Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Tortilla Soup

I didn’t know about tortilla soup before I moved to Austin, but I quickly became a big fan. It’s one of those things, like chili, that everyone makes in his or her own way. Several local restaurants serve different versions of it. Sometimes, it’s a brothy soup with chunks of tomatoes, chiles, and chicken that gets topped with crispy tortilla strips, shredded cheese, and chopped avocado. Other times, the soup is thickened with tortillas cooked in the broth. And, one version that I like a lot is made thick with a puree of softened, dried chiles that sends it in the direction of mole sauce as soup. What I’d never tried, however, was a silky, pureed tortilla soup with the addition of butter. It’s a recipe from Chef Rene Ortiz of Austin, and it appeared in Food and Wine magazine last May. This was so different from other tortilla soups that I followed the instructions for the toppings to the letter. Since the soup is nicely rich with butter, it doesn’t need the usual, gooey, melted, shredded cheese. Instead, this was topped with avocado, cilantro leaves, sliced jalapeno, tortilla strips, and just a few crumbles of queso fresco. 

The soup is started by sauteing white onion and garlic. Next, tomatoes are added, and since it’s not tomato season, I used canned. Chipotles in adobo were added as well, and you might want to start with two and decide if you’d like more or not. The recipe suggests four which make the soup nicely spicy with a layer of smokiness. Chicken stock is added with the tomatoes and chipotles, and good soup results from good stock. I made a stock with chicken legs, lots of vegetables, and a few dried chiles I had in the pantry. As the soup simmers, you can fry tortilla strips for garnish. Any shape will work from strips to shoestrings to little squares. After the soup has cooked away for 30 minutes or so, it’s then pureed in batches in a blender with butter. One stick of butter was cut into pieces, and a few were added to each batch to be pureed. Either let the soup cool before pureeing, or blend in small batches that only fill the blender pitcher about one-third to one-half of the way. Then, if the soup is hot, remove the plastic inner piece of the pitcher lid, and hold a towel over the opening as you pulse the blender on and off. That way, steam can escape, and the pitcher lid won’t shoot off the top when you start the motor. Once all the soup is pureed, it’s ready to be re-warmed and then served with toppings including shredded chicken, crispy tortilla strips, avocado chunks, sliced jalapeno, cilantro leaves, and crumbled queso fresco. 

The smoke and chile heat from the chipotles were lovely. And, lots of crunchy, corn tortilla strips are a great contrast to the silky texture of the soup. I don’t think I could choose an all-time favorite version of tortilla soup since I like them all so much, but I have found yet another unique, delicious, and easy-to-make approach to add to my list of options. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Red Wine Tart

I previously knew a little about Anne Willan. I knew that she is originally from England, founded the La Varenne Cooking School, and has written some very well-received cookbooks. But, after reading a review copy of her memoir, One Souffle at a Time, I learned so much more about her life, her work, and her travels. After attending Cambridge, she wasn’t interested in following the current trend of young women who “were out pecking for a husband, (when) business careers, even for women graduates of Cambridge or Oxford, were a rarity.” She took a position as a cooking teacher at Winkfield, a cooking and finishing school she had attended one summer, and so began her career in food. Next, she completed the advanced course at the Cordon Bleu Cooking School in London and then began teaching there. Then, she was off to France to attend the Paris Cordon Bleu after which she taught French cooking to the staff at Versailles for fundraising dinners. It wasn’t long before her move to the US to live in New York where she quickly enough landed a job with Gourmet magazine. She married her husband in Costa Rica, moved to Washington DC, and became the food editor of The Washington Star. She traveled with her husband for business and pleasure with one trip including stops in Japan, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Delhi, Tehran, Isfahan, Persepolis, Jerusalem, Jordan, and Cairo. She wrote the Grand Diplome Cooking Course for an American audience while seven months pregnant. And, after her second child was born, she was working on her book Entertaining Menus. It wasn’t long before she, her husband, and children moved to Paris where she started planning for La Varenne, and many more books came later as well. Her life sounds like a never-dull whirlwind of cooking, writing, entertaining, teaching, and traveling. I’ve breezed through some moments of her past, but it’s all so much better described in the book. And, each section is accompanied by a recipe that corresponds to an anecdote like the Shrimp and Cheese Souffles that she prepared for Craig Claiborne in Manhattan, the Gourgeres from a reception attended by Julia Child and James Beard, and a Red Wine Tart served at a summer party at her chateau. 

I was fascinated by the idea of a tart with a red wine filling. The chef instructor from La Varenne had discovered the recipe in an old cookbook from Burgundy. In the headnote, Willan mentions that she prefers a particular French pinot noir for this because it pairs well with the cinnamon in the recipe. I brought home a bottle of French burgundy and got baking. The crust is a sweet pate sucree made with egg yolks, butter, flour, sugar, and a pinch of salt. After resting, the dough was rolled and fitted into a nine-inch tart shell. It was blind-baked until golden. The filling was just a mix of two eggs, a half cup of sugar, two teaspoons of cornstarch, and two teaspoons of cinnamon that was whisked together. A cup of pinot noir was stirred in last. It’s noted in the recipe that any froth is to be avoided, and careful stirring is advised. The filling was poured into the tart shell, and it went back into a 375 degree F oven for about 20 minutes until the center was set. It was served with whipped cream. 

The flavor is fruity but vaguely so, and the cinnamon is front and center. I think I was expecting a redder looking tart, but the color is almost like chocolate which is not a bad trade-off. It’s a great dessert for a dinner party, and it’s an easy one to prepare. I was as delighted to learn about this red wine tart as I was to read this memoir. 

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Beet Gnocchi with Walnut-Sage Butter

I’m playing with fire. With two posts in a row about beets, I could forever lose any blog readers who are serious beet haters. But, wait. Even if you’ve disliked the flavor of beets in the past, you won’t really taste their earthiness here. They’re transformed into lovely ricotta gnocchi with parmigiano reggiano in the dough as well. And, they’re sauced with browned butter and crispy sage leaves, and topped with toasted walnuts. Of course, I have to mention that color. That pretty reddish-purple alone could help convince anyone to give these a try. I still have a little fear of making potato gnocchi although I did try it once, but ricotta gnocchi are somehow less daunting. The dough was mixed easily enough, divided into pieces that were rolled into ropes, and gnocchi were cut from the lengths. The recipe is from last April’s issue of Food and Wine magazine, and it’s available online. I’m always trying to bring beet haters around to fandom, and these gnocchi could finally do it. 

The beets need to be roasted and allowed to cool before they can be pureed for the dough. I did that step a day in advance. The skin slips right off the beets after they’ve been roasted. Then, I trimmed the ends, chopped them into big chunks and refrigerated them until the next day. The beet chunks were pureed in a food processor until smooth. That puree was combined with ricotta, an egg, some salt, and grated parmigiano reggiano in a stand mixer. After mixing to combine, flour was added and incorporated. The dough was kneaded to smooth it a bit, and then it was wrapped in plastic and left to rest for about 30 minutes. The rested dough was divided into pieces that were each rolled into a rope. One half inch pieces were cut from the ropes of dough and placed on a parchment-lined baking sheet that had been dusted with flour. A second baking sheet was drizzled with oil, and water was brought to a boil in a wide pot. I only cooked enough gnocchi for one meal and placed the rest in the freezer. To cook them, they’re placed in boiling water but not too many at a time. There should be plenty of room for them to move around in the water. They’ll rise to the surface and then should be cooked for another minute or so. They’re then transferred with a slotted spoon to the oiled baking sheet. The oil is important because without it, they would stick. The last step is to brown some butter and crisp some sage leaves in it. Lemon juice was added to the butter and sage before the cooked gnocchi were tossed with the sauce. The dish was plated with toasted walnuts and more parmesan on top. 

The brown butter, sage, walnuts, and hint of lemon were perfectly matched with the gnocchi. I crisped some extra sage leaves because I always want more of them. I would definitely serve the extra gnocchi from the freezer in the exact same way again, but I might try adding some gorgonzola crumbles too. I also might try inviting some friends over who think they don’t like beets. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Lemon-Ginger-Beet Juice

I promise, this isn’t one of those “it’s January and we should be eating nothing but beet juice” kind of posts. Actually, this has nothing to do with January or resolutions. In fact, I’ve been waiting for months to mention this. Ever since reading the book Eating on the Wild Side, I’ve been implementing several of the suggestions from it and trying to eat more of the healthiest foods described. The book looks at the history of several edible plants and how their nutritional value has changed over time. As sweeter or milder versions of fruits and vegetables have been selected over bitter or other less desirable tastes, nutrients have been bred out of those fruits and vegetables. One vegetable that hasn’t changed much, however, is garlic. Garlic, and all alliums, offer all sorts of health benefits, but specifically with garlic, getting those benefits depends on how it’s used. Garlic contains alliin and alliinase which combine to form allicin when garlic is cut, sliced, minced, or smashed. And, allicin is very beneficial to good health. However, alliinase is heat sensitive. So, if cut garlic is heated immediately after being cut, no allicin is formed. If cut garlic is left to sit for ten minutes before being heated, the maximum amount of allicin is created. Then, you can cook it as you normally do. I’ve been reordering my cooking process for every dish that includes garlic. My first step has become slicing, mincing, or chopping the garlic in whatever way needed and letting it sit for at least ten minutes while prepping everything else. Another thing I was delighted to learn from the book is that our modern cultivars of artichokes are very, very nutritious. They’re noted for having a higher antioxidant capacity than all other fruits and vegetables. They’re also high in inulin which promotes good gut microflora. And, the best part of the info about artichokes is that the hearts contain as many antioxidants as the rest of the leaves. The canned or jarred versions have all those nutrients too. I tend to choose ones packed in glass jars to avoid BPA lining in aluminum cans, but it’s great to know those marinated artichoke hearts are so healthy. And, then I read about beets. 

Of course beets are good for you. Everyone knows that. Wild sea beets are similar to Swiss chard, and modern beets with big roots were domesticated from them. Despite the sweetness of beet roots, they have very little impact on blood sugar. The red color in beets comes from betalains which are excellent cancer-fighting phytonutrients. And, beets contain naturally occurring nitrates which can reduce blood pressure thereby increasing blood flow to muscles. The effect has been tested on athletes, and it was discovered that after drinking beet juice, test subjects were able to exercise 15 percent longer than others who didn’t drink it. British athletes drank beet juice rather than other Olympics-approved energy drinks before competing in the 2012 Summer Olympics. I loved learning this. I had kept a beet juice recipe from the September 2012 issue of Food and Wine magazine, and after learning this I couldn’t wait to try it before a run. There’s always a point in the winter when it seems like we’re inundated with beets from our CSA, and this year I was ready and waiting for that to happen. I was ready to juice all the beets we received. So, on a Friday afternoon when I was tired and ready for the week to be over, I set up my juicer and set about making an energy-enhancing beverage. I started with some ginger, a peeled lemon, and then I used several spinach leaves which I had on hand. The original recipe suggests kale. Then, I added a halved and cored apple, and instead of a cucumber, I used a pear. Last, I added a couple of cleaned and trimmed beets to the juicer. 

The color is fabulous as anything with beets always is. And, the flavor is much better than you might think. That’s largely thanks to the lemon and ginger. Really, add lemon and ginger to any vegetable juice, and it will be delicious. But, the vegetal flavors of the beet and spinach do take a backseat here. I went for a run after drinking the beet juice and felt great. I’ll have to test the concept a few more times before I can say with certainty if it really makes a noticeable difference while exercising, but I do know it’s a very healthy and tasty drink that I’m happy to keep testing. 

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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Pappardelle with Duck Ragu

You know the mental file of recipes that you think about for years, the recipes that you intend to make when the time is right, the ones you know will be great when you finally do prepare them? I’m delighted to report that one of those has moved from my mental file into the realm of reality. Since 2006, I’d been pondering the making of the Duck Ragu from On Top of Spaghetti. I knew it would be perfect for a winter meal on an occasion when I had plenty of time to roast the duck legs and then let the sauce slowly simmer. I knew I wanted to save this for a day when I could make homemade pappardelle to go with it. All of those conditions were finally able to be met for a Christmas meal. Every time I mention cooking from this book, I also mention that it’s one of my favorites. It has never let me down and certainly did not this time either. Although there is a recipe for homemade pasta in this book, I have another favorite that I turn to for especially rich pasta dough. Once again, I made the fresh pasta dough from Stir which incorporates whole eggs as well as egg yolks. It worked out perfectly since I had a use for the whites for dessert. I made the pasta and cut the wide, pappardelle ribbons a day in advance. The sauce takes some time to allow the flavors to develop, but it couldn’t have been easier. 

This was actually my first time cooking duck at home, and I know it won’t be my last. There’s not much to cooking the duck in this case. Two pounds of duck legs were roasted in the oven for about 40 minutes. You’ll need a roasting pan that can go from oven to stovetop for deglazing. Of course, there’s duck fat that’s rendered as the legs roast, and I greedily poured that into a bowl to save for cooking potatoes at a later date. With the cooked duck and fat removed from the pan, the pan was then set over low heat on top of the stove. A half-cup of red wine was used to deglaze it. While the duck was roasting, onions, carrots, and celery were chopped. Those vegetable along with chopped rosemary, and a few juniper berries were cooked in olive oil in a Dutch oven until very tender. The deglazing wine and any bits from the roasting pan with another cup and a half of red wine were added to the vegetables and left to simmer and reduce until almost completely evaporated. Next, stock and canned chopped tomatoes were added. I used a homemade chicken stock, but duck stock would have been great. As the sauce began to simmer, I pulled the meat from the duck leg bones and shredded it to add to the sauce later. With meat and skin removed from the bones, I added the bones to the sauce. The sauce continued to simmer for another 45 minutes or so. Then, the bones were removed and the shredded meat was added. Fresh pasta cooks quickly, in about a minute or two, and the cooked and drained pappardelle was tossed with a bit of sauce before being plated. It was topped with more sauce and grated parmigiano. 

This dish was definitely worth the wait. But, now that I know how easy it is, I won’t be waiting long to make it again. It is a rich and hearty sauce with layers of flavor from the duck and wine. At last, I can stop wondering when I’ll ever make this dish, and instead, I can daydream about how delicious I now know it is. 

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