Saturday, January 26, 2008

Nigella's Orange Breakfast Muffins

It's funny what happens when the world outside is covered in towering, powdery-white snowdrifts and your home internet goes out for what seems like a Very Long Time: you are given the chance to really, truly focus on those things you love to do in your spare time, without obligations to e-mail, upcoming-birthday-gift-shopping, bill monitoring or anything else that can leave a person tied to the computer.

During the past week and a half, we had great fun celebrating A's birthday with friends, learned so much more about my camera (and just how bad food pictures can turn out in oh-so-faint indoor winter light), delighted in the sheer pleasure Argos takes in chasing snowballs and jumping into said snowdrifts, watched some of the movies on The List*, read parts here and there of five different books without finishing any of them, baked a ton, and hoped for another huge snowstorm so we can spend another lazy snow day at home with the puppers.

In addition to a double batch of lemon curd- requisite for all birthdays- we spent last weekend enjoying all sorts of yummy treats with friends. On Saturday morning, I spent a few minutes wondering what in the world we were going to have for breakfast- a behaviour very unlike me, since I am usually insanely OCD and plan these things ahead. Having just gone grocery shopping, we had plenty of ingredients for something fancy in the house, but I really wanted something really fast and easy- no time spent chilling in the fridge (à la yeast breads or bread puddings), minimal preheating, no thawing frozen farm fruit from the summer.

Happily, while furiously digging through a stack of cookbooks, I thumbed right to a recipe for Orange Breakfast Muffins that I've had dog-eared ever since my copy of Nigella Bites arrived in the mail last fall. Yes, I am absolutely addicted to Amazon's cookbook section- and honestly, who wouldn't be? They have everything- absolutely everything- one needs to keep a girl happy in the kitchen.

These orange muffins come in a very close second on the happiness scale: light and moist, with a lovely, distinct orange flavour (and color!), they immediately made it to my will-make-often recipe shortlist. I want to say that they remind me of bright, sunny summer mornings, but I realize that would be silly, given that citrus season is winter. Ach. In any case, you get my point- they are the perfect thing for cold winter mornings. I didn't have the energy to grind almonds, so I substituted an overflowing handful of paper-thin, crunchy sliced almonds, which added a nice texture and subtle almond flavour. The sweet citrus scent of the muffins in the oven is enough to make anyone hungry, so I highly recommend doubling this muffin recipe. On the off chance that they don't all disappear at breakfast, however, they keep beautifully for snacks and weekday breakfasts.

* You know- that list of movies that you really, really must see at some point. The list that grows twice as fast as the crossing-off part. That one.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Blood Orange Sorbet

Now that the Christmas and New Year holiday celebrations are over and life is a bit less hectic, I've had time to try out the gorgeous ice cream maker that L gave me for Christmas! I've coveted one for a quite a while, and am absolutely thrilled with this one. For a machine with such a simple mechanism it works beautifully, and we've had great success with it so far. L certainly knows that fun kitchen gadgets are the way to my heart!

As citrus season is upon us and there are so many tasty fruits just waiting to be eaten, I've been experimenting entirely with fruit sorbets. The very first thing I made was a positively addictive, intensely refreshing Italian Lemon Ice (post on that coming soon) from The Gourmet Cookbook that, for some reason, doesn't seem to be in their online recipe database. I was worried that it would be too sweet, but during our many taste tests I realised that I should have a bit more faith in Gourmet's recipes- the Lemon Ice was tart and sweet, with a fabulous icy mouth-feel and lovely hint of bitterness from the zest. We immediately made three more batches to share with family and friends at holiday dinners.

Aside from blueberries, I think blood oranges have got to be my favourite fruits, so naturally, I've been itching to make a blood orange sorbet. If you have an electric juicer and/or microplane zesting rasp, now is the time to use both. The lovely thing about sorbet is that when you base your recipes on flavours combinations you love, you really can't go terribly wrong when experimenting. Happily, we were thrilled with my first pass at blood orange sorbet- the texture is very smooth, and the intense blood orange flavour comes right through, with just the right balance of honeyed sweetness and bright citrus tang. I love the vibrant rosy colour, too!

So many sorbet recipes call for water to make the simple syrup, but I like a more intense flavour and colour, so I prefer to use only juice. I also adore the flavour of honey paired with fruits, so for citrus sorbets, I try to use honey in place of granulated sugar whenever possible. According to David Lebovitz (The Perfect Scoop), honey gives frozen desserts a smoother texture, too, due to the higher concentration of sugars.

If you made New Years resolutions to get healthier, exercise more, or at least try to eat better, then this is the perfect dessert for you. If you didn't bother with those kinds of resolutions, you can eat even more sorbet in one sitting!

Blood Orange Sorbet

3 cups (24 ounces/710 ml) freshly squeezed blood orange juice
3/4 cup (6 ounces/177 ml) cup good honey or 1 cup (8 ounces/227 g) white granulated sugar
2 tablespoons (28 grams) finely grated blood orange zest
2 tablespoons blood orange pulp (optional)
pinch of salt

Make a simple syrup by warming 1 cup of blood orange juice with honey or sugar over low heat, stirring frequently, until the honey or sugar has completely dissolved.

Remove from heat and stir in zest and salt. Stir in blood orange pulp, if using.

Pour simple syrup into a bowl with the remaining 2 cups blood orange juice and stir to combine.

Chill mixture thoroughly, then freeze according to your ice cream maker instructions. Initially, the sorbet will seem fairly soft, but it will firm up considerably in the freezer.

If you don't have an ice cream maker, don't worry- you can turn this into a granita! Pour the chilled mixture into a shallow pan and freeze, stirring with a fork every 30 minutes, until slushy- about 2 hours.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Anijsblokjes / Dutch Anise Blocks

For as long as I can remember, my mom has kept at least a few long, thin tubes of Dutch anijsblokjes, or anise blocks- anise-flavoured sugar cubes used to make anijsmelk (anise milk)- in the spice cupboard. So of course, it follows that when I was a child, my mom and I often enjoyed anijsmelk in place of hot cocoa. Now that I live across the country, she sends a few tubes, which I hoard unabashedly, each year with my Christmas presents (thank you, mom!). I know that hot milk is something most people consider a children's drink, but I still love it, especially when transformed by a little something extra.

Not surprisingly, I love black licorice, pastis and ouzo, anise oil, and fennel in all forms; however, I will be the first to tell you that these sweet cubes are, strangely enough, very different. Drop one or two anijsblokjes into a mug of steaming hot milk and stir to help the wide, grainy cubes dissolve quickly. When you raise the cup to your lips, a sweet, subtle, almost floral scent swirls under your nose. Very delicately flavoured and not overbearingly sweet, anijsblokjes transform hot milk into a fragrant, soothing, perfect-for-cold-weather nightcap. Even L likes them, and he hates black licorice- and if that's not a selling point, then I don't know what is!

I've seen anijsblokjes in a few European grocery stores around the country, and a quick search turned them up in stores online as well. If you are lucky enough to spot them on a shelf near you*, be sure to give them a try. If you're feeling extremely generous, you are always welcome to send some my way, too!

* Unless you live in Holland, of course, in which case you can probably find them anywhere. I am supremely jealous.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

New Year's Eve at La Morra

This year (well, last year, technically), we spent a memorable New Year's Eve at La Morra in Brookline, where we enjoyed a four-course meal complete with well-chosen wine flight. The meal was fabulous, as always, and we had a fun time with the chef, waitstaff, and other diners. I don't know what it is about holidays that makes people especially warm and friendly, but I like it! Alas, I didn't take pictures- I was too busy savouring the food!

To start, Chef Josh Ziskin sent out an amuse bouche- a shot of the most incredible, elegant, light, creamy parsnip soup I have ever tasted. He topped it with celery oil and a celery leaf, and oh man, it was scrumptious. L doesn't even like parsnips (crazy, I know), and he really enjoyed it.

For the first course, I chose the the Fried Oysters (with microgreen salad)- it seems that the clams that were on the original menu weren't available, or weren't good enough to make the cut that day- and L had the Seared Foie Gras (with short rib bomboloni and mostarda di frutta), accompanied by a light, white 2006 Vietti Roero Arneis.

If you are a vegetarian, you might want to skip this paragraph. We'd recently happened upon an episode of Chef Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations (so we are now experts, of course!) that showed some of the duck feeding techniques for fois gras, and even though it makes me uncomfortable, it wasn't nearly as gruesome-looking as I'd imagined, though I do admit that people could easily abuse the process and animals on their own farms. Yes, the way fois gras is cultivated still bothers me a bit, and I don't know if I would order it regularly- I prefer to choose meat from local farms that I am 100% sure has been humanely raised and slaughtered, I will not eat veal, and I usually pass up the fois gras on principle- but I have to admit that L's dish was handled and cooked beautifully, and it really was incredibly tasty. I do see why some chefs will fight tooth and nail for the right to serve it! As for my dish, the oysters were plump and juicy, coated with a very thin, crisp tempura-like batter, fried to perfection, and served very hot atop a small, refreshing microgreen salad dressed with a foamy vinaigrette.

For the second course, we both chose the Timballo, which came with a light red 2005 J. Hofstatter Pinot Nero “Mezcan”. When I looked at the menu the day before- yes, I am that kind of food freak- I was wavering between that and the risotto with clams on the original menu, but since the clams had bowed out for the evening, it was an easy choice.

If you've never seen Big Night, you should run out and (at least) rent it this instant, and you will know why we both picked the timballo! Chef Ziskin's recipe didn't seem quite as complicated as the version in the movie, though it was clear that it took a lot of work to make. The pastry dough encasing each individual timballo, which resembled muffin-shaped, sealed meat pies, was sweet but surprisingly complementary, though it was a bit on the dry side; this could have been remedied by the addition of a bit more tasty bolognese- we found only trace amounts of the deliciously rich, fresh sauce in both timballos. Generously-sized pieces of braised meat and fabulous homemade pasta, however, were wonderfully flavoured, tender, and cooked with interesting spices that neither of us could identify. I loved the light and airy texture of the tiny, beautifully pan-fried meatballs, though L sweetly insisted that he prefers the meatballs that I make at home. They're also tiny, but unlike these, mine contain enough crushed garlic to kill a small mammal, and L swears they taste just like his Italian grandmother's meatballs.

Feeling quite full at this point, we were nevertheless served our third course with a lush red 2000 Colle Dei Venti Barolo- L had the Wood-Oven-Roasted Lamb Sirloin (with braised lamb and pecorino arroncino) and I chose the Pheasant Breast Stuffed with Fennel Sausage and Cavolo Nero (with foie gras and chestnut budino, pheasant and vin santo sugo with kumquat syrup). The lamb was impeccable, with a gorgeous, herbed, woodsmoke flavour that had me- the one person in the world who doesn't like the taste of lamb- happily accepting forkful after forkful. We both agreed that the hot pepper stuffed full of tender, succulent braised lamb was wonderfully flavoured with a great spicy zing, and L was thrilled that the lamb steak was served on the rare side of medium-rare, which is exactly what he thinks medium-rare should be. The pheasant was very juicy and flavourful, topped with its own addictively crisp, savoury skin and a delicious lashing of sweet-tart candied kumquat sauce, and stuffed with a moist, tasty mixture of greens, ground pheasant and fois gras. It was accompanied by a fluffy, custardy chestnut budino, or bread pudding- happily, some crusts were in the mix- that won us both over immediately.

For our dessert course, I wasn't up for anything more than the airy, tart, and sweet Trio di Sorbetti- prickly pear, white peach, and mixed berry sorbets served with fresh berries and a few small biscotti. Somehow, full as I was, it was so refreshing that I ended up eating the entire serving! L went the somewhat light route too, and had a luscious lightly-Baked Apple with a nice caramel sauce and toasted almonds. Desserts were served with a sweet, heady, floral '05 Moscato...

During dessert, out came the party hats, honkers and tiny streamer-firing crackers, and, of course, a dry, fizzy Prosecco for toasting! When midnight arrived, the two of us and two other couples remaining in the ground floor dining room were invited to troop upstairs to the small second floor dining room with the chef, waitstaff, and bar/kitchen crew for a loud and raucous toast (the ONLY way to toast, in my opinion) with the remaining diners, who had already begun to happily belt out all kinds of New Years songs!

After midnight, Chef Ziskin was out and about, pouring Prosecco left and right, and, when I managed to catch him to thank him for yet another fabulous meal, he was nice enough to share the recipe for the parsnip soup (score!). He probably thought I was nuts, but I guess I was feeling a bit bold after all that wine! In any case, he indulged me, which was very kind. The soup turned out to be stunningly easy, which just goes to show that simple dishes are also often the best. I wrote down the recipe as soon as I got home, so I'll be experimenting with it- hopefully I remembered everything correctly- and I'll post it once I've got the flavour and texture right. I could eat huge bowls of that soup each and every cold winter night.

Thanks to Chef Ziskin and his staff, L and I ended the night stuffed full of amazing food, excitedly gabbing about why we love La Morra so much and how we need to go back more often, and happy to start the new year on such a high note.

In fact, we enjoyed ourselves so much that we're going back on January 13th for a 5-course homemade pasta dinner! I'm definitely excited!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year!

I do think New Year's resolutions can't technically be expected to begin on New Year's Day, don't you? Since, because it's an extension of New Year's Eve, smokers are already on a smoking roll and cannot be expected to stop abruptly on the stroke of midnight with so much nicotine in the system. Also dieting on New Year's Day isn't a good idea as you can't eat rationally but really need to be free to consume whatever is necessary, moment by moment, in order to ease your hangover. I think it would be much more sensible if resolutions began generally on January the second.

-Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary

With warmest wishes for a hangover-free,
happy, healthy, plentiful and peaceful new year. Welcome 2008!

С новым годом!
C пожеланиями на замечательный 2008!