Friday, December 28, 2007

Ina Garten's Vegetable Pot Pie

L, Argos
and I have had a blissful week of vacation, in which we've had good, relaxing fun with friends and family, slept ridiculously late, and experimented with new dishes.

I've been itching to try recipes that are a bit more time-consuming, or at least more unusual, than our regular weekday fare, and L's mom gave me inspiration in the form of a copy of Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa Parties! cookbook for Christmas. I love the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks- her recipes taste fabulous, and they always come out beautifully on the first try.

Last night, we tackled Ina's recipe for Vegetable Pot Pie. We both grew up eating very little in the way of classic American dishes, and neither of us have tried pot pie in any form, so I was really intrigued by this recipe.

My original idea was to make something meatless and chock full of nutritious vegetables, since we've been eating so much rich holiday food lately; however, I soon discovered that this pot pie contains a stunning amount of butter, so the idea that we were making something really healthy quickly went out the window. I did feel a bit better about everything when I realised that we'd added enough vegetables to at least triple the recipe- we ended up with one giant pot pie that completely filled our 6 3/4 quart Le Creuset wide dutch oven, leaving just enough room for the thick crust (eek!).

As we used only what we have on hand from our winter farm share, we omitted the asparagus and increased the amounts of all other vegetables in the original recipe to somewhere between 2-3 cups each. To that, we added approximately 2-3 cups each sliced leeks and roughly chopped celeriac, rutabagas, and parsnips. I doubled all sauce ingredients except the butter, and I also forgot to add the cream, but it worked out beautifully and was rich enough without, so I think I'll omit the cream and decrease the butter in the sauce from now on.

Since we made one large pot pie, I baked it for an hour and 20 minutes, covering the crust halfway through baking (for about 20 minutes total) with aluminum foil to prevent over-browning. A cookie sheet, placed under the oven rack to catch errant sauce drips, helped tremendously with cleanup.

While this vegetable pot pie is time consuming (especially in the vegetable prep department) and rich enough that I wouldn't make it every weekend, we were both very pleased with the results. The vegetables were tender without being mushy, and I was happy to discover that they retained their distinct textures and flavours, despite being cooked together for so long. The sauce was wonderfully thick, velvety and satisfyingly savoury without being overly floury, and the pastry crust was a beautiful golden brown on top, airy and tender underneath, and thick enough to provide a foil for the tender vegetables.

Overall, we both agreed that this was a success- a very comforting and satisfying winter dish!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Scottish Pies

I love this!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve

"And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled 'till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?" -Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss)

Today, in true Czech style, so that we might see a zlaté prasátko (golden pig), we will eat nothing and drink only tea until we enjoy a big Christmas Eve dinner. Some Czechs just avoid meat during the day, but this year we're going whole hog (har har)- or at least attempting to- in order to see what happens!

When we were younger, my sister and I swore that it was only the hunger hallucinations that produced golden pigs, and perhaps we were more correct than we knew! Despite the fact that she and I thought it all very silly at the time, I've come to appreciate just how comforting family traditions can be, especially around the holidays.

In the early evening, we will head to L's parent's home for a big family gathering and the celebratory Feast of the Seven Fishes- since they're simplifying things this year, it will be stuffed squid and homemade pizza, and, as always, an array of fabulous desserts. To me, it's not really Christmas without a big celebration on December 24th, so I am thrilled that we'll be able to take part in the Italian festivities this year.

Late tonight, we come home with the puppers to open a few presents in honour of Czech Christmas. We'll end the night very late, with the most decadent hot chocolate we can concoct and my favourite Christmas movie: How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Then, it's off to bed so that Santa has a chance to deposit the rest of the presents under the tree (I'd better set my alarm clock for early that morning so I have a chance to... erm... help Santa out)!

To my family and anyone who will celebrate Christmas tonight: Veselé Vánoce! I wish you all a very warm and merry holiday!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Baked French Toast

Due to a happy set of circumstances this year, we were lucky enough to spend many of our weekends with friends. When our lives get really busy, it's easy to forget how comforting and rejuvenating it is to share long, leisurely meals with good friends; I especially love breakfasts, with everyone in cozy pajamas and robes, rumpled hair (sometimes sticking out at all angles, or in my case, long and tangled), steaming mugs of coffee and tea warming cold hands, and a satisfying meal to start the day.

When we have house guests, I like to minimize the amount of energy-intensive breakfast cooking we do in the mornings by relying on dishes that can be assembled the night before: sweet bread puddings, savoury stratas, and conventional recipes that have been tweaked to make sleepy mornings just a bit less hectic. If you've got house guests this holiday season, it's a great time to fall back on something this simple for breakfast.

One dish that has been particularly successful in our house is a recipe for Baked French Toast that I found in The Gourmet Cookbook. We love to make it with challah or brioche, and since both types of bread come most often in large, thick loaves, I increase the amount of custard by at least 50% to ensure that there is enough liquid to moisten every slice of bread. I especially love it when a few edges get a bit toasted and caramelized!

Like its pan-cooked sibling, baked french toast is fabulous served with just about anything: maple syrup, fresh berries, sugar and lemon juice, Nutella, or any kind of jam (I highly recommend Damson Plum and Sweet Crabapple Preserves). A heaping platter of bacon served alongside never hurts, either.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Winter Solstice

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!!

- Susan Cooper, The Shortest Day

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Menu for Hope 4

I know I'm a bit late to the party, but while there's still time to donate, I wanted to throw in a quick post about the Menu for Hope 4 campaign going on over at Chez Pim.

In the interest of making this short and sweet, I'll cut and paste some basic info from the lovely Pim's site so you can learn more (see below)!

Happily, you still have time to donate to a great cause, and you'll have a chance at some of those wonderful, generous treats- you have until December 21 (this Friday) to buy tickets, and the results will be announced on Wednesday, January 9, 2008 at Chez Pim.

In this world of plentiful food for the lucky and so little- sometimes nothing at all- for so, so many more, no one should have to go hungry.

What are you waiting for?


What is Menu for Hope?

Menu for Hope is an annual fundraising event in support of the UN World Food Programme. Five years ago, the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia inspired me to find a way to help, and the very first Menu for Hope was born. In 2006, Menu for Hope raised US$60,925.12 to help the UN World Food Programme feed the hungry.

Each year, food bloggers from all over the world join forces to host the Menu for Hope online raffle, offering an array of delectable culinary prizes. For every US$10, the donor receive a virtual raffle ticket toward a prize of their choice. This year, the prizes include once in a lifetime experiences such as touring the elBulli laboratory with Ferran Adrià , dining on a historic British meal prepared by Heston Blumenthal, or joining Harold McGee on a lunch date to satisfy a lifetime's worth of cooking curiosity. You can also tag along with your favorite blogger on a tour of their favorite markets, restaurants, or even receive a care package fashioned especially for you from your favorite bloggers themselves. All you need is $10 and a bit of luck.

We may never eradicate hunger from the face of the earth, but why should that stop us from trying?

Who benefits from Menu for Hope 4?

Wfplogosmall This year for the 4th annual Menu for Hope, we are again supporting the UN World Food Programme. WFP is the world’s largest food aid agency, working with over 1,000 other organizations in over 75 countries. In addition to providing food, the World Food Program helps hungry people to become self-reliant so that they escape hunger for good.

With a special permission from the WFP, the funds raised by Menu for Hope 4 will be earmarked for the school lunch program in Lesotho, Africa. We chose to support the school lunch program because providing food for the children not only keeps them alive, but helps them stay in school so that they learn the skills to feed themselves in the future.

We chose to support the program in Lesotho because it is a model program in local procurement - buying food locally to support local farmers and the local economy. Instead of shipping surplus corn across the ocean, the WFP is buying directly from local subsistent farmers who practice conservation farming methods in Lesotho to feed the children there.

We feed the kids, keep them in school, and support their parents and community farming. This sustainable approach to aid is something we believe in and strongly support.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Christmas Cookies: New England Molasses Gingerbread Cookies

I absolutely despise molasses (no shoofly pie for me, thanks), but for some reason, when the strong molasses flavour is tempered by aromatic spices and the gentle heat of ginger, as it is in gingerbread, I'm in heaven.

I think this has quite a lot to do with my paternal grandmother. When I was a child, my Bohemian babička, or Czech grandmother, and her Czech friends would get together in their Chicago kitchens during the holiday season, and together they would bake and decorate amazingly delectable, incredibly gorgeous perniky, or Czech gingerbread cookies. The icing was always pure, snowy white, and if I was lucky, I'd find tiny silver nonpareils sprinkled strategically over the lines and swirls of icing.

At the end of November, the perniky would arrive at our house, carefully packed between layers of pristine white tissue paper, in a wide, flat, white pâtisserie pastry box beautifully tied up with twine. For some reason, my grandmother used only twine- never, ever scotch tape- when she wrapped gifts. I've never got the hang of that particular skill.

Once I knew the cookies had arrived, I'd beg and plead with my mother, but to no avail- I was allowed only one cookie each day leading up to Christmas Eve- the day Czechs celebrate Christmas. At the time, I thought it supremely unreasonable, but now that I've learned how much work really goes into decorated cookies, I understand her thinking. Treats this time-consuming to make should be savoured slowly and appreciatively, even by greedy five-year-olds!

For some stupid reason, I never thought to ask for the perniky recipe while my grandmother was alive- perhaps they do taste better when made with mysterious ingredients by a grandma- and I've been looking for a comparable recipe ever since she passed away. Even more frustrating is the fact that I have a book of her recipes that was discovered by my father and given to me last Christmas, but so far I haven't been able to find her gingerbread cookies amid the pages and pages of recipes written in her tiny, perfectly elegant script.

Luckily, while browsing online collections of Christmas cookie recipes in November, I came across
Bon Appétit's recipe for New England Molasses Gingerbread Cookies and saw that a few reviewers likened them to traditional German Pfeffernüsse and Lebkuchen. I knew at once that this recipe would be a good place to start.

The dough was soft and a bit tricky to work with, but it was also fairly forgiving and much easier to handle when I worked in small amounts, leaving the rest to chill in the 'fridge. I used regular (not robust or blackstrap) molasses, doubled the spices, and added a few good shakes (probably about a teaspoon each) of allspice and nutmeg to the mix. I also used Dorie Greenspan's Royal Icing recipe, which immediately became my new favourite- the icing was incredibly easy to pipe smoothly, stayed pliable in the pastry bag for at least a few hours, and hardened to a gorgeously snowy white, durable, faintly citrus finish with just the right amount of sweetness.

I used a few favourite cookie cutter shapes, including the traditional lucky Czech zlaté prasátko (golden Christmas pig) in two different sizes: medium-sized 2-3 inch and tiny 1-inch diameter. Decorating them took a long time, but once you get into a rhythm, everything goes quickly and smoothly (though I did have to take breaks to stretch out my arms and hands). Having a glass of wine on hand definitely helps, too.

The day I baked them, the gingerbread cookies were crisp and tasty, with a lovely blend of spices that intensified after the first bite. I was happy with them, but admitted to myself that something was missing- they weren't quite what I remembered. As most gingerbread needs a bit of time to improve, however, I hoped that these might as well, and I was not disappointed. A few days later, they had softened considerably to a more cake-like crumb, the spices noticeably more intense and complex- a flavour, when mingled with the sweet crunch of the icing, very, very much like my grandmother's perniky. I have rediscovered my childhood addiction, and in case you can't tell, these are the Christmas cookies of which I am most proud!

I've since found Czech gingerbread recipes online that include rum, coffee, honey, and ground spices like mace, star anise, aniseed, black pepper and coriander. I'm tempted to give other combinations a try, but am thrilled that I have a solid recipe to rely on each year! I suspect they'll never be quite as perfect as they are in my memories, but isn't that always the case?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Christmas Cookies: Pecan Fingers

Christmas is that time of year when we, like so many other people, pull out all the stops when it comes to sweets. Into cookies and cakes go dark, rich Valrhona and Ghirardelli chocolate bars and cocoa powder, fragrant roasted nuts, shiny glaceed fruits, sticky sweet dates and dried figs, glittering candied citrus peel, spicy crystallized ginger, syrupy-thick molasses, local wildflower honey, Madagascar Bourbon vanilla, vibrantly yellow farm eggs (so tasty that we won't buy anything else), creamy, rich bars of European-style butter, butter and more butter...

In spite of my adoration for all these luscious ingredients, we don't often eat desserts at home, save the few times throughout the year when I get the urge to bake. I certainly can bake reasonably well (i.e. I can follow instructions of well-written recipes), but I have to be in a baking mood to really enjoy it.

Our friend Ida, on the other hand, is absolutely, positively, without a doubt a baking queen. She's an amazing, intuitive baker, and I am in love with her strawberry cheesecake (best made, it turns out, with a cocktail in hand) and carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. When we're lucky, she sends us home with sweets, but alas, it's always too dark to get decent pictures, and the yummy goodness is always gone in a flash anyway.

In any case, I do get the urge to bake like mad during the Christmas season. Spicy, citrusy, chocolaty- whatever the flavour, intense sweet aromas waft through the warm house. There is something so comforting about a warm kitchen full of tempting scents. Happily, I still have the energy for some intense cookie baking, so last night, I tested my fourth Christmas cookie recipe: Pecan Fingers or Puckle Warts.

When I was forming the pecan fingers, I couldn't help but notice that they looked more like shiny, pecan-studded baby... well, I won't say it. It's a bit gross, albeit somewhat amusing. I guess I'm not that good at forming cookies into appetizing log shapes. Is that even possible? Anyone?

With all that butter, too, I wondered how the cookies would hold up to being rolled between warm hands and baked in the oven for such a long time. Is one inch of space between the cookies really enough? Would they spread out too much? I'm glad to report that they came out exactly as described in the recipe, partially due, I am sure, to the long chilling time (I chilled them overnight out of necessity) and low, low baking heat.

The Pecan Fingers turned out to be absolutely, wonderfully addictive- oh my goodness, they are that good- with a light, shortbread-like buttery texture, fabulous honey undercurrent, nutty crunch that complements the crisp dough quite nicely, and a lingering sweetness from the double dustings of light, powdery confectioner's sugar. The dough is very easy to mix up, too- especially so if you have any kind of electric mixer.

The flame-coloured Le Creuset terrine mold my mom gave me a few years ago (I got lucky here- she was given two at her 1972 wedding to my father!), lined with a bit of waxed paper and clingfilm, is a perfectly-sized storage container for a few cookies short of one full batch- a convenient excuse for some taste testing, no?

I'm thrilled with another very successful recipe, and am very glad that, once again, Epicurious reviewers came through with reliable ratings and advice!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas Cookies: Mint Chocolate Cookies

As you may have noticed, I often rely on recipes. Sometimes I tweak them until I feel like they've really become quite a bit more mine, if that makes sense, with grateful thanks to the person who provided the original recipe and a solid a jumping-off point. Other times, I end up adoring recipes as they are, perhaps with a few minor changes or additions, and I just want to tell everyone about this great! new! recipe! that I've found.

Not very original in the end, perhaps, but I'm finding that this blog has turned into a great way to share recipes with friends, as well as document my own experiments and newly discovered favourites for myself, too.

On that note, I discovered a few great Christmas cookie recipes this weekend. I printed out a pile of choices earlier in the week, and on Saturday morning L and I narrowed down the list to six recipes we wanted to try the most and headed out to buy extra whole wheat flour (it's always King Arthur flour in this house), molasses, confectioner's sugar and peppermint extract.

First, I made another batch of the Molasses Crinkles, since the first batch has been flying out of the cookie tin; then, I mixed up a batch of Mint Chocolate Cookies from the December 2000 volume of Bon Appétit.

The Mint Chocolate Cookies are soft and rich, and the light cocoa crumb and fabulous, clear peppermint note are reminiscent of Girl Scout cookie Thin Mints. I increased the peppermint extract to 3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) and drizzled the cooled cookies with melted bittersweet chocolate, which took about 2 hours to cool and harden. They were a bit crumbly the day I baked them, but since then they have taken on a bit more brownie-like moisture. Some reviewers recommend cutting out 1/2 cup of the flour, and while the cookies are fabulous as is, I might give that a try with the next batch to see if they get even better!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

O Christmas Tree!

Every year, L and I have the same argument: he wants a short, small Christmas tree, and I want a gigantic, towering, fat one. As with all our arguments I'm in the right, of course (wink!)- after all, what's the point of having a tree if you're not going to go all out? I know there's the issue of the tree actually fitting through the front door, but in my mind, it's to-hell-with-logic! on this one.

Unfortunately for me, our apartment most decidedly isn't the same as a huge house well-suited to enormous Christmas trees, and I have to help carry the tree up the long flight of switchback stairs leading from our front door/small foyer to the rest of the apartment, so I let a little of L's common sense take over. This year, our compromise was to get a tall (8.5 foot), nicely tapered, relatively slender fir tree. I don't know why we haven't gone this route before (surely it can't be my own stubbornness!)- the best spot for the tree isn't terribly large circumference-wise, but we do have high 1920s ceilings, so this solution is a perfect fit.

We tried something new in the species realm, too, and went for a Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) instead of our usual Balsam or Douglas Fir. The branches feel very strong, and in daylight the needles have a lovely silvery-blue sheen. We were told that the Fraser Fir isn't as fragrant as other firs, but I don't know if I believe it- this tree gives off a gorgeously clean, piney fragrance that wafts all the way to the front door.

When we graduated college and moved in together, we didn't have any Christmas ornaments to speak of, and with the vast array of choices out there, I couldn't decide which new ones I'd be sure to like both now and down the road. Both of our families have boxes of sentimental-value ornaments that have been collected over the years, too, and somehow it seemed so fake to put a whole slew of shiny new decorations, bought solely because we couldn't think of anything else to use, on our tree.

I'm not sure where I got this idea, but in the middle of this internal debate, I decided I'd decorate the tree with origami cranes-both individually strung and in garlands- and perhaps slowly start collecting other ornaments for future use, too. Well, that was four Christmases ago, and I ended up adoring the cranes so much that I haven't given a moment's thought to buying anything else!

I'm not at 1,000 cranes yet, but I'm sure I'll get there soon at this rate- I'm now addicted to the small packages of lovely origami papers we find at a local Japanese housewares shop next door to our favourite- of 11 years, no less- lunch café, where it's always gyudon for me and yakidon (spicy beef bowl) for L. Actually, that reminds me that we haven't been there in a few weeks, and I'm ready to make a few more cranes before our holiday vacation sneaks up on us! What could be better than yummy takeout and a stack of fresh, crisp origami papers?

Monday, December 3, 2007

Christmas Cookies: Molasses Crinkles

For as long as I can remember, I've had a close fondness for the Czech Christmas cookies I grew up eating from the beginning of December through New Years Eve and into January. I'm sure it's partially due to the fabulous cookies themselves, and part warm and fuzzy attachment to familiar, comforting traditions.

Every year at the end of November, heavy balls of both pale and dark doughs, wrapped tightly in waxed paper, pile up in the fridge; during weekends, the sweet smells of beautiful, delicious, and always tiny cookies and confections waft through the house.

There are always many different flavours and cookie types to savour, though the yearly lineup, specific to each family and passed down through generations of Czech women, generally remains the same in each household. Of course, I've always particularly loved the sweets that appear on my family's cookie platters: confections like crumbly, cocoa-brown Bear Paws dotted with crunchy walnuts, moist Almond Baskets brimming with sticky, nutty filling, sugary Beehives piped full of fluffy pastry cream, potent rum-spiked Chocolate Balls, thin Fig Salami slices peppered with dried figs and glaceed fruits, and my absolute favourites: Linecke Kolačky, which are very much like Linzer cookies, filled with a thin, sparkling layer of raspberry jam and glistening with a shiny, egg-washed surface.

To me, Christmas is not the same without those Czech cookies. But, in the interest of expanding my own repertoire, I am always looking for outstanding additions to the usual lineup. This year, I turned to one of my favourite sources: Epicurious. I am always drawn to the collections of cookie recipes that Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines publish each winter, even though I know, in reality, that I will never find time to test all of the recipes I drool over each November.

I do, however, manage to narrow down my long, unmanageable dream list and try a few recipes, and last night I made my first test batch of Christmas cookies: Molasses Crinkles from the December 2004 volume of Gourmet. Because I, like my mom, absolutely love ginger in all forms, I took the advice of a few reviewers: I doubled the amount of ground ginger and added 1/2 cup of chopped crystallized ginger to the dough. I also baked the cookies for 9 minutes total- at 10 minutes, the cookies wavered between chewy and very crisp, depending on how soon I was able to get to the oven after the timer beeped.

Just as I'd hoped, these treats completely satisfy my ginger cookie cravings, and L and I were both really happy with how well the recipe turned out on the first try. I'll be surprised if this batch lasts more than a week! The cookies have a chewy center and crisp edges- the effect you typically get when you add butter and vegetable shortening to cookie dough- a great spiced ginger heat, and a delicious crackly sugar surface (L loves a crunchy sprinkling of sugar on baked goods, so I knew this aspect would really appeal to him). Molasses Crinkles are definitely going in my permanent Christmas recipe collection!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Basic Tomato Sauce

Making tomato sauce from scratch is almost as easy as boiling water, and we think it tastes better than anything you can buy in a jar. It's surprisingly economical, too.

Hot cocoa aside (made with Chocolate Malt Ovaltine, which I still love), this tomato sauce was the first thing I cooked entirely on my own from start to finish. I was 7 years old, or thereabouts, when I discovered the recipe in The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan, and my wonderfully patient, indulgent mom ate many, "I want to cook tonight!" pasta-and-sauce suppers once I learned to make it reasonably well.

I must point out here that I absolutely, positively love Marcella Hazan. When I was a child, she made me feel completely at ease in the kitchen; as an adult, I've learned to rely on her for recipes which actually work (if you've had seemingly manageable recipes fail miserably, you'll know how comforting this is) and taste fabulous each and every time.

I still make this sauce, though L has mostly taken over the process, and we've made a few small changes along the way. To make things easier, and because the quality of fresh tomatoes can vary wildly, we take Marcella's advice and rely on San Marzano canned tomatoes, which are reliably consistent in taste and texture.

If you're making the sauce for pasta, toss pasta and sauce in a warm bowl as soon as the pasta is done. If you're making this sauce for pizza, spread a thin layer over the dough and top as you like. Of course, you can also use this in any recipe that calls for tomato sauce. For a change of pace, stir in a few tablespoons of chopped basil leaves for a bright, fresh taste that's fabulous on pizza, or add 1/4 cup heavy cream for a decadent sauce that is especially good over stuffed pasta. Add these additional ingredients as soon as you take the finished sauce off the heat.

Once you've tried it, it will come as no surprise that this has always been one of my very favourite recipes.

Basic Tomato Sauce
Adapted from The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan

1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
2 medium yellow onions, sliced or chopped as you wish*
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt to taste (this will depend on the saltiness of your tomatoes)
Pinch of sugar**

Pour tomatoes, onions, and sugar into a nonreactive pot. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then cover the pot and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent burning, until the onions are soft (usually 40-45 minutes).

Uncover the sauce and stir in the butter or olive oil. Taste and correct for salt, then simmer uncovered for another 10 minutes. Use as you wish.

* If you want to keep the onions in the sauce, finely dice or roughly chop them. If you prefer to discard them (per the original recipe), cut the whole onions into halves, simmer them in the sauce, and remove when the sauce is done.

** Thank you, Lesha!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Baked Brie with Caramelized Onions + Happy Thanksgiving!

Well, it seems that my plans for posting Thanksgiving recipes were soundly thwarted by this nasty cold, which seems to be lingering far longer than winter sickness usually does. It's going away veeerrry slowly and so far is keeping me from getting a good night's rest, which means that I'm having trouble thinking coherently about cooking and parties and holiday fun.

This week, my thoughts have been more along the lines of, "why can't I sleep... I really just want to sleep... must blow nose again... owch, nose is so raw... why can't we have nicer tissues at work... how many more mugs of tea and soup can I handle before I break down and go searching for some really good French fries... milkshakes are good for sore throats, right?... urg, brain hurts, must lie down..."

The good news is that we hard our first lovely, gently swirling snowfall of the season a few days ago, which lifted my spirits considerably, despite the fact that the snowflakes didn't actually stick to anything!

I can, however, manage to post one recipe that I love to make during the holidays: baked brie with caramelized onions. It's a perfectly balanced, velvety mix of warm, creamy brie and savoury-sweet, intensely flavoured onions. Without fail, it gets rave reviews; everyone always wants the recipe, and whenever we ask what to bring to the next party, the answer always seems to be, "the baked brie!"

We'll bring the baked brie to the feast at L's parents' house, along with some fabulous olives from Provence that may or may not be made into tapenade tomorrow morning. We usually try to bring more dishes to share, but since we're both sick and brain dead, I'm glad that we made it this far, and I'm especially thankful that we both have Friday off from work!

Clearly, I didn't create this recipe, though as always I tweak it a bit. I use a little less than one 750 ml bottle of white wine, adding it in 1/2 cup increments to deglaze every 10 minutes or so. I go through this cycle a few times, at least, while the onions get darker and more fragrant. I also cook the onions at medium heat for 45 minutes to an hour, until they are soft, salty-sweet, caramel-brown and and wonderfully sticky. In any case, you can't go wrong by following the recipe to the letter, either- this will still be one of the best appetizers you'll ever eat.

Next year, barring any similarly nasty colds, I'll have more recipes to post. This year, I wish everyone happiness, good food, long walks and warm company. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Thanksgiving Planning

Wow, it's been a long time since I've posted anything! Work has been particularly exhausting, daylight hours are short (I need to learn more about indoor photography pronto!), and it's dark and stormy out at least once a week. On top of all that, L and I are both at home today with rain spattering hard against the windows, steaming mugs of tea (Plantation Mint for him, Twinings Prince of Wales for me), a very warm and snuggly pup, and some kind of nasty flu. Clearly, life is trying to kick my ass right now.

The good news is that quiet days like this inspire me to get ready for upcoming holidays! With that in mind, I've spent some time this month poking through a few reliable sources for Thanksgiving inspiration.

The New York Times has an entire food section devoted to Thanksgiving dining. If you haven't already, I recommend taking a minute to sign up for login privileges- it's free, the Dining and Wine section is often a good read, and they don't fill up your inbox with annoying messages. This week's Thanksgiving articles are at best insightful and inspiring (mashed potatoes aren't as complicated as some people like to think and save-the-day vegetarian entrees- see column on the right for recipes), and at worst interesting breakfast reading (As Six Turkeys Tussle for a Title, Degrees Challenge Pedigrees).

As always, the Epicurious Complete Thanksgiving Guide and the Food Network's Thanksgiving section are both great resources, especially if you have time to read recipe reviews, though I don't recommend bothering with the "I substituted grapefruit juice for the wine, collard greens for the turkey, peppermint extract for the herbs and baking soda for the shallots, and it came out awful. This recipe is terrible" type reviews. As you might imagine, they're not terribly helpful, though I'll admit that they are often highly amusing!

And of course, the usual blogging suspects have started posting holiday recipes left and right (don't vegan pumpkin whoopie pies sound good?). I'd bet good money that they've been tested and retested, tried out on friends and critiqued in comments sections by devoted readers, so you know they'll be stars at your Thanksgiving (and/or holiday) table!

If you're interested in learning about how Thanksgiving celebrations have evolved, I recommend reading Giving Thanks by Kathleen Curtin and Sandra L. Oliver. Kathleen Curtin is the resident food historian at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts (what a cool job, eh?!) , and the book profiles the recipes and history of Thanksgiving from the first celebration to present day traditions.

I'll be narrowing down my list of recipes and making grocery lists soon, and I'm sure that at least some of you will be doing the same. I'll try to post some of my own recipe suggestions and reviews soon!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Peanut Butter Dog Cookies

Some of you, or perhaps many of you, will remember the pet food scare the US experienced over the summer. The Science Diet and Evo foods that we give our pup Argos never appeared on the recall list, for which we were grateful and relieved. Even though our household was lucky enough to make it through the summer without incident, since then we've been extra careful about everything we give him.

I've made special-occasion meals for Argos before*, but for some reason, I'd never made everyday treats for him until last Sunday evening. We'd run out of his usual Science Diet biscuits without realizing it, and neither of us had the energy to run out for more. We had a jar of peanut butter in the pantry, which is odd, because L and I generally loathe peanut butter (our friend I's peanut butter cookies being the delicious exception). In any case, I realised that homemade dog treats would be a good way to simultaneously please us by using up the peanut butter, and thrill Argos by giving it all to him!

I found a few recipes online, but didn't love the sound of anything in particular, so I experimented with a few different recipes until I hit on a combination that satisfied all three of us. Yep, for the sake of learning something about experimental baking, L and I suffered through enough peanut butter to taste each batch between tweakings! Since our dog will eat, literally, just about anything- large chunks of wasabi and ice cubes included- I wanted to be sure that we turned out something more than a dry, faintly-flavoured cracker.

If you can turn on your oven, you can make these. I'm not always great with doughs that require a rolling pin, though for the first time in my life I seem to be improving on that front, which is why I haven't yet gotten around to buying cookie cutters. However, if I can make these, so can you. I used a small cordial glass to cut these out, and it worked beautifully; if you have a larger dog, you can certainly use a bigger glass or cookie cutter.

L's mom makes dog biscuits for Argos all the time, and he absolutely loves them. I don't know why we didn't try this earlier- they're very easy to make, surprisingly economical, dogs love peanut butter, and it's comforting that I can control exactly what goes into the pup's treats. These cookies have a fairly moist crumb, too, so if you have a small dog, you can easily break them apart for training purposes.

Argos' Peanut Butter Cookies
makes appx. 150 (1-inch) treats

2 cups whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup natural
chunky peanut butter
2 large eggs
1/2 cup skim milk or chicken broth

1 large egg, beaten well (for egg wash)

Preheat your oven to 375'F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a standing mixer or large bowl, beat two eggs and peanut butter until well mixed. Add milk or broth and beat for 30 seconds.

In another bowl, sift together flour and baking powder. With mixer running or while stirring, add flour and baking powder mixture to wet ingredients in 1/2 cup increments until well incorporated.

On floured surface, turn out the dough. Roll out to 1/4" thick. Cut out using cookie cutters or a sturdy drinking glass.
Place on baking sheets and brush with egg wash.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned. Place on racks to cool, then store in airtight containers.

These can spoil quickly, so it's a good idea to keep most of them in the freezer, taking out handfuls (or bowlfuls) to thaw as you need them.

* Since proper dog nutrition is a tricky business, I would not recommend switching your dog to a fully-homemade diet until you've consulted a canine nutritionist and/or other trusted sources.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Clothilde Dusoulier's Carbonades Flamandes/Flemish Carbonades

When you have invited company over for a meal, the weather is crisp and cool, and you don't want to be running around like a crazy person the day of the party, repeat after me: braises are your friends.

Braises, which tenderize meat through slow, gentle cooking in liquid, call for inexpensive and flavourful cuts of meat, are really hard to screw up (no fiddly timing or techniques), provide vegetables, protein and luscious sauce all in one pot, improve overnight, and please everyone at the table.

An earlier date in October marked L's parents' 35th wedding anniversary, so of course we invited them over for a celebratory dinner. Deciding what to make for a dinner like this inevitably leads me to internal struggle... do I go with something safe and perhaps a bit ordinary, or gamble on something new and both potentially fabulous and potentially a disastrous failure?

Thankfully, I found a solution. After flipping through a few cookbooks, I settled on Clotilde Dusoulier's recipe for
Carbonades Flamandes/Flemish Carbonades for the main course (you can read an interesting history of carbonades at her blog, Chocolate & Zucchini). We all love its southern cousin, boeuf bourguignon, and braises are very easy to tweak and equally tough to ruin, so I thought that this, with cups and cups of caramelized onions and Belgian amber ale, was a perfect fall version of sorts.

When we bought the stew beef, we purchased chuck blade steaks and asked the butcher to cut them into stewing cubes, to make sure that the meat we would be eating had stayed as fresh as possible for as long as possible. Since I very firmly believe that braises taste even better the day after they're made, I made the carbonades the night before, and I'm surprised that we didn't devour the entire contents of the pot that evening! For three hours, divine smells swirled through the house, the dog sniffed hopefully with his nose high in the air*, and every few minutes I found myself wanting yet another taste- strictly for testing purposes, of course.

Carbonades is traditionally served with pommes frites, so to save time and sanity, I served it with crispy oven-roasted potatoes, which turned out to be an equally delicious complement. Alongside roasted root vegetables (can you tell I was in a roasting mood?!), an arugula, walnut and blue cheese salad, an assortment of Belgian ales and raspberry lambic to drink, and a caramel apple cake for dessert, we had a fabulous, satisfying autumn meal.

One of the best aspects of this party was that we were able to do the vegetable prep, carbonades cooking and cake baking the day before, giving me the chance to spend time with everyone and actually enjoy the day of the meal!

The carbonades itself turned out spectacular- the meat was so tender that we hardly needed knives, the sauce was unctuous and velvety, and everyone had seconds. A few of us even had thirds! I'm always thrilled to find recipes that turn out so scrumptious on the first try- thank you, Clothilde!

* For the record, the pup really, really liked this dish... not that we gave him a small bowlful or anything.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hallowe'en Night

A perfect night for a dark n' stormy!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Crispy Oven-roasted Potatoes

"What I say is that, if a fellow really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow."
A. A. Milne (1882-1956)

Everyone has a few odd food preferences, myself included. My mom introduced me to the joys of bread with chocolate, something that usually gets me funny looks in the States, though I don't know anyone who would turn down a buttery chocolate croissant. We always keep plain yogurt in the 'fridge, so that I can snack on yogurt swirled with a dollop or two of preserves... or grape jelly. This revelation always gets me a skeptical expression, but really, both are fabulous combinations!

I also love potatoes in every possible form (I wonder if this is my Slavic heritage coming through), which means that I absolutely and completely adore- and yes, I freely admit this- tater tots. I've been known to keep a five-pound bag of them at all times in the freezer. They have to be super crispy, though, so I bake them a bit longer than directed. Fellow potato lovers understand this, but it's another thing that, without fail, draws funny looks from people who might not share my adoration for the Solanum tuberosum. L used to make fun of me for this, but then he actually tried a tater tot, and lately he's been known to sneak a few off my plate.

The potato has a fascinating history. The Incas cultivated them for sustenance and medicinal purposes, which included placing slices of potato on injuries such as broken bones to assist the healing process. Until much later, Europeans considered potatoes poisonous to humans and suitable only for hog feed, when instead, like many other members of the Solanaceae/Nightshade family, it's the the leaves and stems that are deadly. The sly, ingenious antics of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier successfully introduced the potato to the French, and eventually ensured that not all of France starved to death during multiple country-wide famines. On the other hand, his fellow Frenchmen Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and Denis Diderot both wrote that the potato had only one purpose- as a safeguard against famine in desperate times.

In any case, tater tots aren't exactly something that I serve to company, so I also rely on an easy, satisfying recipe that my mom makes often: crispy roasted potatoes. I've read recipes that have you parboil the potatoes or go through some other extra, fiddly step(s), but I don't find that any of those things are necessary. Just make sure that potato quarters are similarly-sized and keep an eye on them during cooking to prevent burning, and you will end up with a fabulous combination of tender potato and crispy outer crust.

These are particularly lovely as part of a brunch spread, as well as with saucy meat dishes like braises and stews... or if you're like me, you don't need a reason to make them!

Crispy Oven-roasted Potatoes
serves 4-6 as a side dish

If you are lucky enough to have a few tablespoons of duck or goose fat, gently warm until it melts into a liquid, substitute that for the olive oil, and these will turn out even better.

3 pounds small potatoes, cut into quarters
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons minced fresh herb of your choosing (rosemary, thyme, oregano, tarragon)
1-2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt

Preheat oven to 425'F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat baking mat.

Toss potatoes with olive oil and tip onto baking sheet. Sprinkle with minced herb and salt. Bake, tossing occasionally, until exteriors are crispy and interiors are soft when pierced with a fork, about 45 minutes.

Taste and correct for salt while piping hot. Serve immediately.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Decorated Holiday Treats: Inspiration

While on a recent hunt for polenta recipes, I stumbled across a lovely food blog I hadn't seen before: KUIDAORE.

Even though it's only October, I couldn't resist posting a link to Joycelyn's gorgeously decorated holiday treats. I hope she posts some recipes, and if we're really lucky, instructions for a few decorating techniques... it's enough to make me want to start testing icing recipes and practising my piping skills!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Lazy Weeknight Dinner

Though I love to spend lots of time cooking, our weeknight dinners are often very simple. Those days when we just can't agree on what to eat, or when we're too tired to cook anything at all, the idea of a treat is enough to garner energy for a quick trip to Russo's or Whole Foods, or on special days, Formaggio Kitchen.

The shopping list invariably includes a bottle or two of wine, a few loaves of crusty bread from Iggy's and Pain D'Avignon, a selection of interesting cheeses- some familiar, some new, perhaps some charcuterie, and a bar or two of good, dark chocolate.

When I was very young, my mom introduced me to the deliciousness of chocolate with bread, and it's always been one of my favorite treats; this particular dinner tradition wouldn't be the same without it.

A few glasses of wine, bread with cheese, and then chocolate with bread make up the perfect lazy weeknight dinner.

Pictured are two very unusual cheeses that we both recently enjoyed. I didn't particularly like the Brillat Savarin avec Moutarde (Brillat Savarin with Mustard) at first, but once I'd gotten the hang of balancing more of the subtle creamy cheese with less of the bold, grainy mustard coating, I found it luscious and addictive, with a pleasantly tangy, savoury kick.

I had the same experience with the the New York State Chèvre with Blueberry Compote: the flavours were a perfect complement, once I'd managed to balance the tangy, salty, crumbly cheese with the intense, sweet blueberry compote.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Banana Bread

Something about autumn makes me want to bake and bake, and then bake a bit more, as though we didn't have enough baked treats around already. During the hot summer months, it's hard to justify heating up the entire house for a loaf of bread or a cake that you're too hot to really want in the first place. During the fall, however, I adore the warmth radiating from the stovetop and the tantalizing baking aromas that waft through the house.

My post last week on spiced pumpkin bread got me thinking about, and of course craving, my mom's banana bread. I absolutely love it, but for some reason I've never gotten around to asking her for the recipe. We had a bunch of very, very ripe bananas on our counter for the past few days, which meant that there was only one thing to do! One weekend night at around midnight, when it was way too late to call and beg for the recipe, I realised that tweaking the pumpkin bread recipe might just do the trick.

Instead of pumpkin, I used four medium-sized, very ripe mashed bananas, along with 1/2 cup of roasted, mashed acorn squash that I found languishing in the 'fridge. This particular squash had such a subtle taste that I hoped it would add substance and texture without overpowering the banana flavour. I also omitted the heaping teaspoons of spices, opting instead for 1 teaspoon of allspice and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. And, as I usually do, I omitted the walnuts.

The bread came out golden and moist, with a pronounced, pleasant banana flavour. It tasted almost exactly like my mom's version. The recipe makes two large loaves, so once it had cooled, one loaf went right into the freezer. It will probably be eaten next week for weekday breakfasts.

Of course, there's nothing quite like a recipe that you grew up adoring, but I'm thrilled that this is pretty darn close!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes

I've known L for years, but until very recently, I didn't know that he could make pancakes, and he didn't know how much I love them. After the surprise wore off and he'd made them a few weekend mornings in a row (at my insistence that he make up for all the pancakes I've missed out on), I realized that this is my favourite of all the batter recipes I've tried.

L's family makes these with regular milk and a mix of all-purpose and whole wheat flour, and they are always very good. I grew up eating buttermilk pancakes, and I ever-so-slightly prefer the tang that buttermilk lends. I eat them drizzled with grade A maple syrup, while L prefers grade B syrup; the neverending debate in this house is, of course, which grade is better. When we're really lucky, we have on hand a quart of New Hampshire maple syrup from the maple trees on my grandmother's farm.

In our house, L makes the batter and I cook them-they don't quite taste the same if one person does all the work.

Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes

serves 2-3

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
pinch of salt

2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large egg yolks, separated (yolks and whites reserved)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Dry ingredients: Pour the flour, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Gently mix and set aside.

Wet ingredients: In another bowl, whisk the egg yolks for about 30 seconds. Add the milk and vegetable oil and whisk until well mixed.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and whisk until you have a fairly smooth batter. Some small lumps are fine. Set aside.

Whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Ladle the batter in 1/2 cup portions on to the skillet, making sure you have enough room in between the pancakes to flip each one. Flip when the underside is golden and the pancake is firm enough to be flipped. The pancakes are done when both sides are golden, and the insides are fully cooked and fluffy.

Serve immediately, or keep the pancakes warm on a piece of tinfoil in a 300'F oven. They might lose a teeny bit of fluffiness in the oven, but it's a good solution if you want everyone to eat together.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Spiced Pumpkin Bread + Roasted Squash

I'm not a big fan of nutty, dry, light banana/zucchini/pumpkin-and-nut breads, but I do love their dark, moist, dense counterparts. I'm sure that this preference can be traced directly to my mom, who makes a flavourful, impossibly moist banana bread that I absolutely adore.

Last fall, during one of my frequent, late-night sudden urges to bake, I stumbled upon a Bon Appetit recipe for spiced pumpkin bread. I was in love at first bite, when I realised that this is the perfect fall version of my mom's banana bread.

Just a few notes from personal experience:

* I cut the sugar down to 2 cups, and I use 1 cup white, 1 cup brown sugar.

* To make up for the lost sugar, I add one extra egg; in the baking world, sugar is considered a liquid, so the egg is a successful substitution here.

* I omit the walnuts, as I prefer this bread sans nuts.

* I add a teaspoon of ground ginger for a hint of spicy heat.

* While I love the flavour of pumpkin, I've found that this recipe works really well with other roasted squash, too.

I highly recommend roasting your own pumpkin or squash for this bread. It's not difficult at all, and it tastes so much better than anything you can buy in a can.

You can also eat this squash- cubed or mashed- alongside a chicken or other roasted meats. Either way, you might just find yourself buying more Halloween pumpkins just for the leftovers!

This is the easiest way, that I know of, to both cook hard winter squash and remove the skin.

Roasted Squash

any amount winter squash*, stem ends sliced off, cut into manageable pieces**, seeds scooped out, skin left on

small amount olive oil or neutral vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 425'F. Cover baking sheets with parchment paper.

Set squash pieces, skin side down, onto the parchment paper. Brush cut sides with oil. Roast in the middle of your oven until a fork easily pierces the flesh (start checking at 30 minutes). Remove from oven and allow to cool.

When the squash is cool enough to handle, peel off the skin and cut into chunks, or process using a food mill.

* Butternut, acorn, delicata, spaghetti, pumpkin, etc.
** Cut large squash (over 1 lb) into quarters or eighths, lengthwise; smaller squash (less than 1 lb) can be cut into halves, lengthwise

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Apples + Spiced Plum Applesauce

As part of our yearly CSA membership, we purchase a fruit share that comes directly from a local partner farm. This amounts to a 1/2 peck of fruit every week- mostly apples, sometimes plums, peaches and pears, and occasionally a bunch or two of concord grapes.

Apples are unfailingly abundant in the fruit share, and we can always count on seeing a different mix of cultivars each week. Some are familiar, others are entirely unknown, and it's fun to sample the strikingly different flavours and textures.

Our favourite is the Macoun apple, a good eating and cooking apple, and a cross between the Arkansas black and McIntosh cultivars. Macouns are usually small and flushed vivid pink or red, with icy-white, sweet-tart juicy flesh. Sadly, they only comes into season for a few short weeks somewhere between September and November, which for us means a flurry of apple dishes and at least 2 apples eaten out-of-hand each day until, in a flash, they're out of season until next autumn.

This week, we brought home a bag of Macouns, Cox's Orange Pippins and Gala apples. We ate as many as we could, and I turned the rest into my favourite breakfast, dessert and snack: applesauce!

You can make this applesauce with one type or a mixed variety of apples, and you can leave small strips of peel on the apples if you like an extra bit of texture. If you use a food mill to process the finished applesauce, you can skip the peeling step altogether- when you run the applesauce through the mill, any of the smaller plates will force the flesh through, leaving most of the skins behind.

If you want applesauce straight up, omit the plums; if you want something a bit different, substitute 1 pint of berries for the plums. I love this mixed with an equal amount of roasted, mashed butternut squash or pumpkin.

Spiced Plum Applesauce
Makes about 6 cups

3 pounds apples, peeled, cored and cut into large chunks
1 pint damson plums, pitted
2 cups water
1/3 cup light brown sugar, plus more to taste
juice of 1 lemon
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled (optional)
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise pod
1 cardamom pod
dash of nutmeg

Put all ingredients except the lemon juice into a nonreactive* saucepan. Turn burner to low heat and cook at a steady simmer, covered and stirring occasionally. When the apples are soft- after about 45 minutes- turn off the heat and stir in the lemon juice.

Remove from heat and allow to cool. When the applesauce has cooled to room temperature, remove the ginger, cinnamon stick, star anise and cardamom pod. Taste and correct for sugar.

At this point, you have multiple mashing options:

Use a potato masher or fork for a chunky texture
Use a food mill fitted with the largest-holed disc for a medium texture
Use a food mill fitted with a small-holed disc for a fine texture
Use a food processor for a fine texture- go easy and pulse sparingly here
Divide the applesauce and use more than one method for a mix of textures

*nonreactive = enamel or stainless steel; not aluminum or cast-iron