Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sformato di Cavolfiore

When I saw this recipe in La Cucina Italiana, I was intrigued because a sformata was something new and different to me. It’s a baked, savory custard, but it’s not terribly rich. It’s mostly pureed, cooked cauliflower with bechamel sauce and parmigiano cheese. In the magazine, the sformato was baked in a pretty, wide tube pan the likes of which I do not own, so I used a bundt pan. Really, it could have been baked in any sort of pan, and it wasn’t entirely necessary that it be unmolded, but I was hoping for a nice view of the browned outer surface. The browning was due to a coating of breadcrumbs that was sprinkled onto a thick layer of butter in the pan before pouring in the custard. Considering that I was so eager to see this well-browned surface, you would think that I would have let it set the appropriate amount of time before trying to remove it from the pan. No, I rushed it out of hunger, and my sformata was a little wobbly because of it. As it sat, it firmed up, and next time I’ll have more patience, but the good news is that it very easily plopped right out of the pan. Presentation aside, the reason I’m going on so much about this dish is because the taste was fantastic. The creamy texture of the custard with the parmigiano flavor running throughout was delicious with a bit of crunch from the breadcrumbs.

To begin, a head of cauliflower was quartered and cooked, covered, in a pan with an inch of water for about 20 minutes. It was drained, and each quarter was placed in a towel, and the towel was twisted to remove excess water. The dried cauliflower was pureed in a food processor. A simple bechamel sauce was made, and I melted the parmigiano into the sauce. The sauce was cooled a bit before being added to the cauliflower puree along with two eggs. Once the sauce, eggs, and cauliflower were combined, the resulting custard was poured into a generously buttered and breadcrumbed bundt pan, and it baked for 40 minutes. I should have let it rest for an additional 20 minutes, but I got antsy after about 10 minutes and turned it out onto a platter. The shape held up ok, but I realized that it firmed up a bit more after sitting another 10 minutes or so.

The texture was light and almost fluffy with a sliver of crust on the outside. The cauliflower was mild allowing the flavor of the parmigiano to take the lead. This keeper of a dish even held up well to re-heating the next day. I was delighted with the result, and it’s always fun when something looks far more complicated than it is.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sourdough Corn Bread Bowls with Winter Vegetable Chowder

My sourdough starter just turned one year old. I’m proud of everything it did in that first year, but I think it can do a lot more. Out of fear, I stuck pretty closely to the Breads from the La Brea Bakery book all year since that’s where it all started. I followed the instructions in that book for making the starter, and I’ve only used that book for baking bread. It hasn’t failed me yet. I’ve made the bagels several times, and just this morning I was branching out by adjusting that recipe to include some whole grains. But, now that a whole year has gone by, I’m ready to start attempting some other sourdough breads. When I saw these sourdough corn bread bowls at Wild Yeast, they went to the top of my list. I loved the idea of cornmeal and corn flour used with sourdough, and a bread bowl for a winter soup was perfect. I followed Susan’s instructions carefully, and everything went fine. I think it’s going to be fun to keep trying new and different sourdough recipes. For the soup, I had a hearty vegetable chowder in mind, and I found just the thing I wanted in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

The sourdough corn bread was a breeze to mix. I combined bread flour, corn flour, coarse corn meal, water, salt, a little butter, and sourdough starter in the bowl of a mixer and let the dough hook do the work. The dough was transferred to an oiled bowl where it fermented for two and a half hours. It was then divided into six pieces which were left to rest for 30 minutes. Then each of those pieces was placed in a soup bowl, covered, and refrigerated until I was ready to bake. I let the dough come to room temperature while the oven pre-heated. Just before sliding the little loaves into the oven, they were slashed around the tops. The oven was spritzed, and I placed the loaves directly on a baking stone. The circular slash on each loaf made a good cut line for removing the tops and turning them into soup bowls.

The soup was even easier to prepare. First, parsley, thyme, bay leaves, sliced onion, peppercorns, and juniper berries were steeped in milk that was brought to a boil. That was covered and set aside while chopped leeks, carrots, turnips, rutabaga, celery, and potatoes were cooked in melted butter. After about 10 minutes, flour was stirred into the cooked vegetables, and then water was added. That was left to simmer for 25 minutes. Last, the milk was poured through a strainer into the soup, and seasoning was checked and adjusted.

A simple meal of bread and soup with some great cheese and olives seemed like a feast. The cornmeal and corn flour brought a little sweetness to the bread, and the crunchy crust gave way to a chewy, tasty, light yellow interior. The soup was a showcase of fresh, local, winter vegetables that was thickened just enough from the flour, starch from the potatoes, and the milk. As the soup disappeared in the bowl, it was easy to drag your spoon across the inner surface and bring bits of bread through the remaining chowder. Even better than that was pulling the bowl apart and eating the whole thing.

I’m submitting this to Yeastspotting where you’ll find some seriously well-made bread.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Citrus Tart

When I was growing up, I didn’t get to see lemons growing on trees. No, in Illinois, citrus was certainly not a local crop. However, several years later when I moved to Austin and started gardening, one of the first things I wanted to add to my garden was a lemon tree. It has to be container grown here because we have to move it inside when we have below-freezing temperatures. But, for most of the year, I get to see a lemon tree in my own backyard. Actually, I now get to see two lemon trees. My friend Kirsten, an amazing garden designer and gardener, entrusted her lemon tree to me when she and her husband moved from Austin to Edmonton. Happily, her tree is still doing fine (even though my gardening skills pale in comparison). Both trees produce Meyer lemons which can take almost an entire year to mature from blossoms. The lemons become ripe and ready to pick in late December or early January. I seem to have good luck with lots of lemons one year and then not so many the next. This was a good year. I picked plenty of lemons for limoncello, lots of vinaigrettes, and more. Since only the peels are used for limoncello, I had a couple of cups of lemon juice in my freezer waiting for inspiration to strike when I saw this citrus tart in the January issue of Living. The tart combines lemon and lime juices which seemed perfect since the lime would sharpen up the sweeter Meyer lemon juice.

This tart’s crust is a press in the pan type made with butter, flour, salt, ground almonds, confectioners’ sugar, and an egg yolk. I used almond meal that I had on hand rather than grinding blanched almonds in a food processor. The dough was a little sticky, but it was simple enough to press it into the tart pan. Then, it was placed in the freezer for 20 minutes. The crust was baked for about 23 minutes and left to cool while the filling was made. Eggs, sugar, salt, fresh lemon juice, lemon zest, fresh lime juice, and cream were mixed and then poured into the cooled crust. The tart went back into the oven, at a reduced temperature, for about 25 minutes or until set. I had to leave mine a few extra minutes until the center was no longer jiggly.

I whipped some leftover mascarpone with cream and a pinch or so of sugar, and my goodness, can someone please tell me why I had never before added mascarpone to whipped cream? That is definitely one of the most delicious concoctions, and it made a very nice topping for the tart. The crust was buttery and rich and possibly just a tad too rich and too sweet for me, although I didn’t hear any complaints. Still, I might opt for a standard shortbread crust or even a pate brisee next time I make this, but I won’t change a thing about the filling. The mix of lime and Meyer lemon juices was fresh and bright and just enough sugar was added, and of course, picking the lemons yourself makes them taste even better.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Shrimp and Lobster Etouffee

To celebrate Mardi Gras this year, I couldn’t resist pulling My New Orleans off the shelf, and my first thought was to try the crawfish etouffee. Unfortunately, it’s not quite crawfish season yet. Sure, I could have purchased frozen crawfish tale meat, but then I would have no shells for making a shellfish stock which is essential to the dish. I decided to use Gulf shrimp and a couple of small lobster tails. As I started looking over the recipe, it occurred to me that I’ve never heard a good explanation of the difference between etouffee and gumbo. Both start with a roux, both involve the trinity of vegetables and stock, and both are usually served with rice. After some searching, the best explanation I found was that etouffee is almost always made with seafood and usually just one type at a time (clearly I cheated) while gumbo may contain seafood, meat, poultry, or a mix of any or all of the above. The word etouffee means smothered and the word gumbo is derived from an African word for okra, but both are stews. In the book, the crawfish etouffee recipe is regarded as the master recipe in which shrimp or crab can be substituted for the crawfish both in the finished dish and in the stock used to make it.

The first step is to make the shellfish stock which is very easy and requires relatively little simmering time. Browned vegetables, shrimp and lobster shells, and water simmered for about an hour, but I’ve also made shellfish stock in closer to 30 minutes. Once the stock is finished, strained, and ready to be used, the etouffee was started, of course, with a roux. The goal is to cook the roux until it's the color of milk chocolate. Mine was just a little lighter than that, but I really didn’t want it to burn. Then, chopped onion was added and allowed to caramelize before the diced celery, red bell pepper, garlic, thyme, cayenne, extra cayenne in my case, and smoked paprika were added. I thought it was interesting that Besh suggested red bell pepper rather than green. Next, a peeled, seeded, and diced tomato was added with the shellfish stock. The mixture simmered for just seven minutes before sliced green onions and the shrimp and lobster meat were added. Last, butter was added, and it was seasoned with Worcestershire and Tabasco and checked for salt and pepper. When the shrimp were cooked through, it was served with white rice.

Whether etouffee or gumbo or crawfish or shrimp, I really love this style of food and the flavors that develop as it simmers away. In this particular version, I appreciated the hint of smoke from the paprika. This one seemed a little less overly rich than some etouffees I’ve had. It wasn’t too heavy or too thick. The mix of shrimp and lobster was nice, but it was all about the flavor of the stew.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Red Wine Braised Short Ribs with Creamy Mascarpone Polenta

Once a year or so, I experiment with cooking beef. I guess it’s a sign that I really am obsessed with learning more about cooking since I don’t eat red meat. Kurt does eat red meat, and he’s my audience and critic when I attempt one of these meals. This time, I decided I really wanted to watch the transformation of beef short ribs during a long, slow braise. I felt it necessary to stick to an exact recipe, so I presented a couple of options from different books to Kurt. He chose the red wine braised short ribs from Stir: Mixing It Up in the Italian Tradition by Barbara Lynch. It’s a fairly straightforward approach to short ribs as far as I know. For side dishes, otherwise known as my complete meal, I made the creamy mascarpone polenta also from Stir and roasted some broccoli and cauliflower with whole garlic cloves.

Lynch’s approach to the short ribs is to cook them even longer than usual at an even lower temperature. They can definitely be made in advance and simply re-heated for serving. In fact, that’s the best way to deal with the sauce. To start, the short ribs were seasoned well and then seared in a hot saute pan with canola oil. I knew not to crowd the pan, so I seared the ribs in two batches, and to my nose, my kitchen still smells like beef. Kurt doesn’t seem to mind. Once seared on all sides, the ribs went into a large roasting pan, and the sauce was started. In the same saute pan, onion, celery, carrot, and garlic were sauteed. When those vegetables were tender and browned, a bottle of red wine, thyme sprigs, bay leaves, peppercorns, whole coriander, and chopped tomato were added. That was cooked until reduced by half. Then, broth was added and brought to a boil. The whole mixture of liquid and vegetables was poured over the ribs in the roasting pan. The pan was covered with parchment and foil, and it went into a 275 F oven for five hours.

I can’t take much credit for the meat doing what it does in a flavorful braising liquid while being slowly roasted for hours, but it did indeed arrive at the falling off the bone state. I let the meat cool in the roasting pan until touchable and then transferred it to another large baking dish. The braising liquid was strained into a large saucepan, and some of it was poured over the ribs in the new dish. Both the ribs and sauce were covered and refrigerated for a couple of hours. That was just enough time for the fat to congeal on the surface of the sauce, and that makes it much easier to remove than skimming a warm sauce repeatedly. The de-fatted sauce was then brought to a simmer and reduced while the short ribs were re-heated in a 300 F oven. Just before serving, a tablespoon of butter and some thyme leaves were whisked into the sauce.

The ribs were well-received, and Kurt confirmed they were cooked to complete tenderness. Yes, they spend forever braising, and beef fat is a crazy thing to smell in my kitchen, but I had a new cooking experience and everything turned out great. That’s not the end of the story though. I have to tell you about the incredibly simple polenta. It was a basic polenta made with coarse ground cornmeal and milk. After the polenta was thickened and fully cooked, butter and mascarpone were stirred into it. That was it, but what a polenta it became. I’m told it worked well with the short ribs and sauce, and I can definitely suggest it along side roasted vegetables. The creamy richness of the mascarpone made it an amazing polenta. For this meal, w
e had slightly different things on our plates, but we both enjoyed a hearty winter meal with great flavor.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Fresh Coconut Mousse Cake

This is the cake Kurt chose for his birthday this year. It wasn’t just any birthday, so the cake needed to be a little special. This cake was made to celebrate Kurt’s 40th birthday. We actually did quite a lot of celebrating for this momentous, milestone of a birthday. We spent a long weekend in Las Vegas and indulged in several incredible meals. Sure, there was a little gambling and we were there for Super Bowl weekend, but all those interesting restaurants in such close proximity to one another was the highlight for me. I’ve included descriptions of our meals and links to the restaurants on facebook. You can read all about it and even become a fan if you’d like while you’re there. So, after returning home, I baked this festive cake and the celebration continued. The cake is found in The Greyston Bakery Cookbook. With freshly grated coconut and coconut mousse between the layers and as frosting, I was pretty sure this was going to be good.

In the book, it’s presented as a three-layer, eight inch cake. I made two nine-inch layers instead. The cake itself is very straightforward, and the batter is made with flour, baking powder, salt, egg yolks, sugar, melted butter, milk, and vanilla extract. There was supposed to have been some coconut extract which I wasn’t able to locate, so I used coconut milk instead of cow’s milk. Maybe I should have tried a baking specialty store to find coconut extract because it was nowhere to be found at Central Market, Whole Foods, Williams Sonoma, or Sur la Table. The coconut milk was a fine substitution, and once the batter was mixed, egg whites beaten to a state of stiff peaks were folded into it. The cakes baked for about 30 minutes and were cooled. Don’t skip the parchment rounds in the pans before pouring in the batter, because these cakes were not the easiest to remove. While the cakes cooled, a very simple mousse was made with just heavy cream, confectioner’s sugar, vanilla, and freshly grated coconut. Again, there should have been some coconut extract, but I skipped it. The recipe suggests using two coconuts worth of gratings for the mousse and for decorating the cake, but I used one and had plenty. I grated the coconut finely for the mousse. Then, for the outside of the cake, I grated larger pieces of coconut and toasted them in a 400 F oven for eight minutes or so. I liked the look of the toasted coconut, and the nutty flavor and crisper texture of it were nice too.

I was a little worried the whipped cream mousse may not hold up well in the refrigerator after a day or so, but I was completely wrong about that. The cake survived well for four days with no running mousse at all. In fact, it was still light, airy, tender, and delicious right to the end. The coconut extract may have given it even more flavor, but as it was, it didn’t seem lacking to me. Kurt was happy with his birthday cake, and hopefully that’s not just because he’s so old he doesn’t even know what he’s eating anymore.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mushroom Socca Stacks

Chickpea flour flatbreads with cheddar, slow-roasted tomatoes, and herby sauteed mushrooms had me thinking about this dish since October. It appeared in that issue of Vegetarian Times, and I have to tell you about my subscription. This is one subscription that I don’t receive in the mail. I subscribe to an online version that arrives in my email inbox. I flip through the pages on-screen, and they look exactly the same as the printed version. I can print pages if I want or go back to the issue at any time. I’m definitely a fan of having physical magazines and books to read, and I don’t think I’ll ever entirely switch to e-reading, but having a subscription here and there in electronic form is a good environmental option. So, when I saw this ‘page,’ it immediately became part of my to-try list.

This is very easy to prepare, but you need to plan ahead for roasting the tomatoes. Since fresh, ripe tomatoes aren’t a February crop, I opted for canned, whole tomatoes instead. They worked great. Just cut the tomatoes in half and place them on a baking sheet. Sprinkle them with chopped thyme, rosemary, oregano, and garlic. Then, drizzle them with olive oil and season with salt and pepper, and roast them at 300 F for two hours. Once roasted and full of concentrated flavor, half of the tomatoes were pureed to form a sauce, and the other half were reserved for garnishing. The socca were made by whisking together chickpea flour and salt and pepper, and then lukewarm water and oil were added. That was left to sit while finely diced onion was sauteed with thyme. The mushrooms were added to the onion, and then some dry white wine was splashed into the pan. That was left to cook until the wine evaporated. The socca mixture was poured into a loaf pan, and it was baked for about 10 minutes. Grated cheddar was sprinkled on the socca, and it was returned to the oven just to melt the cheese. The socca wasn’t as firm as I expected, so I may bake it a little longer next time.

The stacks were formed with a base of tomato sauce topped with sauteed mushrooms, then one piece of socca, and all the layers were repeated with whole roasted tomatoes scattered here and there. This was hearty and rich-tasting, and those tomatoes were bursts of incredible flavor. A little more crispness from the socca would have been nice, but it was still delicious just as it was.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blueberry Kefir Ice Cream

I was already a big fan of drinkable yogurt when I was asked if I would like some samples of Lifeway kefir. Kefir is also a drinkable, fermented dairy product, and I was happy to get to taste several different flavors. In addition to the health benefits of the calcium and live and active cultures in kefir, it also lasts a nice long time in the refrigerator. The samples I received arrived at the end of January, and the expiration dates on them are in mid-April. I immediately popped open the strawberry kefir to have a taste, and it was well-flavored, not too sweet, and pleasantly thick while very drinkable. Kurt and I could have happily and easily just enjoyed all of those samples as beverages, but I decided I needed to get a little creative. I thought a frozen yogurt kind of concoction would be a good direction to take, and I set about finding some sources for inspiration. First, I looked at the blueberry frozen yogurt in The Perfect Scoop, and then I found Clotilde’s recipe for lemon kefir ice cream.

In The Perfect Scoop, the blueberry frozen yogurt is made with lots frozen blueberries. I started with that idea. I pureed three cups of frozen blueberries with some blueberry flavored kefir in the blender. In the book, since plain yogurt was used, additional sugar was added to the ingredients to be blended, but since my flavored kefir was already sweetened, I skipped the sugar. That puree was then pushed through a strainer to remove the blueberry seeds and skins, and the result was a very smooth, purpley, and tasty puree. In Clotilde’s recipe, lemon zest and limoncello were added to the mix before the ice cream was churned. My limoncello still wasn’t ready, so I added some orange liqueur and orange zest instead. Then, the finished mix went into the ice cream maker for 35 minutes.

It wasn’t as icy as a sorbet, but the frozen fruit content took it in that direction. The texture actually fell somewhere in between sorbet and ice cream, and the subtle bit of orange offset the blueberry flavor well. To take it one step further, I also used the blueberry kefir ice cream in a shake blended with some peach kefir since I’ve been a fan of that combo since I first had blueberry-peach pancakes many years ago at Kerbey Lane Cafe. That was a glass full of frozen, fruity goodness. It was fun to mix and match the flavors and make frozen treats, but the remaining samples will be great instant breakfasts too.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Roasted Potatoes and Cauliflower with Red Onion, Capers, and Chiles

Last weekend, I flipped through the A16 book looking for something interesting and seasonal for a dinner meal. I decided on a braised fish dish and this warm roasted potato salad to go on the side. The fish was fine, we were happy with it, but it wasn’t something I was compelled to shout about from the rooftops. This potato and cauliflower dish, however, was very shout-worthy. Kurt and I agreed this was a big winner, and then we raced back to the kitchen for seconds.

Chunks of potatoes were tossed with olive oil and salt and then roasted in a 450 F oven. Throughout this book, it's common that seasoning will be with salt only if chile flakes are used later in the dish. The cauliflower was chopped into florets and tossed with a generous quarter cup of olive oil and some salt. It was then sauteed with that oil until the cauliflower just started to brown. Then, the saute pan went into the oven where the cauliflower roasted until browned but not limp. As the vegetables roasted, more olive oil was heated in a saucepan. Capers were fried in it, and then chile flakes were added with sliced red onion. When the onion had softened, the mixture was taken off the heat, and red wine vinegar was stirred into it. That mixture was the warm dressing which was then tossed with the roasted potatoes and cauliflower.

It’s a simple combination of things that obviously go together well, but the olive oil and careful seasoning at each step and the warm caper, chile, onion, vinegar dressing all made it outstanding. As I said, this was the highlight of our meal served warm and crisp just from the oven. However, this could also be made in advance and served at room temperature. As a third option, if you’re lucky enough to have leftovers the next day, it’s also delicious as a cold salad taken right from the refrigerator and topped with tuna.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Cranberry-Cornmeal Quick Bread

I guess I’ve finally gotten around to cooking from November magazines. This quick bread was in the November issue of Living, and the title alone made me want to bake it. Cranberry and cornmeal sounded like a great combination. Then, I read on into the recipe. I admit to having several food issues with ingredients that I usually avoid. One of those many issues is with crystallized ginger. I don’t even know why. I like ginger in both sweet and savory applications, and nibbling on crystallized ginger is perfectly fine. For some reason though, when baked goods include chopped crystallized ginger, I often omit it. Well, I decided to get over it and just go with the original intent of this recipe. At last, my mind might have been changed forever about this ingredient. The little bits of chewy, gingery goodness throughout the loaf were lovely in the cornmeal crumb.

A sauce was made from cranberries, melted butter, and sugar. That mixture was cooked until the cranberries started to pop, and at that point, the sauce had thickened. Fresh cranberries were suggested, but I used frozen, and they worked perfectly fine. I also added a few extra cranberries just because I love their tart flavor. The cranberries and sauce were transferred to a loaf pan and left to cool. The batter was made from butter, sugar, eggs, and a whisked together mixture of flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Then, the chopped crystallized ginger was folded into the batter. Something that worked well for me was to toss the chopped crystallized ginger with a small amount of flour. That way, the pieces didn’t stick all together in one clump in the middle of the batter. The thick batter with well-distributed chopped crystallized ginger was spooned over the cranberries and carefully smoothed. The loaf baked for about 35 minutes.

My only complaint is that my quick bread didn’t rise to the nice, tall height seen in the magazine photo. I’m not sure why it didn’t since I used the same size pan and same quantities of ingredients in the batter. My baking powder is brand new too. Other than that minor quibble, I was very pleased with this. The cooled loaf was turned out to allow the cranberries to sit on top like jewels. It was sweet and tart and the cornmeal and crystallized ginger flavors worked together very well. And, just like that, I might be over my crystallized ginger thing.

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