Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Stuff this....

The other day I posited a question on Facebook that asked who the heck was the first person to look at an artichoke and say "Gee, I think I'll eat that."  I got all sorts of answers back like:

"..the same person who looked at a cow's udder's and said I want to drink what comes out of that..."


"...Same person who saw shellfish...."

But somehow those at least seem a little more intuitive to me. Watch a baby calf suckle and you can pretty much guess what comes out of there is nutrition of some sort.  Look at a clam or a muscle and you can at least guess that what's in there might be tasty.  The artichoke, with its spiny leaves and fuzzy choke must have taken some serious work - but whoever it was - I say a great big thank you!

Artichokes have always been one of my favorite all time special occasion side dishes.  When I was little, every holiday meal whether it was Thanksgiving, Easter or Christmas always had stuffed artichokes.  And every holiday, about a week or two before whatever holiday it was - Mom and Dad would be out grocery shopping and Dad would point out that the artichokes would be $1 each and would try to get Mom to pick them up early. And every year for every holiday Mom would chastise Dad because you can't buy artichokes early! You have to get them just before you're ready to cook them or they'll turn black! So when the actual day for the big holiday shop came around, they would come home not speaking because Mom had the gall to pay sometimes up to $4 or $5 each for artichokes. As we sat down to eat whatever meal it was, be it lamb for Easter, turkey for Thanksgiving or fillet mignon for Christmas (and lest you think my family somewhere became "American" this is after the antipasto, soup, macaroni, gravy meat, etc....) Dad would turn a mild shade of purple and ask "Is it a good artichoke? It's a $5 artichoke you're eating. Don't choke on it....

Now the best part of the artichoke for me is always the heart. Don't get me wrong - I love scraping the meaty portion off the leaves and catching some of the garlicky cheesy stuffing with it. But the best part is when you get down to the heart. The tender, meaty, extremely flavorful heart. When I was little, Mom and Dad would give me their hearts because they knew how much I loved them. As I got older, I began to share my hearts with them. In some ways, it almost felt like a right of passage. But my favorite artichoke story has to do with my Aunt Judy and my Grandpa.  Now you have to understand that every time this story gets told the table gets a little bigger and the fork a little longer.... But the general story goes that one Sunday, Aunt Judy was over the house for dinner and had been patiently working her way through an artichoke, pulling and scraping the leaves. Finally, she got to the heart! All of a sudden from across the table (which has ranged in the story from a 4' table to over 19' away depending on how much wine has been consumed during its telling....) came my Grandpa's fork stabbing the heart, sweeping it off the plate and Grandpa saying "...you didn't want that did ya kid?"  Well, needless to say Judy never quite got over that. To this very day, I believe if there's an artichoke on the table, she'll guard it with her life. And heaven help you if you go for her heart.  I once nearly got a fork in the back of the hand trying the same move and learned pretty quickly to stick to my own artichoke!

Over the years, a lot of people have asked me how I make my stuffed artichokes. Well, I do it the way my Mom does it, who did it the way her father did it, who did it the way his sister (my Aunt Ida of cookie fame) did it, who did it probably the way countless cooks in our family have done it for years. What I'm about to give you are approximations - I prefer a LOT of grated cheese and garlic in my stuffing but you can adjust according to your own tastes. The important part in this is to make sure your stuffing is flavorful and that your artichokes are fully cooked so the leaves are super tender and pull easily from the base.

Nigro-DiPalo Carcofi Ripieni (Stuffed Artichokes)
4 Artichokes (not baby) - cleaned (see below), reserving two of the artichoke stems for the stuffing
1 cup Chicken Stock
1 cup Water
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Large Bowl of Acidulated Water (water + lemon juice = acidulated water)

1 cup plain breadcrumbs
1 cup grated cheese (I use a mix of Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano)
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
Stems from two artichokes, peeled and very finely minced
salt and pepper (to taste)
olive oil
3/4 cup shredded mozzarella (optional)

Clean your artichokes by slicing off the stem (leaving a flat base) and slicing off the top portion of the artichoke (about an inch or so). Reserve two of the stems for the stuffing.  Remove the smaller, tough leaves from the artichoke and then give the whole thing a rinse under running water.  Make sure to get in and open the leaves while you're doing this to a) rinse out any grit that may be in there and b)give yourself an opening for the stuffing.  I find that placing the artichoke cut side down on a board and pressing gently with the heel of my hand in a circular motion really helps to open the leaves.

At this point, you can either use my method and with a grapefruit spoon scoop out the choke from the center of the artichoke (covered in purple spiny leaves with a soft fuzzy white portion underneath - you should note this is NOT edible and you can in fact choke on it) - or you can use my Mother's method and let each guest remove the choke when they get to the heart. Your choice of whether you want to work harder or have your guests work harder.

After you have cleaned each artichoke, place it in the bowl of acidulated water while you move onto the next one to prevent it from turning brown.  Leave the artichokes in the water while you make the stuffing.

Combine all of the ingredients from bread crumbs through the salt and pepper. Drizzle in enough olive oil to just moisten the stuffing a bit. You want it to resemble wet set not be a sopping mess.

Take an artichoke and shake out the water.  Stuff it with a quarter of the stuffing making sure to really get the center (especially if you've removed the choke) and also in between each of leaves. I find that I sort of pour it on, then run my hand over the top to get it down between the leaves and do that a few times until it's really packed.  Repeat with the remaining artichokes and place them in a pan (with a tight fitting lid). The snugger the fit of the artichokes the better here. Pour the chicken stock and water around (NOT OVER) the artichokes) and drizzle about a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil over the tops of each. Cover and cook over a low flame for about 45 minutes to an hour, basting the artichokes with the liquid about every 15 minutes or so.

You'll know they're cooked when a) the house smells so unbelievably good you can't stop yourself from reaching into the pot and tearing off a leaf or two and b) when you do this and the leaves come out super easily and are very tender.

If you want to serve this as an appetizer course, once they're cooked, remove them from the pot and place on a sheet tray. Top each with a good portion of the shredded mozzarella and a little extra grated pecorino romano, then place under the broiler for about 5 minutes to melt and brown the cheese. Watch carefully as I can't tell you how many things I've set on fire using the broiler!

It's a lot of work I admit, so you can see why it's mainly only a special occasion food! But I can't tell you how worth the effort they truly are.  Just be sure to guard your hearts!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

No Kitty! That is MY Pot Pie!

Thank you South Park. I really don't think anyone of my generation will be able to hear the words pot pie and not think of the scene with Cartman yelling "No Kitty! That's my Pot Pie!"

Now seriously - let's think about this. Chunks of chicken, carrots, pearl onions and peas in a creamy sauce and topped with flaky pastry. Does it get any better? Does anything satisfy you more on a cool fall night? And hot damn if they don't smell god while baking in the oven.

My first foray into pot pies came as a child when Mom would mix up the last of our Thanksgiving leftovers - turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, roasted white potatoes with peas and onions and carrots all together with a can or two of cream of mushroom soup and toss the whole thing into pie shells.  Something about the combination of those flavors pulled out of the freezer and baked up into a warm rich pie makes my heart go pitter pat.

Yesterday happened to be a perfect fall day. The sky was a gorgeous crystal blue, the air was cool but the sun was warm.  I got out of work a bit early and went for a run along the Hudson River side of Inwood Hill Park.  Feeling great (and figuring I deserved the indulgence after the run) I decided I'd go for it and prepare a pot pie.  I picked up a chicken, some bacon, carrots, potatoes, peas and pearl onions along with some cream and butter and headed home.

First things first - I soaked the chicken in a big pot of salted water and then cut it up into 8 pieces. Salt, pepper and olive oil and into the oven at 400 to roast for about 40 minutes.  Meanwhile I made a basic pie crust in my food processor with flour, baking powder, salt, butter, vegetable shortening and ice water.  Form into a disk and allow to chill for 30 minutes.

While the chicken finished roasting and dough chilled, I prepped my other ingredients. I cut a few slices of thick cut bacon into lardons and rendered out the fat. I pulled out the crisp bacon and added a few tablespoons (ok ok, it was a stick of butter....but I ran two miles so I needed the calories....) and let it melt. I sauteed two cups of chopped yellow onions in the butter and bacon fat and then added about 3/4 cup of flour to that and it cook for about two minutes.  I added about 5 cups of warm chicken stock that had been warming on the stove and then added the chopped carrots, potatoes, pearl onions and peas.  By this point the chicken was out of the oven and cooling so I pulled the meat off the bones by hand and added it to the mixture. Finally I added about 1/2 cup of cream and the crispy bacon back into the mix. 

I pulled out my ramekins and filled each one to near full with the chicken, veggie and sauce mixture. I rolled out the pie crust and cut it into rounds just larger than the pie crust.  A brush of beaten egg around the rim of each ramekin and then I placed the crust on top, crimping the edges so it would stick.  A quick brush of egg wash over the crust, some kosher salt and fresh ground pepper and 3 small slices with a knife into the top to let out the steam. Into a 375 degree oven for an hour to bubble and bake.

And then finally? It's time to eat.  I curled up on the couch with my pot pie, a Gritty's brown ale and caught up on the DVR I had missed while away at a database conference this week. Was it work? Yes! Was it worth it? Hell's yes!

While I ate Meatball perched on the edge of the couch with his whiskers twitching as he sniffed the deliciousness.  And it gave me great pleasure to look at him and say "No Kitty! This is MY pot pie!"

So here's today's question: What's your favorite fall indulgence? Is it a warm apple pie baked with fresh picked apples? A thick and hearty chowder? Meatloaf and gravy? Post in the comments below and let me know what your own autumn culinary adventures will include!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

My own form of torture...

It's a perfect fall Sunday morning.  The sky is a gorgeous bright blue and the air is crisp and cool. I'm wearing my favorite flannel pajama pants with a huge mug of coffee sitting on the couch watching back to back episodes of Top Chef: Just Desserts while using my picture-in-picture feature to keep tabs on what Bobby Flay is making on Brunch at Bobby's. In my head I'm making mental lists of everything I want to try including these FABULOUS little chocolate cups made from dipping small inflated balloons into perfectly tempered chocolate and then popping the balloons. In my head I could fill them with zabaglione and fresh berries or crushed cookie crumbs and chocolate custard or peanut butter mousse with caramelized bananas....

I'm also thinking of how perfect it would be to roast a chicken today or make an apple pie and fill the house with that gorgeous warm smell perfect for this time of year. My brain is in overdrive and I'm getting so excited I'm ready to run out and hit the market in my PJ's....

And then my little heart sinks as I realize I can't actually do any of this today. Tomorrow morning at 6am I'm going to be heading off to a somewhat less delicious conference in Washington, DC and I'll be there until Thursday. So no playing with chocolate, no apple pie baking in the oven, no chicken roasting and filling the house with that warm wonderful smell. Just me, some brisket leftovers from the other night and lots of packing and sorting through conference papers.

Seriously....torture.  But just wait until next weekend! It's going to be an all out cooking/baking extravaganza here at Chez Nigro! Unless of course Mother Nature throws me a curve ball and brings the temperatures back up again. Stay tuned and see what happens.

And in the meantime - let me live vicariously through you! Leave a comment and let me know if you're going to be celebrating fall with your own culinary creations today!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Everyone's a little bit Jewish....

Growing up, I thought every Italian Catholic kid had a Jewish Aunt where they would go celebrate the holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Passover. It wasn't until I got much older that I realized how unbelievably lucky I was to have someone like my Aunt Judy in my life. Mom and Judy had been friends from at least High School (maybe longer?)so she has played a major role in my life instilling a deep love of entertaining friends and family in addition to inspiring my traveling bug. Couple this with the fact that I work for a Jewish nonprofit organization, and it really was only a matter of time before I found a way to use all of this to my culinary advantage.

Rosh Hashanah meals at Aunt Judy's are some of my favorite food memories. There was always chopped liver and matzoh ball soup. Dishes that passed the table included chicken with apricots, stuffed breast of veal, kasha varnishkes, tzimmes, kugel and more. Judy had small kitchen in Queens and it was amazing to watch dish after dish after dish come pouring out of that space. Of course, the more dishes that came out usually meant the more dishes I would have to wash later. At the end of each course Judy would gently bellow "Mitsy! Sweetums!" in a sing song voice, and before the next course was on the table I'd be well on my way to dishpan hands.

The other thing that amazed me about these dinners was the food storage methods that Judy came up with. I had no idea you could store so many things in baggies! Soup? Freeze it in a ziploc! Tzimmes? Squeeze it out like toothpaste! Gravy? Hah! No problem. Zip that right up.

So the other day, Stacie, my very best friend in the whole world was talking about how she hadn't had a Rosh Hashanah dinner in years. So having an almost embarrassing amount of time off this month for the Jewish holidays, and feeling pretty settled into my new apartment, I decided it was time for a formal dinner party and that my best bud would get her dinner. So I gathered a bunch of my closest friends to ring in the new year and indulge in a menu worthy of my Aunt Judy!

We started the meal with the traditional apple dipped in honey and Stacie read (phonetically) the brucha so that God might bless us with a sweet year. That was followed with gefilte fish and horseradish that Stacie brought and insisted a New Year's meal would not be complete without. Gefilte fish is one of those things that I can't quite wrap my head around. The smell upon opening the jar can be overwhelming but it's not unpleasant to eat. Almost everyone at the table tried at least a small piece and the general consensus was that it wasn't that bad with some opinions even bordering on "like".

The next course was matzoh ball soup. I made the chicken soup that morning with a cut up chicken, carrots, celery, onion, garlic, peppercorns, thyme and parsley. When the soup was ready, I chilled it so that the fat would rise to the top and be easily skimmable leaving me with a clear light broth. I prepared the mix for the matzoh balls using matzoh meal (that I made from crushing up whole matzoh in the food processor). The matzoh meal was combined with beaten eggs, seltzer, schmaltz (that I pulled from the chicken I used to cook the soup), chopped parsley, salt and pepper. I let the mixture rest and then just before we sat, I took the fat off of the soup and let it gently heat while I simmered the matzoh balls in salted boiling water. To my joy and delight I had created floaters and not sinkers! Not bad for an Italian kid from Brooklyn! There were also loaves of homemade whole wheat challah. Unfortunately because of the humidity the bread just didn't rise correctly but the flavor was there. I'll just have to try again when the humidity breaks!

For the main course, I prepared a wine braised brisket. I had two beautiful point cuts of brisket that I seasoned liberally with salt and pepper and then seared in a screaming hot dutch oven. I surrounded the meat with carrots, red onions and celery and then covered the meat with a paste of olive oil, garlic and chopped rosemary. Covered in wine, beef stock and chopped tomatoes - I brought the liquid to a boil on the stove top, lowered to a simmer and then put the whole thing covered into a 325 degree oven to braise for about 3 1/2 hours basting the meat every half hour or so.
This was served with my version of tzimmes - a traditional sweet carrot side dish. I made mine by sauteing some onions in olive oil and added diced carrots and sweet potatoes along with some cinnamon and crushed cardamom pods. I let the veggies cook for a few minutes and then added about a cup of fresh orange juice mixed with some honey. I covered the pan and let it simmer on low for about 30 minutes. When the veggies were soft, I added the zest of one large orange, adjusted the seasonings and then pureed the mixture with a little extra broth. I wasn't initially going to puree but as I was mixing the zest, I noticed the vegetables starting to fall apart so figured I would just finish it. What resulted was smooth and creamy without the cream and just a perfect hint of spice. It's incredibly good for you and yet feels ridiculously indulgent while you're eating it.

We also had a sweet noodle kugel that I made by making a caramel, then boiling the caramel with water, salt and pepper and allowing egg noodles to absorb that liquid. Add 4 beaten eggs and pour into a casserole dish and top with more freshly ground black pepper. That went into the oven at 350 for about a half hour until the top was crispy and brown. The only thing that would have made that better would have been to toss in a few raisins or dried apple pieces. Well - now I know for next year! Feeling the need for something green, I also made a cucumber salad by slicing English Cucumbers on a mandolin (no finger slices!) and dressing it lightly with garlic powder, smoked Spanish paprika, salt, pepper and a splash of red wine vinegar.

After a rest and some much needed dish washing (where now that I think on it, I bellowed similarly sweetly for my own friends to come help with the dishes...) we moved onto dessert. Traditionally there would be an apple honey cake, but I decided to use a dark gingerbread pear cake that I love at this time of year. Moist and rich with fresh ginger and loaded with chunks of pear, the cake was a beautiful end to a great meal.

Everyone pitched in to wash and dry the dishes and, when it came down to storing the leftovers, it should surprise no one that the tzimmes and the soup both went into baggies! The brisket? Into a baggie along with the gravy! There was a method to Aunt Judy's madness after all.

What a great way to ring in 5772! Surrounded by my very best of friends, doing what I love, and keeping traditions going while adding my own twists to it. Doesn't get much better than this!

L'shana tova!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

As good as the recipe....

People ask me which I enjoy more - baking or cooking. And the truth is the answer depends on the day. I love the creativity that cooking allows me. I can play with ingredients without worrying about measuring and I can adjust flavors based on a whim. Baking is a bit more scientific but no less fun. Now that the weather is starting to cool down and dry out (ok, not so much today with the air feeling sort of soup like with this humidity) I am excited to get back into bread baking and croissant making and all those things I can't really do during the hot New York summers without central air.

And because baking is a much more specific art, I do follow recipes a lot more closely. Which is where the topic for today's blog comes in. We've had a recipe in my family for many years, passed down from my Great Aunt Ida to her children, nieces and nephews. They are a very traditional Italian cookie called Anginetti. Every family has a recipe for them and everyone thinks theirs is the best. When made right, they are a good size, cake like lemon flavored cookie covered in a thin lemon icing.

I grew up making Aunt Ida's cookies. When I was about three, Mom started handing me small balls of the dough to play with. I'd play with this dough for hours and hours and eventually, I'd shape it into a little knot, hand it back to Mom completely blackened and filthy from my little hands (and however many times I dropped it)and watch expectantly as she dropped it onto the baking sheet. I'd then excitedly pick out 'my' cookie from the sheet after it was baked. Of course, Mom was awesome with the bait and switch, carefully tossing my dirty cookie and replacing it with a nice clean one.

As I got older, I got to help out more in the making of the dough and the rolling of the cookies. I moved from breaking the eggs and adding them as Mom mixed the dough, to pouring in the butter, measuring the dry ingredients etc... The reason I love this recipe is that we do it all by hand. The flour goes on the table in a ring, and in the center we mix the sugar, baking powder and lemon extract, then add melted butter and eggs. The dough gets kneaded for a long time until it is a smooth, elastic ball. After a short rest, we roll small balls of the dough into snakes and then twist them into either long or round shapes. They are baked, cooled, iced and packed away in double layers of foil and plastic wrap to ensure freshness.

A few years ago, Mom and I switched roles. She became the assistant and I became head baker. Until very recently I never attempted these cookies without her there to give me a final check on the dough. The first time I made them by myself I was completely and utterly terrified. But my hands have become so acclimated to this dough over the years that I stopped thinking and started just feeling. It also helps to have Jerry Vale and Lou Monte blasting in the background (my neighbors LOVE me).

But I did sometimes feel that my cookies didn't quite have the same flavor as Mom's. I use the exact recipe she gave me. But mine just never come as lemony. Is it me? Am I buying the wrong lemon extract? I always buy pure just like Aunt Ida taught us. I never use a mixer. I bake for the required amount of time and always keep a pan of water in the bottom of the oven to create a little steam. The texture is always perfect and if you had nothing to compare them to you'd probably think they were great. But there's just something missing....

Last week I made a double recipe to turn into favors for my Dad's 75th birthday party. I baked about 200 cookies and then some friends came over later to help bag them in cello bags and tie them with ribbons. They were beautiful and everyone in the room immediately recognized them as Aunt Ida's cookies. Mom and Dad both said they were delicious as they have enjoyed the leftovers on a regular basis since the party. Today, while talking to Mom she finally let slip that maybe, there wasn't enough lemon flavor and that maybe, someone might have mentioned that they weren't as good as Mom's. So we went over the recipe and she asked how much extract I used. I told her 2 ounces for a double batch. She said "Oh, that's your problem. It's 2 ounces for a single batch!" Well Mom, that's not what the recipe YOU sent me says. But just to make sure I checked and sure enough she only had typed one ounce....

Had this been the first time she did this to me, I might not have taken it so personally. But there was the great crumb cake incident about 5 years ago that has never quite faded from memory. Mom has this great crumb cake recipe that I asked for. The best part are the crumbs and in the recipe she sent me there was no flour listed. I figured Mom knows what she's doing so I made the recipe and ended up with goopy brown sugar mess on top of my cake. I called her and asked about the flour and she said (in her very Mom tone) "Oh? Did I forget the flour? Oh I'm sorry!" Riiight. I call sabotage!

So now I know - double check any recipe that Mom happens to send me. And this year - when we both make the cookies at Christmas time, we'll see who comes out ahead. As far as I'm concerned, this means war. And what a delicious war it will be.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Treat Days (and the secret to perfect Eggplant Parm)

At my office, every week there's a designated "treat" day. It used to be Monday's but for some reason, on this latest round, it has become "Treat Tuesday" perhaps for its more alliterative title. One person is assigned to provide a treat for the office and help alleviate some of the drudgeries of the day. The treats can vary and have included everything from cheese platters from Artisinal to a breakfast shmorsgasboard from Russ & Daughters to cupcakes, muffins, and these awesome little marshmallow-caramel-chocolate-pretzel things that I occasionally dream about. Part of the fun is waiting for the treat to be unveiled. So when my turn rolled around, I decided to go a little over the top and sent a warning that staff probably wouldn't need breakfast, or lunch, or a snack on that day.
We started out with my version of a bread and muffin basket. I had a honey whole wheat loaf that I had in the freezer taking up space so that was the bread portion. Once defrosted and toasted it was the perfect foil to be slathered with butter or cream cheese and really good strawberry preserves. For the muffins I decided to go for a combination of savory and sweet. The sweet were whole wheat carrot ginger muffins that were spiked with orange juice and zest. The savory were my favorite muffin recipe - a leek and chevre muffin that, when eaten while still warm just melts in your mouth.

A few hours later, I rang the lunch bell for eggplant parmigiana, baked rigatoni and a tossed green salad. The masses descended rapidly and before I knew it there were just three empty trays with just a few streaks of marinara left.

The eggplant is my Mom's recipe and both she and I have been told there is no better eggplant out there. The trick I think is to make sure that you slice the eggplant very thin and then salt it well. I also always peel my eggplant for this. Layer the slices in a colander, with a hefty handful of coarse kosher salt between the layers. Then, weight the whole thing down with a heavy plate on top and let it sit for a good 20 minutes on the counter (a little longer sometimes depending on what else I'm doing). I usually use two medium eggplants to make one 9 x 13 baking dish. When you're ready to begin frying the eggplant, remove the plate and you'll see a lot of brown liquid has drained out of it. That liquid is what can give the eggplant a brackish and bitter taste. The salt draws it out and you're left with a much more delicate flavor. Rinse it well of the salt and the remaining liquid that sometimes clings to the eggplant. Then pat it dry and dredge it in flour seasoned with a little black pepper and dip in a combination of beaten eggs, grated pecorino and chopped parsley. Fry the eggplant in batches in vegetable oil and drain on paper towels.

To make the parmigiana, spread marinara on the bottom of a baking dish (my marinara is a simple combination of olive oil, garlic, good crushed tomatoes, a slug of red wine and fresh basil). Then, put down a layer of eggplant, top with thinly sliced mozzarella, a good handful of grated pecorino and a few torn up basil leaves. Repeat until you're out of eggplant (easy to do if you're like me and snack on the fried eggplant while you're making your layers). Top with a final spread of the marinara, another handful of pecorino and a few more basil leaves. Cover with foil and bake at 350 until the cheese is melted and the whole thing is bubbling and you want to stick your face in it - 3rd degree burns be damned!

The baked rigatoni is about as simple as simple can get. I use rigatoni instead of ziti because I find it sets up better as ziti can become a tad mushy when baked. Cook one pound of rigatoni until it just begins to soften. You want it really al dente because it will finish cooking while baking in the oven. In a large bowl (or the macaroni pot you just cooked it in as I always do), mix it with some marinara, one pound of chopped mozzarella, one and a half cups of ricotta and spread in a baking dish (that you've already spread a bit of marinara in the bottom). Top with more sauce, grated cheese and fresh torn basil leaves. Cover and bake it at 350 till its hot and bubbling. I usually uncover mine for the last 10 minutes so the edges get nice and crispy. That always was my favorite part.
For dessert (because there had to be dessert) - I put a twist on one of my office traditions. Instead of doing a large tiramisu, I made small individual ones. I lined a muffin tin with cupcake liners and made layers using vanilla wafer cookies, my standard tiramisu cream, and then topped them with fresh whipped cream and a sprinkling of cocoa powder. They set up over night in the fridge and came out as little tiramisu cupcakes. Perfect for portion control (unless of course you eat six of them....).

Of course, at the end of all of this I think I sent the entire floor into a food coma and productivity took a nose dive for the rest of the day. But every once in a while, its worth it.

Happy Eating!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Benedict comes to Breakfast

I love Saturdays. They're my favorite day of the week because it means not only can I sleep late today, but I can sleep late tomorrow too! Don't get me wrong, I love Sundays as well...but there's something about the blank slate of an unplanned Saturday to really get the relaxation going.

As per my usual Saturday morning musings, one of the first things I thought of this morning when I woke up was what would the morning's culinary adventures bring. I could have done a simple scrambled egg with a whole grain English muffin but I wanted something more. I was in an adventurous mood - but what to do. I flipped through my favorite Judith Jones The Pleasures of Cooking for One for ideas which all sounded good but I was missing many of the necessary ingredients for either baked or shirred eggs. Then I came across her recipe for Eggs Benedict. Having never made hollandaise sauce before, and seeing her "easy" recipe to make it for one person I figured I'd give it a shot.

One of the things I hate most about making breakfast is that for some reason, I find it hard to keep everything hot at the same time. This morning would prove no different. First I read, and then reread her directions for the hollandaise. I got out my small heavy pot and set it in my cast iron of barely simmering water. Add egg yolk and whisk till its lemon colored and thick - ow, my arm hurts even with this small pot. Then whisk in four tablespoons of cold butter cut into twelve pieces. Whisk slowly, steadily, and add the butter continuously to keep the temperature from getting too hot. Have pan of ice water nearby in case the sauce starts to break (which, Judith assures me won't happen as long as I whisk slowly and surely).

Whisk, add, whisk add, all the while with the idea in the back of my mind that this is going a little too well - any minute the phone is going to ring with my Saturday morning phone call from Mom and I'm going to have to run and answer it and it will all go to hell. Whisk, add, whisk, add, listen for phone, whisk, add...and before I know it all the butter has been incorporated and the damn thing looks like hollandaise. I add a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of salt and hot damn if it doesn't taste like hollandaise! I set the whole thing off to the side with a lid and, as Judith instructs, give it a whisk every few minutes to keep it smooth.

Ok, now its time to poach the eggs. I have a love/hate relationship with poached eggs. I love to eat them, hate to cook them. But here goes. Boil water, lower to simmer, add salt and a splash of white vinegar (that's not from Judith - that's from my many trials and errors) and add the eggs very very gently. And still they freaking spider out in every which direction. But slowly, slowly fold the whites over the yolk gently gently to not break it and sure enough they start to look like poached eggs. Cook for four minutes.

Crap! Forgot to split and toast the (light wholegrain) English muffin! (I haven't completely foregone the healthy eating....yet....). Stick that in the toaster oven and grab two slices of Canadian Bacon out of the fridge and slap them in a pan to brown up. Uh oh, the eggs are done and have to come out or they'll be over poached. But my muffin isn't toasted yet! And oops! Forgot to stir the hollandaise. Oh shoot! It's separating! Now what? Oh yes, insert into pan of ice water and whisk whisk whisk again. Whew. It's smooth, but now its cold. Damnit! Back into the pan of simmering water and whisk whisk. What's that sound? Oh the toast is done! ARGH!!!!!

Somehow, I managed to get everything onto the plate with perfectly runny yolks, slightly browned bacon and a smooth, creamy hollandaise with a zing of lemon and a rich indulgent finish. Wash it down with a cup of really good coffee and I think I'm going to be satisfied for quite a while.

And now, to help work off some of those delicious but naughty butter calories, I get to wash all the dishes, and for one small individual breakfast believe me, there are quite a lot! Feel free to come on by if you just love washing dishes.

Happy Saturday! Happy Eating!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

I'm Top Chef (of my own kitchen anyway)

So after a long hiatus I've caught the blogging bug again. Over the past eight months there were so many times I could have posted - but for some reason the thought of sitting at my computer and writing when I didn't actually "have" to was a daunting task. I attribute it to post graduation syndrome - where why the heck would I ever want to write something that in any way shape or form resembled a paper if I didn't have to. Thankfully enough time has passed that I'm over it and ready to start again.

And what a way to start than with the discovery of my new favorite spice blend! Those of you who know me know that I have a complete and absolute obsession with Top Chef. In Season Four, Richard Blaise (who's now on this season's All Star version) kept using a spice blend called "Ras El Hanout". In multiple dishes he kept mentioning it and, intrigued as I was, I began doing a little research. Essentially, ras el hanout is a Moroccan spice blend that reminded me in many ways to the Indian garam masala. There seem to be as many versions of the blend as there are individual households with the number of spices involved ranging from 9 to 99 and more. Over the past few months I have tried a few different varieties, from Kalustyan's here in NYC as well as a few I've ordered from various sites on the internet. Recently I decided I'd try to make my own simple version and I think I came up with a winner (for my own purposes anyway).

I looked at a number of recipes and from there decided on the spice blend that I'd try. Here's what I came up with:

2 teaspoons turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds - toasted and crushed in a mortar and pestle (but mainly b/c I didn't have ground coriander or I would have used that)
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

I combined all of the spices together and then started the rest of dinner. I pulled the skin off of a package of chicken legs and thighs and gave them a good rub with the spice blend. Onto a baking a sheet that I lined with foil and sprayed with Pam and into a preheated 400 degree oven. Meanwhile I broke down a head of cauliflower into small florets, tossed it with some olive oil and another sprinkle of the ras el hanout. Onto another baking sheet (also foil lined for easy cleanup) and into the same oven to roast. Roasted cauliflower gets so incredibly sweet and delicious that I can eat the whole head without thinking about it. Its a long way from the steamed cauliflower my mom used to give us once in a while (oof did I hate that - Sorry Mom....).

While the chicken and cauliflower did their stuff in the oven, I prepared a quick side of whole wheat Israeli couscous (much bigger pearls than your standard couscous) with fresh herbs. I sauteed up a small onion in a tablespoon of olive oil, and then added in a cup of couscous and let it toast quickly. To that pan I added about 1 1/4 cups of chicken stock and slowly let the whole thing simmer, giving it a stir every once in a while. While that cooked I chopped up a good handful each of parsley and cilantro. When the couscous was done I stirred in the herbs and about 1/4 cup of slivered almonds for a little crunch.

After 45 minutes the chicken and cauliflower were done, the kitchen smelled amazing and I was starving! (I should also mention I started this whole thing way too late in the evening so it was about 10PM at this point and I was starving!) I served myself one thigh, one leg, a good scoop of the couscous and some cauliflower. It looked beautiful and everything went together beautifully. The cayenne in the ras el hanout gave the chicken the perfect zing to just warm you up on a cold winters night.

My favorite thing about that dinner was not only that it was delicious but that it was really good for you too. Minimal added fat, whole grains, lean proteins and vegetables with enough flavor to leave you completely satisfied. I don't know how long this whole healthy eating kick will last, but as long as I keep coming up with meals like this, I think it might be a while! Happy and Healthy Eating Kids!