Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Squash, White Bean, and Kale Soup

Back when I was a little baby nurse, I followed a more senior nurse for 16 weeks while I learned the job. We ate together every day, and one day she asked what I was eating, I suppose because it looked even stranger than my usual fare. When I told her that it was a squash and kale soup, the look of horror on her face was absolutely priceless. But I had confidence in my lunch, so I convinced her to try some, and it turned out that my vegetable-hating preceptor loved this soup. She loved it so much that I made her a batch as my 'Thank you for precepting me' present, and she still remembers it (better than I did, in fact) almost 4 years later.

I love this soup because it's delicious, of course, but also because it's filling and chock full of fiber and vitamins. This is the kind of food that makes you feel healthy and invigorated, rather than bloated and sloppy, and I find that it helps me make it to 7 a.m. when I eat it for my 2 a.m. lunch. Also, this soup keeps well and is better the day after it's made, which means that you can make this soup on your day off, then enjoy it for the rest of the week.

Squash Stew with White Beans and Kale
(From Whole Foods)

  • 4 oz bacon, cut into small dice
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • Parsley, fresh thyme and two bay leaves, bundled together with string
  • 6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup apple cider
  • 4 cups vegetable stock (I actually use chicken stock)
  • 4 cups kale (or other green) rinsed, center rib removed, and sliced
  • 2 cups (cooked) white beans, drained (I used a 14ounce can, but if you're feeling ambitious, cook your own dried or fresh beans)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 lb peeled seeded Hubbard, butternut or dumpling squash, cut into half-inch dice

In a heavy-bottomed pot on medium heat, render the fat from the bacon. Cook until the bacon is browned, and remove it with a slotted spoon; reserve.

Cook onions with the herb bundle in the bacon fat until onions soften. Add the garlic and cook until translucent. Put cider and stock into pot and bring to a boil. Add kale, beans, and salt and pepper to taste. Lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, 15 minutes.

Add squash cubes to liquid and cook until squash is tender, about ten more minutes. Discard herb bundle. Ladle stew into bowls and garnish with reserved bacon.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Roasted Potatoes for Special Occasions

We used to have an all-time favorite roasted potato recipe. It reigned supreme for nearly a decade, and almost never failed to impress. Poor recipe. It's still going to be our go-to roasted potato recipe for weeknights, but duck fat and cornmeal joined together to stage a coup that dethroned the rosemary potatoes as a special occasion dish.

The victorious recipe is courtesy of Nigella Lawson, and I swear to you that it just might change your life; it could make a potato lover out of a spud spurner. Why? Because usually you have to take your pick when it comes to a cooked potato's virtues, but in this case you get them all, including a fluffy, almost creamy interior, and a crispy, golden outside. 

The outer part of the potato is so crispy because the potatoes have been tossed with some cornmeal. It might sound strange, but thanks to the cornmeal, these potatoes become almost battered, and because they're cooked in plentiful amounts of duck fat, they're almost like French fries, too. The duck fat also lends the potatoes a certain richness, which really shines when paired with some diced onions or scallions. So that's why I say that these potatoes are like every yummy kind of potato all rolled in to one- they're like a baked potato combined with a roasted potato, mixed with a battered, fried, potato, with some hash browns thrown in.

Duck Fat Roasted Potatoes
(From Nigella Lawson)

We threw a handful of diced onions in to the pan during the last 15 or 20 minutes of cooking, which was delicious. We did that, though, because we didn't have any scallions at the time. So if you have scallions or chives, I would highly recommend tossing them with the cooked potatoes. Of course, you could use onions and scallions.

  • 6 lbs medium potatoes (I like red-skinned ones)

  • 2 tablespoons semolina

  • 2 cups goose fat (I used duck fat)

  • Optional: A handful of diced onions and/or sliced scallions or chives

  • Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
    Peel the potatoes (if they have thick skins; if you use thin-skinned potatoes, I would leave the peel on), and cut each one into three by cutting off each end at a slant so that you are left with a wedge or triangle in the middle.

    Put the potatoes into salted cold water in a large pot, and bring to a boil, letting them cook for 4 minutes. Drain the potatoes into a colander and then tip back into the empty pot, sprinkling over the semolina. Shake the potatoes around to coat them well and, with the lid clamped on, give the pan a good rotation and the potatoes a proper bashing so that their edges disintegrate or fuzz and blur a little: this facilitates the crunch effect later.

    Meanwhile, empty the duck fat into a large roasting pan and heat in the oven until seriously hot. Then tip the semolina–coated potatoes carefully into the hot fat and roast in the oven for an hour or until they are darkly golden and crispy, turning them over halfway through cooking. If the oven's hot enough they probably won't need more than about 25 minutes a side; and it's better to let them sit in the oven (you can always pour off most of the fat and leave them in the pan) till the very last minute.

    Wednesday, February 16, 2011

    Lemon Meringue Pie

    Isn't it great how nature provides plentiful amounts of lemons just when most of us are in need of some bright, colorful tartness in our lives? I, personally, love lemony things in the chilly days of late winter and early spring, and one of my all-time favorite lemon applications is lemon meringue pie. I find that February's grey skies aren't so bad when some of this pie is in my world.

    As I'm sure you gathered from the above paragraph, I love love love lemon meringue pie. I actually love any pie (except pecan), but this one is definitely in the top 3. It has the tasty, flaky crust, accompanied by a silken layer of tart lemonyness, all crowned with a fluffy, foamy meringue. I love to put a piece in my mouth and savor the way the little meringue bubbles pop all over my tongue, while the lemon curd and pie pastry make all of my other tastebuds explode. It's like you not only have the fireworks, you have the world-class symphony orchestra playing John Philip Sousa in the background.

    I think that this is a great recipe for lemon meringue pie, and honestly, I've never felt the need to try another. Cook's Illustrated recipes tend to have science on their side, which is particularly helpful when you're dealing with potentially flavorless crust, melting lemon curd, and deflating meringue.

    This recipe uses some special ingredients to keep the lemon in its place, and to prevent the meringue from melting in to a pool of separated egg whites. As long as you don't cut in to the pie before it's cooled (like I did, because I'm impatient), you'll have a perfect lemon meringue pie on your hands.

    Lemon Meringue Pie
    (Adapted a Teeny Bit from Cook's Illustrated)

    • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out the dough
    • 1 tablespoon sugar
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 3 tablespoons vegetable shortening, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
    • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces and chilled
    • 4 to 6 tablespoons ice water

    • 1 1/2 cups cold water
    • 1 cup sugar
    • 1/4 cup cornstarch
    • 1/8 teaspoon salt
    • 6 large egg yolks
    • 1 tablespoon (packed) grated lemon zest (from about 3 large lemons)
    • 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 3 large lemons)
    • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

    • 1/3 cup water
    • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
    • 4 large egg whites
    • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
    • 1/2 cup sugar
    • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

    Process the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor until combined. Scatter the shortening over the top and continue to process until the mixture has the texture of coarse sand, about 5 seconds. Scatter the butter pieces over top and, using short pulses, process the mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs, about 5 pulses. Transfer to a large bowl.

    Sprinkle 4 tablespoons ice water over the mixture. Stir and press the dough together using a stiff rubber spatula, until the dough sticks together. If the dough does not come together, stir in the remaining water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it does. Try your best not to over-handle the dough. Form the dough into a 4-inch disk , wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 1 hour.

    Let the chilled dough soften slightly at room temperature before rolling it into a 12-inch circle and fitting it into a pie plate. Trim, fold, and crimp the edges and freeze the unbaked pie crust until firm, about 30 minutes. Adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line the chilled crust with aluminum foil and fill with pie weights (beans or rice work). 

    Bake until the pie dough looks dry and is light in color, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove the pie weights and foil and continue to bake until the crust is a deep golden brown, about 12 minutes longer. Set the pie on a wire rack to cool.

    Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 325 degrees.

    For the filling: Combine the water, sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a large nonreactive saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer while whisking constantly. When the mixture starts to turn translucent, whisk in the egg yolks, 2 at a time. Whisk in the zest, then the lemon juice, and finally the butter. 

    Return the mixture to a full simmer, then remove the pan from the heat. Lay a sheet of plastic wrap flush to the surface of the filling to keep it hot while making the meringue.

    For the meringue: Bring the water and cornstarch to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, whisking frequently. When the mixture turns translucent and begins to bubble, remove it from the heat.

    Whip the egg whites and vanilla in a large bowl with an electric mixer on low speed until frothy. Mix the sugar and cream of tartar together, then add it to the egg whites, 1 tablespoon at a time. Increase the speed to medium and whip the egg whites until soft peaks form. 

    Add the cooked cornstarch mixture to the whipped egg whites, 1 tablespoon at a time, and contunue to whip the egg whites until they are glossy and form stiff peaks. Remove the plastic wrap from the lemon filling and return to very low heat to rewarm, for about a minute.

    Pour the hot filling into the baked, cooled pie crust. Dollop and spread the meringue over the top of the pie, making sure to adhere the meringue to the crust. Using the back of a spoon, make attractive peaks in the meringue.

    Bake until the meringue is golden brown, about 20 minutes. Transfer the pie to a wire rack and cool to room temperature before serving.

    Monday, February 14, 2011

    Cold Sesame Soba Noodles

    Most of the time I think it's great when Daring Cooks has us make things that I'm not normally inclined to make. And then there are the times when I think, 'I knew there was a reason I never ever wanted to make that.'

    Like tempura, for example. Every time I see the Iron Chefs make it on TV, I think, 'Wow, that's one thing I don't ever ever want to cook at home.' Plus, I've never met a tempura I've liked. They consistently ruin any sushi dish they come in contact with, and outside of a sushi roll, I've still never liked the particular greasiness of tempura-fried anything.

    I do of course realize that I've probably never had really good tempura, so I haven't written it off completely, but I knew that the tempura to change my mind was not going to come out of my kitchen. And sure enough, mine was greasy, mealy, and gross. So there will not be a recipe for tempura in this post. There will, however be a recipe for soba noodles, which was the second part of this challenge.

    The challenge recipe suggested that we make plain soba noodles, top them with some garnishes, and serve them with a dipping sauce on the side. Now, I realize that this is a very traditional way to serve soba noodles, but the idea of trying to dip long, stringy noodles into a very thin, watery, and mostly soy-based sauce sounded unappealing, partially because I didn't feel like ruining a shirt.

    However, the challenge said that we could use a different soba noodle recipe as long as we attempted to stay true to the spirit of Japanese cooking and keep it clean, fresh, and simple. I liked the looks of this Nigella Lawson recipe, and thought that it fit the criteria.

    Sure enough, it's very addictive, insanely simple to make, and it keeps extremely well. I'll likely make it again so that when I'm at work and I have to shove some food in my mouth at 3 a.m., I can just pull these noodles out of the fridge; no re-heating required.

    You could keep these noodles simple, or you could garnish them with any number of things, including strips of egg, tofu, or thinly sliced red peppers, carrots, cucumbers, or cabbage. Simple or embellished, they're a delicious meal.

    Soba Noodles with Sesame Seeds
    (Slightly Adapted from a Recipe by Nigella Lawson)

    • 45g sesame seeds (the original recipe calls for 75 grams, but I found that even 45 grams meant a lot of sesame)
    • Salt
    • 250g soba noodles
    • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
    • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
    • 1 tablespoon honey
    • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
    • 3 spring onions
    Toast the sesame seeds in a dry pan over medium heat until they look golden brown, and tip them into a bowl. Bring a large pan of water to the boil and add some salt. Put in the soba noodles and cook them for about 6 minutes (or according to packet instructions) until they are tender but not mushy. Have a bowl of iced water waiting to plunge them into after draining. 

    In the bowl you are going to serve them in, mix the vinegar, soy sauce, honey and oil. Then finely slice the spring onions and put them into the bowl with the cooled, drained noodles and mix together thoroughly before adding the sesame seeds and tossing again. 

    Taste for seasoning and add more soy sauce, honey, or sesame oil as needed. I found that I needed more of everything, but it's up to you. Leave the sesame seed noodles for about half an hour to let the flavours develop, although this is not absolutely necessary or sometimes even possible.

    Monday, February 7, 2011

    Winter Salads

    At this time of year, in order to keep myself sane, I need to work to find things that I like about winter. Some of those things are fires on cold nights, citrus, skiing, and winter salads. In fact, I might like winter salads better than summer salads, and it's really a relief that something is better in the winter than in the summer. I would say that the lack of bugs is another thing that's better in the winter, but there are currently stinkbugs in my house, so that one no longer applies.

    Call me crazy, but winter salads tend to have a crunch, a bitterness, and a heartiness that's missing in the more delicate (dare I say wimpier) summer salads. I find them more interesting than salads made from wilty little green leaves because they have so much more character and personality. They're not always easy to get along with, but it's worth making the effort. 

    After the holidays I really need to take a break from cookies and creamy things, and these flavor-packed salads get me wanting to eat salads, as opposed to eating them because I think I should because I'm a fatty. I recommend that you give these salads a try--their peppery bite just might add some needed brightness to your gray days. They work for me.

    Radicchio Salad with Green Olives
    (By Molly Watson of The Dinner Files)

    Serves 2-4 
    • 1 head radicchio
    • 18 green olives
    • 1 teeny glove garlic
    • 2 tablespoons olive oil
    • 2 tablespoons lemon juice or sherry vinegar
    • A pinch of sugar
    • Salt to taste
    • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
    • Freshly grated Parmesan for garnish (optional)

    Trim radicchio and cut or tear into bite-size pieces, and place in a large bowl. Mince the olives and garlic into a paste and mix with the lemon juice or vinegar, and the sugar, salt, and pepper. (I actually do all of this in a little food processor, and I don't add pepper because radicchio leaves are so peppery.)

    Toss the radicchio with the dressing, and divide amongst the serving bowls. Top with Parmesan if you like. (I actually find that it's not necessary.)

    Endive Salad with Walnuts
    (By Molly Watson, of The Dinner Files)
    Makes 4-6 Servings
    • 4 heads Belgian endive
    • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
    • 3 tablespoons walnut oil
    • 1 tablespoon lemon juice, cider vinegar, or white vinegar
    • 1 teaspoon whole grain mustard
    • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
    • Salt and pepper to taste

    Toast the walnuts in a toaster oven or a 350 degree oven. Trim the ends of the endives, and chop or slice them into bite-sized pieces.

    In a large bowl, whisk together the oil, lemon juice or vinegar, and the mustards. Add salt and pepper to taste (I actually find that pepper is not necessary.) Add the endives and toss until thoroughly coated. Divide the salad into serving bowls and top with the toasted walnuts.

    Sunday, February 6, 2011

    Spinach Feta Fritters

    As you may know, I have a well-documented fritter problem. If it's a vegetable and I like it, I'll probably try to turn it in to a fritter. Therefore, one of my all-time favorite flavor combinations--spinach, feta, pine nuts, and tomato--was just begging to be turned into patty form. Here's the result; I hope you like it.

    Spinach Feta Fritters

    • 2 bunches fresh spinach (a little less than 2 lbs)
    • 2 eggs
    • rounded 1/4 cup feta cheese
    • 1/2 cup tomato sauce
    • Juice of 1/4 lemon
    • 1/4 cup pine nuts
    • 1/2 cup flour
    • 1 teaspoon Kosher salt, plus more to taste
    • Freshly ground black pepper
    • 2-3 tablespoons canola oil

    Set a very large pot of water on the stove to boil. In the meantime, fill a large bowl with water. Cut the stems off the spinach bunches, and place the leaves in the bowl of water. Swish them around until all the dirt is removed, and place the leaves in a colander.

    While you'res still waiting for the water to boil, toast the pine nuts in a toaster oven or a 350 degree oven. When the water boils, add the spinach and cook until tender but still bright green, about 2 minutes. Remove the spinach to the colander. There's really no need for an ice bath.

    When the spinach has cooled, squeeze the water out of it. Don't drive yourself crazy, though--it doesn't have to be completely dry. Chop the spinach as fine as you can, again without driving yourself crazy.

    In a large bowl, combine the eggs, feta, tomato sauce, lemon juice, pine nuts, flour, salt, pepper, and spinach, and mix well. In a large non-stick skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil until shimmering. Add enough spinach mixture to the pan to make a patty that's about 3 inches in diameter.

    Cook until the top starts to look a little firm, and the bottom edges look a little dried out. Flip--the top should be nicely browned. Cook the other side until golden brown, just a little longer (the second side will cook faster than the first).

    Taste this fritter and adjust for seasoning--add more salt, pepper, and lemon juice as necessary. Also, if the batter is too thin, add a little bit of flour. Once the seasoning is correct, cook the rest of the batter in the same manner, adding more oil to the pan as necessary.

    Wednesday, January 26, 2011

    Crescent Cheese Cookies

    Although I bought The Gourmet Cookie Book exclusively for the bourbon balls, I ended up bookmarking pretty much the whole book. It looked a little silly bristling with a million little post-its, not to mention the fact that it's not very helpful to bookmark every page. So I separated the bookmarks into vertically-facing ones that signified 'must make,' and horizontally-facing ones that meant, 'must make really soon.'

    These little beauties were on a 'must make really soon' page, and I suggest that you make them really soon as well. They're really more like little tiny pastries because of their flaky, flaky dough, but that's not in any way a bad thing. In fact, it's pretty amazing that a dough that literally comes together in about 2 minutes can be so flaky and light--it's the kind of thing one would think must be labored over for hours.

    The dough contains no sugar, but the jam and powdered sugar make the cookie sweet enough. In fact, it becomes a perfectly balanced kind of sweetness that would appeal to adults and children alike. They actually kind of remind me of some of the cookies my Italian grandmother used to make.

    I used black cherry jam, which I thought worked perfectly. And don't be scared off by the mention of farmer's cheese--it's a cheese that is similar to cottage cheese, and because I didn't feel like going to the store, I used plain old cottage cheese and thought that it worked perfectly well.

    My best piece of advice, though, is to carefully check for doneness before pulling these little guys out of the oven. My oven temperature might have been a bit too high, or the suggested temperature might be too hot, or maybe I was just deceived by the effect the milk has on the browning of the cookies, because the outsides were beautifully golden while the insides were still half raw. Even undercooked, these cookies were amazingly flaky, so properly cooked, they must be simply dreamy.

    I apologize for just showing you pictures of the cookies broken in half, rather than the whole cookie. I didn't like the way I styled the shoot when I photographed the whole cookies, and they didn't look all that awesome, anyway. My crescent-rolling skills aren't quite up to par, and a lot of my cookies looked like something the cookie fairy would have pooped out.

    Crescent Cheese Cookies
    From The Gourmet Cookie Book

    Makes about 2 1/2 dozen cookies

    • About 6 ounces farmer cheese, or low-fat cottage cheese
    • 2 sticks (1 cup) butter, softened
    • 2 tablespoons sour cream
    • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
    • 2 cups flour
    • 1/4 teaspoon salt
    • About 10 ounces of your favorite jam or jelly
    • Milk for brushing the cookies
    • Powdered sugar for dusting (About 1/4 cup)

    Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

    Force enough cheese through a sieve into a dish to measure 1 cup. In a bowl, cream the butter until it's smooth. Stir in the cheese, the sour cream, and the vanilla, and mix until well combined.

    In another bowl, sift together the flour and the salt. Gradually blend the flour mixture into the cheese mixture. Wrap the dough in parchment paper and chill for at least 3 hours.

    Roll one fourth of the dough out very thinly (about 1/8 inch) on a lightly floured surface and chill the remaining dough until it is to be used. Cut the dough into 3-inch squares and put about 1/2 teaspoon jam or preserves in the center of each. Repeat with the remaining dough.

    Fold the squares tightly into triangles and roll them into crescents, starting at the wide end. Arrange the crescents on a baking sheet, brushing them lightly with milk, and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they are golden. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack and dust them with sifted confectioners' sugar. (I actually just dumped some sugar into a sifter and used the sifter to dust the cookies.)

    These cookies don't keep very well, and are best on the day they're made.