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

Monday, October 1, 2007

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Our yearly CSA farm share comes to an end the last week of October. It seems like not too long ago (5 months, almost exactly) that I was so excited about the first pickup of the season. We'll go back to buying most of our groceries at my favourite store, which isn't a bad thing- the produce is fresh, the selection unusual and varied, and they carry local items whenever possible.

But of course, it's not quite the same as bringing home crisp radishes still dusted with good black earth, lime-green tomatillos bursting out of their husks, firm-skinned baby zucchini, and flavourful tomatoes still warm from the sun.

As is the risk with any CSA, there were some hardships this year. Hungry woodchucks severely damaged the summer squash, cucumbers, watermelons and fennel, though the farm staff did their best to dissuade them with portable fences to physically keep them out, and low-strung flash tape interspersed with tiny pinwheels to scare them away.

Boston had the second driest August in 130 years, forcing daily irrigation, with special attention paid to the cover crops (oats, peas, winter rye and hairy vetch) that make the soil fertile again for next year's crops. Unlike the productive year before, we brought home just one small watermelon and no strawberries- the berry plants were completely destroyed by a late frost.

On the other hand, we made new friends and delighted in seeing familiar faces at our weekly pickups. The farm produced enough food to support families of shareholders and hunger relief programs alike. We were able to try some neat new heirloom varieties, and we've discovered new ways to prepare vegetables (never a bad thing). The apples and plums are thriving, and our fruit share has given us enough to make quarts of preserves; I've learned a lot about the basics of preserving fruits and vegetables. And this year we were offered winter CSA shares, which means that we'll bring home potatoes, garlic, winter squash, onions, and greens once in November, and once in December.

The farm managers decided to try something new, and if enough shareholders sign up, we will be able to purchase a monthly meat CSA share from Chestnut Farms when the new year begins. My excitement about this might sound strange to people who know me: I'm just not a big meat eater. Unlike L, I don't crave meat, though we both have reservations about the way many meat animals are raised and slaughtered. To tell you the truth, I could happily live without meat. L, on the other hand, would be miserable.

Planning and cooking separate meals is just not something that either of us have the energy for, so we compromise by purchasing organic meat that we are certain is raised and processed humanely; since this can get expensive really quickly, we simply eat less of it. The meat CSA is a great chance for us to support local farmers and buy meat that we feel good about.

All in all, I'd say it's been a really great year for the farm, and I can't wait for the 2008 harvest to start again next May!