Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Smoked Chili Bark: Homemade for the Holidays, Part 5

Bark--peppermint bark, pistachio bark, and chili bark, to name a few--has got to be one of the easiest and most gratifying candies to make. People simply love this simple dessert and how few think to make it themselves. Next time you get invited to a potluck, and you need to make something impressive but don't have the time to think about it, here's the answer: Smoked chili bark. Simply smashing and with a surprisingly light, smoky afterburn.

12 ounces dark chocolate
3/4 cup chopped unsalted nuts (pistachios, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, pecans--or whatever you have on hand)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle (smoked jalapeno) peppers (available cheaply at Cost Plus World Market)
1 teaspoon ground smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Melt the chocolate in either a double boiler over boiling water or in a large bowl placed over a pot of boiling water. Once melted, stir in all but a handful of the nuts and all of the ground spices, continuing to stir until well-blended.

Pour the mixture out onto either waxed paper, parchment paper, or a silicone non-stick mat on a baking sheet. Spread to make the bark as this as desired.

Sprinkle with the remaining nuts and press the nuts lightly in. Sprinkle the top with more smoked paprika. Chill in the freezer for 10 minutes.

Break up into bite-sized pieces.

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Homemade for the Holidays Series

Part 1: Pistachio Bark

Part 2: Curry Powder (Garam Masala)

Part 3: Chocolate Truffles 

Part 4: Peppermint Bark 

Part 5: Chili Bark

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Homemade for the Holidays, Part 4: Best. Peppermint Bark. Ever.


If you go to your local membership warehouse this time of year, you will surely see tins of peppermint bark, festively wrapped, with ginormous pricetags. Sure, who can resist peppermint bark? Even those of us who don't care for hard candies. Peppermint bark says Happy Holidays in every way—that minty smell, the bonus chocolate, the odd little red and white trapezoids. But once you have made peppermint bark yourself—or tasted homemade peppermint bark—you will scoff as you walk by those displays. For if there is ever anything worth making at home, it is surely peppermint bark. Easy, fast, fun for kids to help with, and much less expensive than store-bought. Did I mention that homemade peppermint bark will knock those hideous Christmas socks right off your feet? It's crazy-good—with a couple of easy tricks, that is.

You will most certainly hear, "This is the best peppermint bark I've ever tasted." The lavish quantities of chocolate make this bark thicker. And the peppermint extract makes it refreshingly slightly sassy.

Peppermint Bark for Gift-Giving

2 12 oz. packages white chocolate chips (real chocolate--not the "white chocolate baking chips" that are sold in supermarkets--check to make sure the main ingredient is cocoa butter)
8 oz. peppermint candy (stick, candy cane, or puffy)
1 pound artisinal milk chocolate (great sources for bulk chocolate are Fresh & Easy and Trader Joe's)
1 pound artisinal dark chocolate
2 to 4 teaspoons peppermint extract

  1. Just as in the preparation for Pistachio Bark (Homemade for the Holidays, Part 1), line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Unlike for pistachio bark, you will make peppermint bark upside-down. That is, white chocolate first, and then dark chocolate on top. The reason why is those crushed peppermint candy bits will tumble all over the place if not squished into the white chocolate. Melt the white chocolate chips in the top of a double-boiler (or use a stainless steel bowl on top of a pot with some boiling water in it). Stir to mix.
  3. While the white chocolate is melting, crush the peppermint candies. Either the candy cane style, the stick style, or my favorite, the puffy style. (Put candies in a plastic resealable bag and whack with a rolling pin or gently with a hammer). The crushed candies do not need to be tiny—rough and varied is perfect.
  4. Pour the crushed peppermint candies onto the parchment paper and drizzle on the melted white chocolate. Now, this is a bit tricky—use a chopstick to swirl the white chocolate out to the edges of the baking sheet and try to mix the peppermints evenly without mixing them all in. That's the hardest part. It's smooth sailing from there.
  5. Allow to cool in the refrigerator or freezer while you melt the dark chocolate and  milk chocolate together, using a double-boiler or the "bowl on top of pot of boiling water" trick again.
  6. While the chocolate is melting, pour in two teaspoons peppermint extract. This kicks it up a notch. If you want to go all crazy on peppermint, you could always increase the amount of peppermint extract up to four teaspoons —but go easy—taste test as you go. Too much might make the chocolate bitter. Start with two and go from there. Mix to disperse the mintiness (is that a word?).
  7. When the white chocolate layer is firm, drizzle on the darker chocolate later. Smooth as evenly as you can, and let firm.
  8. Break into smaller pieces, wrap, and distribute, while chuckling smugly to yourself about your cleverness. 
Notes:

  • This recipe makes a hefty quantity—4 pounds. Granted, that's a bucket load of candy--but, you will be giving this away, won't you? Don't eat the whole thing yourself—seriously!
  • Michael's craft stores are a great source for candy wrapping accessories. I recommend the food-safe cellophane bags, but you could get fancy and use special boxes or tins. However you choose to package your delectables, be sure to use food-safe tissue (also available at Michael's) or wax paper. If you have to use plastic food wrap directly, eventually, your candy will taste like plastic. At least first wrap in food-safe tissue or wax paper and then wrap in plastic food wrap.
  • Peppermint bark made this way will not go stale or bad because there is no ganache, e.g., we didn't add cream or butter. You start with solid chocolate and you end with solid chocolate. Just wrap enough to keep other food flavors away and to seal in the good minty flavor. Also freezes beautifully.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Homemade for the Holidays Series

Part 1: Pistachio Bark

Part 2: Curry Powder (Garam Masala)

Part 3: Chocolate Truffles 

Part 4: Peppermint Bark 

Part 5: Chili Bark

Friday, November 28, 2014

Don't Throw out That Turkey Carcass! Transform It Instead! (Turkey Curry)


Got a half-gnawed turkey carcass squatting in your refrigerator? Had your fill of plain old turkey meat by now? Running out of inspirational recipes for how to disguise those Thanksgiving leftovers? Well, here's a delicious innovation, and no one you serve it to will notice it's recycled turkey meat: Turkey Curry. If you are thinking curry is too much trouble, you've got a good point, although I've got a solution for you. And if you think curry consists of merely tossing in some curry powder, you are missing out on the ecstasy of real homemade curry.

To make turkey curry, I've included some shortcuts—good shortcuts that won't compromise the delightful fragrance and savoriness of curry. Shortcuts that will make your curry come to life sooner but will still allow you to create an authentic curry.

Curry that is meat-based consists of three basic steps: Rousing the Roux; Spicing It Up; and Picking the Bones. Usually with homemade, authentic curry you will sauté the roux until it turns golden brown before adding it to your curry. My biggest cheat is this: pour the roux ingredients into the pot and let the stew itself cook the roux. (This cheat saves about 15 minutes.)

Here is how you transform your sorry turkey carcass into a gourmet treat—with ease:


Rousing the Roux
Peel two medium onions and cut into large chunks (no need to cut onions pretty or small—these are going in the blender). Peel 10~12 cloves of garlic (if you are using crushed bottled garlic, use about 2 tablespoons). Peel about 2 inches of fresh ginger root (do not substitute ginger powder—it is NOT a good cheat). Chop coarsely. Add the onion, garlic and ginger root to the blender and pour in about a half cup of water—enough to help puree the veggies. If you like a hot-spicy curry, add seeded hot peppers to the roux--jalapenos work beautifully. If this is to be served to a family, skip the peppers, though—black pepper (which you will add later on) is enough to give your curry a little bite. (You can also serve finely chopped peppers on the table, so guests can add in as they like.) Blend on high until the roux is a nice slushy consistency—like that of a snow cone (this is cheat #1—pureeing the roux in the blender saves time over chopping small and grating the ingredients). Pour the roux into a large sturdy stew pot (a four- or five-quart pot).


Spicing It Up
In the stew pot, place the turkey carcass and any stray pieces of sliced turkey meat you have. If the turkey is too large for the pot, crack it around the ribs and break it into two large pieces. You MUST use the bones to make this work. Why is it essential to use the bones? Because bones, my dear, are the crucial part of any truly wonderful meat-based soup or stew. Bones lend a depth and irresistibility to your savory dish that cannot be achieved otherwise. Plus, meat that clings to the bones is the most tender and succulent. Make friends with stew bones—they are a blessing for any savvy cook. Add a few cups of water—enough to provide a base for the curry (about 1 inch in the pot) but not too much—you don't want your curry to be watery. Pour in the slushy roux you just made. Add three or so tablespoons of butter (butter is essential too—there's not much fat in turkey).

Lastly, add in your curry spices: 2~3 tablespoons of ground cumin; 2~3 tablespoons of ground coriander; 1 tablespoon ground black pepper; 1 tablespoon of ground turmeric; 1 tablespoon of cardamom (if you have it); a teaspoon of ground fennel (if you have it). Out of all the curry spices you can use, the two essential ones are Cumin and Coriander—these are necessary to make your stew taste like curry. Others are simply good to add (like turmeric and fennel and cardamom) but not crucial. If you are using curry powder, add about 6 tablespoons or more. Newbies to curry-making are always surprised at how much spice goes into a curry. Release your inhibitions—curry takes LOTS AND LOTS OF SPICE. Be bold. It'll be okay—you will not over-spice it. Herein lies cheat #2: you are adding in pre-ground spices, rather than toasting and grinding your own spices. (Sometime when you have enough time and are feeling adventurous, see How to Make Your Own Curry Powder for the most wholesome and flavorful curry powder that you create yourself—it makes wonderful gifts, too.)

Simmer (a low boil—not a roiling boil) the turkey, spices, roux, and butter with the top off the pot—so you can watch the curry and make sure it doesn't stick; so you can stir it occasionally to mix the bones around; and so you can add water if necessary. Let simmer for about one hour. Sure, your turkey meat has already been cooked. You won't be cooking the meat, you will be cooking the roux (cheat #3), and you are simmering to maximize the flavor from the bones. When the turkey is ready, the meat will be falling off the bones. Taste the sauce and add enough salt to make it ecstatically scrumptious—expect to use about a tablespoon or so. (I recommend Vege-sal vegetable salt. Kosher salt is also yummy.)


Picking the Bones
This is the hardest and most time-consuming of the steps. But you can do this too. Just pour yourself a glass of wine, turn on some loud music, and hum along. You are magically transforming an unwanted turkey carcass into a pot of love, so be joyful. Turn off the curry. Scoop out the large pieces of turkey carcass and transfer them to a large cutting board. Let cool until you can safely touch them. Pick off any desirable pieces of meat that still cling to the bones and add that meat back to the pot. Discard the rest. Continue scooping, cooling and then picking until all the bones and stray inedibles are removed, discarding the flotsam and adding back the good stuff as you go along. While working, chop up the large pieces of meat so they will be easy to eat—nothing should be larger than an inch or so.

When you are finished picking out the undesirables, you will have a pot of delightful, savory, stewy, fragrant curry. The consistency of the sauce is a light slush—not too thick, not too thin. There should be plenty of bite-sized turkey bits. And you will be a turkey-transformation hero.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Don't You Dare Buy Ready-made Stuffing for Thanksgiving!


Homemade Dressing
for the Holidays

If You Can Sing "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme," You Can Make Stuffing (dressing) from Scratch. Stuffing. Ahhhh. Maybe my favorite part of my favorite holiday. Growing up with four siblings, stuffing disappeared the fastest and was the most worth fighting over when it came to leftovers (if there were any). Who doesn't love stuffing? When I lived in Japan, where no one had a big enough oven to roast a turkey, even if they knew what one was or could afford to procure one—what I missed the most about American food was, not surprisingly, turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce. Simple, yes, if you live in the states. Exotic and impossible if you life overseas. Now that I am back home, I serve my family a turkey-stuffing-cranberry meal about once a month—I cannot get enough of it.


Growing up in a large household, my parents wisely took some shortcuts when it came to cooking. And stuffing was one of them. I never had honest-to-goodness homemade stuffing until I was all grown up and discovered how to make it myself. What a thrill to realize how easy it is. And the rewards are GREAT—when you serve it, be sure to mention you made it from scratch. You will hear oohs and ahhs. No store-bought stuffing mix can compare in any dimension. You too can do this—have confidence. Stuffing is so simple to prepare, you will wonder why you never thought of doing it yourself before now.

One last note: I dined at a friend's house for a holiday party recently. He was so excited to have made stuffing from scratch, but it was the most gosh-awful stuff you ever tasted. He had just tossed in the celery and tossed in the other ingredients--with NO sautéing, no herbs, no butter, and no chicken stock. The stuff he called stuffing was dreadful, pasty bread bits with hard chunks of celery. Don't let this happen to you.

Basically, stuffing is comprised of two steps: “Creating the Croutons” and “Sautéing the Savories.” And you hardly need a recipe. Once you know how to do it, you can whip stuffing up easily with no props. Are you ready? YOU CAN DO THIS!

Creating the Croutons
The croutons you just made
Take a loaf of bread that you find delicious—ones loaded with nuts and whole grains are wonderful for stuffing. Sourdough works great too. Anything but white bread (too fluffy—needs to be a bit sturdier). I'm a fanatic—I make loaves of "stuffing" bread to use (chock full of fresh herbs). But pick a bread you already like. Day-old bread is fine too. You will need about eight cups worth of croutons. If the loaf of bread is large, you may not need the whole loaf.

Cut sliced bread into strips and then again crosswise into ½ inch (1 cm) cubes. Place the croutons on a baking sheet without overlapping, if possible. Toast lightly in a 350 degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until lightly toasted. Scoop all the croutons into a large bowl.

Sautéing the Savories

Celery, onions, butter, and chicken stock
The savories, sauteed and ready to roll
Chop up one large onion (sweet ones like Walla-walla or Vidalia are especially yummy for this) and about 6~8 stalks of celery (slice each stalk lengthwise first and then crosswise to make smaller pieces). Sauté the onions and celery in 6~8 tablespoons butter (use butter unabashedly, but start with the lesser amount and see if it needs more later, depending on the quantity of croutons you have), along with the following herbs (fresh if you can get them, and chopped coarsely): Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme. Does that sound familiar? It's part of the refrain from a Simon and Garfunkle song, Scarborough Fair. Yup. It's the herbal code for stuffing (and poultry seasoning). If you have a choice of parsley, use Italian flat leaf instead of the curly kind—but fresh is always preferable to dried. How much of each herb to use? Fresh, maybe 3 tablespoons each. Dried, maybe 1 tablespoon each. It's important to sauté the herbs so that the fragrance and flavor get infused. Add in about 1/2 cup of dried cranberries if you have them (makes it irresistible—sautéing plumps them). Once the onions are slightly translucent and no longer crunchy, remove from the stove.


Stir this sautéed herb mixture into the croutons. Add about 1 cup of chicken broth—slowly—so that you can gauge when to stop adding. (Keep jars of all-natural chicken stock concentrate in the fridge for uses such as these. I recommend “Better Than Bouillon” brand, by Superior Touch. You can get it at Trader Joe’s or other high-end grocers. Cubed bouillon is too salty and has too much artificial stuff, along with MSG. Chicken stock that comes in cans and cartons is good but too pricey.) This is the trickiest part—if you add too much broth, the stuffing becomes mushy. Too little and it's chokingly dry. Just right is slightly moist, with mouth “give.” Just right is not too crumbly and holds up on the plate. Add salt to taste (I especially recommend Vege-sal vegetable salt). And more melted butter, if needed. Toss lightly and serve as is or use about half to stuff bird. Keeps well for several days.


Notes:
— You can add variations for fun: toasted chopped nuts (pine nuts are fabulous, macadamias are decadent, chestnuts if you can get them, almonds if they are slivered thinly), chopped dried fruit such as apricots (go easy on the fruit and cut it small), other herbs such as marjoram or tarragon, etc.
— Some folks love cornbread stuffing. To make it, add chopped pork sausage to the sauté and use crumbled homemade cornbread (not that sweet kind like they serve at Boston Market—eyuck!) instead of wheat bread.
—To bake or not to bake? This dressing recipe is complete right here--but if you like baked dressing, cover loosely with foil and bake for 30 minutes at 350. Then remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes or so until browned on top.
— Be sure NOT to use Pyrex when toasting your croutons in the oven (a baking sheet is perfect). Like a doofus, I used a Pyrex pan as an overflow and voila! It exploded. I'm not the first person to have this experience, lest you laugh at me. I did a quick search and found an entire page on ConsumerAffairs.com dedicated to people who've had exploding Pyrex experiences. Just use a standard baking pan and you will be fine.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloweenarrific! Pumpkin Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting

Looking for something easy and wholesome (don't tell the kids I said that) to feed the little ghouls this time of year? Sick of the sickeningly sweet treats folks eat under the guise of Halloween goodies? Yeah, me too. Here's an easy and quick, semi-healthy recipe you can whip together, make your whole house smell like Autumnal celebrations, and have youngsters following you around, grinning ever after. Simple pumpkin cupcakes. Simple cream cheese frosting. No fuss. Great rewards.

Make them fancy, if you wish, with Halloween cupcake liners and black licorice candies to decorate the tops.

Recipe makes two dozen cupcakes.



The Wet
2 cups canned pumpkin (I've used fresh pumpkin before and believe it or not, you cannot tell the difference—not to mention that canned takes way, way less time)
1 cup (two sticks) unsweetened butter
3 eggs


The Dry
3 cups raw sugar (can substitute white sugar)
3 1/2 cups unbleached wheat flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves

Whisk together the wet ingredients in a bowl until well-mixed. In a larger bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients until uniform looking. Fold the wet mixture into the dry mixture and stir only until moistened. Do not over-mix.

Fill cupcake papers 3/4 full (most recipes call for 2/3 full, but this one looks better fuller), and then bake in a 350 degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into one comes out clean. Let cool or chill before frosting.


Cream Cheese Frosting
1 cup butter (two sticks), softened to room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup (8 oz.) cream cheese (whipped cream cheese works well too)
4 cups confectioners sugar (1 1 lb. box)

With a large fork, mash the butter, vanilla, and cream cheese until blended. With a mixer, beat in the confectioners sugar, one cup at a time. When well-mixed, turn the blender up and beat until smooth and fluffy (it will only take a couple of minutes). Chill and then frost.

A note about cream cheese frosting: in warm weather, you will want to keep this chilled--otherwise, it can sag. Keep refrigerated and you will have some of the simplest, most delicious frosting ever.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Best. Pot. Roast. Ever.

Usually when it comes to food, there's the two out of three rule: cheap, yummy, easy—pick two and call it good. But when it comes to pot roast, you really can have all three. Pot roast is inherently simpler to make than stew, in which the meat has to be dredged and seared, and the concoction can cook only so long before it disintegrates (you have to watch it). With pot roast, you assemble your ingredients, toss them into the crock pot, set the timer, and ta-da! You have supper. It even has the decency to make its own sauce.

And disintegration? No problem and part of the fun, actually. Lastly, chuck roast is a common, el cheapo cut of beef--perfect for making pot roast. Now, there is the concern about blandness. I've been served bland pot roast many a time (and I would never complain--home-cooked food is inherently good for you--food made with love has to be healthy, right?), so I sought to jazz up the bland factor with a few simple add-ins and I think it worked. My hubs said this is the best pot roast ever. I think so too (the bacon and smoked paprika give it a certain something extra) and I hope you will agree. No need to tell everyone how easy it was to prepare. Let them fawn over you. And smile, knowingly.

Best. Pot. Roast. Ever.

3 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into largish cubes
5 or 6 organic carrots, peeled, sliced at extreme diagonals about two inches deep
1 medium sweet onion, halved and cut into quarters
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper, or to taste
3 cloves of garlic, whole, peeled (no need to crush)
1 tablespoon beef stock concentrate ("Better than Buillion" brand is excellent)
3 or 4 pieces bacon, cut into inch-long pieces (no need to cook)
1 chuck roast, 2.5 to 3 lbs.
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon corn starch added to 1 cup water, dissolved

Add the veggies to the crock pot first. Plop the whole chuck on top of it. Add the other seasonings and the corn starch-water mixture. Set the crock pot to six hours on high or eight hours on low. Halfway through the cook time, turn the roast--if you are there. (If you are away from home, no worries.) When it's finished, move the chuck to a cutting board, slice out the bones (make a dog happy with those), and cut the now illegally tender beef into largish chunks. Stir to coat everything with the rich, brown sauce, and serve over rice.

Monday, September 22, 2014

How Lentils Could Save the Earth, Part II


In the first installment of "How Lentils Could Save the Earth," I introduced the almighty, super-studly, protein-rich lentil, and explored where it came from, how it's used, and why it's a fabulous, inexpensive and should be an important part of our diets. Now, I'd like to share a nifty recipe that has the power to change your mind about lentils forever--if you didn't love them already, you will after one bite of this.

Coconut Lentil Curry, with Garden Vegetables

1 medium onion
2 tablespoons ghee or butter
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger root
10 cloves minced or crushed garlic
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
6 cups water
1 12 ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
1 cup lentils (the standard size--not the small ones), rinsed and sorted
2 medium or 1 large zucchini, cut into chunks or half discs, as you prefer
1 (14 to 16 ounce) can chopped tomatoes, or 2 fresh tomatoes, diced
2 large or 3 medium carrots, cut into half discs
3 cups fresh greens (spinach is particularly wonderful, as it melts right in. If using Swiss chard, remove the spines and use just the leaves, chopped)
Salt to taste, but add only after lentils are cooked

  1. Saute the onions in the butter or ghee until tender and translucent.
  2. Add all the ingredients except the greens and the salt to a pot. Simmer for 20 minutes, or until the lentils are well-cooked (no more than 30 minutes). Taste the soup and add salt to taste. I recommend using either Vege-sal vegetable salt blend (it's tasty and works like vegetable stock), or Himalayan pink sea salt, which has fantastic health properties. Anyway, be sure not to add salt until after the beans are cooked (this is true of all beans, as salt hinders bean water absorption). If using Swiss chard, add now and cook until tender (five minutes). If adding spinach, add and cook only for one minute, until wilted.
  3. Serve over basmati rice, or basmati rice pilaf. Also include minced, fresh chili peppers, for your guests to add in as they like. This dish is also wonderful when sprinkled with cayenne powder and/or smoked paprika.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Cold Savory Soups for Hot Days


What to Serve Your Loved Ones When It's Hot Outside

Hot days got you in a daze? Feel like going into the kitchen and firing up the oven? Naaah. Want something refreshing, simple, yet pallet-satisfying for a summer supper? How about a cold soup with a simple garden salad and a loaf of fresh artisanal bread (the chewier, the better)?

You may be imagining cold soups are frou-frou dishes served only in uppity restaurants. Would you even like a cold soup? Wouldn't it be, well, icky? Once you get over the idea of a cold liquid as an entrée, I think you'll find yourself enjoying it.

The loveliest way to serve cold soup is in two concentrically sized bowls: the smaller bowl holds the soup. The larger bowl holds ice, and the smaller soup bowl nestles atop this bed of ice. But you don't have to be that fancy.

I almost forgot to mention—all these soups can be vegetarian (if you substitute vegetable stock for chicken stock). None contain any meat. You do not have to serve meat to have a satiated and happy feeling after eating. But don't mention this lack of meat to your resident carnivores and probably no one will notice.

Here are my favorite savory cold soup suggestions. Have any other favorites? Let me know—I'd love to add to the list.


Gazpacho

Gazpacho is one of the most-loved and best-known of the cold soups. If you serve gazpacho, which is rich in veggies, you may want to skip the salad and simply serve with a delightful chewy bread, like sourdough. Ahhh. How yummy is that? I like recipes for gazpacho that do not involve the cheat of adding tomato juice. Nothing beats whole, fresh tomatoes as the basis for gazpacho—if you have them. If not, use canned tomatoes along with the juice they are packed in. You are basically making a salsa. Feel free to be flexible about adding other garden ingredients as you like.
  • Six fresh medium-sized tomatoes or two cans tomatoes and their juice
  • One or two cloves of crushed garlic. (Go easy on the fresh garlic so as not to overwhelm the other flavors. If you have the roasted garlic that comes in little jars, that would be ideal--it's much milder and you can use it more lavishly.)
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped coarsely
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and chopped coarsely (or half of a large one)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Add all ingredients to a blender or food processor. Pulse lightly, only until ingredients are slightly melded but not pulverized (coarse texture is good). Taste and adjust the seasonings, as desired. Add a few drops of hot sauce, if you like.


Vichyssoise (Potato Leek Soup)

Vichyssoise is another soup that's been around forever--for a good reason. Once you taste it, you will understand why. Potato flavor, rich and delightful, with leeks adding to the inscrutability, with butter and other ingredients all playing roles in this operetta of a soup. For any guests--or children--who might be afraid of the fancy name of this soup, you could always call it "Potato leek soup." My grandfather was a Francophobe, so whenever I made him quiche, I always told him it was "egg pie." If I mentioned it was quiche, he wouldn't eat it. Egg pie disappeared from his plate. Go figure. Bon appetite, er, enjoy!
  • 2 cups chopped leeks, using all of the white part and a couple of inches of the green part
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 cups coarsely chopped, peeled potatoes
  • 3 cups chicken stock (I especially love the chicken stock paste that comes in little jars--the brand name is Better-than-Bouillion. If you use the paste, reconstitute one teaspoon of paste for each cup of water)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup half and half (or heavy cream if you dare!)
Basically, you add everything except the half and half to a pot. Cook until the potatoes and leeks are very tender. Remove from heat. Then, either pour the soup into a blender or food processor and blend, or, if you have a hand-held blender (I do--it's a marvelously handy gadget), blend the soup in the pot. Puree until the ingredients are uniform. The soup will be a beautiful creamy, light green color. Add in the half and half and allow to chill in a refrigerator for about an hour. Serve cool, not cold, however. Top with chopped chives, if you have them. In the winter, vichyssoise is superb hot (I serve it with Thanksgiving dinner).

Cold Cauliflower Curry Soup

Don't let the name fool you--cauliflower curry soup is righteous! I invented this recipe, and I am proud to say, it is one of my favorite soups—it's surprising, luscious, and no one can tell what's IN it. When you serve this cold soup, you will see many empty soup bowls and contented smiles.
  • One head cauliflower, coarsely chopped, with most of stem removed
  • 1/2 white onion, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder (preferably the fresh kind that you make yourself, see Homemade Curry Powder)
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger root
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup half and half (or whole milk)
  • Cornstarch to thicken
Like vichyssoise, add everything to the pot except for half and half and cornstarch. Cook until the cauliflower and onion are tender and falling apart. Add in the half and half, and blend, as for the vichyssoise, with a blender, food processor, or hand-held blender, until the soup is pureed and of uniformly creamy texture. Mix a tablespoon or so cornstarch with enough water to make a loose paste. Stir this into the soup as you are heating it to thicken it to a lovely consistency (vichyssoise doesn't need it because the potatoes do the thickening). Chill for at least an hour in the refrigerator before serving.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Egg Fu Yong: Make This Easy, Quick Chinese Dish for Your Loved Ones and You Will Be a ROCK STAR!


Quick! What are your favorite Chinese restaurant dishes? Can you make any of them from scratch? I didn't think so. Well, now you can—and win accolades and glory—without going through a lot of trouble (or slavishly following a recipe—once you get this down). I'm talking about the much-loved Egg Fu Yong. (Also spelled Egg Fu Young, Egg Foo Yong, or any of many permutations. In Japan, it's known as Kanitama.) You know what I am talking about—savory, light eggs with that indescribable something luscious and that to-die-for light sauce. You won't believe how simple this is to do—even a fledgling cook can make it easily!

It's an Egg. It's an Omelet. It's Egg Fu Yong!
Egg fu yong is basically an omelet, only it doesn't have to be as pretty. My favorite way to eat it is with crab as the meat of choice, but you can use whatever meat or tofu you have on hand. The sauce is a breeze—
it's your basic gravy recipe. As with most of the foods I write about, the creation is simple—what's hard is making sure you have the ingredients on hand, like dried shiitake mushrooms (a great staple item that lasts forever), and crab (which isn't easy to have on hand fresh, but you can get decent crab meat in cans, or better yet, fabulous crab meat in jars in the fish department at your local grocer, although it's costs much more).

Stir-fry and Conquer
Heat one tablespoon vegetable oil in a nonstick skillet (you do NOT need a wok). Stir-fry a couple of stalks of sliced celery and a half a cup of peas until tender in the skillet. You can use other veggies, or course. Traditionally, Egg fu yong calls for bamboo shoots, which are yucky in their most available form—canned. My thought is that it's the crunchy texture that counts, and better to have a fresh alternative veggie (celery) than a canned traditional one (as a matter of fact, that's more or less my philosophy of life). Now, if you are lucky enough to have access to fresh bamboo shoots (Yude-takenoko, in Japanese), then your Egg fu yong will be the most perfect of all—just lightly steam and shred 1 small fresh bamboo shoot.

In a microwave-proof cup or bowl, put a handful of dried shiitake (black) mushrooms in a couple of tablespoons of water. Heat on high for one minute, until the mushrooms are softened.

It's About the Omelet
Add another tablespoon of vegetable oil to the skillet. Stir in six lightly beaten eggs, 1/2 teaspoon salt (I prefer Vege-sal vegetable salt, but it's all good), 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1/2 cup chicken stock, and one can or jar of crab meat (about 6 ounces), making sure to pick out any cartilage. (Again, you can substitute a cup of cooked meat or cubed tofu for the crab.) Add in the shiitake mushrooms, and cook over medium-low heat as the crab omelet sets (it takes a while for the egg to set because of the extra liquid of the chicken stock, but it's worth it). Roll the pan to one side and gently lift the omelet to encourage the loose egg to flow to the pan so it can get cooked. When there is enough egg cooked to give the omelet a foundation, gently lift half of the omelet and fold it on top of itself.

Don't Stress about How It Looks
Because this is a huge, six-egg omelet, it's not going to be picture-perfect. Do not worry—Egg fu yong is never pristine like a French omelet might be. When the omelet is firm enough (be sure it's not browning on the bottom—if so, turn the heat down), flip it gently. If it tears, that's OK—just make sure it's cooked though without being stiff.

Yummy Egg Fu Yong Sauce
While the omelet is cooking, heat a cup of chicken stock in a small sauce- or gravy-pan. Add 1 teaspoon sugar, and 1 teaspoon soy sauce. In a small bowl, stir a couple of tablespoons of water into 2 teaspoons of corn starch until smooth. Pour this into the chicken stock mixture, stirring constantly to avoid the dreaded "gravy lumping" effect. Keep stirring for a minute until the sauce thickens, and then remove it from heat.

Ready to Rock, Crab-lovers!
Divide the omelet among the hungry guests (serves two or three), preferable served half on and half off of steaming hot white rice (we love Jasmine rice). Drizzle the sauce on top and serve immediately with steamed veggies (especially broccoli). You can also pour the sauce over the veggies, and thus not have to season them at all. Voila! A beautiful, simple, and elegant meal, ready in a flash.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Quick Trip to the South: Down Home Tastebuds Do an Appalachian Jig


Collard greens, delightfully overcooked in pork fat. Buttermilk biscuits, flaky, tender, buttery. Okra with tomatoes. Fresh corn chowder. Summer squash. Real fried chicken.

My recent trip home to the mountains of North Carolina was not a gourmet trip. Far from it. I went home to help move my Mom's things into storage now that she is (happily) in a nursing home. But wherever I go, there's a chance for good food and I will take it. First on my must-have list of southern foods was Bojangle's Cajun chicken and biscuit. For those of you not from the south, Bojangle's is a fast food chain that serves New Orleans-style delectables like "dirty rice," pinto beans, collards, and Cajun-spicy friend chicken. No trip to the south is complete without a taste of what the locals eat. I get a jonesing for Bojangle's about the time I see those Blue Ridge mountains poking up in the windshield. Ahh--rich, satisfying heaven of my childhood food dreams. Fast food is just one option--a sinful pleasure at best. Now home-cooking, that's where the real treat lies.

Back to biscuits, in California where I live now, they are so just not the same. In an effort, perhaps, to reduce the guilt and the voluptuousness of a bad-for-you food, Californians zap the sanguinity out of biscuits, which end up tasting like blobs of dry dough--ick! (Funny, there doesn't seem to be a compunction to diminish doughnuts--Kirspy Kreme is so popular, lines snake around the buildings everywhere you go in SoCal--amazing to me, because I cannot stand doughnuts). A real southern biscuit is rich with buttery flavors and simply must have buttermilk and either real butter or lard, or bacon grease, or some combination of the above. Most chain restaurants, sadly, use the unthinkable shortening in baked goods, the same stuff that is wisely banned in New York City. An honest biscuit, however, uses the good stuff. And buttermilk in goodly amounts.

When I describe southern food to people not from the south, it never sounds quite right--oh, that's gotta be unhealthy--all that salt, all that fat--and sweat tea?!? Sure, it sounds dreadful--sausage gravy on biscuits--but it's the association that gives any food its magic. Yes, foie gras is innately tasty, but would you really--c'mon now, be honest--get a frisson of delight eating it if you knew it were as common as grits? Hardly. It would still be tender and delectable. But thrilling? No way. What we ate happily as a child is where the real heart of food joy lies. Food that feeds more than our bodies and comforts more than our spirits. When I bite into sausage gravy on a buttermilk biscuit, my heart soars with joy. If I ate such heart-ful heavy fare every day, it wouldn't be the same thrill either. Rarity makes food delicious too. Maybe twice a year I get real southern cuisine. And I am grateful for those times.

Here's a recipe for real buttermilk biscuits. If you use lard, buy the rendered kind. You can also use half lard and half butter (trust me--lard has gotten an unfairly bad reputation. See Lard--the New Health Food.) Never fear using butter either. Butter ain't the bad boy it used to be considered either. No worse than cheese, I always say.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 cups King Arthur white flour (or other good-quality all-purpose flour)
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup lard or butter
  • 1 cup buttermilk

PREPARATION:

Preheat oven to 400°.
In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, soda, and salt. Cut in chilled lard or butter until you have pieces the size of small peas. Make a well in center of dry ingredients; pour in buttermilk. With a wooden spoon, gently blend dry ingredients into the buttermilk, just until mixture is clumping together. If necessary, add a few more teaspoons of buttermilk.
Transfer dough to a lightly floured board. Pat out in a circle about 8 inches in diameter and 1/2-inch thick. Using a 2 1/2 to 3-inch biscuit cutter, cut out and place on ungreased baking sheet. Bake on center oven rack for about 15 minutes, until tops are browned.
Makes 10 to 12 biscuits.