December 29, 2009

Lazy Days and Legumes: Black Bean Soup and Yellow Dal

You always mean well with New Year's resolutions, right? After weeks of comfort food, Crock-Pot concoctions, candy, cookies, and cake, it always feels good to go back to those salad days and other vegetarian fare. Even if you don't stick to such a plan all year long, it helps to have a few healthy vegetable + fiber recipes in the archives.

Like so many others, this week, my husband and I vowed to start eating healthier, and for us, that means more legumes. He suggested I compile a sort of "five days of legumes" this week. We started with his black bean soup on Sunday, with green tomato salsa and chihuahua cheese quesadillas. I canned the salsa this summer, when it was clear it was not a good growing season for tomatoes in Chicago and about three varieties of heirloom tomatoes never went beyond being green. I was skeptical about the salsa when I canned it, but it's turned out to be a lifesaver this winter. He says his black bean soup changes every time he makes it, but I can safely say it's 1 15-oz can of black beans, one jalapeno (cored and finely diced), two to three cloves of garlic (minced), and a couple of roma tomatoes (coarsely chopped and juice included). He leaves the salt and peppering up to me, and I always throw in about a teaspoon of cumin and about a half teaspoon of chipotle or chili powder. Basically, he sautes the jalapeno and garlic together in a couple tablespoons of olive oil for about 5 minutes or until fragrant, and then throws in everything else. Heats it through to simmering (about 20 min), finishes it with the juice of one whole lemon and a smattering of chopped cilantro, and ladles it out in big bowls with the quesadillas on the side. Garnish with sour cream or extra chihuahua cheese. It's the Cinco de Enero (January) treat!

That same evening, he successfully followed my Yellow Dal recipe to a T, so he'd have lunches for the week. We eat this with purchased naan bread or just by itself. It totally warms the heart and makes you think of your favorite Indian restaurant on the first spoonful.

Yellow Dal

1 16-oz package yellow lentils (often called yellow split peas)

3 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
4 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or vegetable oil
chopped fresh cilantro

Rinse lentils and drain them. Place lentils in heavy saucepan and add water. Bring to boil and then reduce to simmer uncovered, about 45 min, or until most of the water is cooked away and lentils are soft. Stir in salt, sugar, tumeric, coriander, garam masala, cumin, and chili powder. Combine well and heat through, another 5-10 min. Finish with ghee, mixing to coat. Serve with naan, chapathi, or rice. Serves 6-8.

Later this week, you can try your hand at Mark Bittman's Falafel recipe, which I improved on with one extra step. But for now, I don't want to overwhelm you with more than two recipes at once (plus it gives me more to talk about--and a Third Day of Legumes), so grab a spoon and dig in!

December 23, 2009

Butternut Squash Soup

We suffered another guilt trip issued by vegetable share last week. We've had three gorgeous, overweight butternut squash sitting around our kitchen for weeks now, just begging to be turned into some sort of tasty winter dish. This recipe for Butternut Squash Soup from Mark Bitman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is a true celebration of winter soup slurping.

2 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
1 3-4 lb. butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1- to 2-inch chunks
1 medium onion
2 tbsp chopped sage
5 cups vegetable or chicken broth
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup heavy cream (or 1/2 cup half-n-half and 1/2 cup milk for lighter version)

Heat oil in a large deep skillet or soup pot over medium-high heat. Add squash and onion and saute for five minutes. Add sage and cook and stir until aromatic (another 5-10 minutes). Add broth and reduce heat to low to allow to simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and puree softened squash mixture in blender in batches or with an immersion blender directly in the pot. Return to medium heat and warm through. Add 1 cup cream or half-n-half/mil mixtures and serve immediately with buttered croutons or chopped herbs. Serves 4-6.

December 8, 2009

Cooking School: Pie Crust Primer

This weekend, I stumbled across some old questions friends had posed when I had another incarnation of this blog several years ago. One of my best friends in Atlanta posed this question: "Why is pie crust so hard to make? Grocery store crusts taste better than my slop!"

All I could think was, "Oh no. Don't go the supermarket route!" Those are filled with preservatives, made with all shortening and no real butter, and full of salt to give them shelf life. You can master pie crust this holiday season, and here are a few tips for obtaining a good, workable, flaky pie dough. (I'll tackle nut and cracker/cookie crusts that require parbaking another time.)

This recipe from Epicurious is pretty foolproof. I replace half the butter with shortening to give it superior flakiness. Some people replace it with lard, but I just can't use that part of an animal (maybe it's the Hindu in me again???), so I'm fine with shortening. I do think it adds texture and allows the flaky layers to form better than an all-butter crust does.

Don't make the crust unless you're really going to use it within the allotted time. Chilling for an hour is perfect. If you think you can't get to it the day you make it but still want to cross the task of handmade crust off your list, then form the disc, wrap it twice in plastic wrap, put it in a freezer-safe Ziploc (label and date it!), and freeze it until you use it. Transfer it to the fridge first before using it because you want it to return to that "chilled-for-an-hour" temp (usually overnight works fine). If the pan-ready pie crust is your thing, then buy these glass pie plates that you can even get at CVS and Walgreens, roll out your dough after the hour chilling time, place it in these plates, lay waxed paper or parchment between each plate, stack and wrap them, and then freeze them in a Ziploc bag. You'll even have reusable glass pie plates, and they're sturdier for transport to a party than foil ones.

You can also go whole-grain on this pie crust recipe. I replace about half the flour with whole wheat pastry flour when going for a somewhat healthier or rustic slant. I do think it's crucial to use pastry flour and not just simply whole-wheat flour, otherwise you won't have the pliability you'll need for pie and tart dough. Here is a great guide on all the flours so that you can better understand gluten content and how it works in certain doughs.

I am also a fan of the silicone rolling pin for working with pie dough. Because of the high butter content, you'll want to make sure the dough doesn't stick to your pin. Flour your surface well, then flour your disc of dough. Roll with even pressure and turn the flattening disc often. Reflour your surface as necessary. I often pick up the widening circle of dough on opposite ends and circulate it, in a rather "Mr. Miyagi/wax on, wax off" way, so that I know it never sticks to my rolling surface. Wooden straight and French-style rolling pins are also great, and I got used to using one in pastry school. Just remember not to wet-wash it. It's wood and will rot and splinter if in regular contact with water. For cleanup, just allow buttery bits to dry and then scrape off with a dry, rough-surface towel or bowl scraper. This is one reason I really like the silicone pins. They offer the same even weight as a French wooden pin, but with an easy-to-clean surface. Just keep it away from knives, box graters, and other pointed surfaces when you store it, so as not to tear up the soft silicone surface.

Lattice-top fruit pies are just about the prettiest things on the planet! But lattice work takes some practice, in my opinion, so an easy way out is to use small shaped cutters. The end result is a pretty darn beautiful pie that still has the venting needed for the water in fruit pies to escape during the baking process. Scraps of leftover dough can be rekneaded and frozen until later use. For lattice-top pies, I will often insert a baking sheet with a lip (jelly-roll pan) on the rack below the pie in order to catch fruit drippings that bubble out over the lattice.

All the best with your pie-baking this holiday season, and just remember, nothing beats homemade pie crust. Really, after you become a whiz at this, the supermarket version will truly pale in comparison!

December 5, 2009

Smoky Pork and Pappardelle

Having been raised Hindu, I generally have a karma problem after eating a burger or steak. I don't do it often (maybe two or three times a year, plus the occasional lasagna with meat sauce at a friend's house), and I rarely prepare it at home. For some reason, the feeling generally carried over to pork with me, even though there's nothing in the Upanishads or Baghvad Gita about pigs (as far as I know anyway). But then the bacon/pulled pork phenomenon took over American cuisine, and I can't stop looking for interesting ways to braise, roast, grill--you name it--a pork tenderloin or shoulder. My good friend Chris gave me this recipe for Smoky Pork and Pappardelle months ago, and it took me until this week to try it. Yowza! Talk about a keeper AND A HALF! This is going down in our all-time faves Messy Box o' Many Recipes (because I can't be bothered to get a binder and three-hole-punch all the print-outs and magazine tear-outs), and we'll be breaking it out multiple times this season.

A few disclaimers... I was lazy and couldn't be bothered to get in my car for groceries, so I subbed a few things, courtesy of my pantry and the Mexican grocery on the corner: conchiglie (conch-shape pasta from World Market that I already had, instead of pappardelle, a long, flat sheet pasta that's not as wide as lasagna but not as narrow as linguine); ricotta for the mascarpone; and bone-in pork tenderloin chunks that required deboning later, during the shredding process. I deboned the pork and shredded it, added another cup of chicken broth, and cooked the conchiglie in the stew on the stove, just before adding the ricotta and serving. Perfect one-pot action!

It was a simply spectacular meal, and we will be making this over and over at our house. Serve it with a good Pinot Noir, a spinach salad, and some kind of fruit pie or cobbler for dessert. Winter's here!

December 2, 2009

I Met Thomas Keller!

I'm a cookbook nerd, and I'm proud of it. They are my bedside reading, I check them out from the library, I buy them used anywhere I can, and my shelves runneth over. Someday, I'd like to open a cookbook library inside Pomegranate--another way to get people to come, eat, relax, read, and enjoy hanging out in my home-away-from home.

Last night, I met the incredibly amazing and talented Thomas Keller of French Laundry, Per Se, and Ad Hoc fame. The man is a culinary genius and a gastronomic god. In my humble opinion, he is the greatest American food artist. Grant Achatz of Alinea and the whole molecular gastronomy movement trained under Thomas Keller, and people are lined up around the block to work at French Laundry for free. Keller's books are literally coffee table books--the kind where you photocopy the recipe you want to use and put the real book back on your shelf so that it never sees a splatter of anything from your kitchen! Meeting him yesterday was in one of my top experiences of all time (he's very debonair, a sharp dresser, and amazingly fit and lithe--how these guys who cook with butter 24/7 look like this is beyond me!). But going to French Laundry is one of my Top Ten Things in Life to Do Before I Die. My husband and I are hoping to go this summer, when I run a half marathon in Napa and to celebrate our birthdays. I figure the only way to justify a $500 meal and $90 bottle of wine is after running 13.2 miles through the wine country!

Anyway, if you get a chance to look at/pick up a copy of Ad Hoc at Home, it'll be worth it, because I do think it's his best yet. It's the more personal side of Keller, as he wrote it when his father passed away and included a lot of the recipes he and his friends and family have enjoyed over the years. It's also like one big textbook for the kitchen, with lots of tidbits of info about how to salt things; when to use oil and how much; and the differences between roasting, pan-roasting, and braising. There are fun chalkboard sections showing step-by-step processes such as deboning whole chickens. I, for one, am frightened by that task and regular cheat by buying mixed pieces already cut, trimmed, and packaged  to go at the supermarket.

Needless to say, I fell asleep reading it last night. And now that the title page is graced with his glorious John Hancock (even his signature is beautiful--like he deserves his own font or something), I may need to get a second copy that's OK to actually cook from!

November 21, 2009

Pizza with Pulled Pork and Banana Peppers

We can't get enough of banana peppers! We are big-time container gardeners (being confined to a Chicago condo with no yard to speak of), and we had two giant pots going this summer. And we got totally spoiled with having fresh banana peppers to put on everything--from tuna sandwiches to pizza. We went through them so fast, I didn't even have any left over for canning for the winter (plus I haven't quite wrapped my brain around pickling yet, so oh well...).

Yesterday, I discovered a giant jar of pickled ones at our local grocery store for all of $3.99. We think it might help us get by for a bit, and along with a shredded pork roast from Tuesday night, we turned it into pizza! It was simply fantabulous! Keep in mind that I am a made-from-scratch snob, so if you don't want to go whole hog with homemade pizza dough, that's totally fine. Boboli crusts are plenty sufficient, as is Trader Joe's unbaked pizza dough, available in the refrigerated section. But here's the whole shabang, should you seriously want to treat yourself one fine Friday night at home.

Pizza with Pulled Pork and Banana Peppers

Dough (makes enough for two pizzas)
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast (not rapid-rise)
2 tbsp olive oil plus more for bowl
1 1/2 c whole-wheat flour
2 1/2 c unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp Italian seasoning
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (optional)

Toppings (range is for one to two pizzas)
1-2 cups favorite barbeque sauce
2-3 tbsp tomato paste
1-2 cups shredded pork roast
3-4 banana peppers, seeded and sliced
2-4 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

Pour water into bowl of stand mixer fitted with dough hook and sprinkle yeast on top. Allow to foam 5 minutes. When foamed, add olive oil. In a separate bowl, sift together flours, salt, seasoning, and pepper (if using). Add flour to mixer and beat on Stir or Level 2 with dough hook for 4-6 minutes or until smooth and elastic. (If dough is sticky, add up to 1/4 cup of either flour. You can also knead by hand for 6-8 minutes.) Oil a stainless steel or ceramic mixing bowl and turn dough ball once to coat. Cover loosely with towel and allow to rise in a warm place until double, or about 1 hour (on top of fridge is a good place!).

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Place pizza stone or crisper in oven. Punch dough down and divide into two equal-sized balls. (If not using both, wrap second ball tightly in plastic wrap, place in freezer-grade Ziploc bag, and freeze for up to 3 months.) Roll out dough on floured surface to 1/4-inch thickness. Slide onto sheet of parchment paper or cornmeal-dusted edge-less cookie sheet (serves as a pizza peel!). Mix sauce and tomato paste in small bowl until combined. Spread half the sauce (about 1 cup) onto the pizza, top with pork and peppers, sprinkle with cheese and cilantro leaves. (Use reserved sauce for other pizza or store in airtight container in fridge for up to 10 days.) Slide pizza onto heated stone or crisper in oven and bake for 20-22 minutes or until edges are puffed and golden brown. Allow to cool 5-10 minutes before serving. Complete recipe makes two pizzas and serves 4-6.

November 16, 2009

Cooking School: Fridge and Freezer: Friends or Foes?

A friend who's really getting into baking lately with her little girl asked me a fantastic question over the weekend about pie dough and the fridge vs. freezer. I thought this might be a good time to address the whole baked-goods-and-refrigeration confusion in pastry.

Generally, anything pre-baked can last 24-36 hours in your fridge without drying out. If it's going to take you longer than that to get to it, wrap it really well in double plastic wrap and a freezer-grade Ziploc and store it in your freezer until use (make sure you label and date it with a Sharpie!). As Chef Jacquy at the French Pastry School would often say to us in class, "The freezer is your friend." Just move it to your counter if you plan to work with it within an hour or so. If you did leave something like pie dough or cookie dough in your fridge longer than you should have, rework it using bits of shortening (pie dough) or tablespoons of milk (cookie dough) until it's pliable and workable again. You can also store unused cake batter for up to 48 hours. Unlike pie or cookie dough though, cake batter needs to come all the way back to room temperature and given a good stir before using.

With anything already baked, alas, refrigeration for extended periods is the enemy. It's fine to store frosted cupcakes or a cake in the fridge for a day before serving, but typically, cake, bread, cookies, muffins, and other high-ratio-flour already-baked goods will dry up like cilantro in Chicago (we can't grow it here), so don't go there. I will often freeze a half loaf of bread if we won't get to it 'til the next week or bake only half a batch of cookies and freeze the rest of the dough until next time. Again, the freezer is your friend, folks! Not that today's design and engineering is though. According to a recent article in Bon Appetit, side-by-side refrigerators came about in an era when we didn't cook. The appliance industry fashioned them to accommodate our TV-dinner lifestyle in the 70s and 80s. Now that we're cooking and entertaining at home more, at least they've come up with the French-door refrigerator, which enables getting party trays of food or a sheet cake in and out of the fridge at eye level much easier. But from the point of view of bakers everywhere, the bottom-mount drawer freezer is a logistics nightmare. Digging around in the depths of a drawer for frozen pre-baked goods is like the hunt for Red October when on a delivery deadline. And freezing trays of pastry shells or other items that keep shape in the oven better after a 20-minute freezer shock treatment (you'll see a lot of pie, tart, and party finger-food recipes this holiday season that perform better with a pre-freeze) is next to impossible. Goodness knows I miss the old-fashioned top-mount freezer. Oh, to be able to turn the guest bath into a walk-in fridge/freezer!

Well, all the best this holiday pie-baking season! And while we're at it, I highly recommend trying this one for next Thursday. We've made this several times this fall season already, since pears came into their own this year. D'Anjou or Bartletts work best, and I highly recommend it with some butter pecan ice cream. For me, a la mode is the only way to go with a pie!

Pear Butterscotch Pie from Gourmet Magazine (R.I.P.) September 2008

November 11, 2009

Bread Shoes

I'm not sure who comes up with this stuff or why, but I do think these bread shoes would be a hilarious idea for a party bread bowl. Just make sure the dip you make doesn't smell like feet!

You can actually make these yourself. Use a firm baguette or french bread roll from your favorite grocery or bakery, and follow this picture to cut. Use a sharp serrated knife, and try and save some of the bread for cubing and dipping.

If you'd like to go whole hog and make your own bread, this is an excellent and tasty party bread recipe from Cooking Light. Shape your baguettes smaller than stated in this recipe, and keep an eye on the baking time since your bread mass is smaller and may not need to bake as long.

And I thought the kitty litter cake was enough of an alarming household-good-gone-insane-food idea. (I refuse to put a picture here; you'll have to go to the link and get grossed out on your own.)

November 9, 2009

If You See One Show in New York This Year, Make It This One...

OK, so this has nothing to do with spoons, tomfoolery, or food at all, but I just had to do this plug. I just saw Fela!, a new musical on Broadway playing at the Eugene O'Neill Theater in New York, and WOW just doesn't do it justice. YOWZA! is more like it. I do have a personal connection to this show, as our Best Man in our recent wedding, Jordan McLean, co-wrote and directed the musical portion of this amazing theatrical event. Two other members of the sextet that played with Jordan at our wedding, Stuart Bogie and Dylan Fusillo, are also part of the complete music ensemble for this show, and I have literally become these dudes' biggest fan (well, next to their respective significant others, of course).

This show is really like no other you'll ever see, and I'm not just saying that because of my close ties to the music. It's about Fela Kuti, the Nigerian jazz god responsible for bringing the jazz club scene to Nigeria in the late 70s and for pioneering the whole Afrobeat sound. From the get-go, you are made to feel like you're in Fela's club; the whole theater is outfitted to look just like it, and extended-circle cast members are littered about, down aisles, along the stage, and in the box seats, in character and bringing you into their fold. The dancers combine native Nigerian rhythms with jazz club sex appeal, and hoo wee! Are they a bunch of hot chicas! Tony Award Winner Bill T. Scott choreographs, and well, you take one look at the guy at age 57 and you know you'll be feelin' the steam all night!

It's been a very, very long time since I've seen a Broadway show, and as a former theater student in high school, I've seen a lot of them. But you ain't seen nothin' yet, folks! If you find yourself in NYC this holiday season and are looking for a crazy fun time, go check this one out. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and then you'll wish you could go and feel that energy every night of your life!

November 1, 2009

Cooking School: Defining Jam, Jelly, Marmalade, Preserves, Fruit Butters, etc.

The Flaky Pastry was posed an interesting question by two very good friends the other day: What's the difference between jam, jelly, marmalade, preserves, fruit butters, conserve, salsa, chutney, and all the various fruit and vegetable condiment forms out there? An excellent question that definitely deserved pondering. Here is a little Guide to Spreadables, if you will...

Jam and Conserves: Made from whole, chopped, or crushed seeded or seedless fruits and sugar boiled together; jam often comes together without sugar, but what makes it a conserve is that sugar is definitely an ingredient.
Preserves: Jam or conserves with seeds.
Jelly: Made from fruit juice only, no fruit or fruit bit content.
Fruit butter: Seedless fruit cooked to spreadable consistency, containing no pectin or other gel-activating agent; normally made from pitted stone fruits (mango, plum, apricot), pumpkin, apples, or pears.
Curds: As in lemon, lime, or orange... Contain sugar and eggs with the rind and juice of a fruit and cooked slowly over a bain marie until thick and creamy.
Marmalade: A citrus-based preserve, often containing the rind; caramelized onion marmalade is a common find these days, but to be totally honest, I'm not sure why it's particularly called marmalade and not chutney. I do think it's the only vegetable spread that is qualified as a marmalade.
Salsa and Chutney: Combinations of chopped vegetables and spices or fruits served together either raw (salsa) or cooked (chutney).

If I left any out that you're wondering about, drop me a line and I'll do more digging. You can also peruse a fine array of homemade, all-natural jams, fruit butters, and preserves here.

October 30, 2009

Apple Cider Doughnuts!

One of my former co-workers just lost her beloved 17-year-old tomcat, Danny Boy. She and I always shared stories about our Superpets, and so this was exceptionally sad news to hear this week. He was a gem in her life, and I figured, she deserved one of fall's little gems to help her through this: apple cider doughnuts!

I obtained the recipe from Coconut & Lime, an excellent baking blog that offers step-by-step photo tutorials for its recipes. You may find the dough sticky, so feel free to add up to 1 cup extra flour during the mixing process. If you're a "lightly-spoon-flour-into-measuring-cups" type like me, a technique I first learned from Cooking Light, you'll definitely find that 3 1/4 cups flour is not enough. But the dough was easy to work with, roll out, cut, and fry, and both it and the frosting have just the right hint of apple cider. I'd maybe go one step further next time and throw in a little apple pie spice, but I think these doughnuts met their challenge, as I received a nice note from my co-worker this morning saying they were just the thing!

Here's to Danny Boy, his amazing cat-mom, and a fall favorite, all rolled up into one rainy Chicago morning!

October 29, 2009

A Solemn Note

This week I learned an old friend from pastry school passed away unexpectedly. She was 37, and we'd had a crazy roller-coaster-ride friendship that year in school and in the following year afterward. We had gone our separate ways eventually, realizing perhaps that had we met at another time, when we weren't so "already adult," we might have tolerated the high-school drama that seemed to plague our friendship. It was odd to me that two people in their mid-30s could still create juvenile-level drama in a friendship, but in the end, it was probably better for both of us that we called it a day and moved on.

That was two years ago. Today, at the wake, I learned that she had taken her own life. When I knew her, I had no idea she was struggling with any of the aspects of life her eulogists told us about tonight. She was not a happy person, and they readily told us about it tonight. I am undoubtedly shocked by the realization that the woman I knew then, who went on field trips to bakeries around town with me,  who laughed with me about our fallen souffles and unset creme brulees, who helped me decorate my new condo, and who fretted with me about whether croissants or puff pastry would be on the final exam in pastry school, had spiraled into the immense sadness she came to be mired in at her death. She seemed so carefree, in-the-moment, and recklessly fun back then.

I don't mean to be so morose on a blog that so happily discusses food and the enjoyment of it, but I just wanted to encourage folks to try and always be attune to those around you and what makes them tick. A time bomb may be about to go off in them, and what they show you on the outside may not be what's going on inside. I wish I'd had seen the drama in our friendship for what it could have meant (a conflicted person) instead of what I thought it did (a drama queen). I miss her and had come to missing her a lot lately, as my pastry business took off over the past year and I wanted someone to share in all the amazing things that were happening. But I am doing too little too late, even in writing this post as a means of paying respect to her.

Sara, you will be missed, my fellow pastry chef. I hope you find peace where you are now, and may there be lots of cakes for you to decorate in heaven.

October 26, 2009

Shitake Mushroom and Crab Bisque

After a week-plus absence from the world of blogs, I've come back with a vengeance... Shitake Mushroom and Crab Bisque. Do try this at home! This resulted from some leftover ingredients for making potstickers and boy, was it worth having a few orphans with nowhere to go. This can be made without dairy (substitute 2 cups vegetable broth for the milk), but I will say the milk gives it some heartiness, great for these already-dreary fall nights in Chicago, that's for sure!

Shitake Mushroom and Crab Bisque

2 tbsp all-purpose flour
2 tbsp butter
1 chicken or vegetable stock bouillion cube
2 cups 1% milk
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
1 tsp dried tarragon leaves
1/4 tsp dried thyme

4-5 shitake mushrooms, diced
1 can crabmeat, drained and picked over

In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, melt butter and add flour to make a roux (butter paste). Crumble bouillion cube in roux and mix well. Add milk and whisk quickly to incorporate roux. Reduce heat to medium and continue whisking to thicken (about 5-10 minutes). Add garlic through thyme and mix thoroughly. Add shitakes and crab and heat through. Serve hot with french bread croutons sprinkled on top. Serves 4.

October 16, 2009

Cooking School: Price-fixing, Poilevey, and Profiteroles

You gotta love the price-fixed meal in this economy. How else would we have ever arrived at three courses for under $30? In a state of affairs where main courses alone were trending toward $30 at even midlevel casual joints like TGIFriday's, it's a much-needed shot in the arm of the American wallet. Recently, my friend Christopher and I enjoyed a meal at Le Bouchon in Bucktown/Wicker Park. We had met the chef, Jean Claude Poilevey, at a cooking class we took at The Chopping Block a couple of years ago and were very enamored with his charm, wit, and overall Frenchiness. We were simply speechless when he showed up with our main courses and served us himself! For the first two, I thoroughly enjoyed my codfish brandade and lamb shank, and Chris indulged in the escargot and hanger steak. We also sampled each others' fare and gave our standard nods of approval. A huge fan of the pear, Chris went the rustic tart route and chose the pear country tart for dessert. A big fan of puffs in general (I have a 15-year-old Pomeranian nicknamed Puff, and all winter, you'll find me and my husband encased in various renditions of down, or "our winter puffs," as he calls them), I went with the profiteroles. It got me thinking, what's the difference between a cream puff and a profiterole?

Well, I asked the expert, my good friend Leticia of Simply Special Catering in Columbus, Ohio. She is a food goddess and petit fours genius. There isn't a tiny food on this planet that Leticia can't make. She simply pronounced: "It's the ice cream!" So a cream puff is filled with custard, creme anglaise, or any other form of vanilla cream, and ice cream is what makes a profiterole a profiterole. It's the French version of the ice cream sundae! I highly recommend the ones at Le Bouchon. They come swathed in a rich, dark chocolate sauce that definitely calls for a little Spoonfoolery. Or you can make your own with this pretty darn true-to-form profiteroles recipe from Gourmet.

October 12, 2009

Cooking School: Cupcake Batter vs. Cake Batter

Can you use cake batter for cupcakes and vice versa? A lot of people have asked me that, and the short answer is: sure thing. However, there are a few things to remember about refrigeration, shelf life, and baking time between the two options... Cupcakes have a shorter shelf life due to their compactness. Since they have a smaller surface area overall, they'll dry up faster. So if you need to bake a cake ahead of time, you can bake it up to three days ahead of time, wrap the individual layers well in plastic wrap (unfrosted), and at least freeze it (never refrigerate baked goods for extended periods; the slow wafting of cold air in your refrigerator at a constant rate dries up baked goods like the Sahara). Frosted matter can and should be refrigerated though, especially if the frosting is dairy-based (traditional buttercream). Wilton, Duncan Hines, and Pilsbury frostings are shortening-based, and so when frosted, cakes and cupcakes can remain at room temperature.

Additionally, the general timeframe for baking cupcakes is 18-22 minutes, depending on your oven (whether it bakes hotter than most, which some people do experience). You definitely can't bake cupcakes for as long as you do a cake. Also, you should try to bake and decorate cupcakes over a 24-48-hour period and then make sure they get consumed shortly thereafter. Like that's ever a problem for most people. Who doesn't love a cupcake?

Clockwise from top: vanilla with vanilla buttercream and fondant flower with silver dragee; carrot cake with ginger cream cheese frosting and fondant-and-buttercream carrot; red velvet with cream cheese frosting and white chocolate disc; lavender lemonade with lavender-lemon buttercream and dried lavender blossoms.

October 5, 2009

Day of Mourning in Foodie Land


Wow! This hit was right in the kisser today. Gourmet Magazine is folding??? Next month's is the final issue. As a former journalist (book editor and freelance writer) and present-day chef, this was very sad news to read today. Gourmet is a food bible, and Ruth Reichl its lording Goddess. The Web site literally got up and running just this year (Gourmet was late to the online game, probably because the magazine has for so long captured its readers the old-fashioned way--through paper and print.), and now it may not survive the year. I was suspicious when its infamous Politics of Food column was dropped a few months ago. I suspect that's an expensive one for the mag to maintain, as it requires a journalist and a foodie to really get to the meat of the story. Even as an equally avid Bon Appetit fan, I was sorely disappointed to hear that one will stay afloat, while Ruth et al are on the streets looking for work. Having lived through a fair number of failures and takeovers in the book publishing world, I know this story too well. I just wish some famous food giant out there in celebrity chefdom would consider pitching some money at Conde Nast and keeping the Gourmet food dream alive. I can't imagine my mailbox this December without it. :-(

October 3, 2009

Cooking School: Sugar Pumpkins vs Jack-O-Lanterns

I've been asked what's the difference, so here goes... If cooking, use sugar (or "pie") pumpkins. They're "meatier" so-to-speak, and provide more heft to a dish, especially pie or pasta filling. Large pumpkins, having thinner walls and lots of seeds, are really only farmed for carving. You can read more about all the differences here. I agree wholeheartedly with what Produce Pete says about sugar pumpkins and soup. I've tried making my curried pumpkin soup with canned pumpkin puree, and well, forgedabouddit! Nothing beats the real Action Jackson--a sugar pumpkin! You can get my curried pumpkin soup here. In the meantime, here's a toasted pumpkin seed recipe we tried last night, with the pumpkin seeds from the latest batch of soup. These make a great, healthy snack, and I daresay they could replace popcorn at your next movie theater outing!

Indian-Spiced Pumpkin Seeds

2 cups washed and dried pumpkin seeds
2 T vegetable oil
1 tsp garam masala (Indian combination spice, found at Whole Foods or a local ethnic grocery store)
1 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 F. Set baking rack in oven at second level (not the middle, but not the highest rung either). Line a 14 x 10 jelly roll pan (cookie sheet with a lip) with parchment or Silpat. In a bowl, combine pumpkin seeds, vegetable oil, garam masala, and salt. Mix thoroughly and spread on sheet pan. Bake for 35 minutes, stirring once halfway through baking. Allow to cool and store in airtight container or sealed Ziploc. Keeps 1 week.

October 1, 2009

Broccoli-Leek Chowder with Bacon

Our vegetable share produced a bumper crop of broccoli the past two weekends. What to do with all these florets? They were accompanied by some rather perfect red potatoes and a gorgeous leek, so I came up with the following introduction to fall... Grab a spoon and dig in!

Broccoli-Leek Chowder with Bacon

4 strips bacon, cooked and crumbled (reserve 2 T bacon fat)
1 large leek, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp tarragon
6 small red potatoes, coarsely chopped (skins on)
1 large head broccoli, trimmed to single florets
1 quart (32 oz) vegetable broth
1 c shredded Gouda or Gruyere cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Heat 2 T bacon fat on medium-high heat in a large stockpot. Saute leeks 2-3 minutes, until golden. Add garlic and saute another 1-2 minutes. Add herbs and potatoes and cook and stir about 3-5 minutes to soften (do not brown potatoes). Add vegetable broth and bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low, cover, and allow to simmer until potatoes are soft (about 20 minutes). Remove soup from heat and allow to cool about 15 minutes. Ladle half the soup into a deep bowl and use an immersion blender to puree this portion (or pour into a blender and puree). Return puree to pot and reheat on medium-low heat. Add broccoli and simmer 3-5 minutes. Serve hot with cheese and bacon sprinkled on top. Serves 6.

September 30, 2009

National Punctuation Day Entry (Not Submitted!)

OK, so the first real entry in this blog is going to be about bread. Sorry about that! But here's my potential entry into the National Punctuation Day contest. In this electronic age, I decided it was too complicated to submit an entry (they actually want a sample of the item, the recipe, and *print* photos--who actually gets prints of anything these days?). So I'm just going to post it here for your enjoyment. I love baking bread and find it to be very therapeutic, so despite not officially entering, I had fun with this, and hubby and I are enjoying plenty of French toast as a result. This is a standard challah recipe, by the way, with half wheat flour. See a video on how to make it here.

September 28, 2009

A Spoonful of Sugar...

Welcome to Spoonfoolery...a blog about a spoon, a bowl, and a whole lotta funsense in the kitchen. This blog will pose some questions about food, answer some quandaries about kitchen chemistry, and experiment with all kinds of cooking shenanigans. Let me know if you're pondering anything in particular, but otherwise, grab a spoon and dig in![tm]