Thursday, July 11, 2024

Beets, Toasted Barley, and Burrata Salad

I’m nearly useless at growing food, but, still, I’m very interested in edible gardening. I’m extremely envious of those who so easily end up with way too much zucchini or plant tomatoes and have enough for canning. The best I can do is grow some herbs, try to keep my bay laurel tree alive, and keep watering my lemon trees in hopes of getting one or two lemons each year. I appreciated the enthusiasm for plant science and growing all sorts of vegetables in Veg-Table by Nik Sharma of which I received a review copy. He’s clearly a capable gardener. With his academic background in microbiology, biochemistry, molecular genetics, and public health policy, he has focused that education on food both scientifically and culinarily. This new book groups vegetables into families and offers information about their origins, uses, storage tips, and how to cook with them. The flavors are diverse, and the dishes cover all seasons. Although it is obviously very vegetable-forward, it’s not an entirely plant-based cookbook. And, for any less-familiar vegetables, there are handy cook’s notes with each recipe that tell you what to look for and why as you prepare them. I started cooking from this book back when golden beets and bok choy were in season, but I’m still cooking from it lately with summer okra. In the intro to the chapter where you’ll find the bok choy recipe, the mustard family of plants is described. There’s an interesting explanation about the enzyme myrosinase which is released when brassicas are chopped. It produces a sulfurous smell and bitter flavor, and that effect can be reduced by soaking the chopped vegetables in cold water. I love learning the science behind food like this. For the Bok Choy with Crispy Tofu, the bok choy was steamed and then briefly stir-fried. The tofu was crisped with a coating of panko and black and white sesame seeds, and the dish was garnished with green onion and chile crisp. The Okra, Feta, and Barley Salad with Pumpkin Seed Sauce was a fun mix of flavors and textures. I added shrimp on top, and the sauce was fantastic with the salad and the shrimp.

The Beets, Toasted Barley, and Burrata Salad was another terrific combination. Now that the season for beets has passed, I’m thinking this would also be great with tomatoes and cucumbers in their place. For the version shown here, the beets were boiled and peeled before being added to a mix of rice vinegar, maple syrup, poppy seeds, red pepper flakes, and salt. That mixture was brought to a boil and then simmered, and then the beets were stored in the vinegar in the refrigerator before the salad was assembled. The barley was toasted in a dry skillet and crushed with a mortar and pestle. To plate the salad, arugula was spread on a platter, burrata was placed on top, the pickled beets were added with the ground toasted barley, and olive oil was drizzled to finish. 
This book has a lot to offer with all the plant science information and insights about how to use a variety of vegetables. And, the range of flavors in these recipes will bring new tastes to the table. While I’m struggling to keep my basil alive in the heat and use it while it’s growing, I never would have thought to add some to a roasted tomato miso sauce. I have to try that and lots more from this book.
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Thursday, May 16, 2024

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Every time I write about a new book from Nancy Silverton, I go on and on about what a huge fan I am. And, I still am. I still make her recipe for sourdough bagels and sourdough baguettes after learning from her how to make my own sourdough starter in the first place. I always enjoy reading a new book from her as I did with The Cookie That Changed my Life of which I received a review copy. This new book was intended as a collection of revisited, well-known baking recipes presented in the best possible versions of themselves. It was inspired by some tinkering with a peanut butter cookie that Silverton felt achieved perfection. But, the interesting thing that recurs throughout the book is that for many of these familiar favorites, she mentions not really liking them. Rather than creating a "perfected" version of some of these recipes, she was instead coming up with a new version that she actually liked. With the angel food cake, she added a chocolate swirl; a classic pecan pie became a tart; and simple snickerdoodles became a much more involved and expensive cookie with browned butter and demerara sugar. I found that the snickerdoodle recipe was flawed. Way too much sugar was called for, and the result was a disappointment. Despite these critiques, I still loved this book. The ginger stout cake, which was only slightly adapted from Claudia Fleming’s original recipe, was delicious as our Christmas dessert with whipped creme fraiche. And, I will forever be following the instructions for twice-baked croissants that I filled with smoked salmon and cheese rather than ham and cheese along with a flavorful bechamel that coats the interior of cut-open croissants. And, yes one more and, the oatmeal raisin cookies recipe that came from Marge Manzke of Republique was positively divine. I didn’t realize until reading it here that Republique in Los Angeles took over the space that was formerly Silverton’s La Brea Bakery. What a great history for this piece of real estate. 

The oatmeal raisin cookies are gluten-free and made with unblanched almond meal. They’re also made with browned butter. In the past, I might have questioned if browning butter and then chilling it was really worth it for cookies. These cookies taught me that yes, it is very worth it. It’s also worth it to use big, plump raisins, and Sunview Organics are my favorites. So, unlike a traditional, simple oatmeal raisin cookie recipe, this one is a bit more involved. The dough was chilled before portioning, and then each ball was placed in a ring for baking. I used English muffin rings, and they prevented the dough from spreading too much. The buttery, nutty flavor was indeed reward enough for the added bother. 

There are raspberry crumble bars and a coffee cake I want to try, and I’m curious about the very particular approach to focaccia shown in the book. For me, it was the oatmeal raisin rather than peanut butter cookie that might have changed my life. Seriously, brown some butter and make these cookies.

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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Roasted Squash Cobbler

It was delightful to read about Claire Ptak’s upbringing in Northern California, her time at Chez Panisse, and her commitment to baking with the best each season has to offer. This was, of course, from her new book Love is a Pink Cake of which I received a review copy. In 2005, she moved to London where she now operates Violet a “California-style bakery in East London.” I admit to being fascinated by the British royal family and therefore by the fact that Ptak was chosen to create Prince Harry and Meghan’s wedding cake. The recipe is included in the book. But, I was equally, if not more so, intrigued by her search for the best produce available whether she’s working in the US or the UK. The book is divided between California and England with recipes developed with each location in mind. In the first section, her take on a date shake got my attention. I’m a fan of the concoction and I do love visiting Palm Springs, and I like that her version of the shake is less sweet and plant-based with coconut yogurt and almond milk. There are recipes for all times of day and occasions to tempt you like the Poached Pear Pavlova, the Stacked Blackberry Jam Cake, and the Grey Salt White Chocolate Matcha Blondies. In the England section, there are delectable doughnuts, Chocolate Violet Babka Buns, and Apricot Chamomile and Honey Scones. I made the Brown Butter White Peach Cake right away when I first flipped to that page. As promised in the head note, it is an easy cake for a lazy evening and so good with vanilla ice cream. When butternut squash and kale both came into season, I had to try the Roasted Squash Cobbler. 

Squash pieces and red onion wedges were roasted with chile flakes and rosemary. I minced the onion after it roasted as I don’t enjoy eating onion any larger than minced. But, otherwise, I followed the instructions. For the sauce, garlic was sauteed, canned tomatoes were added, cooked, and crushed; cream was stirred in; and chopped kale was incorporated. Buttery biscuits were made for the topping. Then, the roasted squash was layered with the sauce, the biscuits were nestled on top, and the cobbler was baked until golden and bubbly. 

This was surprisingly quick to execute. The sauce and biscuits can be made while the vegetables roast, and combining all the parts was a cinch. It was a just-decadent-enough vegetarian meal for a chilly night. I might not bake the wedding cake recipe anytime soon, but I am looking forward to trying Peach Leaf Ice Cream, Chocolate Marshmallow Whoopie Pies, and those matcha blondies.

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Thursday, December 21, 2023

The Stickiest Wings

I have to credit the writing when I read a cookbook and am easily convinced that I need to bake each and every savory pie mentioned. Nigel Slater’s writing draws me in every time. Reading about the Pillow Pie filled with smoked mackerel, the pastry-topped Chicken and Leek Pie, the Potato-topped Pie, and the big pie for a winter’s day had me looking forward to chilly weather and pulling a piping-hot savory pie from the oven. This and so much more is found in his latest: A Cook’s Book of which I received a review copy. I should mention his writing about sweet tarts had the same effect. I’m still thinking about the Ricotta Orange Tart that might be topped with blood orange segments. Apparently, I was also smitten with the lentil recipes. I marked the pages for Baked Pumpkin, Burrata, and Lentils; Baked Spicy Lentils and Sweet Potatoes; and I’ve already made the Salad of Lentils and Red Peppers. This new book is a collection of Slater’s recipes that have “stood the test of time” and that he makes more than any others. Several have been published before but may include some updates, and there are new dishes too. There are recipes and there is writing, and both are happily consumed. The writing about chicken and making stock and roasting chickens and accompanying potatoes and pan sauces and how well marsala goes with dairy in a sauce results in a strong need to plan a meal of chicken.Then, there are several other suggestions for chicken like with lemon and basil or grilled with za’atar and tahini for instance. After reading about the soup, bread, greens, chicken dishes, dinners, feasts, pies, puddings, cakes, and tea time, I was sad to approach the end, and that made the “Just one more bite before I go” page all the better. It’s a quick description of a midnight snack and a delightful conclusion to the book. But, back to that chicken chapter, it was the Stickiest Wings that I ended up trying first. 

The recipe is preceded by an ode of sorts to the combination of chile spice and sticky sauce on roasted chicken wings. The stickier the better for the heat of the chile to stay on your lips as you devour the wings. First, a marinade was made of minced garlic, lemongrass, ginger, and chiles, and oil, soy sauce, lime juice, fish sauce, and honey were added. My lemongrass in my herb garden was doing great, and I was happy to use to use it here. I was also happy to bring home wings from locally, humanely, and pasture-raised chickens. The wings were left in the marinade in the refrigerator for a couple of hours before being transferred to a baking dish. The wings and sauce roasted in the oven for 25 minutes before being turned. They continued roasting for another 20 minutes or so. They should become caramelized and well-browned. 

As the wings roasted, it was not at all evident that the sauce would turn into the “stickiest.” But, after the wings came out of the oven and sat for a few minutes, the stickiness revealed itself nicely. It’s as messy to eat as it is tasty. I recommend having something pickley to go with it, and Slater helpfully suggest “you’ll need something with which to wipe your fingers.” I’m definitely not looking forward to any winter weather extremes this season, but when a big cold front comes our way I have lots of meal ideas for staying warm. Happy Holidays!

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Thursday, October 12, 2023

Oven-Fried Crispy Shitake Imperial Rolls

I don’t always trust a recipe. Do you? Sometimes an ingredient quantity or baking temperature or some other detail seems off, and I grab another cookbook with something similar to compare. But, there are some cookbook authors I trust completely. I know the recipes are tested, double-checked, and will work. In that category of authors and cooks, I would include Ina Garten, Maida Heatter, and Alice Medrich. And, I’d like to add Andrea Ngyuen to that list. After cooking from several of her books, I’m always pleasantly surprised at how perfectly dishes turn out after simply following the instructions exactly. She also includes helpful recommendations for ingredients with explanations for brand preferences. Her latest book, Ever-Green Vietnamese: Super-Fresh Recipes, Starring Plants from Land and Sea of which I received a review copy, further proves these points. This latest book was written to “spotlight members of the vegetable kingdom.” It’s not entirely vegetarian. There are some meat and seafood recipes, but the animal proteins act as collaborators with the vegetables. And, there are suggestions for substitutions throughout to make recipes vegan if preferred. There’s even a recipe for Vegan Fish Sauce. Rice paper rolls, banh mi, fillings for bao, rice dishes, soups, salads, sides, mains, and sweets can all be found here. I was drawn to the Salads chapter and enjoyed learning that salads are often a big part of celebratory Viet meals. They tend to involve a good amount of prep work and are intended to have a “wow factor.” I made the Cucumber, Kale, and Spiced Cashew Salad and loved the varied flavors and textures with sweet, spicy, crunchy nuts, fresh herbs, and tangy dressing. Next, I want to try the Kohlrabi and Soy Sauce-Seared Tofu Salad. It’s not in the Salads chapter, but I also made the Shaking Salmon which tops a dressed salad of lettuce, herbs, and cherry tomatoes. From the Snacks chapter, the Crispy Sweet Potato and Shrimp Fritters were a hit. Shaved sweet potatoes are stirred into a batter with chunks of shrimp that gets formed into fritters and shallow-fried. The crispy fritters are then wrapped in lettuce leaves with herb leaves and nuoc cham. Also from that chapter, I have the page marked for Smoky Tofu-Nori Wontons. I’ll definitely be trying Char Siu Roasted Cauliflower and/or Char Siu Pulled Jackfruit and making bao, and making Vegan Bologna for banh mi is on my list as well. Today, I want to tell you more about the Oven-Fried Crispy Shitake Imperial Rolls. 

This was my first time using rice paper rounds for a cooked rather than cold dish. And, this was my first time hydrating rice paper in some way other than dunking it in warm water. As expected, the instructions worked exactly right, and the quantity of filling was just right for the expected number of rolls. For the filling, dried glass noodles were soaked in hot water, canned chickpeas were mashed, dried mushrooms were rehydrated and chopped, carrot was grated, and tofu was patted dry and grated. All of that was combined with chopped green onions, potato starch, salt, pepper, and soy sauce and mixed until it came together. The filling was then pressed into a baking pan and cut into portions. Trust this process. It worked perfectly. To moisten the rice paper, a mix of coconut cream, white vinegar, and molasses was brushed onto each side. It’s messy, but fabulous. Again, it works. A portion of filling was added on top of each rice paper round before being folded in and rolled. A cooling rack was set into a baking sheet, the rolls were placed on the rack, and they were baked. Halfway through baking, the rolls were turned, and then baked until browned. After cooling a bit, the rolls were cut with kitchen scissors and served with butter lettuce, herbs, pickled vegetables, and nuoc cham. 

It’s kind of a thrill to try something new in the kitchen and see a great result. I admit to being skeptical about brushing the rice paper rounds with coconut cream and that being enough to soften them. But, I trusted the author enough to proceed as instructed. These rolls were delightful, and I can’t wait to try more new things from this book.

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Thursday, July 27, 2023

Blueberry Turnovers

I started writing this blog because of my addiction to cookbooks. I’ve been aware of this addiction, and lived with it, for many, many years now. At one time, there was a cookbook that I wanted more than any other, but it was out of print. It could be found from used book sellers, but a like-new copy was very pricey. That book was The Last Course by Claudia Fleming. I once met Melissa Clark, who co-wrote that book, when she was in Austin for the Texas Book Festival. While sitting and chatting with her, I asked if there would ever be a new edition. She didn’t think so at the time, and I was left wanting an original copy more than ever. Countless times, I allowed my mouse cursor to hover over that “buy” button, but I never clicked. Because I didn’t succumb to splurging on that book, I felt I had my addiction in check. Fast forward to 2019, and a new edition of that very book was published. I purchased that, at a normal price, with no guilt. Incidentally, now that a new edition exists, used copies of the original are much more sanely priced. And last year, to my delight, Claudia Fleming wrote another cookbook. This new book is Delectable: Sweet and Savory Baking, and I received a review copy. My addiction continues, but it’s still in check. I think. 

While the first book focused on her amazing desserts at Gramercy Tavern, this new one is about Fleming’s home baking after moving on from her restaurant North Fork Table. Delectable is a collection of favorite recipes she developed and refined in her home kitchen. So, they are all very doable. I stopped and gawked at the Blackberry Shortcake several times, and the Plum and Almond Cake is screaming to be made soon. There are cookies and brownies and tarts and custards. One of the most involved recipes in the book is also one I have marked to try: Banana Espresso Semifreddo with Butterscotch and Macadamia Nuts. I made the Oatmeal Cookies with Sour Cherries and added ruby chocolate chunks. And the Date, Nut, and Coconut Muffins became a new favorite. Then, when I received local blueberries from my CSA, I turned to the Blueberry Turnovers. 

The turnovers are made with a cornmeal dough, and you want to allow time for it to chill before you roll it out. Also, there’s a typo in the book. Rather than rolling out the dough and cutting it into 2 x 2 1/2 inch rectangles, you want 4 x 5 inch rectangles. It’s a good idea to make the filling in advance so it too can be chilled. Some of the blueberries were combined with lime zest, sugar, lime juice, cornstarch and cooked until bubbly. Off the heat, the rest of the blueberries were added, and then the filling was chilled. Just a spoon of filling was added to each piece of dough before folding the dough over and crimping to seal. I brushed the tops with egg wash and sprinkled on sanding sugar. Then, the turnovers received cuts for venting, and they were baked until golden. 

These tasty treats were almost too easy to pick up and eat with your hands. They disappeared quickly. The cornmeal dough was a great match for the blueberry filling. The Tomato Crostata and Fennel Taralli are pulling me toward a savory recipe next, but the Chocolate Caramel Tart with Peanuts has my attention too. This new book will continue to feed me and my cookbook addiction.

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Thursday, June 15, 2023

Homestyle Braised Tofu

Years ago, when I first became obsessed with cooking, my fascination was with successful results. When I could reproduce what was represented in a recipe without catastrophe, it was thrilling. All these years and many cookbooks later, I’m still delighted by successes with recipes that are new to me. But, I’m now also fascinated by learning new techniques that are better than what I’d been doing previously. I recently had just that kind of experience with a dish from The Vegan Chinese Kitchen by Hannah Che of which I received a review copy. This book showcases the author’s interest in connecting her culture with her desire to follow a plant-based diet. She began to discover vegetarian and vegan traditions in Chinese cooking and then attended the only vegetarian cooking school in China, in Guangzhou. She also spent a year learning about Buddhist vegetarian cooking in Taiwan. She writes: “Becoming vegan didn’t alienate me from my heritage, as I’d feared, but actually motivated me to understand it even more.” Luckily for all of us, her journey has brought about a book full of vibrant, meatless, Chinese recipes. The chapters represent ingredient categories, and right away, I was pulled in by Leafy Greens which is the first. The Blanched Spinach with Sesame Sauce calls for sesame paste, and the book includes a recipe for a homemade version. It was as delicious as the photo in the book looked. A few pages later in the same chapter, I tried the Napa Cabbage and Vermicelli Salad and incorporated some local vegetables that were available at the time. As mentioned in the recipe head note, it was indeed great as leftovers for lunch. From the Stems, Shoots and Flowers chapter, I was inspired to make homemade bean sprouts. And, there’s a Stir-Fried Bean Sprouts with Chinese Chives recipe I have marked. I’m also eager to try the Fish-Fragrant Eggplant so named because fish were often cooked the same way with chiles, ginger, and garlic. There’s a lot to explore in the Tofu chapter as well as in the Tofu Skin chapter. There are mock meats like the Vegetarian Roast Goose made with shitakes and bamboo shoots and no actual goose. The chapter for Gluten, or seitan, includes recipes for making your own plus poached gluten rolls, fried gluten puffs, and raised gluten. You’ll also find mushroom recipes, noodle recipes, dumplings, and a version of Scallion Pancakes that’s a must-try. The dish that taught me an excellent technique, though, was the Homestyle Braised Tofu. 

This recipe involves frying tofu, and let me start by explaining my previous process for frying tofu. In the past, I would press blocks of tofu between plates, weighted down with whatever was handy, to remove water. Then, I would cut the tofu into pieces and pat them dry before tossing them with cornstarch. Without fail, when I slid the coated tofu pieces into hot oil it would spatter wildly making a huge mess all over the top of the stove, the backsplash, the floor in front of the stove, and me and whatever I was wearing. Here, you are instructed to skip pressing the tofu, and just cut it into pieces to be added to boiling, well-salted water. The tofu was left to soak for a few minutes and then removed with a slotted spoon and drained on a towel-lined sheet pan. After draining, the tofu was then fried in a wok. On the Tofu FAQ page, Che explains that no one in China presses tofu. Instead, by soaking it in salted water, cold water inside the tofu is drawn out and the tofu is seasoned. It firms up a bit and fries with much less mess. And, it worked beautifully! No spattering at all. I’m now a convert to this way of frying tofu. For the rest of the recipe, dried shitakes were rehydrated in boiling water, drained, and halved. The mushrooms were stir-fried with garlic, ginger, and green onion before chile bean paste was added followed by soy sauce and water. The fried tofu was added with sliced carrot and cooked for a few minutes before adding snow peas. I was actually able to get local snow peas at Boggy Creek Farm on the day I had planned to make this which was perfect. It was topped with chopped green onion tops before serving. 

The chile bean paste made the dish spicy and full-flavored, and the texture of the fried tofu was just right with crispy edges and chewy centers. For the first time, frying tofu wasn’t a dreadfully messy cooking adventure. I’m definitely willing and able to learn new tricks in the kitchen, and there’s a lot more to learn and taste from this book.

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