Friday, October 29, 2010

Bistro Fries

  • There are some entrées, like ribs, that just beg for some fries as an accompaniment. For me, though, fried fries are an indulgence only to be enjoyed while in a restaurant. This is partially because I can't bring myself to fry anything in the house, and partially because I just feel too guilty about consuming such an unhealthy treat while at home. 

That's where these oven fries come in--they're delicious, and they satisfy the need for a finger-friendly side. The garlic and parsley elevate this side dish from the realm of the normal boring oven-fry; consequently, these fries become part of the regular rotation around our house. 

Bistro Fries
(Slightly adapted from Epicurious)
  • 4 medium russet potatoes (about 1 3/4 pounds), unpeeled 
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley 
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced 
  • Coarse salt
  • Optional: Cider vinegar for serving
Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 425°F. Cut potatoes lengthwise into 1/3-inch-thick slices, then cut lengthwise into 1/3-inch-wide strips. Soak the potatoes in a bowl of hot water for 10 minutes.

Drain and pat dry with paper towels. Combine potatoes and oil in large bowl; toss to coat well. Spread potatoes on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. If there are too many potatoes to fit without crowding, use two sheets. Bake until potatoes are deep golden brown, turning and rearranging potatoes occasionally, about 50 minutes.

Transfer potatoes to bowl. Toss with parsley, garlic and coarse salt.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Apple Crumb Bars

This summer, I stumbled upon a recipe for blueberry crumb bars. Little did I know, they would become a problem. A problem as in, I felt the need to make a double batch the second time I made them, because I knew that I was probably going to eat all of one batch by myself.

The blueberry bars were so good that they became known by the code name 'crack.' As in, "Hey, I'm making some crack. I'll bring some over." And then blueberry season was a thing of the past, and I had frozen no berries; blueberry bars would have to wait until next June.

However, inspiration struck during a standard 5 a.m. bout of insomnia--how about some apple crumb bars?

The resulting bars are delicious and seasonally satisfying, but as a friend said, they're 'crack-like,' as in not-quite-crack. I think they're worth making, though, and it may even be a good thing that they're just super-delicious, as opposed to insanely delicious.

Apple Crumb Bars
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
  • 1 cup old-fashioned oats
  • 1/2 cup sliced or chopped almonds
  • 3 Granny Smith apples
  • 1 Fuji apple
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • Zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice
  • Pinch ground ginger
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons apple butter (made with no added sugar)

Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a 13x9x2-inch metal baking pan with foil, and spray the foil with non-stick cooking spray.

Add flour, sugar, salt, and cinnamon to the bowl of a food processor and process until combined, about 3 seconds. Add the butter and pulse (about 5 times) until pea-size lumps are all that remain of the butter. Transfer to a large bowl and add the oats, stir to combine.

Transfer 2 cups of this mixture to another bowl, and stir in the almonds. Set aside.

Press the almond-less crumb mixture evenly onto bottom of prepared pan. Bake crust until golden and just firm to touch, about 20 minutes. Cool 10 minutes.

While the crust cooks and cools, peel and core the apples. Cut them into thin slices, about 1/8 inch thick. Place the slices in a large bowl and toss them with the lemon juice, lemon zest, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and ginger.

When the crust has cooled a bit, spread the apple butter over the top; it will be a rather thin coating. Fan the apple slices out in an overlapping pattern along one long side of the pan. Lay out another line of slices next to the first one, and continue to do this until the pan is full. You're basically laying out the slices the way you would lay out potato slices for a potato gratin, but working in the other direction. It may seem a bit fussy to do it this way, but if the apples are just dumped into the pan, they will not cook properly.

Spread the almond crumb topping over the apples. Cover with foil and cook 55 minutes in the center of the oven. Remove the foil and cook 10 more minutes, or until the topping is golden brown and the apples are very tender and just starting to bubble.

Allow to cool, and cut into bar shapes to serve. This dessert is generally better the day after it's made, and keeps well for about 3 days.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pasta with Sausage and a Creamy Butternut Squash and Sage Sauce

For a while now, I had been wanting to make a fall-ish pasta dish, and this is what I came up with. Because the sauce is a bechamel with some squash puree mixed in, the squash flavor is on the light side, but the sauce is also lighter on fat and calories than it would be if it was made of squash and heavy cream. I'm not claiming that this dish is low-fat, though--there's a good bit of butter, and of course there's the fat from the sausage. But fat is flavor, right? Plus, you get all of the nutrients from the squash, like fiber and beta carotene, so this might be a good way to get some veggies into vegetable-phobic kids.

Sage can overpower a dish, and it can therefore be a little bit intimidating to cook with. But in this case, with the sage added at the beginning of the cooking process, it's present without fighting too much with the other ingredients. 

Fried sage leaves would make a lovely garnish, and they're apparently delicious, so I've included Thomas Keller's instructions for making them. You may notice, though, that I have fresh sage leaves as a garnish on my poorly-plated dish. That's because I was too lazy to use a thermometer for frying, and for some reason, I expected the oil to bubble. 

When it started to smoke profusely and smell like burning plastic, I figured something wasn't quite right, so I turned off the heat. As for why I then threw in some sage leaves anyway, I have no good explanation. But it was pretty amusing how they instantly went 'Poof!' (they really did make that sound) and turned black. I made this a couple days ago now, and the kitchen still smells bad. Otherwise, the dish was a success. 

Pasta with Sausage and a Creamy Butternut Squash and Sage Sauce

Serves 4-6
  • 2 medium-sized butternut squash
  • Canola oil
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 recipe fresh pasta dough (below), or 1 pound dried fettuccine
  • 5tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup finely diced shallots
  • 8 sage leaves, finely diced
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 3 tablespoons Sherry or Marsala
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • One link hot Italian sausage per person
  • Optional: Fried sage leaves (below)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the butternut squash in half and remove the seeds. Place on a foil-lined baking sheet and smear a little bit of oil over the halves, which should be cut-side up. Sprinkle liberally with Kosher salt. Roast in the center of the oven until the squash is very tender and a little bit browned, about an hour.

While the squash roasts, prepare the pasta dough as instructed below. When the squash is ready, remove it from the oven and allow it to cool.

In the meantime, cook the shallots and sage in 3 tablespoons butter until the shallots are tender, about 7 minutes. Add the flour and cook 3 minutes. Add the nutmeg and pour in the milk and chicken stock. Over medium heat, continue to stir until the sauce is thickened and coats the back of a spoon. This takes a while, as you must be patient in order to not curdle or burn the sauce. Taste for seasoning along the way-this sauce requires a good bit of salt.

When the sauce is thickened, stir in the Sherry. Scoop the flesh out of the squash skins, and puree in a blender of food processor until very smooth. Stir the puree into the milk sauce (bechamel). Add freshly ground black pepper, taste for seasoning, and add more salt and pepper as necessary.

In a large skillet, melt a tablespoon butter over medium-high heat and add the sausage. Sear for a minute, and place a lid over the skillet. Turn the heat down to medium. Occasionally shift the sausages in the pan. After about about 4 minutes, flip the sausage, put the lid back on the pan and cook for about 4 minutes. Remove the lid and cook for another 3 minutes. Add another tablespoon butter, and continue to cook until the sausage is cooked through. They could be done at this point, or they could need a few more minutes.

While the sausage cooks, roll out the pasta and set a large pot of salted water on to boil. To roll out the pasta, divide it into 4 pieces. Make each piece into a flattish shape. Take one to start with, and cover the other so that they don't dry out.

With your plain roller set to the largest setting (lowest number), pass the dough through once. Fold like a book (one flat piece in the back, and two pieces folded over on the sides so that they almost meet in the middle) and pass through again. Fold like a book and repeat 2 more times. After the last time, send the pasta through as is. Send it through as a flat piece 2 more times.

Then, put the roller on the next smallest setting and pass the dough through. Continue to do this on smaller and smaller settings until the pasta is the right thickness (about a 6 on Kitchenaid stand mixers, depending on how flat you'd like the pasta). Lay the dough out on a flat surface and cover with a towel so that it does not dry out, and repeat with the remaining lumps of dough.

When all of the pasta is laid out flat, switch to the fettuccine-cutting roller, and pass the pieces of dough through, one at a time. If your pieces are very long, cut them into more manageable lengths. Again, spread out the dough and cover with a towel so that it does not dry out. 

al dente (it will continue to cook in the hot sauce). Drain, reserving about a cup of the cooking water.

Add the sauce to the skillet (you may not need all of it) and, if necessary, reheat until hot, stirring to incorporate the fat that was left in the skillet. Add the pasta and toss to coat with the sauce. If the sauce is very thick and you would like to thin it out, add some of the reserved cooking water.

Divide the pasta among the plates. If you like, slice the sausage into pieces that are a little more than 1/4-inch thick, ans divide the slices among the plates. Or, place a whole sausage on each plate. Garnish with the fried sage leaves, if using.

Fresh Pasta
  • 400 grams all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 4 large eggs

Mound the flour onto a large cutting board or other work surface, and make a well in the middle. Sprinkle the salt over the flour, then add the eggs to the well.

Using your fingers or a fork, break the egg yolks, mix the eggs together a bit, and keep swirling while you gradually incorporate the flour into the eggs. Use your other hand to keep the outer wall intact as you swirl on the inside. This takes some practice, so don't worry if your well breaks--just mix it all together.

Knead the dough for 10 minutes. Seriously--10 minutes. Use primarily the palms of your hands, and occasionally fold the dough in half and continue kneading. When the dough is very soft and silky, almost cloud-like, wrap it in plastic and let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Proceed with rolling as instructed above.

Fried Sage Leaves
  • Canola oil, for deep-frying
  • About 16 smallish sage leaves

In a small pot, heat oil for deep frying to 275 degrees. Fry the small sage leaves briefly, just until they are crisp (their color should not change), and dry on paper towels. 

Monday, October 18, 2010


Paella is one of those dishes, like barbecue, that can spark endless heated debate. Everyone makes it differently, and everyone has found that one particular paella that is the apotheosis of paella. After that pinnacle is reached, no other paella will ever compare.

For example, some people swear that paella that isn't made in Valencia can never be true paella, due to the quality of the water in Valencia. And some people say that paella can not have both seafood and chicken in the same dish. (I happen to like it that way, though.) And then there are the paellas that are made with vermicelli (pasta), or beans, or the original, which is made with rabbits and snails, with no seafood in sight.

My Dad had a perfect paella in New York about 30 years ago, and nothing since has ever come close. For a few years now I've tried recreating that dish, and the response is always the same: "It's good, but it's not it."

This year, it was time to step it up a notch. In the past, I had attempted to make this dish by throwing some stuff into a casserole dish and throwing the whole thing in the oven for a while, but I realized that this inauthentic approach was just not going to cut it. It would never be that paella.

Therefore, it was time to ponder the variables that are generally considered part of an authentic paella. Most importantly, it's made in a paella pan. This is a large, shallow, circular pan that is ideally made of carbon steel. To be super-authentic, this pan is set over a wood fire, but I wasn't feeling that ambitious--obtaining the pan was just about the height of my aspirations. Part of the reason the pan is so important is because it enables the formation of a brown crust on the bottom of the dish. The brown crust is called soccarat, and some people claim that it's the key to a great paella, and in Spain, people apparently fight over the crusty bits.

(The Paella Pan)

Also of importance is the rice--short-grain rice is a necessity, and if you want to be really accurate, Bomba and Calasparra are preferred. However, these rice varieties can be difficult to find, so Arborio or Carnaroli are acceptable in a pinch.

Paprika is a part of all paellas, and smoked Spanish paprika is the ideal choice. This particular type of paprika can also be difficult to find, but it's worth ordering online because it's far more complex than regular paprika, and the smokiness will lend the finished dish that little 'something.' However, if you would like to use normal paprika, just make sure it's the 'sweet' variety, as opposed to the 'hot' variety.

Roasted red peppers are frequently a part of paella, and piquillo peppers are supposedly the best available. They're roasted over wood fires and retain their texture a bit better than normal roasted red peppers. Or so I hear. I had ordered some for this version of paella, but they didn't arrive in time, so experimenting with them will happen on another occasion.

So when it came time to attempt a more authentic version of paella, most of the key components were in place, and overall it was a success. We got a little bit of brown crust, and one tiny bit where the crust was a bit too brown. The paella was flavorful and delicious, and it was fun to eat, partially because the way it's brought to the table in a really big pan is in itself so entertaining.

If you decide to make the recipe as it's printed below, I apologize for the rather vague timing instructions. Ours took a while for the rice to cook (about 50 minutes), but I think that has a lot to do with the fact that I was afraid of burning the bottom, so I kept the heat a bit lower than the original recipe instructs. However, I left the directions as far as heat and timing pretty close to the original, as I feel it's probably correct; I just tweaked a few things (like the use of tinfoil), which I discuss in the recipe below. Your cooking times may also vary based on the size of your stove, so basically, just be careful as you cook--watch, listen, and smell, and you'll end up with a delicious dinner. Or, like I say each time we're about to embark on a new culinary adventure--you can always order some pizza.

(Inspired by This Recipe)

  • 1 5 lb bag mussels
  • 3 large, ripe tomatoes
  • 10 blanched almonds, ideally Marcona
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • Packed 1/4 cup Italian parsley
  • 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 package dried chorizo, cut into 1/4 inch slices
  • 1 pound shrimp, peeled
  • 2 teaspoons sweet pimentón de la Vera (Spanish smoked paprika)
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1½ pounds chicken thighs, preferably boneless and skinless
  • ¼ teaspoon saffron threads
  • 4½ cups chicken stock
  • ½ cup dry sherry
  • 2 cups Calrose rice
  • 2 red peppers, roasted, peeled, and cut into 1/4-inch strips, then cut in half lengthwise
  • About 1 bottle beer (lager works well)
  • 1 cup frozen peas

Place the mussels in a bowl of very cold water and place the bowl in the fridge. Every 30-40 minutes or so, change the water (for a total of at least 2 water changes). Slice tomatoes in half, and grate each on a box grater over a bowl. Discard skins; set pulp aside. In a food processor or mortar, puree parsley, garlic and almonds with a tablespoon or two of water until smooth.

Heat 1/2 tablespoon olive oil in a large pan over high heat. Add chorizo pieces to pan and cook until lightly browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Season shrimp with salt and 1/2 teaspoon paprika. Sear the shrimp in the hot pan until golden brown and almost cooked through.

With a slotted spoon, remove shrimp. Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper, add to same pan, and brown on one side until deep golden. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.

Set 18-inch paella pan over two burners at high heat on the stove top, and heat 1/3 cup olive oil. Add tomato pulp and cook until darkened, about 5 minutes. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika and 1/4 teaspoon saffron, and cook for about 1 minute. Add chicken pieces and sherry and cook until sherry is evaporated (you'll have liquid in the pan, but no longer be able to smell the sherry). Add chicken stock; bring to a boil.

Stir garlic, almond and parsley puree into the pan. Sprinkle rice across the pan and stir until the grains are submerged, then don't stir again. Add red peppers. Cook on high heat for 10 minutes, rotating the pan on the two burners to distribute heat. Using a small spoon, test rice and stock and add salt as needed.

Reduce heat to medium-low and continue cooking for 10 minutes. Test rice again. If the rice is drying out but still needs some more cooking time in order for it to tenderize, add some beer (or water or chicken stock) to the dry spots. The amount of beer needed will vary greatly depending on your rice, heat, etc., but we used about a bottle of beer.

If the rice is still hard, turn the heat down to low and continue to cook the rice until all parts of the dish are tender. You might need to intermittently cover the pan with a big sheet of tin foil. I wish that I could give you more specific directions, but I think that this is one of those dishes that you have to watch and play with, at least until you're practiced with it. We found that our total cooking time for the rice was about 50 minutes, about 10 of which were covered.

When all of the rice is tender but a little bit of extra liquid remains in the pan, scatter the mussels over the top, scatter the shrimp and peas around. Cover with tin foil and cook for about 5-7 more minutes, until the mussels are open.

In this last little part, listen for a crackling sound to ensure the bottom is toasting but not burning. It might be necessary to increase the heat to medium-high, but again, listen and pay attention to the dish. Remove from heat, leave the foil cover in place, and let sit for 5 minutes.

Use a metal spoon to scrape toasted rice from bottom of pan and serve.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Roasted Squash


Do you ever go to the grocery store and come home with something, only to later wonder what on Earth you were thinking? I did that the other day--I came home with 2 acorn squash, with no plan in mind, and no way to use them up in the near future.

And then it got to the point where they were staring at me, begging to be used, and threatening to go bad; I had a heavy work week coming up, and knew that the squash had to be cooked on this one particular night if they were ever going to get cooked. However, I had spent a long time on a lasagna, and was therefore not feeling up to an elaborate preparation, so I just cut up the squash, simply seasoned them, and roasted them alongside the lasagna.

I didn't even peel the squash, as I didn't feel that my fingers or my knives could handle it on that particular day. You'll see in the pictures that the acorn squash are cut into crescents with the skin intact. I later simply scooped them out of their skins and ate them with a little bit of agave syrup.

Although I ate the squash straight out of their skins, I also could have removed the skins, made a puree, and eaten the squash that way. I also could have used the puree to stuff some ravioli, or I could have turned the puree into some gnocchi, or I could have mixed the squash puree with some cream and a little bit of sage, and tossed it with some homemade pasta.

Of course, you can mix up the seasonings, or add some lemon juice or nuts to the roasting pan...If you give me some time, I can probably think of a million other ways to use some pureed squash, but I'll spare you the boredom of my 4 a.m. musings.

If you're feeling up to it, you can certainly peel the squash, and I admit that it would be easier to eat that way. You can also use a butternut squash, which is much easier to peel, although that doesn't necessarily mean that it's easy to peel.

You can serve your roasted squash in any of the aforementioned ways, or you can dice it before roasting, and serve it with this cilantro pepita pesto. It sounds like a strange pairing, but trust me--it's delicious. If you come up with any other  interesting uses for roasted squash, feel free to share them in the comments.

Roasted Squash
  • 2 acorn squash, or one largeish butternut squash
  • 3 pinches cayenne pepper (about 1/8 teaspoon)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • Optional: 1 tablespoon agave nectar or maple syrup
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
If you're feeling up to it, peel the acorn squash. If not, cut it in half and cut the halves (after seeding the squash) into crescents. Here's a third option: cut the squash in half, remove the seeds, and place the squash, cut sides up, on a roasting pan. Sprinkle with the seasonings, but consider using less, as you'll have less squash surface area.

If you have a butternut squash, you should peel it. A standard vegetable peeler actually works well for this, although it probably shortens the life of the peeler. Remove the seeds from the butternut squash after cutting it in half.

If you've peeled your squash, cut it into 1/2 inch squares. Line a heavy baking sheet with foil, and place the squash on it. Drizzle with the oil, sprinkle with the cayenne, cumin, and salt, and mix well with your hands. Spread the squash out into a single layer and cook for about 35-55 minutes (cooking time will vary based on the size of your pieces and the water content of your particular squash), until the squash is very tender, slightly shriveled, and browned.

Eat plain, with the cilantro pepita pesto, or in any of the other aforementioned ways.


Fall means salmon, and in my mind, salmon means Gravlax.

Gravlax is another one of those appetizers or hors d'oeuvres that require almost no effort, but will get you a lot of accolades. This is particularly convenient when you have a big party to prep for because you'll look like a super-star, but not be all stressed out. Or maybe you will be stressed out, but not because of your stellar hors d'oeuvres.

To make gravlax, you basically take a hunk of salmon, cover it with some spices, and throw it in the fridge for a few days. When it emerges, you have a silken, flavorful delicacy.
Gravlax is a lot like cold-smoked salmon, and it plays well with the same ingredients. 'Everything' bagels with some cream cheese would make a lovely brunch spread, but my favorite way to enjoy this fishy goodness is with some pumpernickel toasts, minced red onions, capers, and a mustard cream sauce.

If you make this, do not be tempted to skip the sauce--it takes only a few minutes to throw together, and, as my family says, it 'makes' the dish. This salmon makes an appearance at almost all of our cold-weather family occasions, and it's become a favorite. Perhaps it can become a favorite in your family, as well. If you make it, let me know what you think.

(Adapted from Saveur)
  • 1 tbsp. white peppercorns
  • 1/2 tbsp. fennel seeds
  • 1/2 tbsp. caraway seeds
  • 1⁄3 cup kosher salt
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 1-lb. center-cut, skin-on salmon filet
  • 2 tbsp. dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. heavy cream
To serve:
  • 1 loaf thinly sliced pumpernickel bread, pieces cut into diamonds
  • 1 small red onion, finely diced
  • 4 tablespoons capers, rinsed
In a spice grinder or small food processor, pulse peppercorns, fennel seeds, and caraway seeds until coarsely ground; combine with salt and sugar. Stretch plastic wrap over a plate; sprinkle with half the salt mixture. Place salmon fillet on top, flesh side up. Cover with remaining salt mixture.
Fold plastic wrap ends around salmon; wrap tightly with 2 more layers of plastic wrap. Refrigerate the fish on a plate for 48–72 hours, turning the package every 12 hours and using your fingers to redistribute the herb-and-spice-infused brine that accumulates as the salt pulls moisture from the salmon. The gravlax should be firm to the touch at the thickest part when fully cured.

Unwrap salmon, discarding the spices. Rinse the filet under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels.

For the sauce, whisk together dijon mustard, lemon juice, vinegar, and sugar in a medium bowl. While whisking, slowly drizzle in olive oil until smooth. Mix in the cream and taste for seasoning.

Place gravlax skin side down on a board. With a long, narrow-bladed knife (use a granton slicer if you have one; the divots along the blade make for smoother, more uniform slices), slice gravlax against grain, on the diagonal, into thin pieces. Serve with mustard sauce, minced red onion, capers, and pumpernickel toasts. Refrigerate any remaining gravlax, wrapped in plastic wrap, for up to 2 weeks.

Pasta with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

This recipe has lately been a favorite of mine. Really, though, it's one of those recipes that's so simple that it probably shouldn't even be called a 'recipe.' It's particularly nice for those nights when you don't really feel like cooking dinner, but would feel like too much of a slacker were you to just throw something in the microwave.

And don't worry too much about the fact that it's no longer technically tomato season--cherry tomatoes are frequently quite satisfactory even in the off-months. The tomatoes, once they've been gently roasted, become concentrated in flavor, and the slight charring adds both flavor and sweetness. The garlic cloves and chile de arbol lend the dish a nice piquancy, and the fresh herbs add some brightness. With some good olive oil and maybe a bit of dried spices, the result is pasta heaven.

You'll notice that I called for a handful of fresh herbs, but did not specify any particular type of herb. I usually use basil, thyme, and oregano, and I've also found that parsley and a bit of rosemary work nicely. You could also try marjoram, sorrel, and savory. That's one of the things that I like so much about this recipe--you can use any herbs that you happen to have lying around, and the result will be delicious.

If you feel like being extra spiffy, you can grate some bottarga over the top before serving. Bottarga is the cured roe sack of a tuna or mullet, and it's highly prized in Italy. I recently aquired some because the fact that I had never tried it was driving me crazy. As to whether it was worth the price, the jury is still out--it tasted and smelled a bit like Nick's fish tank, but not in a bad way. I think that it will grow on me, and in any case, I was not going to be able to let the idea go until I tried it. If you feel like trying bottarga, or if you already have some, this is exactly the kind of dish with which it's usually eaten.

Pasta with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

Serves 2
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 7 garlic cloves, separated but unpeeled
  • 1 chile de arbol, broken in half
  • A handful of fresh herbs
  • 8 ounces pasta, the shape of your choice
  • Optional: Italian seasoning and red pepper flakes
  • Optional: Bottarga
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Slice each tomato in half and place them on a sheet pan that's been lined with foil or parchment. Toss with the olive oil, salt and pepper. Scatter the garlic cloves and chile de arbol in amongst the tomatoes.

Scatter the herbs over the tomatoes and roast in the center of the oven, until the tomatoes are shriveled and are brown at the edges, about 40 minutes. (Depending on the tomatoes, though, this can take 35-55 minutes.) The tomatoes will look something like this when they initially go into the oven.

When the tomatoes look like they're getting soft, put a large pot of salted water on to boil. Cook your pasta according to package directions. Drain and toss with 2 tablespoons olive oil and a heavy sprinkling of Italian seasoning and red pepper flakes, if you're using them.

Divide the pasta between two plates. Remove the garlic cloves and herbs from the tomatoes, and cover each bowl of pasta with half of the tomatoes. If desired, grate bottarga over each plate.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chicken Liver Pate with a Fig and Red Wine Compote

I've mentioned before that a lot of people in my family are big fans of chicken livers; when I brought a Daring Cook's pate recipe to a party, people claimed to love it even though it looked and tasted a bit like dog food. So when another family party came around, I decided that I wanted to attempt a chicken liver pate reprisal.

Some internet searching turned up an Epicurious recipe, which, once modified, produced almost exactly what I was looking for. This pate is smooth and sophisticated, not to mention delicious. Plus, it's super-easy to make, but if you don't tell people about that little fact, they'll probably think that you spent a few hours on it. You can even make it way ahead of time, freeze it, and then defrost it for impromptu dinner parties.

Chicken Liver Pate with a Fig and Red Wine Compote
(Adapted from Epicurious)
  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray
  • 1 pound chicken livers, trimmed
  • 1 cup canned low-salt chicken broth
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3 tablespoons Cognac
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon thyme leaves
  • 2 small pinches allspice
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 3/4 cup dried black Mission figs, cut in half
  • 1 large sprig fresh rosemary
  • Optional: 1/2 cup chopped toasted walnuts or pecans
  • 1 French-bread baguette, sliced, toasted if you like
Spray a 3-cup soufflé dish, a terrine, or 4 6-ounce ramekins (my preference) with vegetable oil spray. Line the dish or dishes with plastic wrap; spray plastic. Combine chicken livers, broth and onion in medium saucepan. Bring to boil, cover and simmer until livers are cooked through, stirring occasionally, about 12 minutes.

While the chicken livers simmer, bring wine, figs, rosemary, and 3 grinds of fresh black pepper to simmer in small saucepan. Simmer until figs soften, about 15 minutes. Remove the figs with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reduce the wine until it's a thick syrup, about 5 minutes (you'll probably have a tablespoon or two). Remove and discard the rosemary.

In a blender or in the bowl of a small food processor, puree the figs into a paste. Spoon the syrup into the bottom of the prepared dish or dishes, and spoon the figs over top.

Drain cooking liquid; transfer chicken livers and onion to food processor. Add butter, Cognac, salt, thyme, allspice, and 4 grinds of black pepper to processor. Puree until smooth. Spoon on top of the fig puree, and fold the plastic wrap down over the surface, or cover with more plastic wrap if there is not enough to fold over. Refrigerate at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.

Unmold pâté onto platter. If you're using the nuts, press them onto sides of pâté. Serve with toasts or bread.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ham and Spinach Lasagne

We couldn't decide what to get for dinner the other day, and we ended up buying some dry-cured ham. In the store, it looked like a teeny little ham, but it turned out to be two pounds. Now, two pounds is a lot when you're talking about a wet-cured ham (the only kind we had ever previously eaten), but it's a whole lot when you're talking about a rich, salty, dry-cured country ham.

On the ham's first night, we made a delicious Potato Gratin to go with it, but still had a lot left over. The leftovers made some delicious sandwiches, but I feared that the rest would go to waste. Some brain storming, though, led to the idea of a lasagne.

Now, lasagne is not one of my favorite foods. Yes, it's pasta and I love pasta, but I just don't love lasagne because it's generally heavy in a bad way (not a potato gratin way), the noodles are thick and goopy, and it's just not too interesting.

But I thought that very thin homemade egg noodles might nicely replace the thick, slimy noodles that are generally the undoing of a potentially good pasta dish. Not only would they be delicate and tasty, there would be no need to cook them in a pot of water. There would be no handling of molten hot ribbons of slipperiness, there would be no breakage of noodles, and there would be no messing around with the reportedly sub-par 'no-cook' lasagne sheets.

The other part of the heavyness problem, I thought, was the ricotta. I think that it's a stealth player, in that it seems innocuous enough and light enough, but secretly, it's adding more slimy, gunky heaviness to the dish. Homemade ricotta might be an improvement, but I just didn't have time for that. Therefore, there was to be no ricotta in this lasagne.

The third part of my lasagne plan involved doing away with the ubiquitous tomato sauce. There's nothing wrong with a tomato sauce, and I love tomato sauce, but I just didn't think that it would play nicely with the ham.

Therefore, this white lasagne recipe from Epicurious sounded perfect--no ricotta, no tomato, just a nice bechamel, and I basically made the printed recipe and added the ham and spinach. Like some of the reviewers of the original recipe mention, it is important to taste everything along the way--your bechamel should taste great before it's added to the dish. And don't do what I did and forget to add the flour to the butter before adding the liquids. That's what a bechamel is, and I managed to mess that part up.

Lastly, a lot of lasagne recipes call for eggs, and I've come to the conclusion that the eggs play the same role of saboteur as the ricotta. In fact, I felt like the eggs ruined my laborsome work of art. They turned a silky, beautiful bechamel into a curdly mess, and their flavor almost overwhelmed the more delicate flavor of the white sauce. Therefore, there are no eggs in the recipe printed below.

So mess-ups and all, this is now my answer to lasagne--thin, homemade noodles, a tasty bechamel, and some simple additions. The leftovers are delicious, and if you're expecting company, the lasagne can be assembled ahead of time and kept refrigerated until you're ready to start cooking; just add a few minutes to the cooking time.

Ham and Spinach Lasagne
(Partially adapted from Epicurious)

  • A one-pound bag of frozen spinach
  • One recipe homemade pasta
  • 1 cup finely diced cooked ham, or about 6 ounces prosciutto, diced
  • 3/4 cup minced  shallots
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon (freshly!) grated nutmeg
  • 3 3/4 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup dry Marsala or Sherry
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan-Reggiano
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon very good extra-virgin olive oil
Place the frozen spinach in a colander in the sink, and allow it to defrost. If it's taking forever to defrost, run some water over it and stir it all around occasionally.

Make the homemade pasta up to the point where it is wrapped in plastic wrap and allowed to rest. Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle.

Cook shallots in butter in a heavy large saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 4 minutes. Add flour and cook over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, 3 minutes. Add nutmeg, then slowly whisk in milk and stock.

Bring to a boil, whisking, then simmer, stirring occasionally, just until sauce lightly coats back of spoon, about 1 minute. Do this very slowly, as impatience can lead to a curdled and/or burnt sauce. Remove from heat and cool to warm, stirring occasionally. Stir in Marsala or Sherry, sea salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and 1/2 cup cheese. Be sure to taste the sauce at this point, and add more salt and pepper to taste.

While the sauce cools, squeeze as much water as possible out of the spinach. Place it in a large bowl and drizzle with the tablespoon olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste and toss until combined.

Divide the dough into about 6 pieces, and re-wrap the 5 that you will not be using immediately. With your plain roller set to the largest setting (lower number), pass the dough through once. Fold like a book (one flat piece in the back, and two pieces folded over on the sides so that they almost meet in the middle) and pass through again. Fold like a book and repeat 2 more times.

At this point, you want the pasta sheet to be almost as wide as the rollers, so that as the pasta is stretched further, it becomes as wide as the rollers. After the last time, send the pasta through as is. Then, put the roller on the next smallest setting and pass the dough through. Continue to do this on smaller and smaller settings until the pasta is the desired thickness. For this recipe, I used the smallest setting. You can also use the second-smallest setting if you want the noodles to be a little bit noticeable, as opposed to totally melted into the other parts of the lasagne. You'll have a very long sheet that you will cut to the length of your baking dish.

Spread about 1 1/4 cups sauce over bottom of an 11- by 8-inch baking dish. Sprinkle about a quarter of the spinach and a quarter of the ham over the sauce-it will be a rather sparse covering. Cut your pasta sheet to the appropriate length, and cover the sauce with as many sheets as necessary (you'll probably need 2).
Repeat layering 3 more times, then top with remaining sauce and remaining 1/2 cup cheese. (You might not need all of the pasta dough. If not, it can be rolled out, cut into noodles, and dried.) Bake, uncovered, until browned, 45 to 55 minutes.
Cooks' note: Sauce can be made 1 day ahead and chilled, covered (once cool).

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Potato Gratin

Have you ever noticed that a potato gratin and a cured ham make a lovely pairing? I highly recommend that you try it, perhaps for Christmas or another special occasion, or maybe for no occasion at all.

I generally save this dish for special occasions because au gratin potatoes are just too good, not to mention the fact that they're not particularly healthy. I love love love this side dish, and I completely lack self-control when in its presence. Seriously, I can eat 2 pounds of it, easy. 

There are times, though, when you just need to break out the special occasion dishes on a normal day, and we happened upon one of those occasions recently when we came home with a little dry-cured ham.
After some Epicurious-searching, I found what seemed to be the perfect potato gratin recipe for this particular night. It's rich and creamy, but because it contains mostly milk and only a little bit of cream, it's not too heavy or fatty. (We'll save the hard-core gratins for the holidays.) The flavors in this version are simple, but you still get that perfect creamy, nutmeg-y, toasty, potato-ey flavor.

So now that the weather is getting a little bit cooler, and some warming foods are in order, I highly suggest that you try these potatoes, whether it's a special day or just any old day.

Potato Gratin
(From Epicurious)

  • 3 pounds russet (Idaho) potatoes of uniform size
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 medium garlic clove, crushed through a press
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups half-and-half or milk
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
  • 4 tablespoons crème fraîche (optional)
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
Peel and wash the potatoes and slice them into rounds 1/8 inch thick, using a mandoline, the slicing disk of a food processor, or a sharp knife.

Generously butter a 9 by 12-inch heavy shallow baking dish, preferably earthenware or cast-enamel, or an oval gratin dish of comparable size. (You can also use a 12-inch cast-iron skillet.) Rub the dish with half of the crushed garlic.

In a large saucepan, bring the half-and-half to a simmer with the remaining garlic and season generously with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Arrange the potatoes in one overlapping layer on the bottom of the dish. Season the layer generously with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Arrange two more layers on top, seasoning each layer liberally. Press the layers down to compact them. Pour in enough half-and-half to come up just a little below the top layer of potatoes. Set the baking dish on a larger baking sheet, cover with foil, and bake until the potatoes feel tender when pierced with a knife, about 1 hour.

Raise the oven temperature to 425°F, remove the foil, and bake until the top begins to brown, about 10 minutes. Pour just enough cream to cover the top, dab it with crème fraîche, if using, and sprinkle evenly with the Parmesan. Bake until the top is brown and bubbly, 15 to 20 minutes more. Remove from the oven and let the potatoes stand for 10 minutes to absorb the cream. Cut into squares and serve.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Thomas Keller's Roast Chicken

There was a time when I didn't like roasted chicken. I'm not really sure why, but perhaps I had eaten only bland and unexceptional specimens up to that point. Or maybe what changed my mind was the common food writer's musings about roasted chicken as one of the litmus tests, like omelettes, that indicate a chef's skill.

Roasting a chicken, like making an omelette, is one of those things that anyone can do, technically, but it apparently takes some skill to do well--thus, the litmus test theory. Here's one of the many articles that ponder this eternal question in a much more eloquent fashion than my skills will allow.

Plus, a lot of chefs and food writers claim that a well-roasted chicken is the perfect meal, one that they'll take any day over fancier fare. I don't know about that, but I do know that a roasted chicken sometimes hits the spot, it makes for nice leftovers, and it's nice to have the carcasses for making stock.

When I decided that it was time to set out on the quest for the holy grail of the perfectly roasted chicken, I figured that Thomas Keller was a good place to start. In fact, he amusingly talks about learning to roast a chicken in the French Laundry Cookbook (it involves knife throwing).

This recipe, which has become my go-to recipe, came from Epicurious courtesy of Thomas Keller. Key points to note are the importance of trussing the chicken (the pictures show an improperly trussed chicken, so don't go by that), the importance of getting it really, really dry, and cooking it on high heat. 

Some recipes will tell you to stuff the bird with all kinds of stuff, rub all kinds of tediously chopped-up herbs under its skin, or to start at one temperature in one position, and later change to another temperature while flipping that really hot hunk of protein into another position. Ignore all that--simple is oftentimes best, as demonstrated by the Master Thomas Keller.

  • Thomas Keller's Favorite Simple Roast Chicken

  • One 2- to 3-pound farm-raised chicken
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Optional:
  • 2 teaspoons minced thyme
  • Unsalted butter
  • Dijon mustard

      Preheat the oven to 450°F. Rinse the chicken, then dry it very well with paper towels, inside and out. The less it steams, the drier the heat, the better.

      Salt and pepper the cavity, then truss the bird. Trussing is not difficult, and if you roast chicken often, it's a good technique to feel comfortable with. When you truss a bird, the wings and legs stay close to the body; the ends of the drumsticks cover the top of the breast and keep it from drying out. Trussing helps the chicken to cook evenly, and it also makes for a more beautiful roasted bird.

      (Here, here, and here are some web pages that explain how to do this. Pay no attention to my pictured trussing, as it is incorrect--it just works for me.)

      Now, salt the chicken—I like to rain the salt over the bird so that it has a nice uniform coating that will result in a crisp, salty, flavorful skin (about 1 tablespoon). When it's cooked, you should still be able to make out the salt baked onto the crisp skin. Season to taste with pepper.

      Place the chicken in a sauté pan or roasting pan and, when the oven is up to temperature, put the chicken in the oven. I leave it alone—I don't baste it, I don't add butter; you can if you wish, but I feel this creates steam, which I don't want. Roast it until it's done, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove it from the oven and add the thyme, if using, to the pan. Baste the chicken with the juices and thyme and let it rest for 15 minutes on a cutting board.

      Note: Make sure that your ventilation system is working well, as this cooking method can create a good deal of smoke. If you have an old potato laying around, you can slice it and put it in the bottom of the pan. This will result in lessening the amount of smoke, and you'll get some delicious but fatty roasted potatoes.

      Remove the twine. Separate the middle wing joint and eat that immediately. Remove the legs and thighs. I like to take off the backbone and eat one of the oysters, the two succulent morsels of meat embedded here, and give the other to the person I'm cooking with. But I take the chicken butt for myself. I could never understand why my brothers always fought over that triangular tip—until one day I got the crispy, juicy fat myself. These are the cook's rewards.

      Cut the breast down the middle and serve it on the bone, with one wing joint still attached to each. The preparation is not meant to be superelegant. Slather the meat with fresh butter. Serve with mustard on the side and, if you wish, a simple green salad. You'll start using a knife and fork, but finish with your fingers, because it's so good.