Friday, August 31, 2007

Thyme Roasted Potatoes

Thyme Roasted Potatoes

Duck fat is culinary liquid gold; it's savory flavor and rich fragrance can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. The average French fry becomes the ethereal pomme frites ala canard, bland roasted potatoes are elevated to best-potatoes-ever status, and sauteed vegetables get a little extra oomph. After roasting my first duck last April, I had saved every last drop. It only rendered about a third of a cup, which unfortunately was not enough for the classic confit de canard, but its uses are endless. A spoonful here and there is perfect for frying eggs, fried rice, mashed into potatoes, roasting root vegetables, swirling into risotto, polenta, and grits, searing gnocchi, and cutting into savory pastries. After coming home from the store with two pounds of red potatoes and with my potted thyme flourishing happily, I knew it was time to dig out the precious lipid from the freezer.

- Duck fat makes the absolute best roasted potatoes. You can also use butter or olive oil but once you try duck fat, you'll never go back. As an added plus, duck fat is "healthier" than butter.
- Duck fat can be purchased online.
- Store duck fat in the freezer; there is a chance of it molding if kept in the fridge and it would be a shame to throw it away.

Thyme Roasted Potatoes
2 lbs red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into quarters (or in half for smaller potatoes)
2 - 3 Tbsp duck fat, butter, or olive oil
1 tsp coarse salt (kosher or sea salt)
Plenty of freshly ground pepper
1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, pressed or minced then mashed into a paste

Preheat the oven to 400F, adjust a rack to the middle position, and line a baking tray with a sheet of foil.

In a large bowl, toss the potatoes with the melted fat or oil (whichever you are using), salt, and pepper.

Scatter the potatoes on a baking tray and arrange all the pieces cut side down. Cover the tray with foil and bake for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, take out the tray and remove the foil. Flip all the potatoes to cut side up. Turn the broiler on and broil for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork or knife. Depending on the strength of your broiler you may need to adjust the potatoes up a rack if they are not browning enough. After about 20 minutes, turn the oven off and remove the potatoes. Sprinkle the thyme over the potatoes and gently toss. Return back to the still warm oven for another 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a heatproof serving bowl, add the pressed or mashed garlic. Add the hot potatoes on top as soon as they come out of the oven. Gently toss to coat the potatoes evenly with the garlic.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Chocolate and Caramel Tart

Chocolate Caramel Tart

I have already professed my affection for tarts so when Veronica and Patricia unveiled this month’s Daring Baker challenge featuring the heavenly combination of chocolate and caramel, it was love at first sight. Their luscious selection from Eric Kayser's Sweet and Savory Tarts is made with a chocolate shortbread crust, caramel filling, and a layer of chocolate mousse. Bettina (Steven’s little sis) and I had planned to make it together, but things kept coming up and pretty soon she was getting ready to leave for college again. It was the last week of August and Steven said, “Hey... don’t you have to do your Daring Baker thing soon?” I’ve been feeling a little under the weather lately but managed to set aside some time to make the tart just yesterday. If you've been checking out all the beautiful tarts made by my fellow DBs (you can find them here, you’ll notice that there are a few things wrong with my tart but hopefully I will answer all your questions.

You can find the complete recipe on Veronica's or Patricia's blogs.

Part 1: The Crust
The original recipe made enough for three 9 1/2 in square tarts or 10 in round tarts. I decided to make some little tartlets so I made 1/4 of the original recipe (it was easier to scale down by 4 than by 3). One thing that struck me as rather odd was the addition of cinnamon in the crust, and quite a bit of it too. I had never heard of combining cinnamon, chocolate, caramel, and hazelnut. Luckily Veronica said we could omit the cinnamon, which I chose to do because I’m not the biggest fan of it and many DBs felt the flavor was just way too overpowering in this case. Here are the ingredients I used for the crust:

Chocolate Shortbread Pastry
4 Tbsp butter
1/4 C + 1 1/2 tsp powdered sugar
2 Tbsp ground hazelnuts (I toasted some at 350F, rubbed the skins off, and ground them in the food processor)
1/2 beaten egg (I beat an egg and measured out half)
1 C + 2 Tbsp cake flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cocoa powder
Optional: 1/2 tsp cinnamon (I omitted this)

In a food processor or stand mixer cream the butter.
Add the powdered sugar, ground hazelnuts, and cinnamon if using, and mix.
Beat 1 egg and measure out half of it, add it the food processor or stand mixer and mix it into the butter.
Sift in the flour, baking powder, and cocoa powder, and mix well.
Form the dough into a ball and chill overnight.
Preheat the oven to 325F. Roll out the dough and line the pan. Bake for 15 minutes.

Another thing you’ll notice is that although it’s suppose to be a chocolate shortbread crust, the amount of cocoa powder the recipe calls for is very tiny (original recipe called for 1 1/2 tablespoons and for the proposes of my scaling, I rounded down to 4 teaspoons). I scrounged around the pantry for the cocoa powder I rarely use and it looked absolutely ancient, must have been a few years ago. I didn’t trust the quality of the cocoa powder to use it so as a result, my crust is pale blond and not the pretty shade of chocolatey brown like it should be.

After the chill overnight, I went to roll out my dough. While it was very easy to roll out, when it came time to lift the dough into my tartlet plans, it cracked and broke into pieces. Not pretty. I was able to use a bench scraper to lift the dough into the tartlet pans and push together the pieces of the crust. I can only imagine the nightmare this dough caused when attempting to lift the whole thing into a larger tart pan.

Part 2: The Filling

Caramel Filling
1 C sugar
1 C heavy whipping cream
4 Tbsp butter
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
2 1/2 Tbsp flour

Although I only made a quarter of the dough recipe, since I was going through all the trouble, I made the full caramel filling recipe. Plus, extra caramel is an added bonus. The caramel making was a bit of a fiasco but in the end it turned out okay - it wasn't a complete failure. I started by taking my butter and cream out of the fridge so they could warm up to room temp. I poured the sugar into a saucepan and placed it over medium heat. There are two ways to make caramel, the dry method, which is just sugar in a pan (method called for in the recipe), and the wet method, which is sugar with some water and corn syrup. The dry method is more difficult because the sugar can burn easier, whereas the water and corn syrup in the wet method helps to stabilize the sugar. I didn't have any corn syrup on hand, so I decided to try my luck with the dry method. I really had no idea what I was doing. I started to panic, “Oh no what if the sugar on the bottom is burning, I better stir it!” and as soon as I stirred it, the sugar clumped up and stuck to my spoon, to the sides and bottom of my pot; it was a mess.

I kept the pot over low heat and slowly it began to change colors. However, I thought the sugar was getting too dark, and I panicked again. “Oh no, I think the sugar is getting too brown, should I add the cream? But not all of the crystals have melted yet.” So to prevent the sugar from get any darker, I added the cream and the whole thing immediately seized. At this point what I had was very light brown colored cream with crystallized sugar stuck to the sides of the pot and caramelized sugar stuck on my spoon and floating in the cream soup like pieces of amber glass.

Again I kept the mixture over low heat and the sugar was slowly starting to melt into the cream. Maybe the light was playing tricks on me but I thought now the cream was getting too brown. Cue panic attack 3. “Oh no maybe I should add the butter, maybe I should just strain what I have into the flour and egg mixture.” So I added the butter, turned the heat up to medium low so the caramel was barely bubbling. At this point, it had already been 45 minutes into the caramel making process and my patience was wearing thin but now things started to take a turn for the better! The caramel started to thicken up really nicely, the sugars on the bottom and sides of the pot started melting, and after what seemed like an eternity, I had relatively chunk-free, thick, gooey caramel. The strange thing is, it didn’t look very dark anymore, rather, it looked a bit too light. As I let it cool, I slowly sifted and whisked the flour into the eggs. When the caramel was cool enough, I tasted a spoonful and my god this stuff was delicious (well with a whole cup of sugar and cream and half a stick of butter what wouldn’t taste good?). I whisked the egg mix into the caramel and then poured the mix into the baked tart crusts half full (ended up using only half the caramel mixture) and baked them at 325F. The filling firmed up quite nicely in the oven after about 10 minutes.

Part 3: The Mousse

Chocolate Mousse
1/2 C heavy cream
3 1/2 oz. milk chocolate

Uh oh... I don’t have milk chocolate! Because I wasn’t feeling well that day, I didn’t want to go down to the store just for some chocolate. I know we weren’t suppose to use dark chocolate (I’m sorry Veronica) but I used the bittersweet chocolate in my pantry and that explains why my mousse is such a dark brown. I melted the chocolate and while it was melting I whipped the cream to stiff peaks. I was afraid my chocolate was too hot and would deflate the cream so I waited for it to cool. I waited... and waited... and waited... and by the time I finally added the chocolate to the cream, I had waited too long. As I began to fold it into the cream, the chocolate solidified into chunks and streaks in the cream and the mousse became very grainy and weird. I spread it on top of the caramel filled tarts and after an hour or so in the fridge, the mousse solidified into a thick, grainy, chunky mess. It definitely didn't look like the light brown, airy mousse in the picture from the cookbook. I had originally planned to pipe some decorative stars on the tart, but the mousse was so stiff and gross, it wasn’t pipeable at all; luckily it still tasted good. Ironically, I completely screwed up the easiest part of the tart.

As for the sugar decorations on top, I melted some more sugar and this time I resisted the urge to stir it (just the occasional gentle swirl) and it melted into an even amber color without any crystallizations.

The Verdict:
In the end, I don’t think I did proper justice to the tart because I totally failed at making the mousse. The crust was a little difficult to work with but it was tasty and I liked the subtle hazelnut flavors. I should have bought some new cocoa powder for it. I panicked multiple times about burning the sugar, but I don’t think I caramelized my sugar enough because the filling didn’t have enough caramel flavor. When I sliced into the tart, it looked a little light compared to the darker, richer hues of other DB’s caramels. Lastly, I really shouldn’t have used dark chocolate for the mousse because the intense chocolate flavor completely overpowered the very light caramel flavor of my filling. Perhaps if my caramel had a stronger and more developed flavor then it could properly stand up to a dark chocolate mousse. In the end the tart was still really delicious. I was able to make 4 6 in tartlets and we gobbled them up so quickly there’s only 1 left! I will most definitely make the caramel filling again and try my hand at the mousse again too.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Chicken Parmesan

Chicken Parmesan

Crunchy chicken, gooey spotty brown cheese, pasta and tomato sauce with basil plucked fresh off the plant, how can you go wrong? It's been a while since I've made Chicken Parmesan and I had forgotten how easy and quick it was to make. The whole meal took less than 30 minutes and drew raves from Steven, my most scrutinizing critic. It was absolutely delicious over a hearty plate of spaghetti but I imagine it would make a fantastic sandwich too.

- For the chicken cutlets, you can either take 2 large chicken breasts and slice them in half horizontally for 2 thin cutlets that require no pounding, or take 4 small chicken breasts and pound them evenly. Before pounding the chicken, remove the tenderloins since they tend to fall off very easily during pounding or cooking. You can reserve these tenderloins for chicken stir fry.

Chicken Parmesan (Parmigiana)
4 chicken cutlets (see note)
Salt and pepper
3 Tbsp flour
1 large egg, beaten
1 1/2 C panko bread crumbs
3/4 C coarsely grated mozzarella cheese
1/4 C grated Parmesan cheese
16 oz. pasta (Spaghetti or Linguini)

Quick Tomato Sauce
2 - 3 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
2 Tbsp olive oil
28 oz. diced tomatoes or whole tomatoes crushed
1 small onion, finely diced
1/2 tsp dried Italian herb mix
1/4 tsp sugar
1/2 C basil leaves (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

Making the Sauce: Heat olive oil over medium heat in a large saucepan or Dutch oven and add the onions. Cook until the onions are soft and translucent, then add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds to a minute. Add the tomatoes, dried herbs, sugar, black pepper and simmer until the sauce thickens. Salt to taste. Keep warm and set aside.

Begin boiling water for the pasta. Meanwhile, beat the egg, and prepare two trays for the flour and the panko bread crumbs.

Salt and pepper the chicken cutlets. Lightly dredge them in flour, patting off the excess, then dip into the beaten egg, then press and coat both sides with panko. Set aside until all cutlets are breaded.

Preheat broiler (I used my toaster oven). Add your pasta and some salt to the boiling water. Cook the chicken while the pasta is boiling.

Heat 2 tbsp of vegetable oil in a nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Pan fry the chicken cutlets until both sides are golden brown, about 2 - 3 minutes per side.

Transfer the chicken cutlets onto a tray lined with a wire rack. Mix the mozzarella and Parmesan together and cover each cutlet with some cheese. Broil until the cheese is melted and spotty brown.

Meanwhile drain the pasta when it is finished. Roughly chop or tear the basil leaves and stir them into the sauce. Transfer the pasta and chicken to plates and spoon the sauce on top.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Cai Fan - Vegetable Rice with Chinese Sausage

Cai Fan - Chinese Vegetable rice with Chinese Sausage

Ever since I was little, I have always been captivated by infomercials boasting of ridiculous products that can perform almost impossible feats that defy the laws of science. Plastic Pringle-tube esque pasta doodads that "cook" pasta in just 2 minutes. Knives sharp enough to cut through a brick and stay sharp enough to slice through a tomato or a pineapple in midair! Or what about those indoor rotisseries - just set it and forget it! As-Seen-On-TV products amazed me when I was a gullible youngster, but now that I'm older, practicality always wins out over curiosity and I stick with my tried and true kitchen gadgets and appliances. The only thing that comes to my mind that you can set and forget is a rice cooker. That's not to say I don't believe in any shiny bells or whistles. Oh no, when it comes to rice cookers, I've been eyeing the Bentley of all rice cookers, the Zojirushi Neuro Fuzzy Logic. When you eat rice at least once a day, perfectly cooked rice is important, downright crucial! Bad rice can ruin a meal. I mean c'mon, who doesn't want a machine that serenades you with "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" when it's finished cooking each grain of rice to fluffy perfection with its Fuzzy Logic "electronic brain." Ah alas, the catch? The $180 price tag. Oh well, practicality wins out over extravagance (but here's something that's definitely going on the wedding registry some day).

In Chinese, the word cai has two meanings. It can mean vegetable or any type of dish or entree (veggie, meat, or both) that you normally eat with rice (fan). Cai fan translates into vegetable rice. Traditionally cai fan is made with just veggies and rice, but when my mom made this she would add baby bok choy along with Chinese sausage because I loved these sausages and the fat from the Chinese sausage melts and cooks into the rice (mmm...). So now this cai fan, has taken on a second meaning. Now it is almost like "your entree" with rice, or entree in your rice (this is just my interpretation of my mom's recipe, not the traditional cai fan that is strictly rice and veggies). She cooked it on the stovetop and there would be a layer of golden brown, toasty, very fragrant rice crust, the guo ba, on the bottom of the pot. That crust is the best part so we would dig deep into the bottom of the pot to scrape up the yummy crusty bottom. Unfortunately, I never learned how to make rice on the stovetop so I'm forever reliant on my rice cooker (and no yummy guo ba using the rice cooker). On that bright side, that means this recipe can't get any simpler, toss the ingredients into the rice cooker, set it and forget it!

The caveat of this method is that the bok choy becomes very soft and the leaves do not stay a bright green. If you prefer the bok choy to stay crunchy, you can lightly stir fry the bok choy and then mix it into the rice later. But this is an extra step, dirties another pan, and to me it defeats the "toss everything into the pot" method of cooking. The Chinese sausage and bok choy only lightly stud the rice so we can eat this accompanied by other Chinese dishes in place of plain white rice.

Cai Fan - Chinese Vegetable Rice with Chinese Sausage

- A rice cup is a plastic cup that comes with the rice cooker. It is 180 mls, which is the equivalent of about 3/4 standard US cup. I use a 1:1 rice to water ratio in my rice cooker.
- Instead of baby bok choy you can also used some Chinese mustard greens, xue li hong.

1 head of baby bok choy, 1 link of Chinese sausage, and 1/4 tsp of salt for every rice cup (or standard cup) of rice (I like medium grain)

Wash and roughly chop your bok choy and chop the Chinese sausage into small bite-size pieces.

Add your ingredients to the rice cooker. I normally add 3 rice cups of rice, wash, then filling with water to the line, then toss in the Chinese sausage, then put the bok choy on top, and let the rice cooker do all the work.

For the second version, more stand-alone rice, simply double the amount of Chinese sausage and bok choy (2 links of sausage, 2 heads of bok choy for every cup of rice) then salt to taste and you have a very quick one-pot meal and you won't need any more dishes.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Buttermilk Oven Fried Chicken

Buttermilk Oven Fried Chicken

Fried foods are a guilty pleasure of mine; onion rings, French fries, and tempura are some of my favorite things. Perhaps it's a good thing for my health that I don't have a deep fryer and without a reliable thermometer I'm afraid to fry at home. So the next best thing is the oven. I must admit that oven fried foods can not entirely replicate their deep fried counterparts but they are definitely healthier and can be equally delicious.

Buttermilk Oven Fried Chicken
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated

4 chicken thighs and 4 drumsticks
3 C buttermilk
3 Tbsp salt
1 1/2 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp paprika
3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 bay leaves, crumbled
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
3 C panko crumbs
1 egg, beaten
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/8 tsp cayenne

Add salt, sugar, garlic, and bay leaves to the buttermilk and stir until the salt is completely dissolved. Submerge the chicken pieces in the buttermilk and refrigerate for 3 hours. Then remove the chicken, allowing the excess buttermilk to drip off, and place the chicken on a wire rack in the fridge to dry for an hour. (After 3 hours the chicken can be removed from the buttermilk and refrigerated until you are ready to cook).

Adjust an oven rack to the upper-middle position and preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking tray with foil and place a wire rack on the tray.

Drizzle the oil over the panko and toss to fully distribute. Beat the egg with with mustard, thyme, oregano, black pepper, and cayenne.

Dip the chicken in the egg mixture, then coat in bread crumbs and shake off the excess. Bake until the chicken is golden brown, about 40 minutes, flipping the chicken over halfway.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Strawberry and Honey Cream Tart

Strawberry Tart

Just when I thought I had seen the last of this summer's strawberries, Steven comes home with a huge box from none other than Costco and better yet, they were as delicious as they were bountiful! I spoiled myself earlier this summer and purchased a set of 6 mini tart pans, an 8 in tart pan, and a rectangular tart pan (I adore this one because it looks so elegant). Since then, I’ve fallen head over heels in love with tarts of all shapes, sizes, flavors. What I love most about fruit tarts is that it is a simple way to showcase the fresh flavors of seasonal fruit. Just take a pate brisee, pate sucree, or graham cracker crust, some pastry cream or curd, fresh fruit and voila! you have a beautiful dessert that’s sure to be a definite crowd pleaser.

Steven likes to eat his strawberries dipped in a little honey, whereas I usually do without the extra sugar, but a honey pastry cream paired perfectly with these ruby red berries. To go with the honey pastry cream, I opted for a graham cracker crust instead of my usual flaky pate sucree. The only problem I came across with this tart was taking a picture because as soon as I got within range for a photograph, the tantalizing aroma of the sweet berries, honey, and buttery crust ensnared my senses. All I could think about was gobbling up the distracting tart that was sitting mere inches from me. So with a few hurried click clicks of the camera, I quickly sat down to enjoy my reward.

Strawberry Tart

Strawberry and Honey Cream Tart

1 recipe Honey Pastry Cream (recipe follows below, you will need to make this at least 4 hours in advance, preferably overnight)
About 1 lb strawberries

Graham Cracker Crust
9 graham crackers
5 Tbsp butter, melted
1 Tbsp sugar
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 350ºF.

In a food processor, pulse the graham crackers until they are finely crushed. Alternatively you can place the crackers in a bag and use roll over them with a rolling pin to crush them.

Add the sugar and melted butter and pulse to combine in the food processor, or mix with a fork until the crumbs are evenly coated in butter.

Press the crumbs firmly into the bottom and sides of a tart pan. Use the flat bottom of a dry measuring cup or the bottom of a drinking glass. The recipe makes one 9in crust or one 8in and a 4in tarlet crust.

Bake at 350ºF for 11 - 13 minutes, until browned, and rotate the crust halfway.

Let the crust cool completely before filling with pastry cream and fruit slices. Fill with cream and fruit just before serving.

If your strawberries are uniformly small, you can hull them and place them on whole. If they are large and too unwieldy to place on the tart whole, cut them in half or into slices and arrange them on the tart.

Honey Pastry Cream
2 C milk, preferably whole
4 egg yolks
1/4 C corn starch
5 Tbsp honey
4 Tbsp butter, cut into 8 pieces
pinch of salt

- Make the pastry cream at least 4 hours before serving, preferably chill it overnight. The cream will hold in the fridge for about 2 days.
- To make the classic vanilla pastry cream, use 6 tablespoons of granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Honey is sweeter than sugar so I used 5 instead of 6 tablespoons.

Heat milk and honey in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, whisk to dissolve the honey. Heat until almost simmering.

In a mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the corn starch and pinch of salt until the mixture is pale yellow and thick, about 30 seconds to a minute.

Anchor your mixing bowl with a wet kitchen towel wrapped around the base of the bowl. Using a ladle with one hand, ladle some of the hot milk mixture into the egg yolks while whisking with the other hand to temper the egg yolks. Add the milk ladle by ladle until you have added about half the milk. Then switch from whisking the egg yolks to whisking the milk in the saucepan and whisk the egg mixture back into the saucepan with the remaining milk.

Heat this mixture over medium heat and bring to a simmer, whisking constantly. Continue simmering the cream for 30 seconds to 1 minute then take it off the heat. Off heat whisk in the butter.

Cover the cream with a piece of plastic wrap pressed directly onto the surface (to prevent a skin from forming) and chill for at least 4 hours. (Lemme tell ya this stuff is plenty good with just a spoon) ;)

Friday, August 10, 2007

Shrimp and Corn Chowder

Shrimp and Corn Chowder

One day I want to pick corn straight from the field and eat it raw off the cob. Corn starts to lose its sweetness as soon as it's picked so it's never going to taste better than that pure, unadulterated moment. But until that day, the next best thing is to cook it right away after buying it from the store or farmers market. Besides eating it off the cob, sauteing in butter, and freezing leftover kernels, I saved a few ears to make shrimp and corn chowder. I chose a cool, cloudy day to make this so I could fully appreciate the succulent shrimp, crunchy corn, and tender potatoes swimming in the warm creamy soup.

- Broccoli stems are really delicious so don't throw them away. You can use them in soups, stir fries, or Chinese lian ban (cold salad). Peel away the tough, fibrous outer layer and you're left with a mild tasting "heart" that you can slice or cube. This ingredient is optional because many times only the broccoli crowns are sold. If you only have broccoli crowns, go ahead and add more than a handful and add them a little later because cook faster.
- Instead of broccoli, you can add some diced celery, carrots, or red bell pepper. (I only used the broccoli stems and florets when I made this).

Shrimp and Corn Chowder
6 ears of corn, cut off the cob
4 oz. bacon, chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, pressed or minced
3 Tbsp flour
1/4 tsp of smoked paprika
1/8 tsp of cayenne pepper
4 C chicken stock
2 C milk (if it's too chunky for your tastes, add another cup of milk)
1 lb red potatoes (3), scrubbed and cut into 1/2 in cubes
Roughly 1/2 lb of broccoli stems, peeled and diced into roughly 3/8 in cubes
Handful of broccoli florets, cut into bite sized pieces
1 bay leaf
2 tsp fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
2 sprigs of parsley
1 lb of medium or large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 C heavy cream, room temp
2 Tbsp of minced parsley
Salt and ground black pepper

Using a knife, cut the corn off the cob into a large bowl. Using the back of your knife or the waffle surface of a meat mallet grate the cob to get all of the corn milk and any remaining kernels into the bowl.

Saute the chopped bacon in a Dutch oven or large saucepan over medium heat, until the pieces are crisp and all the fat has been rendered.

Spoon out the bacon pieces reserving the fat in the pan (if there is over 3 tablespoons you can spoon some out). Reduce the heat to medium to medium low and add the chopped onions (and diced carrots and celery if using). Sprinkle the onions with about half a teaspoon of salt and saute until the onions have softened while scraping up the browned bits, about 10 minutes.

Add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Sprinkle in the flour, smoked paprika, and cayenne pepper and stir constantly while cooking for about 1 minute. Slow whisk in the chicken stock and milk. Add the potatoes, broccoli stems, bay leaf, thyme, parsley sprig, bacon bits, corn kernels, and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Bring up to a boil then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and simmer the potatoes are almost tender, about 8 minutes (you can add the handful of broccoli crowns after 5 minutes).

Stir in the shrimp and heavy cream, making sure the shrimp get stirred into the hot soup. If the chowder is too chunky for your tastes, add another cup of milk as well. Cover and bring up to a simmer again and cook until the shrimp are just pink, about 2 minutes.

Discard the bay leaf and parsley sprig, stir in freshly minced parsley and salt to taste.

Thai-Style Chile Beef

Thai Chili Beef

I love stir fries with basil so when I saw this recipe on America's Test Kitchen I was almost sold. Almost because rather than using traditional Thai basil in Thai cooking (shocker isn't it?), Cook's Illustrated substituted mint and cilantro because the two were much easier to find in the supermarket. Steven hates cilantro with a passion (he picks out every tiny piece from his pho) and I wasn't terribly keen about the mint-cilantro combo myself but luckily I have some Thai basil conveniently growing on the back porch so I was able to substitute that in a jiffy. Traditional Asian ingredients may be hard to come by so with that in mind, CI used brown sugar instead of palm sugar and jalapenos or serranos instead of Thai bird eye chilies (now these I don't have growing on the porch so I'm okay with this substitution). Even with the many departures from traditional Thai cooking, I was nevertheless happy with the recipe because it was very tasty and could be made in under 30 minutes, which is definitely a plus for a weeknight dinner.

Thai-Style Chile Beef
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated

3/4 tsp ground coriander
1/8 tsp white pepper
2 tsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp fish sauce
2 lbs blade steak, trimmed and cut into 1/4 in strips (or substitute with 1 3/4 lb flank steak)

2 Tbsp fish sauce
2 Tbsp rice vinegar (I used a combination of vinegar and lime juice)
2 Tbsp water
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp Asian chili paste (or sub red pepper flakes)
3 - 4 cloves of garlic minced or pressed

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 - 4 jalapenos/serranos, ribs and seeds removed, cut crosswise into 1/8 in pieces
3 medium shallots, roughly quartered
1 C Thai basil leaves
1/3 C roughly chopped peanuts
Lime wedges for serving

Here's a good picture of what blade steak looks like: Click for Wikipedia entry

First trim the blade steak. There is a bit of silverskin along the outside of the blade steak that will need to be trimmed away. You'll also see in the picture that there is also a line of gristle that runs down the center of the steak. Cut the steak in half lengthwise to cut out the gristle. Then cut the meat against the grain into 1/4 in strips.

Sprinkle the coriander, white pepper, brown sugar, and fish sauce over the beef and toss to combine, and let it sit for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove the ribs and seeds from the jalapenos and cut crosswise into 1/4 in pieces and roughly quarter the shallots.

Mix fish sauce, rice vinegar, water, brown sugar, and chili paste in a small bowl.

Heat 2 tsp of vegetable oil in a nonstick skillet or wok over high heat. Add a third of the beef and quickly distribute the strips in an even layer in the skillet. Cook until the beef is browned on the first side, about 2 minutes, without stirring then flip the pieces to the second side and cook until browned, about 30 seconds to a minute. Transfer the beef to a bowl. Add 2 more teaspoons of oil to the skillet and repeat the browning process twice more to cook the rest of the beef.

After the beef is cooked, reduce the heat to medium, and add 2 more teaspoons of oil to the skillet. Add the jalapenos and shallots and cook, stirring frequently until they begin to soften, about 3 - 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 10 - 15 seconds. Add the sauce to the skillet and increase the heat to medium high until the sauce is thickened. Add the beef and any juices back to the skillet and toss in the sauce. Take off the heat and stir in the Thai basil leaves.

Serve over rice with chopped peanuts on top and lime wedges on the side.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Almond Extract

Almond extract is made with the oil of bitter almonds. Bitter almonds, unlike their more common sweet almond counterparts, are very bitter but also poisonous due to the presence of cyanide (eating 20 of these almonds raw is lethal for adults). The poison is broken down when the almonds are processed and also when they are heated from cooking. The sale of bitter almonds is illegal in the United States but in Europe small amounts are added to marzipan, amaretto, and amaretti cookies to heighten the flavor (usually 1 bitter almond for every 100 sweet almonds). “Pure” almond extract is made by combining the oil from bitter almonds with alcohol and sometimes water, whereas "natural” extract has the same major flavor compound, benzaldehyde, but derived from other plant sources. “Imitation” extract is made with food-grade, lab created benzaldehyde. Chemically speaking, all three extracts are the same but taste wise, many people prefer pure or natural extracts over the synthetic imitation.

Almond extract is very potent so a little bit goes a long way (but I certainly don’t mind a little bit more). The flavoring enhances the taste of peaches, apricots, and cherries because the stone fruits are in the same family as almonds. It also pairs well with vanilla, chocolate, apples, coconut, and berries. Interestingly, almonds are also distantly related to berries and roses. Plant family trees are so fascinating don't you think?

So what are your favorite food scents? Perhaps the buttery, nutty fragrance of caramel, the piney smell of rosemary, or maybe the hearty aroma lightly charred Italian sausages with a hint of fennel seed?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Almond Poppy Seed Muffin

Almond Poppy Seed Muffin

Almond poppy seed is my all time favorite muffin flavor. One of my secret indulgences is a gratuitously large, terrible-for-you, but so-damn-good almond poppy seed muffin from Costco. But one muffin has almost 700 calories (I don’t even want to think about how much fat) and leaves me with greasy fingers and a feeling of guilt for a good half of my day. Not quite the morning start I'm looking for. I ran out of sour cream but had a hankering for muffins so I adapted the sour cream base recipe that I used for the raspberry muffins using buttermilk instead. Buttermilk is lighter than sour cream so I upped the butter a bit to 4 tablespoons (which is still pretty low) and kept the sugar at a half cup making a muffin that I can guarantee is better for you than one of those Costco behemoths. Though "better for you" is a relative term, since these aren’t exactly saintly diet muffins either. And the verdict? Well, Bettina liked these better but Steven still preferred the Costco ones.

- You can also use the sour cream base recipe and add in the poppy seeds and almond extract to the dry and wet ingredients respectively.
- Steven said the muffins could have been a little sweeter so feel free to add 2 more tablespoons of sugar. Bettina and I always go light on the sugar.
- To make the muffins even healthier, replace 1/2 C of the regular AP flour with 1/2 C of whole wheat flour.
- After they cooled to room temperature, 15 seconds in the microwave warmed these puppies right up to their fresh-out-of-the-oven delicious glory.

Almond Poppy Seed Muffins
Buttermilk Base Recipe
2 C flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 egg
1/2 C sugar
4 Tbsp melted butter
1 1/4 C buttermilk

Almond Poppy Seed
1 1/2 Tbsp poppy seeds
1 tsp of almond extract

Preheat the oven to 350ºF, adjust a rack to the middle position. Spray a 12 cup regular size muffin tin with some nonstick spray.

Whisk flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and poppy seeds in a large mixing bowl and set aside. Whisk egg, sugar, and almond extract together until combined, then whisk in the buttermilk and melted butter.

Add the buttermilk mixture to the flour and fold to combine. There should be not large pockets of flour but small streaks may remain. Do not over mix. The batter will be fairly thick.

Divide the batter evenly into the tin. Bake for about 20 – 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (mine were done in 17 minutes). Flip the muffins out of the tin and cool them right side up on a cooling rack.

Raspberry Muffin with Brown Sugar Hazelnut Streusel

Raspberry Muffin with Brown Sugar Hazelnut Streusel

Steven’s parents have a raspberry bush in their yard and I was the lucky recipient of some of the delicious berries. I ended up eating most of them but I managed to set aside some (it wasn't easy) to bake with. The muffin base is adapted from the Cook’s Illustrated recipe for blueberry muffins but I replaced the blueberries with raspberries and topped them with a brown sugar hazelnut streusel. The muffin base recipe was absolutely delicious; it'll be my master muffin recipe from now on.

- You can use blueberries and omit the topping for the original blueberry muffins
- I cut the sugar down from the 1 cup called for in the original recipe to 1/2 cup with 2 tablespoons of brown sugar on top for the streusel. I found this was the perfect amount of sweetness since Bettina and I don’t like our muffins too sweet.

Raspberry Muffins with Brown Sugar Hazelnut Streusel
Sour Cream Base Recipe adapted from Cook’s Illustrated
2 C flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 egg
1/2 C sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
2 Tbsp melted butter
1 1/4 C sour cream

For Raspberry and Hazelnut Streusel
1 1/4 C raspberries
2 Tbsp finely chopped hazelnuts
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp melted butter
1 Tbsp flour

Preheat the oven to 350ºF, adjust a rack to the middle position. Spray a 12 cup regular size muffin tin with some nonstick spray.

Whisk flour, salt, and baking powder in a large mixing bowl and set aside. Whisk egg, sugar, and vanilla together until combined, then whisk in the sour cream and melted butter.

Scatter half the berries in the flour mix and scatter the rest in the sour cream mixture. Add the sour cream mixture to the flour and fold to combine, take care not to smush the raspberries too much. There should be not large pockets of flour but small streaks may remain. Do not over mix. The batter will be very thick.

Divide the batter evenly into the tin (a very large cookie scoop is excellent for this). Mix all of the ingredients for the streusel together and top each muffin with a small spoonful, then spread the filling out over the top of the muffin.

Bake for about 20 – 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Gently pick the muffins out of the tin and cool them on a rack, flipping them out may cause the topping to fall off.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Strawberry and Blue Cheese Salad

Strawberry and Blue Cheese Salad

Remember the strawberry and cheese scene in Ratatouille? Remy first takes a bite of the cheese, which creates an upbeat, robust swirl of flavor. Then he takes a bite of the strawberry and tastes a more delicate, twinkling ripple. But together, they create an exciting taste epiphany that ignites bright yellow and red fireworks that dance and sparkle. For me, my taste epiphany came with the combination of strawberries and blue cheese. The sweet and light summer berry paired perfectly with the strong salty flavors of the blue cheese, each with their own captivating fragrance. Now this may not be a combination for everyone, maybe it's just me (I hope it's not too weird combining blue cheese and strawberries), but I loved every minute of this salad. Sadly strawberry season is nearing an end or already over and this was one of the last dishes that I made with this year's berries.

- At the time I only had Romaine lettuce but I think this salad would have worked much better with baby spinach greens, which are richer and can better handle the strong flavors in this salad.
- Strawberries are often paired with balsamic vinegar so naturally I made a balsamic honey vinaigrette
- I chose berries that weren't extremely sweet because I didn't want them to overpower all the other flavors in the salad.

Strawberry and Blue Cheese Salad

I don't have an exact recipe since salads are more of "throw stuff in" sort of dish for me but the main players are:
Greens: Baby spinach preferably (but Romaine pictured here)
Blue Cheese: I used Danish blue but I'm sure Gorgonzola would have worked also
Pistachios: they added a nice crunch and lively light green color

Bacon: I love bacon, but this salad didn't need it (I used it here though)

Crisp your bacon if using, and set aside to cool on a paper towel lined plate. Crumble before serving.

Crumble your blue cheese, roughly chop the pistachios, quarter the strawberries.

Toss everything together with the vinaigrette.

Balsamic Honey Vinaigrette
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 - 1 tsp honey
Freshly ground pepper (no salt because there was enough from the cheese and bacon in the salad)

I add all the ingredients to a small clean jar and shake until everything is emulsified. I find this is the easiest way to make a small amount of dressing. Alternatively you can whisk everything together while drizzling in the olive oil.

Cool Link:
Check out how the tastes visualizations were developed for Ratatouille (the best movie of the summer if not the year, hands down).

Friday, August 3, 2007

Tiramisu Brownie

Tiramisu Brownie

The idea of a tiramisu brownie/brownie tiramisu has been brewing in my head for a while now. I wanted the main flavor components of the brownie to be chocolate, espresso, marsala, and mascarpone but I was unsure about how to execute this idea. I debated whether I should make a fudgy or cakey brownie, if I should dip the brownies in espresso, if I should use espresso or both espresso and marsala in the brownie base, and etc. Myriam's 3rd Browniebabe Event served as the perfect occasion to play around with this idea.

One route I considered was a fudgy brownie flavored with espresso and marsala with mascapone cheese swirls. In the end I took a more traditional route and made an espresso flavored brownie, which mimics the espresso soaked ladyfingers, and layered it with a mixture of mascarpone, whipped cream, and marsala, and topped with chocolate shavings. I feared that dipping the brownie in espresso would make it too soggy and heavy since it was already a very dense, fudgy brownie (though this may work with a cakier brownie). Another possibility was to lightly brush a bit of strong coffee or espresso onto the brownie but that can be for another time. The end result was pretty to look at and delicious to eat. With so many different ideas to experiment with, all the more reason to make many more tiramisu brownies!

- I tend to make my baked goods with less sugar, so I used 6 Tbsp of sugar in the brownies instead of 1/2 C.
- You may not use all of the filling but this stuff is so delicious, you can just eat it with a spoon (I'm guilty of this).
- I skipped the raw egg yolk (traditionally added) in the filling because I didn't want to deal with it. You can also whisk the egg yolk with the marsala over a bain marie to create a zabaglione for the filling.

Tiramisu Brownies
Espresso Brownie Base
3 oz. bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pats
1 Tbsp instant espresso powder (or sub 2 Tbsp of Kahlua - I have not tried this)
1/2 C sugar
2 eggs
1/2 C AP flour
Pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Mascarpone Filling
8 oz. mascarpone
1/2 C marsala
1/4 C sugar
1 C whipping cream

Topping: Dark chocolate

Make the brownie:
Preheat the oven to 350ºF and line a 8 x 8 baking pan with a sheet of foil to make the brownies easy to lift out. You can grease the foil but I didn't.

Melt the butter and chocolate in a large bowl over a bain marie or in a microwave on low power, about 30% (whisk between intervals to insure even heating).

Whisk in the espresso powder to the warm chocolate. Then whisk in the sugar, salt, vanilla, and eggs. Finally add the flour and mix until just incorporated (do not overmix).

Spread the batter into the baking pan and bake for about 17 to 22 minutes. Start checking the brownies early. A toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies should come out with moist crumbs.

After the brownies are done, set them aside to cool while you make the filling.

Make the filling:
In a large bowl, whisk together the mascarpone, sugar, and marsala until smooth.

Meanwhile in the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the whipping cream until stiff peaks form. I like to whip it with the machine to soft peaks and then whip by hand to stiff peaks so I don't overwhip (easy to do on a KA).

Fold in about 1/3 of the cream into smooth marscarpone mixture to lighten it. Then fold the rest of the whipped cream into mascarpone. Chill the mixture until the brownies have cooled to room temp.

To serve:
It's easiest to make each serving individually since the filling will ooze out if you cut the brownie (not as soft as ladyfingers). This recipe will make 8 2in x 4in servings.

Cut the brownies into 2 x 4 rectangles. Then cut each rectangle in half horizontally so you get two layers of the brownie (top and bottom).

Add a dollop of the filling to the bottom layer, add the top layer, then add more filling on top. Smooth off the top and sides then grate some chocolate shavings on top.


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