serving.

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 1 to 1 1/2 hours for the potatoes; 45 minutes for the casserole
Yield: 12 to 16 servings

Sweet Potatoes
7 pounds sweet potatoes (6 to 8 medium)

Streusel
5 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into pieces and softened, plus additional for greasing pan
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup pecans

Filling
5 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp found nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
4 tsp fresh lemon juice
Granulated sugar
4 large egg yolks
1 1/2 cups half-and-half

For the potatoes: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Poke sweet potatoes several times with a knife and space them evenly on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake, turning once, until very tender and easily squeezed with tongs, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Remove potatoes from oven and cut in half lengthwise to let steam escape; cool at least 10 minutes. Scrape the flesh away from the skins into a large bowl; you should have about 8 cups. (If making ahead, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate.)

For the streusel: Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Pulse flour, brown sugar, and salt in a food processor until blended. Sprinkle butter pieces over the flour mixture and pulse until a crumbly mass forms, about 6 to 8 one-second pulses. Sprinkle nuts over the mixture and pulse until combined but some large nut pieces remain, 4 to 6 one-second pulses. Transfer streusel to a medium bowl and return the work bowl to the food processor.

Place half of the potato flesh into the food processor. With a rubber spatula, break the remaining flesh in the bowl into 1-inch chunks.

For the filling: Add melted butter, salt, nutmeg, pepper, vanilla, and lemon juice to the potatoes in the food processor. Process until smooth, about 20 seconds. Taste for sweetness, and add up to 4 Tbsp granulated sugar if desired. Add egg yolks and process about 15 seconds. With processor running, pour half-and-half through the feed tube and process until blended, about 30 seconds. Transfer the puréed mixture to the large bowl with the potato chunks. Stir gently until combined.

Pour filling into the prepared baking dish and spread evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle the streusel over the top, breaking up any large pieces with your fingers. Bake until topping is well browned and filling is puffy around the edges, about 45 minutes. Cool slightly before serving (or cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate. To reheat, bake at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes.)

Decadent Chocolate-Pecan Pie

If you like your Thanksgiving pecan pie with some chocolate in it, you'll like this recipe. Semisweet chocolate chips are stirred into the filling, and the pie is topped with a drizzle of melted chocolate. This recipe comes from the Better Homes and Gardens Holiday Baking magazine.

I didn't love the Butter Pastry crust recipe for this pie; the texture was a bit sandy and it wasn't terribly easy to work with. if you have a favorite pie crust recipe, feel free to use it. Or you can use a premade crust from the store. Some specialty markets sell frozen or refrigerated crusts that bake up nice and flaky (Trader Joe's markets have a very nice one in the refrigerator case), and if you only make pies for special occasions and hate to fuss around with the pastry, it's a good alternative.

You can make this pie with pecans for the classic Thanksgiving dessert, or you could use salted mixed nuts, for an interesting variation on the old classic.

Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Yield: about 12 servings

Butter Pastry (recipe below, or substitute your favorite single-crust recipe, or use a premade crust from the market, see note above)

4 eggs
1 1/4 cups light corn syrup
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla
Dash salt
1 1/4 cups pecan halves, or mixed salted nuts
1 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips, divided
1 Tbsp vegetable shortening

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

On a lightly floured surface, roll chilled Butter Pastry into a circle about 13 inches in diameter. Line a 9-inch pie plate or tart pan with the pastry. Trim the pastry even with the edge of the pan and flute the edges.

For the filling: In a large bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk. Whisk in corn syrup, sugar, melted butter, vanilla, and salt. Stir in the nuts and 1/2 cup of the chocolate chips. Pour filling into the pan. Place the pan on a foil-lined baking sheet, and transfer to the oven. Bake pie for 25 minutes. If edges of pastry are getting too brown, cover with foil. Bake 30 to 40 minutes more, or until center quivers slightly when shaken. Cool on a wire rack, and refrigerate within 2 hours. Pie can be made one day ahead.

When ready to serve, melt shortening and remaining 1/2 cup chocolate chips in a small saucepan, stirring until smooth. Cut pie into wedges and transfer to dessert plates. Transfer melted chocolate to a small plastic bag; cut off the tip of one of the bag's corners and drizzle the chocolate over the pie wedges. If desired, serve with sweetened whipped cream. (Melted chocolate can also be drizzled over the pie before it is sliced into wedges. Once it hardens, however, it becomes somewhat difficult to slice through, so I recommend drizzling the pie shortly before serving.)


Butter Pastry
1 1/2 cups flour
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
1/4 cup cold unsalted butter
1 egg
1 Tbsp cold water

I a medium bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until pieces are pea-sized.

In a small bowl, beat together egg and cold water. Add this mixture to the flour mixture and knead gently with your fingers just until dough comes together (if necessary, add another 1 Tbsp of cold water). Flatten the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate 1 hour. Proceed with recipe, above.

November 17, 2005

Brined & Roasted Turkey

Over the years I've tried many different ways of roasting turkey. Marinades, glazes, brining solutions that contain weird ingredients like juniper berries -- I've done it all. And I've determined that my favorite turkey is a simple turkey. There are so many other elements to Thanksgiving dinner that I prefer the turkey to be itself, in all its turkey glory, without a lot of embellishment.

This is my simplest, easiest method for making tasty, moist turkey. I've adapted this technique from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle food section in 1999. Brine the turkey for 24 hours to ensure that the meat is seasoned and won't dry out, then roast it at 400 degrees for about 2 to 3 hours. No all-day cooking, no basting, just pop it in the oven and out comes golden, yummy turkey.

To brine the turkey, you need a lot of room in the refrigerator and a really big stockpot, or you need a cooler, some ice, and some big plastic bags. It may sound like a pain in the neck, but the brining process is worth the extra effort. The meat will be seasoned throughout, and brining also helps to ensure that the breast meat won't dry out.

I usually cook a turkey that's about 14 to 16 pounds, which will serve about 8 people and leave leftovers. Any bigger than 18 pounds, and the roasting time starts to get really long, plus the brining becomes a bit trickier, since you'll need a really big cooler. If you need a bigger turkey, you may want to stick to a more traditional method of roasting.

I highly recommend getting a fresh turkey. You may need to order one from a specialty market; in my area, Wild Oats markets sell antibiotic- and hormone-free turkeys that are very tasty. Even a fresh turkey will seem somewhat frozen when you first bring it home, so get your turkey on Monday or Tuesday of Thanksgiving week so that you have enough time to defrost and brine it.

A note about stuffing the turkey: I don't do it anymore. I've decided that it's not worth the extra effort, and the food safety issues mean that oftentimes, you've got to cook the hell out of a small turkey just to get the stuffing up to a safe 165 degrees. I don't recommend it, especially with a brined turkey, since the stuffing will get too salty. I cook the turkey by itself, and make dressing in a separate pan.

Prep Time: 15 minutes, plus 24 hours for brining
Cook Time: 2 to 3 hours
Yield: about 8 to 10 servings, plus some leftovers

Brining Solution
2 1/2 gallons cold water
2 cups kosher salt
1 cup sugar

1 fresh turkey, about 14 to 16 pounds, giblets and neck removed (reserve them for the gravy)
2 Tbsp butter, softened
1 1/2 tsp freshly-ground black pepper
1 to 2 cups chicken stock

Combine the water, salt, and sugar in a large pot. Stir to combine and dissolve the salt and sugar. If you're brining in a large stockpot, put the brining solution and the turkey into the pot and transfer it to the refrigerator. If you're brining in a cooler, pour the solution into a plastic bag or brining bag and add the turkey. Secure the neck of the bag with plastic ties, and put the bag into a large cooler. Pack ice around the turkey and keep the cooler in a cool place.

After 24 hours, remove the turkey from the brine, rinse under cold water, then drain and pat dry. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the turkey breast-side up in a V-shaped roasting rack that fits in a roasting pan. Rub the skin with 2 Tbsp of softened butter and sprinkle with about 1 1/2 tsp of freshly-ground black pepper. Tuck the wing tips under the turkey, tie the legs together, and cover the breast tightly with aluminum foil. Place the pan in the oven.

Roast the turkey for about 1 hour, then remove the foil from the breast. Pour about 1 cup of chicken stock over the breast. This helps to deglaze the drippings in the bottom of the pan. If the liquid in the bottom of the pan cooks off completely, add more chicken stock so that there are always some liquid drippings in the pan. Continue to cook until the internal temperature in the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 to 170 degrees. Start checking the temperature after about 1 1/2 hours of cooking time. A 14- to 16-pound turkey will cook in about 2 to 3 hours. If the legs begin to get too dark, tent them loosely with foil. When done, remove the V-rack from the roasting pan and let the turkey rest at least 20 minutes before carving.

Pour the pan drippings from the roasting pan into a measuring cup or gravy separator. Skim off the fat, or pour off the defatted drippings. Use the defatted pan drippings to season the gravy.

Carve the turkey at the table, or in the kitchen. Put the meat on a platter and serve. Happy Thanksgiving!


Make-Ahead Turkey Gravy

This is a wonderful way to take some of the last-minute pressure of Thanksgiving off your head: make the gravy ahead of time. When you're rushing around your kitchen trying to pull together all of the last-minute elements of Thanksgiving dinner, you won't have to be whisking up a roux and hoping not to get lumps in the gravy. Instead, you can simply bring the premade gravy up to a simmer on the stovetop, and season it with a bit of the pan drippings from the turkey roasting pan.

This recipe is adapted from Cook's Illustrated magazine, November/December 2001 edition. Since I usually brine my turkey, the only use I have for the very salty pan drippings is as flavoring for this make-ahead gravy, which can be refrigerated for up to 3 days before the holiday. You'll need to roast some bones and vegetables to make turkey stock, and the process is a bit time-consuming. But it's worth it, in my opinion. And most of the cooking time is the stock simmering on the stove, which doesn't require your hands-on attention.

Make sure your turkey is well defrosted (I recommend getting a fresh, not frozen, turkey) so that you can add the neck and giblets to the bones. Well-stocked meat departments carry turkey necks and backs. If you can't find them, you can substitute turkey legs. Don't try to use turkey wings; they are much too fatty and make the broth greasy.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: about 3 hours
Yield: approximately 1 quart

Turkey giblets (discard the liver, as it will make the stock cloudy) and neck, from your Thanksgiving turkey
About 2 to 3 pounds additional turkey necks and backs, purchased at the market
1 medium carrrot, coarsely chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 celery rib, coarsely chopped into 1-inch pieces
2 small onions, coarsely chopped into 1-inch pieces
6 garlic cloves, unpeeled
2 cans (14.5 oz. each) low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups dry white wine
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1/4 cup all-purpose flour

Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Place turkey giblets, necks, backs, carrot, celery, onions, and garlic into a large flameproof roasting pan. Spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray and toss to combine. Roast, stirring every 10 minutes, until well-browned, about 1 hour.

Remove roasting pan from oven, and place over 1 or 2 burners set at high heat. Add chicken stock and bring to a boil, scraping up browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.

Transfer contents of the roasting pan to a large stockpot or saucepan. Add wine, 3 cups of water, and thyme sprigs; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer until reduced by half, about 1 1/2 hours. Strain stock into a large measuring cup or container. Cool to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until fat congeals, about 1 hour.

Skim fat from the stock and reserve. Pour the stock through a fine-mesh strainer to remove remaining bits of fat; discard bits in strainer. Bring stock to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. In a second medium saucepan, heat 4 Tbsp of the reserved turkey fat over medium-high heat until bubbling (if you don't have 4 Tbsp of fat, make up the difference with butter). Whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly, until combined and honey-colored, about 2 minutes. Continuing to whisk constantly, gradually add the hot stock; bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

To serve: bring the gravy to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Add about 1/4 cup of defatted turkey pan drippings (from the turkey recipe), a few grinds of black pepper, and then stir well to combine. Taste the gravy carefully, and add more pan drippings if needed. Adjust seasonings with more salt and pepper if necessary, then transfer the gravy to a boat or other container and serve.

November 16, 2005

Pumpkin-Apple Butter Pie

I've noted before that I'm not a huge fan of pumpkin pie, usually preferring to make pumpkin cheesecake for my quota of pumpkin-themed Thanksgiving desserts. This delicious recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens Holiday Baking magazine might make me change my mind, however. The combination of apple butter and a nutty streusel topping makes this an excellent variation of the standard, boring pumpkin pie.

The presentation is especially lovely; the recipe calls for the cook to cut out small leaf or star shapes and place them around the edge of the pie plate, atop the edge of the bottom crust. I have a set of small (about 1- to 2-inch) leaf cutters, and thought that this would be an excellent chance to use them. The finished pie, with its wreath of glazed golden pastry leaves, looked perfect for fall. If you don't have leaf cutters, stars or hearts would also look nice.

The Nut Pastry was easy to work with and baked up nice and flaky. The only change I've made to the recipe is in the use of foil to protect the edges of the pie from overbrowning. The original recipe calls for the cook to cover the pastry before putting it in the oven, and then to remove the foil after about 20 minutes. If you do this, your raw pastry shapes could stick to the foil. I've reversed the order: first, bake the pie for about 20 minutes so that the pastry firms up; then cover the edge with foil to protect it from further browning. If the pastry shapes don't get golden in the first 35 to 40 minutes of baking, remove the foil when you add the streusel topping so that they get nicely browned.

Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 50 to 60 minutes
Yield: about 12 servings

Nut Pastry (recipe below)
1 egg
1 Tbsp water
Granulated sugar

15-oz. can pumpkin
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup apple butter
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 egg yolk, slightly beaten
1/2 cup whipping cream

1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
2 Tbsp butter, softened
2 Tbsp flour
2 Tbsp packed brown sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a 9-inch pie plate with a Nut Pastry circle. Trim pastry to edge of pie plate. Roll the other half of the Nut Pastry dough out to 1/8-inch thickness. Use small (about 1- to 2-inch size) cookie cutters or a sharp knife to make leaves or other shapes. In a small bowl, beat the 1 egg with the 1 Tbsp of water. Brush the edge of the pastry in the pie plate. Arrange the pastry shapes around the edge of the pie, overlapping slightly (pastry will shrink as it bakes). Brush shapes with egg mixture, and sprinkle with sugar. Set aside.

For the filling: In a large bowl, combine the pumpkin, the 1/2 cup brown sugar, the apple butter, the spices, and the salt. Add the 2 eggs and the egg yolk and beat until just combined. Gradually add the whipping cream; stir until combined. Pour the filling into the pie plate.

Bake the pie for 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and wrap foil around the edge of the pan to protect the pastry shapes from overbrowning. Return the pan to the oven and bake for about 15 more minutes. Meanwhile, make the streusel: combine the nuts, butter, flour, and the 2 Tbsp brown sugar. Sprinkle this mixture over the pie, and bake for about 10 to 15 more minutes, or until a knife inserted near the center of the pie comes out clean.

Cool on a wire rack. Serve, or cover and chill within 2 hours. The pie can be made the day before Thanksgiving. If it's been refrigerated, let the pie sit out at room temperature for about 30 minutes before serving. Delicious with sweetened whipped cream.


Nut Pastry
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp salt
2/3 cup shortening
1/2 cup finely-ground pecans or walnuts
8 to 10 Tbsp cold water

In a large bowl, stir together flour and salt. Using a pastry blender, cut in shortening until pieces are pea-sized. Stir in the ground nuts. Sprinkle 1 Tbsp of the cold water over part of the mixture; gently toss with a fork. Push moistened dough aside in the bowl. Repeat, using 1 Tbsp of water at a time, until all of the flour mixture is moistened. Form dough into a ball with your hands, and divide the ball in half. Form each half into a disk.

Roll one disk into a circle about 12 inches in diameter. Wrap the circle gently over the rolling pin, and then unroll it into the 9-inch pie plate. Use the remaining dough as directed in the pie recipe, above.

Chestnut and Cranberry Dressing

A delicious dressing that can be made vegetarian-style, if you're looking for versatile side dishes for Thanksgiving.

Chestnuts give the dressing a creamy, nutty flavor, and dried cranberries add a touch of sweetness.

This recipe comes from the Williams-Sonoma catalog, circa 2001 or so. I've modified the recipe slightly to create the vegetarian option, and I've also omitted a chopped carrot that was originally cooked with the onion and celery, because I didn't like the way the carrot competed with the cranberries.

You can make the bread cubes a few days ahead of time. Use a hearty, artisanal bread, like a country-style boule. Trim the bottom crust off the loaf, then slice it into 1/2-inch pieces, spread them on a baking sheet, and let sit out until dry and stale. Then put them in a plastic bag until you're ready to make the dressing. If you don't make the cubes ahead, then simply toast them in a low oven (about 250 degrees) until they're dry, about 30 minutes.

To make the dressing vegetarian-style, use vegetable stock and omit the pork sausage. I make the dressing with chicken stock, but I prefer it without sausage, so I usually leave it out.

If you can't find chestnuts at your regular grocery store, try a specialty food store, or Cost Plus World Market.

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 45 to 50 minutes
Yield: 10 to 12 servings

3 cups low-sodium chicken stock, or vegetable stock
1 cup dried cranberries
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1/2 pound bulk pork sausage, optional
1 egg, lightly beaten
1-pound loaf country-style bread, bottom crust trimmed off, then cut into 1/2-inch pieces (discard any pieces that are mostly crust) and toasted (or set out in advance; see note, above)
15-oz. jar peeled, roasted chestnuts, quartered
2 Tbsp chopped fresh sage
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
2 Tbsp chopped fresh Italian parsley
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2 1/2- to 3-quart baking dish. In a small saucepan over medium heat, warm the stock until steam begins to rise, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add cranberries; set aside.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt butter. Add onion and celery and sauté, stirring occasionally, until tender and translucent, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables to a bowl. (If using the sausage, cook it in the same pan, stirring to crumble, until lightly browned and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add to the vegetables.)

In a large bowl, stir egg while slowly pouring in the stock and cranberries. Add bread and stir well. Let stand, stirring occasionally, until stock is absorbed, about 8 minutes. Add vegetables, chestnuts, sage, thyme, and parsley. Season with salt and pepper and stir to mix well. Transfer to prepared baking dish. Bake until browned and crispy on top, about 45 minutes.

November 14, 2005

Maple-Glazed Sweet Potatoes and Apples

Sweet and simple, this is a tasty way to serve sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving. No marshmallows here, just cider and maple syrup to accentuate the natural sweetness of the apples and potatoes. And it can be made the day before Thanksgiving, which is always a plus.

This recipe originated in the Food & Wine magazine 1997 recipe compilation book. I've modified it substantially, both for quantities and for technique.

If you have a mandoline or vegetable slicer, this is a good time to use it, for nice, even slices.

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: about 1 hour
Yield: 8 to 10 servings

6 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 1/2 to 3 pounds sweet potatoes (Ruby, Garnet, or Jewel are all good choices)
2 pounds Granny Smith apples
1 cup maple syrup
3/4 cup apple cider
1/2 tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Using 2 Tbsp of the butter, grease an 8-by-12 or 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

Peel and slice the sweet potatoes 1/4-inch thick. Peel, core, and halve the apples, then slice them 1/4-inch thick. Alternating sweet potatoes and apples, layer the slices in the baking dish, overlapping and packing in as tightly as necessary to make them fit.

In a medium saucepan, combine the maple syrup, apple cider, the remaining 4 Tbsp of butter, and the salt. Simmer over moderate heat for 5 minutes.

Pour the syrup mixture over the potatoes and apples. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for 40 minutes, until the apples release their juices. Uncover the dish and baste the slices with the pan juices. Increase the oven temperature to 450 degrees. Continue baking for about 30 more minutes, basting 2 or 3 more times, until the potatoes are tender and nicely glazed.

If you make the casserole 1 day ahead: Cool, cover, and refrigerate. To serve, cover with foil and reheat in a 400-degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes.

Cloverleaf Rolls

An easy recipe for soft rolls. The dough is formed in the food processor, and the rolls are baked in muffin tins. A cross is cut into the dough to form the cloverleaf shape, making these rolls a pretty addition to your Thanksgiving table.

I believe this recipe comes from the food section of the Los Angeles Times, circa 1993 or so. I've made it numerous times, and even if I've allowed the dough to sit out a bit too long, the rolls still come out of the oven light, fluffy, and tasty. If you need more than 12 rolls, make 2 batches. Do not try to double the recipe.

Prep Time: 15 minutes, plus about 2 hours rising time
Cook Time: 12 to 15 minutes
Yield: 12 rolls

1/4 cup warm water
1 package active dry yeast (1.25 oz.)
1/4 cup butter, softened
3 1/4 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp salt
3/4 cup milk, at room temperature
1 egg

Combine water and yeast. Set aside until foamy, about 5 minutes.

Combine butter, 1/2 of the flour, the sugar, and the salt in a food processor. Pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add yeast mixture, milk, and egg and blend well. With processor running, add remaining flour through the feed tube, just until dough forms a ball on top of the processor blade.

Place dough in a greased bowl and turn to grease sides. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled (1 to 1 1/2 hours). Punch dough down and let rise until doubled again (about 30 minutes).

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Form dough into 12 balls. Place balls in a greased standard-sized muffin pan. Using kitchen shears, cut each dough ball across almost all the way through, to form a cross on top of the ball (cut once, rotate 90 degrees, and cut again). Cover and set the pan aside for 15 minutes. Bake until the rolls are golden, about 12 to 15 minutes.

Cranberry-Orange Relish

When I was a kid, we always had canned jellied cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving. And I loved it -- so sweet, so Jello-like...mmm. Tasty.

Now that my palate is a bit more sophisticated, I prefer a whole-berry cranberry sauce. This one has a fantastic orange and spice flavor.

I've been making this recipe for years. I believe it originated in the food section of the San Francisco Chronicle in the mid-90s, if memory serves. The sauce is best when made at least 3 days ahead, and will keep in the fridge for up to a week before Thanksgiving.

Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Yield: 2 1/2 cups

12-oz. bag fresh cranberries
1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
3 whole cloves
3 whole allspice berries
2 cinnamon sticks
Grated peel of 1 orange

Put cranberries in a colander and pick over them, discarding any that are soft or yucky.

Bring sugar, water, cloves, allspice, and cinnamon to a boil in a medium saucepan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until syrup is clear, about 3 minutes. Remove spices and discard. Add cranberries and cook until they begin to pop, about 6 to 8 minutes. The sauce will look thin at this point; don't worry. It thickens as it cools.

Remove from heat and stir in orange peel. Cool, then cover and refrigerate for at least 3 days and up to 7 days. Allow the cranberry sauce to sit out at room temperature for at least an hour before serving.


November 11, 2005

Thanksgiving Week

I'm taking a week off from cookbook reviews to focus on Thanksgiving. All next week, I'll be posting recipes for Thanksgiving dishes, from the turkey to the dressing to the pumpkin pie. I'll be testing some recipes that are new to me, and also posting old favorites that I've been making for years.

Have you seen any interesting Thanksgiving ideas? In cookbooks, or magazines, or the Williams-Sonoma catalog, or your local newspaper? If you'd like to see something tested before you commit to it for your Thanksgiving table this year, drop me a line at Colleen@thecookbookcritic.com. I'll give the recipe a whirl before the big day, so you'll know if it's worthy of your holiday.

Better Homes and Gardens Holiday Baking magazine: Eggnog Quick Bread

A very tasty offering from the Better Homes and Gardens Holiday Baking magazine. It tastes a bit like eggnog, but mostly like nutmeg and almonds. Either way, it's yummy and looks pretty as a hostess gift or buffet table dessert.

You can bake it in one 9-by-5 inch loaf pan, or in two smaller loaf pans (approximately 7- to 7 1/2-by-3- to 4-inches). Smaller loaves will bake quicker than larger ones, so begin checking them for doneness after about 25 minutes.

Once the icing is set, it will stay put on the bread, so don't worry about wrapping it up as a gift or for transport.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 25 to 50 minutes, depending on pan size
Yield: 1 or 2 loaves, about 12 servings

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup eggnog
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp rum extract, optional
1 cup slivered or sliced almonds, toasted
Eggnog Icing (recipe below)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease the bottom and 1/2 inch up the sides of a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan, or two 7-by-4-by-2-inch loaf pans (sizes of smaller pans vary; use whatever pans you have that approximate these dimensions).

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, eggnog, melted butter, vanilla, and rum extract (if using). Add egg mixture to the flour mixture and stir just until moistened (batter will be lumpy). Fold in the toasted almonds.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan(s). Bake a 9-by-5-inch loaf for about 45 to 50 minutes; bake 7-by-4-inch pans about 25 to 30 minutes. Check for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the center of the loaf -- it should come out clean. Cool in the pan(s) on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pan(s) and cool completely on a rack. Drizzle with icing, then let icing set completely before wrapping loaves.


Eggnog Icing
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
Dash freshly grated nutmeg
2 to 3 tsp eggnog

Combine sugar, vanilla, and nutmeg. Stir in enough eggnog to reach drizzling consistency.

Better Homes and Gardens Holiday Baking magazine: Chocolate-Cashew Bread

Another quick bread from the Better Homes and Gardens Holiday Baking magazine. This one is drizzled with chocolate and sprinkled with chopped cashews; it looks lovely and tastes delicious.

The recipe can also be made with hazelnuts. A quibble with the magazine: the recipe doesn't specify what type of cashews to use. Roasted-salted? Unsalted? No hints are given, so I assumed that roasted-salted nuts would be fine. They tasted good in the bread, but I'm curious about the recipe's "cashews or hazelnuts" choice. If we're to assume that roasted cashews are what's called for, then should the hazelnuts also be roasted? It sounds logical to me, but this is a call you'll have to make for yourself, because the editors of Holiday Baking aren't saying. If you decide to use hazelnuts, toast them in a 350 degree oven for about 5 minutes, or until they start to turn golden.

A note about cooking times: the magazine's cooking times were slightly longer than mine for both this loaf and the Eggnog Quick Bread. I've reduced the times from what the magazine indicates, but you may need to cook the loaves for slightly longer than I've indicated. Just keep checking every couple of minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 45 to 50 minutes
Yield: 1 loaf, about 12 servings

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup oil (vegetable, safflower, canola, etc.)
1 1/3 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped cashews or hazelnuts
1/2 tsp shortening
Coarsely chopped cashews or hazelnuts, optional

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease the bottom and 1/2 inch up the sides of an 8-by-4-by-2-inch loaf pan.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Make a well in the center of the mixture and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the egg, milk, and oil. Stir well to combine. Add egg mixture to flour mixture. Stir just until moistened (batter will be lumpy). Fold in 1 cup of the chocolate chips and the 1 cup of cashews.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, spreading evenly. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean.

Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove from the pan and continue to cool on the rack. Before serving, combine remaining 1/3 cup of chocolate chips and the 1/2 tsp of shortening in a small saucepan. Stir over low heat until smooth. Drizzle the chocolate mixture over the loaf, and if desired, sprinkle with additional chopped nuts. Let stand until chocolate is set.

Better Homes and Gardens Holiday Baking magazine

book_holidaybaking05_sm.jpgI picked this magazine up at the newsstand. It's a special interest publication from Better Homes and Gardens, and it's chock-full of ideas for Thanksgiving and Christmas baked goods. I'll be testing various recipes until Christmas.

The magazine should be available on newsstands until the holidays are over. You could also try to order it from the Better Homes and Gardens website, although I didn't have much luck finding a link to the magazine there. (Psst! Better Homes and Gardens! You might want to make it possible for people to actually FIND your products on your website! Just a suggestion...)

First up are a couple of quick breads, some make-ahead cinnamon rolls, and then I'll be trying their recipe for Chocolate Pecan Pie. Look for it during Thanksgiving Week.

From My Kitchen: White Bean Chicken Chili

A perfect recipe for the slow cooker or Crock Pot. I've been making various versions of this chili for years, and it's particularly easy when you make it in the slow cooker.

I've adapted the recipe to account for some of the slow cooker's quirks; notably, it's incredibly time-consuming to cook dried beans in a crock pot, so I've substituted canned beans. You can throw the ingredients into the crock pot in the morning, and by dinnertime it's ready. I like to purée part of the beans and broth in a blender just before serving, to give the chili a thicker texture, but this step is optional.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 4 to 5 hours on HIGH; 9 to 10 hours on LOW
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

3 cans (15 oz. each) white beans (cannellini, Great Northern, etc.)
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 can (4 oz.) diced green chilis (not jalapeños!)
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried oregano leaves
1 tsp ground cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp salt
1 to 1.25 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 1/2 cups chicken broth

Rinse and drain the beans. Place them in a slow cooker. Add the onions, garlic, chilis, spices, and salt, and stir to combine. Place the chicken breasts over the top, and pour in the chicken broth. Cover and cook on LOW for 9 to 10 hours, or HIGH for 4 to 5 hours.

When ready to serve, remove the chicken and shred the meat into bite-sized pieces, using a couple of forks; set aside. Remove about 1 cup of the bean and broth mixture, and purée it in a blender until smooth. Add the bean purée back to the pot. Add the reserved chicken, and stir well to combine. (The puréeing is optional.)

Delicious with tortillas or tortilla chips; fresh salsa; sour cream; guacamole; chopped fresh cilantro; shredded jack or cheddar cheese. Try any or all of these accompaniments, and enjoy!

November 10, 2005

Jacques Pépin: Fast Food My Way

book_pepin_fastfood_dish.jpg

What Celebrity Cookbooks Should Aspire To

This is an outstanding book. Every restaurant chef who decides to write a cookbook should be required to take a look at Jacques Pépin's approach in Fast Food My Way to get an idea of how to write a cookbook that's actually useable.

The problem with many cookbooks that are written by restaurant chefs is that they are simply adapting their restaurant recipes for home use, not developing recipes specifically for people to use at home in their own kitchens. There's certainly a place for cookbooks that offer us a chance to make dishes that we have eaten out at restaurants: Wolfgang Puck's Live, Love, Eat! is that kind of book. But it's not marketed that way; the blurbs on the inside flap claim that the book is "comprehensive, delectable, and easy to use" and calls Puck's recipes "simple [and] sumptuous." While the dishes are delectable, they're not particularly simple or easy to make. They require a certain time investment on the part of the cook. So why is the book marketed this way?

Because cookbook publishers know which buzzwords sell books: Convenient. Simple. Easy. And above all: Fast. That's why Rachael Ray is so popular. Not because her recipes are so fabulous (some are good, some are merely okay, and some are outright failures), but because the idea of being able to get dinner on the table in 30 minutes is so compelling.

Whether or not it's a good thing that so many home cooks are dying to get in, get it done, and get out of the kitchen is a topic for another discussion. It's a fact, however, and cookbook publishers have certainly taken note. Jacques Pépin gets a seat on the speedy train with Fast Food My Way, and this book actually is what it says it is: a guide to simple, tasty home cooking. Pépin isn't adapting complicated restaurant cuisine in this book. He's sharing his own home recipes with the reader, and the results are fantastic. The book has an introduction that explains Pépin's approach clearly and is actually worth reading, unlike some of the self-congratulatory introductions I've come across. There is a list of suggested menus, an idea I wish all cookbook writers would incorporate into their books. If you're leafing through the book and decide that Instant Beef Tenderloin Stew sounds good, but you aren't sure what else might go with it? Pépin suggests Mushroom Velouté with Almonds, Mushroom and Raisin Chutney, and Apple, Pecan, and Apricot Crumble. I love getting suggestions like this. There's a chapter of "More Ideas for Quick Dishes," where Pépin reels off about 25 additional quick recipes for things like lavash pizza, or cold black bean soup, or pineapple frosties. These are all lovely ideas for when your brain just can't come up with anything to make.

And that's before the cookbook proper even gets started. I had success with nearly all of the recipes I tried from Fast Food My Way. The only outright failure was Mock Tiramisù, which suffered from a problem with technique. I occasionally also needed to adjust cooking times, as in the Oven-Baked Salmon with Sun-Dried Tomato and Salsa Mayonnaise, but these were minor adjustments and easy to adapt on the fly. Even recipes which I thought would never work, such as Chicken on Mashed Cauliflower with Red Hot Salsa, turned out tasty and easy to make.

The dessert chapter alone is worth the price of the book. There are 30 recipes, of which I've already made 5 and had great success, except for the aforementioned Mock Tiramisù. The other 25 recipes sound delicious, and I intend to make all of them, soon. Pépin makes excellent use of convenience products like canned fruit and storebought cookies, turning them into fun, pretty desserts. Fans of fruit crisps and crumbles will find several recipes, and they are all flexible enough to allow for almost infinite variation.

Pépin's introductory paragraphs to each recipe are helpful and informative. His technique is straightforward and clearly written. His presentations are pretty without being fussy. All in all, this is an excellent book. I'll be coming back to it again, without a doubt. Thank you, Mr. Pépin, for showing us how a "fast food" cookbook should be done.

November 09, 2005

From My Kitchen: Cherry-Cardamom Crisp

Taking inspiration from Jacques Pépin, I developed this tasty combination of Morello cherries, orange zest, and a crunchy cookie topping.

I'm a big fan of fruit crumbles and crisps. They're easy to put together and taste fantastic. Try this one in the fall, when fresh cherries are a distant memory.

I used jarred dark Morello cherries from Trader Joe's market. They have a nice flavor and texture, and hold up to baking better than canned cherries. I was looking for interesting cookies to use for the topping, and settled on a new product at Trader Joe's: orange-cardamom cookies. Any crisp, buttery cookie would work well. Some ideas for variations: nutmeg with pecan sandies; almond extract with almond biscotti; vanilla extract with shortbread.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 20 to 25 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

2 jars Morello cherries in light syrup, 24.7 oz. each
3 Tbsp melted butter
1 tsp orange zest
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 cup sugar
8 to 10 oz. crisp cookies
Sour cream, crème fraîche, whipped cream, or vanilla ice cream, optional

Drain the cherries, and reserve 1 cup of the syrup. Place the syrup in a small saucepan over high heat and reduce it to 1/2 cup, about 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine the cherries, butter, orange zest, cardamom, and sugar. Add the reduced syrup and mix well. Transfer the mixture to a 4- to 5-cup capacity baking dish or gratin dish.

Put the cookies in a plastic bag and crush them with a rolling pin. Make the crumbs as fine or chunky as you desire. Sprinkle the cookie crumbs over the cherry mixture, and bake for about 20 minutes, or until fruit is bubbling and topping is nicely browned. Serve warm or at room temperature with one of the suggested accompaniments.

Fast Food My Way: Pear-Ginger Crisp

A variation of the Pear Brown Betty. I prefer the crunchy cookie topping over the softer, pudding-style Betty.

I made this crisp with ginger cookies and added crystallized ginger to the filling, but it's quite a versatile idea. You could try it with shortbread, or graham crackers, or any other crispy, crumbly cookie that sounds good to you. Try it with nutmeg and cloves, or almond extract, or orange zest.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 30 to 40 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

1 can (29 oz.) pear halves in heavy syrup
4 Tbsp melted butter
1/3 cup golden raisins, optional
2 Tbsp finely chopped crystallized ginger
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
3 to 4 cups (about 8 to 10 oz.) ginger cookies
Sour cream, crème fraîche, or vanilla ice cream, optional

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Put the cookies in a plastic bag and crush into crumbs with a rolling pin or heavy skillet. You can make the crumbs uniformly fine, or somewhat chunky, depending on your preference. Drain the pears, reserving 1 cup of the syrup. Cut each pear half into 6 pieces. Put the pear pieces, reserved syrup, butter, raisins, crystallized ginger, and spices into a large bowl and stir to combine. Transfer the mixture to a 4- or 5-cup capacity glass baking dish or gratin dish. Top with the cookie crumbs. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until fruit is bubbling and cookies are nicely browned. Serve with sour cream, crème fraîche, or ice cream.

Fast Food My Way: Pear Brown Betty

From Jacques Pépin's Fast Food My Way, a clever idea for using up slightly stale baked goods: mix them with canned pears and turn them into dessert!

If you like bread puddings, you'll probably like this, even though it doesn't have a dairy component. You can make it with nearly any type of bread, cake, croissants, Danish, muffins, or scones. All you need to have on hand is a big can of pears.

I made this with cinnamon-raisin bread, and it was quite tasty. For a variation, try using cookies and make this dessert as a crisp.

Use the smaller amount of butter with richer pastries, such as Danishes or cake. If you're using a leaner baked good, such as bread, use the greater amount of butter.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 40 to 50 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

1 can (29-oz.) pear halves in heavy syrup
4 cups (approximately 8 to 10 oz.) coarsely broken pieces of leftover croissants, muffins, scones, Danish pastries, bread, etc.
2 to 4 Tbsp melted butter
1/3 cup golden raisins
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Sour cream, crème fraîche, or vanilla ice cream, optional

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Drain the pears, reserving 1 cup of the syrup. Cut each pear half into 6 pieces. Put the broken pieces of pastry or bread into a large bowl and mix in the pear pieces, reserved syrup, butter, raisins, and cinnamon. Transfer the mixture to a 4 - or 5-cup glass baking dish or gratin dish and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until bubbling and browned on top. Serve warm or at room temperature with sour cream, crème fraîche, or ice cream.

November 08, 2005

Fast Food My Way: Caramelized Apple-Granola Timbales

It sounds fancy, but it's actually a rather simple dessert or breakfast: individual custard cups are filled with a combination of apples and granola, then topped with a round of buttered-and-sugared bread. After they're cooked, the cups are unmolded, giving you a pretty molded dessert reminiscent of apple charlotte.

That's the theory, anyway. I had a bit of trouble in the execution.

Pépin instructs the cook to unmold the timbales while they're still warm. When I did this, the apples fell apart, losing the pretty timbale shape and giving me just a plate of cubed apples. I had better luck unmolding them once they were cold, but then the bread got soft when the timbales were reheated in the microwave.

Through some trial and error, I've determined that it's necessary to pack the apples into the custard cups really, really firmly. Pépin says "press on the apples to make them fit tightly," but that's an understatement. You need to press the apples down with the back of a spoon until they become solidly entrenched in the custard cups. I had better luck with unmolding them after I started buttering the custard cups, as well.

I also thought that the timbales could use more than just one slice of bread. In my original test of this recipe, I used regular slices of white sandwich bread, about 1/2-inch thick. I had better results with a thinner-sliced bread. My Trader Joe's market sells cinnamon-raisin bread that's about 3/8 of an inch thick, and when I layered one slice of this thinner bread in the middle of the timbale, and one on the top, the results were quite good.

Pépin says he likes to use pecan granola in this recipe. I used Nature's Path Pumpkin FlaxPlus granola, which is one of my favorite cereals. Use whatever granola strikes your fancy.

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 8 to 10 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

1/3 cup plus 1 tsp sugar
2 Tbsp water
4 Tbsp butter
3 apples (Granny Smith or Golden Delicious; about 1 1/2 pounds total), peeled, cored, and cut into 1-inch dice (about 4 1/2 cups)
1/3 cup granola
4 or 8 slices firm white sandwich bread, cinnamon-raisin bread, or other thin-sliced bread
1/2 cup vanilla yogurt, sour cream, crème fraîche, or vanilla ice cream, optional

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Put the 1/3 cup of sugar and the water in a skillet and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring just until the sugar is moistened. Continue boiling without stirring, until the mixture caramelizes, about 5 minutes. Watch the sugar carefully; it will burn quickly, so as soon as it begins to turn golden around the edges, remove the skillet from the heat and swirl the caramel in the pan so that it all turns brown. Add 2 1/2 Tbsp of butter, and when it has melted, add the apples. Stir well, cover, and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, or just until the apples are tender. Add the granola and cook, uncovered, until all the moisture evaporates and the apple mixture sizzles. Remove from the heat.

Butter 4 ramekins or custard cups (1/2-cup to 3/4-cup capacity) with 1/2 Tbsp of the butter. Using a knife or a round cutter, trim the bread slices so that they will fit into the custard cups. You can use four slices of bread if you want just one slice on the top of the timbales, or 8 slices if you'd like to add a bread layer to the center of the timbales. Butter the bread with the remaining 1 Tbsp butter.

If you're using 1 slice of bread per timbale: Divide the apple mixture among the custard cups. Using the back of a spoon, press very firmly on the apples, to compress them into the custard cup. Fit one of the bread rounds on top of the cup, press it firmly onto the apple mixture, and sprinkle the bread with the remaining 1 tsp of sugar.

If you're using 2 slices of bread per timbale: Divide the apple mixture in half. Divide one half of the apples among the 4 custard cups. Press the apples very firmly into the cups, compressing them into the bottom. Place one bread slice on top of the apples in each cup, then divide the remaining half of the apple mixture among the cups and press firmly again. Top each cup with another bread slice, pushing it firmly onto the apple mixture. Sprinkle the bread with the remaining 1 tsp of sugar.

Place the custard cups on a baking sheet and bake for about 8 to 10 minutes, or until the apples are heated through and the bread is nicely browned. Run a knife around the edges of the apples to help loosen, then give the cups a couple of sharp taps on the countertop before attempting to unmold the timbales (not too hard; you don't want to break them!) Invert a plate over the cup, then flip the whole thing over and hope that it all comes out in one cohesive mass. The more firmly you packed in the apples, the better chance you have that it'll keep its shape.

Serve as is or with vanilla yogurt for breakfast. For dessert, try sour cream, crème fraîche, or vanilla ice cream.

Fast Food My Way: Purée of Peas with Mint and Cilantro

This is an excellent example of Jacques Pépin's skill at taking convenience products -- in this case, frozen peas -- and turning them into something special. The peas and herbs combine to create a vibrant, intense green purée that looks and tastes fantastic.

Pépin notes that the peas must be puréed immediately after cooking, since if they sit unprocessed, their skins will shrink and toughen. Be sure to use peas labeled "baby" or "petite." These are the youngest, sweetest peas with the most tender skins.

This would make a very nice side dish for broiled chicken, or grilled halibut. I used the 2 tsp of jalapeño called for in the recipe, but hardly noticed any heat in the finished dish. If you'd like a bit more spice, try adding more jalapeño.

Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

1 pound frozen baby peas
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves
2 tsp chopped jalapeño pepper, or more if desired
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Bring 3 cups salted water to a boil. Add the frozen peas and bring back to the boil, which will take about 3 to 4 minutes. Boil gently for 1 1/2 minutes, then drain, reserving a few Tbsp of the cooking water.

Immediately transfer the peas to the food processor and add the remaining ingredients. Process to a fine purée, adding the reserved cooking water if the mixture is too thick to purée properly.

Serve immediately. Can also be made up to 2 days ahead. Reheat in the microwave before serving.

November 07, 2005

Fast Food My Way: Oven-Baked Salmon with Sun-Dried Tomato and Salsa Mayonnaise

Very rich, very tasty, and very easy. The salmon is slowly baked in the oven while you make the accompanying sauce. This would be a lovely dish to serve for a holiday brunch, since you can put it in the oven and ignore it for nearly an hour while it cooks. It can be served warm, or at room temperature, which makes it a nice option for a buffet.

I did have to cook it longer, and at a higher temperature, than is called for in the original recipe. Jacques Pépin notes that he likes the salmon "slightly rare inside," but even after I had cooked it for 45 minutes at 200 degrees, it was still basically sushi. I raised the oven temperature to 300 degrees and cooked it for an additional 20 minutes, or until it was fully cooked, since I don't like rare salmon. I recommend cooking the fish at 300 degrees, and you should start checking it for your preferred level of doneness at about 30 minutes of cooking time.

The sun-dried tomato mayonnaise makes use of the Red Hot Salsa that's served with Pépin's chicken and cauliflower recipe. All you need to do, if you already have the salsa made, is throw together some sun-dried tomatoes and mayonnaise, and you've got a rich, tasty sauce for the salmon. You could also use fresh salsa from the grocery store.

Because the salmon has a nutty breadcrumb topping and is served with a very rich sauce, I recommend that you serve it with simple accompaniments. For dinner, it would be lovely with plain couscous and steamed green beans. With brunch, a simple green salad or steamed asparagus would go well with the fish, as well as fresh fruit and an assortment of bread.

The recipe as written calls for a 3-pound piece of salmon, which is a lot. It will serve about 12 people. To make this recipe for 4 servings, use a 12- to 16-oz. piece of fish, and monitor the cooking time closely, since it will probably require less time in the oven.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: about 1 hour
Yield: 12 servings

1 tsp canola oil
1 skinless, boneless salmon fillet (about 3 pounds)
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 slice firm white sandwich bread
1/4 cup hazelnuts
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh herbs (a mixture of parsley, chives, tarragon, and chervil, or other herbs, as desired)

Salsa Mayonnaise
4 oz. sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil (about 3/4 cup)
3/4 cup Red Hot Salsa (recipe below), or fresh store-bought salsa
1/4 tsp salt (if necessary)
2 cups mayonnaise
3 Tbsp chopped fresh chives

Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Oil a baking dish (such as a 9-by-13-inch Pyrex dish) with the oil. Place the salmon in the dish and sprinkle it with 3/4 tsp of the salt and 1/2 tsp of the pepper. Turn the salmon over and sprinkle with the remaining 3/4 tsp of salt and 1/2 tsp of pepper.

To make the crumbs: Process the bread slice in the food processor until you have fine crumbs. Remove, then process the hazelnuts until ground to the texture of coarse cornmeal. Combine the bread crumbs and hazelnuts.

Sprinkle the crumb mixture over the salmon. Bake it for 30 to 60 minutes, depending on how you want it cooked. Check for desired doneness after the first 30 minutes. Remove when nearly cooked to your satisfaction, and let rest. The salmon will continue to cook for a few minutes after it is removed from the oven.

For the Salsa Mayonnaise: Put the sun-dried tomatoes and their oil in a food processor with the salsa. Process until smooth. Transfer to a medium bowl and add the salt (if necessary -- taste first, since some sun-dried tomatoes are salty), mayonnaise, and chives.

To serve: Sprinkle the chopped herbs over the top of the salmon. Serve warm or at room temperature, with the mayonnaise alongside.


Red Hot Salsa
2 cups diced (1/2-inch) ripe tomatoes
1/4 cup minced jalapeño or serrano pepper (use more or less depending to how hot you want the salsa)
1/3 cup chopped onion, rinsed under cold water (or use green onions, which need no rinsing)
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 Tbsp finely chopped or pressed garlic
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp fresh lime juice
3 Tbsp ketchup
2 Tbsp water

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Keeps in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Fast Food My Way: Mock Tiramisù

Just when Jacques Pépin and I were getting along so well, Mock Tiramisù had to come along and shake my faith.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I'm not a huge fan of tiramisù to begin with. It always strikes me as a bit gloppy and boozy, and I can usually pass it up. This recipe in Fast Food My Way does nothing to change that opinion.

There are a few things wrong with this recipe, but the most important one has to do with the ladyfingers. If you're familiar with tiramisù, you know that it's a trifle-style dessert composed of layers of creamy mascarpone cheese (and eggs, and heavy cream, usually) and ladyfinger cookies or spongecake dipped in an espresso syrup that's flavored with some sort of liquor (brandy, rum, and Marsala all being common).

Most tiramisù recipes instruct the cook to dip the ladyfingers in the coffee syrup before layering them with the cream filling. In Pépin's recipe, before you begin any layering, the ladyfingers are laid in a single layer in a dish and then the coffee syrup is poured over the top. Now, ladyfingers are used interchangeably with spongecake in tiramisù because of their sponge-like nature. Can you see where I'm headed with this? Yeah...because the cookies were allowed to lie soaking in the syrup, rather than being briefly dipped in the syrup, they became sodden masses of crumbs, rather than cohesive cookies. I had to use a spatula to transfer them to the trifle dish, and the weight of the mascarpone filling on top of them squeezed out the excess syrup, so that when I came back to try the tiramisù after it had rested for an hour in the refrigerator, I found the dessert swimming in about 3/4 of a cup of coffee syrup. That's not what tiramisù is supposed to look like. I've revised Pépin's recipe so that instead of soaking in an excess of liquid, the cookies are instead briefly dipped in the syrup. They just need to be flavored, not dissolved.

What's "mock" about this tiramisù? There are many recipes for this Italian custard trifle, and they nearly all call for some sort of egg element to be mixed with the mascarpone. Sometimes the eggs are cooked like a custard or zabaglione, and sometimes the whites are whipped up like a meringue. But there are no eggs in Pépin's recipe, hence the "mock" designation. He uses sour cream to lighten up the mascarpone, instead of eggs and/or heavy cream. The filling is tasty, and I think that it's a successful shortcut.

I found the tiramisù to be too strongly flavored with the rum, but that's a matter of personal preference. If the boozy zing is part of what you love about tiramisù, then use the full 2 Tbsp of rum. If you'd rather the liquor were more subtle, try using only 1 Tbsp.

Tiramisù will never be one of my favorites, but with the revisions I've made, it's a pretty tasty dessert. Dipping the ladyfingers, rather than soaking, ensures that they hold their shape while still adding a nice coffee-and-rum flavor to the dish. And the "mock" cream filling is yummy. If you're a tiramisù fan, definitely give this one a try. It's satisfying, and not nearly as time-consuming to prepare as a standard recipe.


Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooling Time: at least 1 hour
Yield: about 4 servings


Cream Filling
1 cup (8 oz.) mascarpone cheese
1 cup (8 oz.) sour cream
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Syrup
1 cup strong brewed coffee
1 to 2 Tbsp dark rum
1 Tbsp sugar

3 or 3.5 oz. package of ladyfingers
1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder

For the filling: Put the mascarpone, sour cream, sugar, and vanilla in a medium bowl and mix gently with a whisk until smooth.

For the syrup: In another bowl, combine the coffee, rum, and sugar.

Spread about one quarter of the cream filling over the bottom of a 3- to 4-cup-capacity tall, narrow glass bowl or baking dish (a trifle dish is perfect for this). Dip the ladyfingers, one third at a time, into the coffee syrup and then arrange them on top of the cream. Spoon over another one quarter of the cream and add another one third of the ladyfingers, dipping just before placing them atop the cream. Repeat with another one quarter of the cream, and the remaining ladyfingers. Spread the remaining cream on top. Smooth the surface and sprinkle with the cocoa powder. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

November 06, 2005

Fast Food My Way: Chicken on Mashed Cauliflower with Red Hot Salsa

It sounds weird, right? I have to admit that's partly why I chose it; chicken and cauliflower with salsa? Really?

But it works. Crazy as it sounds, the combination is a good one. It's easy to put together, and the three elements work together to make a successful dish.

Of course, if you don't like cauliflower, this recipe isn't going to work for you. I think it's an underrated vegetable, myself. It can be quickly steamed or boiled, and then all it needs is a smidge of butter or oil, some salt and pepper, and voilà: a side dish that's versatile and tasty.

Pépin calls for a small (about 1 pound) head of cauliflower in this recipe, but I could only find larger, 2-pound heads, so I cooked the whole thing. I think that a smaller head of cauliflower might not actually make enough for 4 servings, so I recommend that you use the greater amount.

The chicken is shallow-poached on the stovetop, and doesn't get browned, so it's not terribly attractive all by itself. It needs to be covered with the salsa before it looks appealing. It stays nice and moist, however -- poaching is a good method to use when you want tender chicken.

The salsa is a subrecipe, and when I first read it, I thought perhaps Jacques Pépin was still too French to really get the idea of fresh salsa. He tells you to add ketchup! Wow, I thought. That'll never work.

I was wrong. The ketchup blends right into the salsa, intensifying the tomato flavor without screaming, "Hi, I'm ketchup!" The only thing I'd try differently next time would be perhaps to give the salsa a few pulses in a mini-chopper before serving it atop the chicken breasts. It's a fairly chunky-style salsa, and I think that a somewhat smoother sauce might be nice with this dish. But even as-is, the salsa tastes great and really livens up the chicken and cauliflower. Pépin doesn't use quite enough of it, however; the recipe as written in Fast Food My Way calls for 1/2 cup of Red Hot Salsa, meaning that there's only 1/8 cup for each serving of chicken and cauliflower. I've revised the recipe to use 1 cup, or nearly half, of the full Red Hot Salsa recipe, which yields 2 1/2 cups. Make the entire recipe, and then use as much as you like to flavor the chicken.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

1 head cauliflower, about 2 pounds
3 Tbsp butter
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 tsp pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 6 oz. each)
3 Tbsp water

For the sauce:
About 1 cup Red Hot Salsa (recipe below)
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Pinch salt
2 Tbsp chopped fresh chives, optional

Bring about 1 1/2 cups of water to boil in a nonreactive saucepan. Remove the green leaves and central core from the cauliflower, and separate it into florets. Add the cauliflower florets to the boiling water, cover, and cook over high heat until very tender, about 10 to 12 minutes. Drain, and while the cauliflower is in the colander, use a knife to cut through the cauliflower to coarsely chop it. Return it to the pan, and add 2 Tbsp of butter and 1/4 tsp each of salt and pepper. Set aside until serving time.

Sprinkle the chicken breasts with the remaining 1/2 tsp each salt and pepper. Arrange the breasts in a single layer in a skillet and add the remaining 1 Tbsp butter and the 3 Tbsp water. Bring to a boil, cover tightly, and cook over medium-low heat for 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside, covered, for 3 to 4 minutes longer to finish cooking. Don't peek, since you don't want to lose the residual heat in the pan.

For the sauce: Mix the salsa with the olive oil and salt. Pour whatever juices have collected around the chicken into the sauce and stir to combine. (If you want a smoother sauce, put it in a mini-chopper or food processor and pulse it a couple of times, just to make it slightly less chunky.)

To serve, divide the cauliflower among four plates. Slice each chicken breast in half, and arrange 2 halves on top of each bed of cauliflower. Spoon the sauce over the chicken, and sprinkle with chives, if desired.


Red Hot Salsa
2 cups diced (1/2-inch) ripe tomatoes
1/4 cup minced jalapeño or serrano pepper (use more or less depending to how hot you want the salsa)
1/3 cup chopped onion, rinsed under cold water (or use green onions, which need no rinsing)
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 Tbsp finely chopped or pressed garlic
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp fresh lime juice
3 Tbsp ketchup
2 Tbsp water

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Keeps in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

November 05, 2005

Welcome, "Good Food" Listeners!

I had the pleasure of talking with Evan Kleiman, chef-owner of Angeli Caffe in Los Angeles, and host of "Good Food," a weekly show about food and cooking on Southern California's flagship NPR station, KCRW.

We discussed this weblog, and my interest in uncovering which celebrity cookbooks work, and which don't. Our focus was mainly Rachael Ray's problematic 30-Minute Get Real Meals, and also Wolfgang Puck's recipe for Turkey Burgers in Live, Love, Eat!

If the show led you to the site, thanks for checking it out! And thanks for listening to "Good Food." Please look around, and feel free to comment, or to send me email: Colleen@thecookbookcritic.com.

Have fun, and thanks for coming!

November 04, 2005

Fast Food My Way: Mushroom Velouté with Almonds

Or, as we call it around here, cream of mushroom soup. This one's much better than Campbell's, though. Pépin uses dried wood ear mushrooms to give the soup extra flavor. They add a nice woodsy aroma and the almonds give a bit of crunch. It's a lovely recipe for autumn.

There are a couple of changes you could make to this recipe, depending on what result you want. I like my puréed soups to have a rather thick texture, so I poured off a bit of the broth before mixing the soup in the blender, for a thicker result. I also reduced the amount of half-half called for in the original recipe by 1/2 cup, since the soup was plenty creamy already. If you like your soup to be, well, soupier, then simply purée all of the liquid, and add all of the half-and-half.

The recipe calls for 1 or 2 pieces of wood ear mushrooms, or about 1/4 cup after cooking. I think the soup could use more of them, but this is a matter of preference. If you don't like the somewhat-chewy texture of reconstituted dried mushrooms, use them simply as a garnish, as called for in the original recipe. Or leave them off your soup entirely. But don't omit them from the cooking process, as they add a necessary depth to the broth. In my grocery store, they are sold in 1/2 oz. packages in the produce section. Use the entire package if you want a lot of texture in your soup.

Pépin recommends using older button mushrooms whose gills have begun to open, since these have a stronger flavor than young, closed mushrooms. I normally avoid the presliced mushrooms that are sold in the grocery store, because they usually look kind of old. But for this recipe, that's what you want. Not only are packaged, presliced mushrooms older and stronger-flavored, but the fact that they are already sliced eliminates a big part of the prep work. Bonus!


Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes
Yield: about 4 servings

2 Tbsp butter
1 cup sliced shallots
1 Tbsp sliced garlic
1 1/2 Tbsp flour
4 cups chicken stock or broth
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 pound button mushrooms (presliced ones work well here; if not using, then roughly chop the mushrooms)
Dried wood ear mushrooms (also called tree ear or cloud ear), up to 1/2 oz., as desired
1/3 cup sliced almonds
1/2 to 1 cup half-and-half

Heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat and add the shallots and garlic. Cook for about 3 minutes, or until softened, then add the flour and stir well. Stir in the stock, salt, and pepper, and bring to a boil. Add the button mushrooms. Add the wood ear mushrooms; if you want a lot of them, add up to 1/2 oz. If you only want to use them for garnish or flavoring, use 1 or 2 pieces. Bring the liquid back to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes. Remove the wood ear mushrooms after 15 minutes. When the wood ears are cool enough to handle, remove and discard any tough roots, then chop roughly and set aside until serving time.

Sauté the almonds in a small nonstick pan over medium heat until lightly golden, about 4 minutes.

To finish the soup: For a thinner texture, simply emulsify the soup with a hand blender, regular blender, or food processor. For a thicker texture, drain off up to 3/4 cup of the cooking liquid, then emulsify the soup. Add up to 1 cup of half-and-half, depending on your preference. Stir well to combine, and bring the soup back up to a simmer on the stovetop. If using lots of wood ear mushrooms, add them back to the soup now and stir to combine. If you're using them simply for garnish, ladle the soup into bowls and top with a sprinkling of wood ears.

Top the soup with the sliced almonds and serve with crusty bread, crackers, or breadsticks.

Fast Food My Way: Chocolate Hazelnut Brownie Cake

This is an intensely rich flourless chocolate cake. It's easy to put together, and tastes like the chewiest, densest brownies ever. I made a couple of adjustments to the technique, but the cake itself is a winner, one that I'll definitely come back to again.

Pépin tells the cook to line a tart pan or cake pan with foil and then to butter the foil. This sounds like a good idea, but it actually means more work, in my experience. Getting the foil nice and smooth is a pain in the neck, and the cake batter has enough butter in it that it's not going to stick to the pan anyway. Instead of messing about with foil, I simply buttered the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan and then dusted it with unsweetened cocoa powder. The cake came away from the pan easily. Either method will work, so if you're happy with foil, don't let me deter you. But you don't have to do that way. You can also bake the cake in an 8-by-8-inch square dish for more conventional brownies.

I used a very dark bittersweet chocolate with 70% cocoa solids. In a recipe like this, it's the chocolate that makes it, so don't scrimp on quality. Use the best chocolate you can find. Pépin says you can use bittersweet or semisweet chocolate. I prefer the intensity of bittersweet, but if you want a lighter flavor, semisweet is the way to go.

In Fast Food My Way , the cake is served with Grand Marnier-flavored whipped cream. For a simpler dessert, you could serve it with vanilla ice cream. It's also delicious all by itself.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 20 to 25 minutes
Yield: 1 eight or nine inch cake, about 8 servings

5 Tbsp unsalted butter, plus about 2 Tbsp for buttering the pan
1 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
6 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
1/2 cup hazelnuts
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

Garnish, optional:
1 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 Tbsp Grand Marnier
1 tsp freshly grated orange zest
Mint leaves

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter an 8 or 9-inch springform, tart, or cake pan with the 2 Tbsp butter. Dust with the unsweetened cocoa powder, then tap the pan upside down over the sink to remove the excess.

(Alternatively, you can line the bottom of the pan with aluminum foil and butter with about 1 Tbsp of butter.)

Scatter the hazelnuts on a cookie sheet and toast for 5 to 6 minutes, or until they are lightly browned and fragrant. It's not necessary to remove the skins. Cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a plastic bag and crush into very small pieces with a rolling pin or the bottom of a heavy skillet.

Break the chocolate into small pieces and place it in a microwaveable bowl with the 5 Tbsp of butter. Microwave for 1 minute on high, then leave undisturbed in the microwave for about 5 minutes. Stir, and if necessary, heat again for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Stir until smooth.

Put the sugars, eggs, and vanilla in a large bowl and whisk until smooth. Add the nuts and melted chocolate mixture and fold in gently with a rubber spatula until well incorporated. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the cake is just set but the center is still somewhat wet (a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake will come out with wet crumbs). Cool to room temperature on a rack (the cake sets as it cools).

For the garnish: Put all the ingredients except the mint in a mixing bowl and whip gently with a whisk or hand mixer until the cream holds firm peaks. Pile the cream on top of the cake, and garnish with mint.

November 03, 2005

Fast Food My Way: Greens with Quick Cream Dressing

Jacques Pépin says this was one of his mother's favorite dressings for a green salad or haricots verts. I was intrigued by his statement that the cream contains half the calories of the oil in a conventional dressing, since the very words "heavy cream" scream calories to me. It's true, though: 1 tablespoon of heavy cream contains 60 calories, while 1 tablespoon of olive oil contains 120 calories. But how does the dressing taste?

Well, it's pretty good. The cream gives it a nice mouthfeel, and it's very easy to make. The only danger is in overbeating the cream so that it becomes too thick. I did this without even thinking about it -- a few too many seconds of whisking, and you're on your way to whipped cream. The dressing thinned out easily with the addition of a few teaspoons of water, so no harm done.

Pépin says that he often uses this dressing as a sauce for poached fish, with the addition of herbs and/or grated horseradish. I'd try it with herbs for salad dressing as well, since it's a very basic dressing otherwise. Parsley, chives, chervil, or tarragon would all be nice additions.

Prep Time: 5 minutes
Yield: about 1/2 cup dressing

1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 1/2 tsp red wine vinegar

About 8 cups loosely packed greens, such as baby romaine, mâche, or Boston lettuce, washed and dried

Just before serving, put the cream, salt, and pepper in a salad bowl and whip with a whisk for about 15 seconds, or just until frothy (if the dressing gets too thick, thin it out with a bit of water). Stir in the vinegar. Add the lettuce, toss briefly, and serve immediately.

November 02, 2005

Fast Food My Way: Hasty Pudding with Apricot Sauce

"Fancy cream of wheat" was the consensus opinion at my house. Pépin says that it's a common dessert in French households, but to my American sensibility, this semolina pudding seems more suited to breakfast. Whichever way you decide to serve it, it's quite tasty and extremely simple to prepare.

The pudding is intended to be served cold, so you'll need to make it ahead of time. If you're having it for breakfast, it's perfectly fine as-is. If you want to dress it up a bit for dessert, you could serve it with crème fraîche or sour cream, and perhaps shortbread or wafer cookies.

Pépin gives some ideas for variations; for a leaner pudding, use milk instead of half-and-half (this is an especially good idea if you're going to serve it as breakfast), and for a really rich pudding, use cream.

I think there are several ways to vary this recipe. You can use cinnamon instead of lemon zest, and other flavors of jam would also work well. Try freshly-grated nutmeg in the pudding, and make the sauce with blueberry jam and pecans. Or try cloves, with fig jam and walnuts. Experiment to see which combinations you prefer.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: about 5 minutes, plus 2 hours to cool
Yield: about 4 servings

2 cups half-and-half, milk, or cream
1/3 cup semolina
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp grated lemon zest
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup sour cream

Apricot Sauce
2 Tbsp sliced almonds
1/3 cup apricot jam or preserves
3 Tbsp brandy or cognac, optional
1 Tbsp lemon juice

Bring the half-and-half to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the semolina a little at a time, whisking constantly. Bring back to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes, until creamy and thick but still pourable. Remove from the heat and add the sugar, lemon zest, and vanilla, mixing well. Stir in the sour cream. Transfer to a serving bowl (about 1-quart capacity) and let cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate. You can make the recipe one day ahead, if you wish.

For the sauce: Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Toast the almonds on a baking sheet for about 5 minutes, or until light brown and fragrant. Watch carefully! Nuts burn quickly. Combine the jam, brandy if using, lemon juice, and nuts.

At serving time, spread the sauce on top of the pudding.

Fast Food My Way: Instant Beef Tenderloin Stew

The name is a bit misleading; this is more of a meat-and-vegetable skillet than it is a stew. There's no real sauce, since the veggies and steak are cooked in separate pans and then combined at the last minute. It's a very good recipe, although I'd make a couple of small adjustments.

Pépin has the cook prepare the stew vegetables in one pan, and the meat in another. He instructs you to combine potatoes, carrots, and mushrooms and cook them for about 8 minutes. He then says to add some chopped onion and garlic and cook for only another 2 to 3 minutes. This left the garlic particularly pungent, and since there's a full tablespoon of it in the recipe, it was a bit overwhelming. It also took longer than 8 minutes for the potatoes and carrots to cook all the way through. I recommend that you brown the potatoes, carrots, and mushrooms for a couple of minutes, then add the onion and garlic and cook them all together, slowly, for about 10 to 15 minutes. That way, the root vegetables get completely cooked, and the garlic won't be quite so overpowering.

The vegetables pictured in the book look a bit daintier than the ones I found in my market. If your baby carrots aren't nice and thin, cut them in half lengthwise. Similarly, if you can't find really small button mushrooms, slice bigger ones in half or quarters. Everything should be bite-sized.

The recipe calls for white wine to deglaze the pan. I've found that if I don't have open bottles of wine sitting around in the refrigerator, dry vermouth is an excellent substitute in most savory recipes. It keeps indefinitely in the cupboard, and it's a good investment if you do a lot of cooking that calls for small amounts of white wine. Gallo and Noilly-Prat are both good brands.

To streamline preparation, get the vegetables cooking first, then slice up the beef. Sear the meat when the veggies are completely cooked, right after you've added the peas. The recipe rather confusingly calls for the steak to be transferred to a platter all by itself after it is seared off, and then the pan is deglazed with wine and stock. Pépin then says to "arrange the meat, vegetables, and juices on four warmed plates and serve immediately." In other words, the text of the recipe never calls for the meat and vegetables to be combined together in one pan. But the accompanying photo of the dish shows the meat and vegetables all together in a skillet. It seems more sensible to me to prepare the recipe this way: First cook the vegetables. When the vegetables are done, sear the meat. Add the seared meat to the vegetables. Deglaze the pan in which you cooked the meat, and pour the juices over the meat and veggies. Mix it all up, and serve.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 cups diced (1/2 inch) potatoes (about 1 large Yukon Gold, or 1 medium Russet), rinsed to remove starch
1 cup baby carrots (about 4 oz.), halved lengthwise if necessary
1 cup small white button mushrooms (about 2 oz.), halved or quartered if necessary
1/3 cup chopped onion
1 Tbsp chopped garlic
1/2 cup baby peas, fresh or frozen
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 pound beef tenderloin, trimmed of fat and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 Tbsp white wine or dry vermouth
2 Tbsp chicken stock

Heat 1 Tbsp of butter and the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes, carrots, and mushrooms. Brown lightly for about 3 or 4 minutes, then add the onion and garlic and cover the pan loosely. Turn the heat down to low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are cooked through, about 12 to 15 minutes. Add the peas and 1/4 tsp of the salt and cook for another 2 minutes. Cover and set aside.

While vegetables are cooking, slice the meat and sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 tsp of salt and the pepper. Heat the remaining 1 Tbsp of butter in another large skillet over high heat. Add the meat to the skillet in one layer and sear without stirring for 2 minutes. Turn the meat and sear for another 1 to 2 minutes. Add the meat to the vegetable skillet.

Deglaze the pan with the white wine or vermouth and the chicken stock, bringing the liquid to a boil and stirring to get all the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Add these juices to the other skillet and stir to combine with the meat and vegetables. Serve with crusty bread and perhaps a green salad.

Fast Food My Way: Shortbread-Raspberry Gratins

A variation of the Chocolate-Raspberry Gratins, using shortbread cookies for the crumble topping. I actually preferred this one to the chocolate version.

The shortbread cookies, being crisp, cooked up into a crunchier crumble topping than the soft-baked Mrs. Fields chocolate chip cookies did. Pépin recommends Walker's Pure Butter Shortbread cookies. Use the entire 5.3 oz. (150 gram) package. As with the other recipe, if you prefer not to make individual gratins, you could easily prepare this dessert in one larger pan, such as an 8-by-8-inch Pyrex baking dish.

These cookies could be crumbled in a food processor, but the easiest way is to put them in a plastic bag and then crush them with a rolling pin or the bottom of a heavy skillet.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 15 to 20 minutes
Yield: 4 gratins

2 cups unsweetened frozen raspberries (berries usually come in 12-oz. bags, so use the entire bag if you wish)
1 1/2 cups crumbled shortbread cookies (8 to 10 cookies)
1/4 cup sugar
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup sour cream (optional), or crème fraîche, whipped cream, or vanilla ice cream

Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Divide the frozen berries between 4 small gratin dishes or custard cups (at least 8-oz. capacity).

Toss the crumbled cookies and sugar together in a small bowl. Divide the crumbs among the gratin dishes and dot with the butter. Arrange the gratins on a baking sheet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until browned on top and berries are bubbling. Let cool, and serve with suggested accompaniments.

Fast Food My Way: Chocolate-Raspberry Gratins

Jacques Pépin has some fantastic ideas for quick, delicious desserts in Fast Food My Way. He doesn't shy away from using store-bought ingredients; in this case, cookies, which form the crumble topping for a speedy fruit dessert that tastes fantastic.

Pépin recommends Mrs. Field's individually-wrapped chocolate chip cookies for the gratins, and suggests that you crumble them by hand since they are soft-baked and would end up as cookie purée if they were processed in a food processor. I crumbled the cookies fairly small, but I think the recipe would work just as well with largish chunks of cookies. Let your own preference guide you.

The recipe as written calls for 2 cups (about 8 oz.) of frozen raspberries. That amount didn't completely cover the bottoms of the shallow 10-oz. capacity ramekins that I was using, so I went ahead and used the entire 12-oz. bag, with good results. If you don't have individual gratin dishes, or just want to make one large gratin, use an 8-by-8-inch baking dish. Cooking time might be slightly longer if you do it this way.

Pépin serves the gratins with sour cream. I went a step further and ate it with vanilla ice cream. Yummy!

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 15 to 20 minutes
Yield: 4 gratins

2 cups unsweetened frozen raspberries (berries usually come in 12-oz. bags, so use the entire bag if you wish)
1 1/2 cups crumbled chocolate chip cookies (4 to 6 cookies)
1/4 cup sugar
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup sour cream (optional), or crème fraîche, whipped cream, or vanilla ice cream

Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Divide the frozen berries between 4 small gratin dishes or custard cups (at least 8-oz. capacity).

Toss the crumbled cookies and sugar together in a small bowl. Divide the crumbs among the gratin dishes and dot with the butter. Arrange the gratins on a baking sheet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until browned on top and berries are bubbling. Let cool, and serve with suggested accompaniments.

November 01, 2005

Jamie Oliver: Jamie's Dinners

book_oliver_dinners_dish.jpg

A Good Cookbook? Yes. A Frustrating Cookbook? Also Yes.

I'm torn about how to review this book; on the one hand, I really enjoyed cooking out of it and usually had good results from the recipes. On the other hand, the book caused a lot of head-scratching, eyeballing, and guessing in order to produce the food, and that's not usually what I'm looking for in a cookbook.

The positives first: Jamie Oliver is exuberant in the kitchen, and that sense of fun spills over in his recipes. He's got an excellent feel for ingredients and how to combine them, and the flavors in his recipes are strong and self-assured. The "Five Minute Wonders" chapter is an outstanding idea: quick dinners that can be assembled with a minimum of prep and cooking, but with delicious results. I tried several of these recipes, and they were nearly all wonderful, creative ideas for easy weekday meals. I'd make all of them again.

The book also has a chapter of "Family Tree" recipes. I made the Stewed Fruit master recipe, and although I had some trouble with the sloppy technique, the flavors were good and I'd make the recipe again. Other "Family Tree" recipes, such as tomato sauce or pesto, also sound good, and I plan to go back to Jamie's Dinners at some point to try them out. Other dishes that I tried, such as Chicken Tikka Masala and Vanilla Risotto were also good, but not without some difficulties.

Which leads me to what I don't like about this cookbook: Jamie Oliver leaves a ton of mental work up to the reader. He's fond of specifying ingredient amounts by the "wineglass" or "handful" or "knob." He also tends to not specify what size pan you might want to use, or what temperature on the stove you might want to cook things. I believe the intention of the book is to appeal to novices as well as experienced cooks; there's a short chapter at the end with kitchen tips in it, containing advice like, "Keep your pantry well stocked with nonperishables" and "Freezers and microwaves are essential for the modern household." Pretty basic stuff, so I assume that Oliver doesn't think it's just other professional chefs who will be cooking from his book. But his lackadaisical attitude towards technique and ingredients can be baffling and intimidating. Encouraging creativity in the kitchen is a wonderful thing, and I'm all for it. But it doesn't stir my creative juices to wonder what size baking dish to cook the fruit crumble in. It just makes me frustrated that Oliver couldn't be bothered to give me such a basic piece of information.

The book has a lot of recipes in it, and I've barely scratched the surface in my tests. I'll definitely come back to Jamie's Dinners again. But I'll always read the recipes carefully to make sure I know exactly how much, and what size, and how hot? Because a lot of the time in this book, you're entirely on your own when it comes to the details.

 

 

 

©2005 Colleen Flippo. All rights reserved. Contact the author.