Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A New Twist on a Holiday Favorite

Pecan Pie is a true Thanksgiving specialty. Though I didn't grow up making pecan pie with my family (my dad was in charge of the most delicious pumpkin pie...), a nutty pie has in recent years had a spot at our thanksgiving table. I usually make the pecan pie and I'm still working on refining my own recipe. I like to use more "natural" and unrefined sweeteners, like honey and maple syrup, which not only cuts the cloying sweetness, but also deepens and enhances the nut flavor. I'm interested in trying some rosemary in the mixture, and possibly "mixing" the nuts - from pecans, to a blend of almonds, hazelnut, and walnuts.

For a recent feast of food at school, I and seven classmates masterminded a "Wild Harvest" themed luncheon, featuring "foraged" foods like root vegetables, greens, venision, boar, trout, and much more. It was only fitting that one dessert be a nutty pie/tart to complement our dessert, a cranberry apple "cake." I am a huge fan of Once Upon A Tart, down on Sullivan Street in NYC - their biscotti, sandwiches, cookies - all utterly heavenly! I was quite delighted to find they feature a chocolate walnut tart in their cookbook. Our second dessert it will be!

The recipe itself is very straightforward, and not too sweet or custardy. My one complaint (and I'm sure this is because I was using short sided french tart rings over a cast iron pan and making 6x the normal batch!) was that the filling did boil over on two of the tarts (maybe it was much hotter on lower shelves, too - I think that is most likely). Though the tarts were not ruined, these two tarts definitely made me worry for a time. Having made multiple tarts over the past couple of months, I also noticed that this dough, albeit very tender and fragile, doesn't stick at all! I liked to put lots of chocolate drizzle on top of the tarts (though next time, I would use dark chocolate!).

Once Upon A Tart's Chocolate Walnut Tart
2 large eggs
1/4 c sugar
1/4 c honey
1/2 c plus 2 tbsp light corn syrup
2 tbsp melted butter, room temp
1/4 c light cream
2 1/4 c walnut halves
1 unbaked flaky tart crust (9", 1" sides or taller)
1/2 c dark chocolate pieces
1 tsp solid veg shortening

1. Preheat oven to 375
2. Whisk the eggs and sugar in a big bowl to combine. Whisk in honey and corn syrup, then the butter, cream, and nuts. Pour into tart shell.
3. Place tart in center of oven and bake for 50-55 minutes, or until lightly golden and the filling is just set.
4. Let tart cool completely
5. While tart cools, heat the shortening and chocolate til just melted.
6. Cut tart into 8 wedges. Drizzle chocolate over wedges (alternatively, you can also drizzle chocolate over the uncut tart).

Serve with vanilla ice cream or gelato -- honey thyme is best!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Tasty Hors D'Oeuvres with Ease?

Today in school, my group hosted our buffet, themed a "Wild Harvest," with "foraged berries, mushrooms, and greens, and some boar and venision we "hunted."

One of our tasks was to come up with two Hors d'Oeuvres for today's feast (in addition to the two from last week). After brainstorming multiple ideas, we came up with the following:

for last week's "practice" - bacon wrapped stiltion creme stuffed dates on cucumber rounds and tomato bruschetta on baguette rounds

for our "wild harvest," house smoked trout with a horseradish creme on pumpernickel and - my new versatile favorite - red onion thyme confit and pancetta on a polenta round.

These little sweet and tender, yet crispy and savory bites were relatively easy to make too! I already find myself dreaming up variations on a theme:

pear compote with a blue cheese crumble on a round
lamb ragu over rosemary polenta rounds
pesto and cherry tomatoes over mozzarella polenta
Roast beef and braised chard over crispy polenta
Apple compote over cinnamon polenta (maybe?)

Anything is possible - here is the basic recipe I followed:

My plain version of Ina's Rosemary Polenta:
1 stick butter
1/4 c olive oil
1 tbsp minced garlic - about 3 cloves
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
3 c chicken stock
2 c half and half
2 c milk (or 1 c heavy cream, 3 c milk)
2 c cornmeal (I like Gray's!)
1/2 c good grated parmesan
Flour, olive oil, and butter for frying

6 large red onions
Crisp pancetta rounds

Polenta: Heat butter and oil in a large saucepan. Add the garlic, salt, pepper and saute 1 min. Add stock, milk/cream, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and slowly sprinkle the cornmeal into the hot milk while stirring constantly with a whisk. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for a few minutes until thickened and bubbly. Off the heat, stir in the cheese. Pour into one/two sheet pans and spread to desired thickness (I like 1/4" or 3/8" or so). Refridgerate until cold.

Using a round or fluted (or whatever you wish!) cutter, cut out shapes from polenta. While butter and oil are heating in pan, gently dust shapes with flour. Cook over medium heat for 3-5 minutes, turning one time, until golden. Drain/let cool.

Topping: Slice onions and sweat them in butter in a pan, then add port to cover, along with the thyme, and reduce, slowly cooking under meltingly tender. While the compote cools, crisp the pancetta in the oven.

When all ingredients are ready, assemble them: round, compote, pancetta. Straightforward, flexible - and most important, tasty!


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Healthy Popovers?!

Popovers are a transformative food, I think. If you're having a bad day, a popover is a warm, eggy yet bread-y piece of goodness that comforts me. How can you not smile when you crack one open the golden crispy exterior to discover the buttery-yellow tender and warm inside?

I grew up eating popovers on special occasions - Christmas, maybe Easter or another family meal. We would make our own raspberry butter to go along with it. It was also a real fun and special back-to-school treat when my mom would take me and my sisters to The Zodiac at the Neiman Marcus shop at the Westchester Mall. With the complimentary chicken consomme to start the meal, the waiter would bring out the LARGEST perfect popovers with raspberry butter. I still aspire to re-create that puff!

Now, in my family, I've taken over the popover role. I seem to have pretty good luck with these tricky buggers! The trick I have found most helpful is to preheat the popover mold so it's hot when I put the batter in. Oh, and don't open the door. For that matter, don't jump, slam things, or hop. You can sneeze, though.

So popovers have a couple of basic ingredients - eggs, flour, salt, milk, butter. I use the traditional recipe from Joy of Cooking, but when my sister recently returned from Morocco, she wanted to try whole wheat popovers.

My reaction - wait, WHAT?! I worried that whole wheat flour would be too heavy to puff. So, I decided to play around and discovered a foolproof combination. Take whole wheat pastry flour (it's as light as whole wheat flour can get), throw in a teaspoon of salt and sift together. Then, in a bowl, beat four whole eggs (this is going to give the popovers their structure. I usually use less, and some butter for flavor and tenderness, when I use normal flour, but these guys will need a boost). Add a cup of milk (I used whole - I'm tempted to see what would happen if I added some cream to give it some tenderness). Mix, add the sifted flour, and stir with a whisk to combine. I ladled the batter into hot, pre-buttered (butter after the pan is hot or butter will burn!) tin and cook for about 20 minutes at 425 in an convection oven (I watched them rise and turn golden rather than look at the clock, so note).

When they came out of the oven, they shrank so darn fast! I punctured them to let steam release, but I'm thinking next time I wonder if they won't collapse as fast if I don't and just let the shell cool. Alas, this is the one downside to these popovers, as I tasted one with some homemade jam right after I popped them out and they are definitely tasty, with a slight nuttiness to the tender insides.

Healthy popovers? I'm still not quite sure if popovers count as a "healthy" food, but these get awfully close!


Friday, December 4, 2009

A Cake Occasion

Tomorrow, I'm helping four other ladies host a baby shower for a dear friend of mine. We are each contributing a part of the decor and a dish - or two - for the meal.

The luncheon itself will be straightforward - salads and tea sandwiches, cider, Shirley Temples, and sparkling aperitifs. For dessert - my contribution - a yellow butter cake with chocolate frosting. Just like a store-bought cupcake, and that addictive Duncan Hines frosting, but oh so much better.

This cake - Rose Levy Beranbaum's All Occasion Downy Yellow Butter Cake - is OUT of this world. It is the cake that I compare everything to! Vanilla scented, with a fine moist crumb, it's a breeze to make and bake. I wanted a simple chocolate fudgy frosting. I usually make one from The NYT Cookbook, but didn't want to got through with all those steps. After some research, and a friend's recommendation, I decided to try the Mrs. Milman's Chocolate Frosting from Martha Stewart (okay, I doubled it). Very good results! What do you think?

All Occasion Downy Yellow Butter Cake - makes 2 9" rounds

6 large egg yolks - room temp
1 c milk
2 1/4 tsp vanilla
3 c sifted cake flour
1 1/2 c sugar
1 tbsp + 1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
12 tbsp butter, softened

Preheat oven to 350. In medium bowl, combine yolks, 1/4 c milk, and vanilla. In large mixing bowl, combine the sifted flour, sugar, baking powder, salt. Mix on low til combined (30 sec). Then add softened butter and remaining 3/4 c milk. Mix on low to moisten, then on med-high for 1.5 minutes to develop the structure of the cake. Scrape down sides, and add egg mixture in 3 batches, mixing well (20 sec) after each addition. Pour into buttered, parchment lined, buttered again and floured 9" cake pans. Bake until tester clean, about 25-30 min. Let cool, remove from pan and remove parchment and cool completely.

Mrs. Milman's Chocolate Frosting - make 6 c (I made two batches and combined them)

24 oz semisweet chocolate morsels (I use 1/2 Ghiradelli semisweet, 1/2 bittersweet)
4 c heavy cream
1tsp light corn syrup

Melt chocolate and cream together in saucepan. Cook over med-low, stirring constantly, until thick, about 25-30 min. Remove from heat and stir in syrup. Cool completely, stirring every 15 min, or about 2 hrs (I chilled mine in fridge overnight and let it come to temp before using).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Special Announcement, Revealed!

I never win anything. It's crazy I even try anymore! But, one of my favorite blogs, Cooking School Confidential, recently posted a little contest, asking people to post their favorite kitchen tips.

Having spent about 3000 hours in the kitchen (between the hours of 9 and 3 alone - not counting nights and weekends...) since September 1st, I've acquired some pretty useful tips, which I shared in another post. So, I chose to enter the contest simply to share my kitchen tips with others (if it avoids cuts or burns, hey I've done some good!).

I was delighted to learn early last week that I was a winner! @CookingStudent emailed me with the good news. And what did I win you may ask?

Let me quickly interject here with one of the most recent additions to my "kitchen wish list," which already included a 8" poele, wooden fork for omelettes, and an immersion blender. Having spent lots of time chopping bones and vegetables, I'm in need of a special super sharp vegetable-only knife (ooh, a Shun?!) and a wetstone. And, for the tiramisu I want to make for a New Year's Shin-Dig? A moka pot, like those I used every morning in Italy. I DO have a nice espresso machine, but moka pots are so much easier when you need a cup or two of espresso and don't want to have to keep re-filling the portafilter and pulling shots.

Well, the stars aligned in my favor BIG time: I won an Alessi stovetop espresso maker. It's one-cup design is perfect for iced lattes, or to make my New Year's Tiramisu! I can not wait to receive it and give it a whirl.

Photo from Alessi

What favorite recipes do you have that call for espresso? Send me your ideas and I'll share it on the blog!

Thank you again to Cooking School Confidential for the fun contest. Check out the site if you haven't already!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

T-3 Days Left Until Thanksgiving!

Do YOU have your menu planned yet?

I don't - that's because I will be sadly travelling away from the continental U.S. for Thanksgiving. Yes, I will be travelling somewhere warm and sunny, but strangely, I'm struggling with not having Thanksgiving with my family in Rhode Island.

For me, one of the most important "traditions" (I put this in quotes since this is a relatively new tradition - four years old?) is our family Thanksgiving there. Some years, it has just been my immediate family. Other years, friends/godparents have joined us. Whomever our company is, the dining room is always full of laughter, high spirits, and tons of smiles.

Cooking at home in Rhode Island is also a sheer pleasure, as there is an abundance of locally grown meat and produce that makes up our feast: turkeys, oysters, bacon, brussels sprouts, green beans, greens, cranberries, onions, pumpkins, apples, cheeses, and more. I enjoy knowing where my food comes, as it takes the sensory pleasure of eating food to another level. Plus, utilizing locally sourced foods gives me even more reason to be thankful at Thanksgiving.

Lastly, I love late autumn in Rhode Island. The air is crisp in the mornings, and the fields of grass are distinctly brown, with the gray-brown of the leaf-less trees and the deep blue water of the ponds complimenting, yet also contrasting with, a cloud-streaked sky. In the early afternoon, the light begins to turn gold, setting the golden grasses afire with beautiful light. Though it is often 40 degrees outside, the light brings a golden warmth to the landscape.

Though I will miss my "traditional" Thanksgiving, I am looking forward to spending my day this year with all my cousins, aunts, and uncles on my father's side of the family. I am also doing some pre-Thanksgiving celebrating of my own.

Photo courtesy of The New York Times

This past Wednesday, Mark Bittman wrote about 101 Things to Prepare Before The Turkey Goes in The Oven in his The Minimalist column. I'm already a fan of these seasonal 101 articles, but I think that this article is one of the better (best?) ones! I'm all ready to try #42 - Brussels Sprouts Sliders. #s 50 and 54 both sound utterly delicious - Spinach, Raisins and Pinenuts or Curried Cauliflower and Raisins - which to make? Both? And #73, a Roasted Beet Salad, too! I've already tried - and devoured - a batch of #84, the Sage Crackers. Most of his desserts pique my interest, but I'm going to stick with my dad's pumpkin pie...

So, for all of you who have not yet finished your menu, I suggest you check this article out. And, for the rest of you who have finished your menu, will you share with us what you are making?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Send me your tips, your recipes, and your feedback!

We've got an email (finally)!

I'd love to hear your feedback, suggestions, comments, recipes, tips and more! Email me at earthlyepicurean@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @earthlyepicure

Thank you for reading!

Favorite Kitchen Tips

Here are my favorite kitchen tips!

1. Sharp knives! Sharp knifes cut food with little added pressure. That means less pressure on the hand, and  a lesser liklihood of slipping and cutting your finger. And, if you do cut your finger, the cut is super-clean and heals faster (take my word for it. I don't recommend cutting your finger, but after I cut myself pretty badly with super sharp knife, the deep wound healed in a couple of days without any, um, surgical intervention).

2. Always have a dry side towel, and don't pick up hot pans with wet towels. In our professional kitchen, we use side towels instead of oven mitts, and often these side towels are wet, from mopping up water holding peeled potatoes or drying damp hands. Sometimes, in a rush, I will grab a damp side towel to pull a dish out of the oven, and OUCH! Steam burn! The heat of the pan rushes through the damp towel and gives you a really nasty burn (almost as bad as no towel). Keep your dry towels dry and wet towels damp, and away from your pots. Which brings me to my next tip...

3. Have bleach on hand. In the event you DO burn your hand (or whatever), immediately pour undiluted bleach on that burn. It may hurt or look a little gray later, but I promise you this will help reduce the severity of the burn and help healing. You have to do it right after you burn yourself, not an hour or two later. After burning the back of my hand on an oven rack, this trick eliminated blistering and helped heal my burn.

4. While stocking your pantry, also make sure you have white vinegar on hand. When used with a wet rag to clean stovetops, any cooked on grime comes immediately off. Plus, it's relatively safe to use (no chemicals) and does leave a clean smell behind (compared to bleach!).

5. Place a damp towel under your cutting board -- so it won't slip when you're cutting that squash open.

Now that I'm in the tip-sharing mood, I'm going to put together some cooking tips. Please email your favorite cooking tips to earthlyepicurean@gmail.com

Monday, November 16, 2009

Special Announcement!

Fellow Foodies:

Some exciting news came my way this morning -- and I wanted to let you all know that I will reveal my new addition a week from today in the blog -- with recipes to follow during/after the holidays (as apparently it takes a while to arrive).

Stay tuned -- and keep on reading!

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire...


One time, growing up, I distinctly remember boiling (or was it steaming?) chestnuts, and peeling them, for our Thanksgiving stuffing. More than the nuts themselves, I remember the way my fingers (and nailbeds) felt after all that peeling. Ouch.

So, I am terribly afraid to admit that I -- one who seeks to find a connection in eating "closer" to the earth -- cheat when it comes to chestnuts. Granted, I will only buy canned peeled or pureed chestnuts that are of high quality (French!) and have no additives. But still. Really guilty conscience here.

So, what have I been doing with chestnuts? Well, it all started a couple of years ago when my family spent New Year's in Paris. And we went to L'Atelier Du Joel Robuchon one evening for dinner, and I had the most heavenly chestnut soup. Mind boggling and life changing! Ever since, I have been on a quest (a patient one) to find a similar recipe.

Fast forward to last week -- where all of a sudden my chestnut cravings hit in full force. I started googling recipes and decided to try and experiment over the weekend, when I encountered a relatively simple preparation from Rachael Ray. I'm not a huge Rachael Ray fan, but at the same time, I have an open mind and palate. There is no "gunk" in here, so hey -- I had to try.

This evening, after a rough couple of hours (fire alarms, backing cars into other cars...), some time in front of the stove was what I needed to calm me down. I took Rachael's recipe and slightly modified it. Here is my version -- I drizzled some heavy cream on top (mascarpone, greek yogurt or creme fraiche would have been ideal). I had a green salad with dried cranberries and toasted walnuts to accompany, as I love the sweet and nuttiness to compliment the soup. You can also sprinkle chopped parsley and some spiced nuts on top.


Creamy Cream-less Chestnut Soup (inspired by Rachael Ray)

2 medium onions, diced
4 tablespoons butter
32 oz chicken stock
1/3 c dry sherry
1 can peeled chestnuts
2 cans chestnut puree
salt (generous!) to taste

1. Heat butter in large stockpot. Add onions and cook til softened and translucent. Add stock. Bring to boil and reduce to simmer. Add chestnuts and simmer 10 minutes. Add chestnut puree and simmer 10 minutes more. Using an immersion blender, puree ingredients til smooth. Season to taste and serve with garniture of your choice.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Loving the leftovers...

Today was definitely one of those days I could have made two slices of toast with PB & J and called it a night. At school today, we had our "mock" midterm exam -- pulling two dishes out of a hat (mind you, most of us had made the dishes only ONCE) and cooking them to be presented at a given set time. Needless to say, I am exhausted!

However, during the insanity that was my day, I didn't really have lunch. Does a slice of apple tart with a large quenelle of chantilly and a bite of pork chop count? For me, not quite. So, my tummy (that is getting ready for 15 miles this weekend) wanted some stick-to-the-bones food.

No one wants to go to the grocery store tired, cold and hungry. Neither did I. So, I had to be creative with what I had in the kitchen. Let's see: two leftover braised lamb shanks from Sunday night; a can of diced San Marzano tomatoes, onions, pasta... My mind clearly was craving pasta!

(Sorry for the fogginess - blame it on the steam!)

As I heated some olive oil and sauteed some veg to add a little sweetness to my sauce, I discovered a nearly completely eaten bag of grapes in the fridge. Hmm. Cold grapes? Not quite. Now roasted grapes, tossed with some greens and an apple cider reduction I made last week. The perfect seasonal compliment to my lamb ragu (and a glass of pinot grigio with a healthy splash of St. Germain).

Leftover Lamb Ragu

2 lamb shanks, braised and quickly reheated to warm the meat
Olive oil
1/2 medium onion
1/2 small carrot, diced
1/2 celery stalk, diced
28 oz can diced San Marzano tomatoes

Heat olive oil in saucepan. Sweat the onion, then add the carrot and celery. Add a pinch of salt. Cook til color brightens and veg release flavor. Add tomatoes. Bring to a boil. Add lamb and reduce to a simmer. Cook til tender and a bit reduced, season to taste. Serve over freshly cooked pasta. Excellent with a basil chiffonade.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Quick and Easy Dinner

What to have for dinner on those nights that you just don't feel like turning on the stove, or - as in my case - don't want to lift a pan? No, not something that I pulled from the freezer in a paper box! You know me - I try to choose only whole foods and as few processed ingredients as possible.

Here are three of my favorite go-to solutions - the first of which is the meal I prepared for myself tonight after coming home tired and later than usual from spinning. Topped off with a nice glass of local apple cider from Lyman Orchards. Yum!

1. Harvest Salad: local greens with a apple cider vinaigrette. Served with crumbled blue cheese (love Roaring 40's!), sliced comice pear, and a handful of spiced nuts. I added some yellow beet I had on hand for some extra veggie power!

2. Soup and bread: Tomato soup, Butternut Squash soup, Pumpkin soup...I love them all! A piping hot bowl of soup and a piece of crusty bread (with some peanut or almond butter, or melted cheese, for oomph). Mmm...

3. Omelette and green salad: This was my go to quicky meal when I was working in NYC. I could whip up a nice cheese omelette with some greens and a bit of peach mango salsa in 10-15 minutes flat!

Okay...so I'm going to add a 4th...since I have made a meal out of this -- for dinner, not just breakfast -- many times! Peanut butter and jam on toast. The ultimate comfort food. If you don't have jam (I'm partial to my raspberry jam), try sliced banana, or dried cherries or raisins. I have many friends who turn to this solution when it comes to dining at home, alone, late!

What quick and easy dinner solutions to you turn to in a pinch? Share your ideas with me!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Perfect Winter Meals: Tomato Soup

I. Love. Tomato. Soup.

Not sure when I first fell in love with the creamy tomato goodness. I think in grade school? In the cafeteria? GASP! With canned tomato soup?! I'm so embarrassed to write that!

I haven't had a decent Creamy Tomato Soup in a while...until June of 2009. It was the last week working at my old job (www.nyrp.org. They do WONDERFUL things for NYC. Check them out. SUPPORT THEM!!!). My youngest sister and I went out to dinner at Paul Newman's restaurant in Westport, The Dressing Room. If you haven't already been, you must go! Brilliant food, wonderful staff, charming space. Every time I go, it's a pleasure, both for the mind and stomach.

Anyways, they have a wonderful tomato soup on the menu, served with two wedges of grilled cheese (in my mind, the right way to serve tomato soup!) made with delicious Nehantic Abbey cheese. First spoonful in my mouth, the symphony began in my head. Oh. My. Goodness. I had forgotten how much I loved tomato soup, and Michael and Johnny, the geniuses behind the menu, have hit the nail on the head! Oh so so good...

Fast forward to the beginning of November. Someone (ahem) had too much fun the day before Halloween and came down with a little cold on Halloween proper. And the only thing, other than sleep, that I knew would help kick the beast was tomato soup.

Luckily, I came across a recipe from a former coworker at Martha Stewart Living on Chow.com. I modified it slightly to suit my tastes. Perfect with a grilled cheese sandwich, a slice of bread, or even on its own!

Creamy Tomato Soup, my way

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
1 28-oz can of diced tomatoes (I like San Marzanos) in their juices
1 1/2 cups low sodium chicken stock
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup heavy cream

Heat oil in a saucepan til hot. Add onion and a pinch of salt and saute until onion becomes golden and translucent. Add in tomatoes, broth, bay leaves and bring to a simmer. Cook until tomatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

Remove from heat and let soup cool a bit. Remove bay leaves and puree with an immersion blender (or in a blender - be careful to vent the top as hot liquid may cause the top to burst off!). Add the cream in (you can adjust to your taste) and check seasoning.

Serve warm and enjoy!

Perfect Winter Meal: Braised Lamb Shanks

Ha. Ha ha ha. I find myself giggling as I write this post. Friday, planning out my weekend meals on the train home in 45 degree weather, I decided to make braised lamb shanks, as I have some red wine to use, and all the mirepoix ingredients on hand. Fast forward to Sunday, lamb-shank-cooking-day, and it's 70 degrees out.

Okay, so maybe it's not wintery outside, but I'm craving meat and a warm dish and this is so going to hit the spot! It reminds me a lot of one of my all time favorite dishes -- you can find it at Pietra at The Stone House in Little Compton, RI. I'm a low and slow kind of girl. I love short ribs and lamb shanks, stews and navarins. I'm not one to rush things, and when it comes to running, I like the longer distances, but at a slower pace!

Braising is a very straightforward cooking technique. In classic French cuisine, it is a "Mixte" technique, as you are browning meat (concentration method, sealing in juices) and then cooking it in liquid (extraction method - the meat releases juices into the liquid, deepening the flavor). You take meat (beef, lamb, etc) and brown it in a bit of oil on high heat (this I think is the scary part - but put the meat down, and let it sizzle. Don't touch! It will unstick if the pan is hot! After about 2-4 min, depending on the size of meat, flip it and brown another side). You take the meat out, brown some mirepoix - typically onion, carrot, celery, garlic - and then sprinkle in some flour, which will help thicken your sauce (singer en francais!) and moisten with a liquid of your choice -- water, red wine, white wine, stock. Then, add that meat back in, plop a lid on the pot and braise either in the oven (I like this -- at 325) or on the stove.

This recipe was slightly inspired by a recipe in Danny Meyer's Union Square Cafe (one of my favorite restos in NYC) cookbook, and a lot of my own addition/deletion. As I write this, my shanks have been cooking for a bit over an hour in the oven, and I'm salivating smelling the lovely rosemary aroma coming from the oven. Yum, I can not wait to eat this with some crusty Wave Hill Bread!

Earthly Epicurean Red Wine Braised Lamb Shank

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil (or you can use extra-virgin olive oil)
Four 3/4-1 lb lamb shanks
Salt and freshly ground pepper
5 garlic cloves, peeled
4 medium carrots, sliced 1/4 thick
4 medium celery ribs, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2-3 tbsp flour
One 750-milliliter bottle dry red wine (I used a bottle of Meritage I had open that I didn't really want to drink)
1 cup chicken stock or water * (if you don't have stock, use water)
2 sprigs rosemary, chopped

Preheat the oven to 325°. In a large enameled cast-iron casserole, heat the oil. Season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper and brown them on 3 sides over moderately high heat. Set shanks aside. Add the garlic, carrots, celery and onion to the casserole and saute until golden (if the oil from the lamb is at all smoky, drain and use fresh oil to brown the vegs). Add the flour, stir and cook for a minute or so until the raw flour is gone. Add the red wine and bring to a boil, while stirring up the bottom to loosen the golden bits (tasty things!). Add the stock or water and bring to a simmer. Add the lamb shanks and rosemary. Cover the casserole tightly and transfer to the oven. Braise the lamb shanks, turning every 30 minutes, for about 1 1/2 hours, or until very tender.

Transfer the lamb shanks to an ovenproof plate. Strain the braising liquid (you can save the veg if you want -- I kind of like the braised celery!), pressing on the solids. Bring the liquid to a boil in a saucepan until thick and reduced, covering the back of a spoon. Season the sauce to taste. Pour sauce over the shanks and reheat, covered with foil, if necessary prior to serving.

I like serving these with sauteed kale or swiss chard and polenta!

A Note from Earthly Epicurean

As many of you know, I recently started culinary school at The French Culinary School in New York City. Though I love being in the kitchen all day, commuting to/from school after a long day takes the last little bit out of you. As well, when I'm in the kitchen all day at school, I really don't want to stand in front of the stove at night!

So, during the week, I focus on creating quick, easy and light meals that are fruit and veggie heavy. Usually my big meal of the day is lunch, at school (just not in proper French fashion...multiple hours, lots of wine. I wish!) Usually delicious, these meals tend to be meat and starch based. And as someone who likes to eat "mostly plants," (as the brilliant writer Michael Pollan wrote) I need some color to round out my day. I hope to share some of my go-to favorites in an upcoming post.

On the weekends, I usually cook a dish or two, either to eat over that weekend, or that I can save for a weekday meal. For example, I plan on making some Creamy Tomato Soup and Red Wine Braised Lamb Shanks tomorrow...recipes to come!

Regardless, with this change in schedule, my frequency of postings has decreased, but I promise to share with you not only some interesting recipes that I work on at home, as well as some favorites from school. And, of course, I will be sure to continue on sharing, on a weekly basis, more "Earthly Epicurean" delights that I purchase from the markets...

Toasty Treat

This week brought on the winter-ish feeling weather. Those early mornings, though it is now light, are freezing cold -- I need a little more assistance - or substance - than just my coffee to help wake me up!

Typically, I grab some fruit and yogurt to eat on the train. Favorites? I love Brown Cow, especially their maple, vanilla, or coffee. Even better are Liberte's Mediteranee varieties. I tried the plum walnut many years ago - oh so good. My family discovered coconut over the summer, and I'm HOOKED. Their lemon is lemony - like the filling of a lemon tart. YUM! Caution, however -- they are rich, so if you're watching your waisting, please note. I like them since they don't leave my tummy growling by 9am. Very important when lunch isn't until 2 and you're running around a kitchen for the next 5 hours.

I also like a morning yogurt fix because of all the healthy cultures in yogurt. Sometimes, the rich food at school can upset my tummy, so yogurt is a nice way to give back to my inner furnace. But, it's cold! So, when the temperature gets cold outside, I need to turn to something warmer than cold yogurt!

One of my favorite quick breakfasts, other than yogurt, is peanut butter and jelly -- my own raspberry jam, of course -- on toast. This past week, I had my favorite bread on hand, too - Wave Hill Bakery's Pain de Campagne. The crusty crust, and soft, tender, moist inside isn't just a white bread, but is flecked with little spelt and rye grains. It's wonderful with PB & J in the morning...and also spread with butter or pesto with a salad, or a big hunk to mop up extra sauce with lamb shanks (that's what I'm going to do tomorrow night at dinner!) There really isn't any way you can't not like this loaf!

When I'm craving Wave Hill, I can swing by their bakery on Route 7 in Wilton, right near Wolfpit Road. I hear it is also available at Whole Foods, Walter Stewarts, and Palmer's Markets. Of course, I gobble the bread up whenever I'm at Pasta Nostra...and Napa & Company.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I struck gold in The New York Times!

Mark Bittman wrote about three of my favorite foods in last Friday's New York Times. Figs, Brussels Sprouts (only cooked with something else!) and bacon. His Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Figs is an ingenious and simple combination of sweet yet savory flavors, contrasting crunch with chew.

This is a must try fall side dish -- or even light lunch!

A Remedy for a Cold...and Rainy Day

I awoke early this morning with a smidgen of a sore throat. Was I too dehydrated from the kitchen and a long run yesterday? Or did my lack of sleep and running in the rain with a sleeveless top catch up with me? Not sure. All I knew is that my throat needed some cooling comfort and TLC.

It was another utterly rainy day. I didn't mind being inside in class all day one bit, secretly hoping skies would clear by 3pm. But, no. The rain was still coming down. Kind of one of those days you want to curl up with a good book in front of a fireplace with a big bowl of soup.

Of course, I came home from school ravenously hungry, and craving some warm comfort -- and some nutrients with the hopes of kicking this sore throat. Of course, I didn't really want to run to the grocery store, not did I want to spend 2 hours in front of the stove. I wanted some instant, okay, well maybe not INSTANT, gratification. Scrounging around the fridge, I found half of a butternut squash, and had lots of apples...mmm...I knew just what to make!!!

One of my favorite soups of all time is Eli Zabar's Pumpkin Butternut soup. It's rich and delicious, but living in CT, I didn't have access to it. Another favorite is Ina Garten's Butternut Apple Soup - with some brioche croutons, this is delish!

Now, I didn't have a full squash, nor apple juice nor brioche, but I was confident I could use the ingredients I had on hand to create a wonderful soup, full of healthy vitamins and minerals (Butternut squash is full of Vitamin A (Beta Carotene), Vitamin C and Potassium) and fiber - filling (even my labs liked it!).

My Curried Apple Butternut Squash Soup - serves 2-3

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, 1/2" dice
1 /2 - 1 tablespoon curry (I like more - use as much as you wish)
1/2 butternut squash, peeled and diced into 1/2" chunks
2 small or 1 large apple (I like Cortland or yellow delicious for this), peeled and diced into 1/2" chunks
2 cups water
1/2 cup applesauce
Optional: dash of cream and/or tablespoon of butter

1. Saute onions in olive oil until translucent. Add curry powder and cook on low for 5-10 minutes.

2. Add diced squash and apple. Saute a bit to warm and then add water and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce to a simmer. Cook until apples and squash are tender through.

3. Add applesauce and stir. Use a blender or an immersion blender to blend to smooth. Season with salt to taste. Optional: add cream, milk, and/or butter to taste. I was going to try calvados
to bring out the apple sweetness but didn't have any on hand. I decided for a bit of butter and a dash of maple syrup. You can even try a garnish of creme fraiche!

Serve with crusty toast, or as I did - with oat crackers!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A little autumnal celebration

This past weekend, various descendants of my great grandmother's family (she was one of four girls!) gathered upstate in CT for a little reunion. I have never met most of my great-grandmother's sister's children (and their children, grandchildren) so it was a wonderful treat to meet all of these warm, friendly people!

Somehow my father's aunt, who was organizing the day, deemed that I was "creative" and a perfect person to coordinate table decoration for the dinner for 50 on Saturday night. Gulp! There was ample possibility for it to be tons of fun, but on a budget and with little time? A challenge for sure. Yet, the possibilities were endless!

I turned to my tearsheets from my Martha Stewart Living days, and wanted something with leaves, acorns, and fruit. I had heard that there was a mean sale at Smith and Hawken and immediately decided to stop by. Of course, they had some beautifully colored fruit shaped (apples and pears) candles made in Poland. I purchased quite a few, and decided that they would be the focal point of my tables. I purchased some dried gourds from Earth Garden in Wilton, and glued on some wood wrapped wire to make the most adorable placecards!

At one of my friend's weddings this summer, I was so struck by the collection of various sizes of small vases filled with different flowers and herbs. Some low succulents, tall, skinny vases of mint, fatter vases of roses and astilbe. This arrangement would be perfect for the tables -- using a colorful flower in an array of different Juliska vases? Perfect!

I visited Juliska's South Norwalk outlet store, and found four sets of three petite vases in glear glass, as well as five each of two different short green glass vases. As for flowers, I worried about frosts hampering my search for local dahlias. Luckily, Eva's Garden, tended by Eva
Sommaripa, still had the most exquisite (and huge!) pinky orange, pinky purple, yellow, orange and white dahlias I have EVER seen! And we picked the flowers just before they were going to turn the year's flowers over. I supplemented these with some white dahlias I found at my local Whole Foods from New Jersey. The reds, pinks, light and deep greens of the candles were the perfect complement to the salmony flowers.

Warm, dark fall nights call for lots of light, so I knew that I had to supplement these candles with the flickering glow of many little votives, too. To add a touch of glitter, I collected some acorns from the tree outside the house, and spray painted them a muted gold. A couple of gold acorns scattered across the table added a beautiful accent against the white tablecloth. Of course, when I arrived for dinner, I expected to see all of the candles lit -- at the last minute, the caterer said she was unable to light the fruit candles, in the event they would drip or tip over. Argh. At least I can use them again at home for another dinner party!

Here are some pictures from the evening...

Friday, October 23, 2009

An easy and fancy weekend dessert

On the last day of our pastry "bonanza," our class focused on egg white foams -- mousses and souffles. What is a mousse, you ask? It is simply a flavored base (like chocolate...or grand marnier, fruit, etc - usually a meringue or pate a bombe base) lightened by both whipped cream and egg whites, and then chilled. It is similar to a souffle, in that both are lightened by egg whites, but a souffle is baked, further aerating the dessert, and served hot, while a mousse relies on the addition of whipped cream for further lightening and is served cold.

I have a complete weakness for chocolate souffle, with vanilla ice cream. But, I've never really fallen in love with chocolate mousse. Of course, that isn't to say I haven't met a real chocolate dessert I haven't liked (unadulterated chocolate - no raspberry chocolate, no orange chocolate, etc. Real dark chocolate).

In class that day, we were assigned to whip up chocolate mousse first thing in the morning. Although it was a bit early for chocolate, I was immediately smitten. Luck be it, Chef decided that afternoon to challenge us: he listed the ingredients for a mystery dish. We had to figure out the technique and then make it. What was it? White chocolate mousse!!!

These are perfect twirled in a champagne flute lined with chocolate swirls (get a small cornet of melted chocolate, an twirl the flute on its side, swirling chocolate. Chill) - just pipe each flavor into separate pastry bags, or swirl in one together. Enjoy!

Chocolate Mousse - 4 servings

150 g (5 oz) bittersweet chocolate, chopped
400 ml (13 oz) heavy cream
3 egg whites
30 g (1 oz) granulated sugar
flavorings (optional)

1. Chop chocolate and place in a bowl. Melt in double boiler over simmering water. Stir til melted. Remove from heat.
2. Beat cream over ice to soft peaks. Set aside
3. Make French meringue: Whip egg whites til frothy, and add 1/2 of the sugar. Whip until soft peaks, and add the rest of the sugar. Whip on high until stiff peaks.
4. Pour warm chocolate into clean bowl. Lighten with 1/4 of the meringue. Fold in the rest of the meringue, making sure to clean the bottom of the bowl. Fold in the whipped cream.
5. Cover and chill in fridge, at least 3 hours, until ready to serve.

White Chocolate Mousse - 4 servings

225 g white chocolate, chopped
2 gelatin leaves
375 ml heavy cream
75 g granulated sugar
25 ml water
1 egg
1 egg yolk

1. Melt chocolate in double boiler over boiling water until halfway melted. Remove from heat and let sit til fully melted.
2. Bloom 2 gelatin leaves in cold water
3. Bring sugar and a bit of water to a boil and cook to softball stage (235-240) as egg yolk and whole egg is stirred in a mixer til combined. Once hot sugar is ready, add to egg yolks while stirring to make a pate a bombe, and whip until it gains volume and cools to just a bit warmer than skin temperature.
4. Add gelatin to warm pate a bombe and whip til blended. Run through a sieve to remove particles, and then fold in warm chocolate (fold quickly and avoid clumping).
5. Whip heavy cream over ice and fold into chocolate mixture.
6. Chill, covered, in fridge until ready to use, at least 3 hours.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Apple of my Eye

So, last week I mentioned how I had been working on pastry recipes in school. On my birthday, we worked on tarts -- Tarte aux Pommes (Apple Tart), Tarte aux Poires et Frangipane (Pear Tart with Almond Cream), and then Quiche Lorraine and Onion Tart.

One of my favorite foods is an apple - the fact that it was my first word makes this funny! It is no surprise that I love apple tarts (and crisp. And pies). There is a bakery near my hometown that til now won my heart for delicious, not too sweet, but apple-y classic French Apple Tarts. Well, no longer. I can make a meaner tart!!!!

Once this tart won my heart, I knew that this was something I had to play with -- I later made a free form crostata for my friend Amanda's Chili Party.

Without further a do, I present you the recipe for Tarte Aux Pommes, The French Culinary Institute way!

Tart Aux Pommes
1 recipe pate sucree (see below)
Butter for flan ring an bottom

Apple Compote
4 medium-large apples
1/2 lemon
30 ml (2 tbsp) water
50 g (2 oz) granulated sugar

2-3 med-large apples
1/2 lemon
50 g (2 oz) butter, melted

100 g (3.5 oz) apricot glaze (jam)
20 ml (1 tbsp) water

1. Butter flan ring. Roll out dough 1/8" thick. Roll dough onto rolling pin and place on flan ring so that there are 2" dough around ring. Press dough firmly against edge to form border.

2. Press 1/2" overlapping dough over edge of ring. Roll pin over top to remove excess. Pinch border around sides with fingers so that it rises just above ring. Chill shell.

3. Make apple compote -- peel apples and cut in half. Remove cores and rub with lemon to prevent browning. Cut into cubes and put them in small saucepan with water and sugar. Cover with parchment lid and cook over medium heat until mushy/tender, and no color (careful!). Let cool.

4. Prep garnish -- peel garnish apples and cut in half lengthwise and core them. Rub with lemon and slice horizontally VERY thinly (so you have a vertical slice of apple with top and bottom), no more than 1/8" thick.

5. Fill pastry shell with apple compote. Layer apples, moving around the tart counterclockwise, in a tight overlap. Brush with melted butter. Fill center with a rosette.

6. Bake at 425 on bottom rack for 10 minutes. Lower heat to 350 and bake for 50-60 minutes, or until shell is nicely colored and apples are taking on a bit of color. Remove tart ring, place tart back in oven for 10 minutes so sides can take on color, then remove and cool.

7. Combine apricot glaze (jam) with water, bring to simmer, and stir til melted. Brush onto tart.

Pate Sucree a la FCI
200 g flour
100 g butter
30 g granulated sugar
5 g salt
60 ml water or (for a richer dough) 1 whole egg and 10 ml water

Sift together flour, sugar and salt. Add butter (diced and VERY cold). Rub until pea sized or blend in food processor. Add water in little bits until dough JUST comes together. Wrap and let rest 1 hr in fridge.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Serious sweetness

I can't believe I'm about to post what I'm about to post. Last two weeks, I have spent 10 days perfecting my pastry skills. Okay, not bad. I mean, I do have a sweet tooth, but it makes me feel quite ill.

So, right in the middle of pastry fell my birthday. Quite fitting! Tarts, custards and crepes in lieu of a birthday cake? No complaints. On top of that, I had the opportunity to attend a fabulous chef demo the day after my birthday - with Master Chef, and FCI Dean of Pastry Jacques Torres!

I've been a fan of Chef Jacques for awhile, and was incredibly excited when he opened his Upper West Side shop a couple of years ago near by apartment. And an unfortunate presence that would be open those cold mornings walking to the subway when I'd be craving a cocoa.

The topic of Chef Jacques' demo was tarts and choux - fitting for us culinary students having just worked on tarts, and about to start choux. He made two tasty treats with us - eclairs filled with pastry cream and topped with chocolate, and a delightful strawberry tart. I love eclairs, but more outstanding was the strawberry tart. A thin, crisp tart shell that wasn't too overwhelming, with a bit of cream, and of course, big, fat ripe strawberries. Yum!

Pate a Choux
1 kg water
500g butter
Good pinch salt
Good pinch sugar
700g flour

Bring water, butter, salt and sugar to a boil in a large saucepan. Add flour and stir well over the heat, cooking the raw flavor out and evaporating the moisture. It should come together as a ball, but leave the bottom of the pot clean. Immediately remove from the heat and transfer to a stand mixer. Add eggs, 1 at a time, until the mixture is ribbony and forms a hook when lifted from a spoon (you may need about 12, but it depends on the moisture level of the dough and environment).

Transfer dough to a piping bag and pipe eclairs and cream puff shapes onto a silpat or parchment lined cookie sheet. Bake at 400 until golden, then turn down to 350 for 5-10 minutes, then finally turn down t0 300 until the choux are light, crisp on the outside and hollow on the inside. You can leave the door open a bit to allow the steam to escape.

When finished, you can pipe in pastry cream or whipped cream, or even chocolate cream inside the choux, and top with chocolate or fondant.

Strawberry Tart
300g butter - COLD
560g cake flour
60g almond flour
180g powdered sugar
10-12g salt
2 eggs

Mix flours and butter on low in stand mixer until sandy. Add in powdered sugar and salt until just blended. Add eggs, one at a time, until the mixture comes together. Remove from a bowl and form into a disc. Let rest 30 min, chilled in fridge.

When ready, remove dough from fridge. Generously flour a counter (I like marble and granite -- or a pastry cloth!) and a wood rolling pin. Make sure the dough is warm enough to roll without cracking. Gently roll out into a circle, lifting and rotating the dough every two turns, making sure it is well floured and not sticking. Transfer to a buttered and chilled tart shell, forming a edge by pinching. Dock the dough (stab it with forks!) so that steam can escape, and blind bake the shell at 400 til slightly golden. Set aside.

While the shell cools, prepare your pastry cream and sliced strawberries. You can also seal the shell with melted chocolate, an egg wash (but this has to be added before the shell is blind baked), cocoa butter, or melted jam.

Spread a thin layer of melted chocolate on the cooled shell. Then spread on a layer of pastry cream, and top with strawberries -- you can lay them on their sides, or, as I prefer, remove just their tops and stand them on end. Brush with apricot glaze (3 parts jam to one part water, heated til melted). Enjoy!

Ps. I apologize that I have not shared a recipe for pastry cream yet. The ones we have been using at school have cornstarch in them, which leaves me with a crippling stomach ache. I need to test a couple of other recipes that work with flour in lieu of cornstarch.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tasty Sunday Dinner

A couple of weeks ago, I had to practice trussing and quartering a chicken for homework. I dutifully bought an organic chicken from the store and did my homework...however, had already had dinner and no time to cook it. So, off it went, carefully wrapped, into the freezer.

I remembered yesterday that the chicken was still in the freezer. I was wandering the aisles of my local Whole Foods, thinking about what to make for dinner, and craving mushrooms, and that chicken popped into my thoughts. I picked up some button mushrooms, some local black trumpets, and some dried porcinis. You can really choose whatever mushrooms are fresh at the market. Simple, yet delicious, with a side of arugula salad.

I didn't really use a recipe, so I document my steps below. You can't really mess this up, just keep tasting along the way!

1. Preheat oven to 350. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Reconstitute dried porcini with hot water and let sit. Heat canola or grapeseed oil in oven-proof sautepan til quite hot. Brown chicken pieces (2 breasts, 2 thighs - bone-in, skin on), skin side down. Place pan in oven and cook til breast meat is approx 160-165/juices run clear.

2. Remove chicken from pan and let rest. Pour off fat (save the juices - use a gravy measuring cup if need be). Add a bit of fat and the juices back into pan. Add in a minced shallot and saute til tender and juices evaporate.

3. Add mushrooms, sliced, and saute til tender. Season. Squeeze porcini, slice (save juices!) and add to mushrooms. Once all mushrooms are tender, deglaze with sherry (1/4 c or so) and porcini juice (be careful of silt at bottom).

4. Cook til evaporated by 1/2, then add 1/2-1 c milk (I used more milk, as I used 2%. You could use simply a dash of cream if you'd like). Bring to a boil and cook down until sauce covers back of spoon. Season to taste with salt and pepper to your liking.

5. Slice the chicken (I had removed the thigh bones and ribcage) and serve with sauce on top.

Harvest special!

Having just finished a week and a half intensive on pastry in culinary school (everything from tarts, genoise, buttercream, crepes, pate a choux, custards and cremes, ice creams, souffles, and mousses), I really don't want to see another sweet for a long while (neither does my waistline!). However, when my friend Amanda invited me to her new place this past Saturday for chili and good company, I knew I needed to bring a fall treat that was not too sweet, but was a cooling complement to the spicy dinner.

One of the many benefits, I think, to fall is that there are lots and lots of apples! One of my most favorite is the Cortland apple, soft flesh, sweet and juicy, and just a hint of tartness. Plus, they break down perfectly in a dessert. A pie has too much dough, while I didn't want to make a formal French-style apple tart. I love Al Forno's rustic crostatas, and decided to create a variation inspired by the tarts I've eaten at the restaurant, and the recipe for the crostata dough by Ina Garten, with a touch of almond paste for sweetness.

Though I was a bit frustrated by the juciness of the apples, and the sheer weight of the tarts (I couldn't move them without breaking the shell. Maybe not roll the dough 1/8" next time. Oops!), the finished products were beautiful -- AND delicious!

Allie's Almond Apple Rustic Tarts (makes 2)

2 sticks butter
2 cups flour
1/4 c granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt

Almond paste
6 apples (I used 3 Empire, 3 Cortland), peeled and thinly sliced
Bench flour, for rolling

1. Make the dough: combine the flour, salt and sugar in a food processor. Add the very cold butter, in chunks, and pulse til sandy. Add 1-2 tbsp water and pulse until the dough just comes together. Chill at least 1 hr to rest.

2. Preheat the oven to 450 (I used convection). Remove dough from fridge til soft enough to roll out. Peel and thinly slice the apples (I used a mandoline). Add a touch of lemon, so as to avoid browning, and season generously with cinnamon to your liking.

3. Divide dough into two pieces. Generously flour counter and roll out into a circle, 1/4" thick or so. Transfer, on rolling pin, to a silpat lined baking sheet. Grate almond paste to your liking on bottom, then pile on apples, leaving 1 1/2-2" space around edge. Fold edges in over apple pile, letting folds overlap.

4. Bake at 450 until shell browns nicely and fruit cooks, approx 20 minutes. If the tart colors too fast, you can lower the heat after it goldens. Let cool.

A sweet treat for your inner chocoholic

Oh, I've been so bad! It's been a long while since I've posted last! This fall has gotten the better of me, between culinary school, travelling over the weekends, packing and cleaning house. Sigh.

So, to kick off some new postings, I'm going to share one of my new favorite desserts with you!

I've always been a brownie girl. Growing up, I was the designated brownie baker in the family, and I've tried all sorts of recipes: using bittersweet chocolate, unsweetened chocolate, adding more chocolate. Many are all quite good, but none ever really blow my mind away. You see, I'm a fan of a not-too-sweet, but quite chocolate-y flavor, with a "underdone" consistency, and a thin crisp top. I've come quite close, but never hit the nail on the head (note: there is one more recipe I want to test).

So, when planning the menu for an impromtu dinner party last Sunday, a quick, easy and chocolate-y dessert was in order - a variation on Ina Garten's Brownie Pudding!

I've learned to modify most of Ina's recipes, cutting back on salt and/or butter. Here, I've cut back the sugar, and the baking technique. It results in a less-tooth-hurting sweetness, with the same fudgy goodness in half the time.

(if you don't have a convection oven, don't fret - just watch the pudding. It might take a little longer)

My version of Ina's Brownie Pudding

2 sticks unsalted butter, room temp
4 large eggs, room temp
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup cocoa powder (I like Ghiradelli)
1/2 cup flour
Seeds from one vanilla bean

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 2 qt (9x12") oval baking pan. Melt the 2 sticks of butter and set aside to cool. Bring 2 qts water to a boil and remove from heat, set aside.

Beat eggs and sugar on medium-high for 5-10 minutes, until thick and light yellow. Meanwhile, sift together the cocoa and flour in separate bowl.

When the egg and sugar mixture is ready, reduce speed to low, and add vanilla seeds, then cocoa and flour. Mix just til combined. With mixer on low, slowly pour in cooled butter and mix to just combine.

Pour batter into into prepared dish and place in larger baking pan. Bring boiled water to a boil again, and carefully pour into larger dish, so that it comes halfway up the side of the oval dish, to make a water bath. Bake the pudding in the convection oven for approx 20-30 minutes, when a tester placed in 1 1/2-2" in from side comes out clean. Center will be very underbaked, as the texture is between a brownie and a pudding. Cool and serve with creme anglaise, whipped cream, or vanilla ice cream.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A girl can dream

I've been thinking about where I want to move next, once I'm finished with culinary school. Yes, obviously somewhere where I have a job, but that also ideally has the following:

- Backyard or patio or deck where I can grow simple veggies and herbs - basil, mint, rosemary, tomatoes, peas, beans -- maybe zucchini?
- A place where I can have an outdoor chair and footstool - or two - and a mini table. Reading or cocktails and a sunset?
- A place with abundant fresh, local food - farmer's market
- An easy place to ride a bike...

I saw the coolest bike the other day - it had a big space in the back that was filled with a kid and a couple of boogie boards. I immediately thought how cool it might be to have one, and ride it to do errands (thinking farmer's market, nursery, bakery)?

I heard about Madsen bicycles...and they have one JUST like it. I think I'm going to have to get one of these!!!!

Madsen Cycles Cargo Bikes

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Special Sweet for Summer Sundays

Having grown up spending my summers in Rhode Island, I've come to love the main ingredient - stone ground cornmeal - in our local specialty, johnnycakes. In the village of Adamsville, Gray's Grist Mill has been grinding corn since the 1960's. Their cornmeal is a staple in the kitchen. I keep it in the freezer, so it's always fresh, and use it to dust grilled pizzas, and to lighten up pancakes and waffles.

This past weekend, I was craving some pancakes with real grade B Vermont maple syrup (having gone to college in VT, I take my syrup VERY seriously). I've always wanted to make Ina Garten's Banana Sour Cream Pancakes, and had lots of bananas around. The only problem is that pancakes do a number on my blood sugar, and I tend to get sleepy after eating them. The solution? Add some fiber heft to the batter with whole wheat flour and cornmeal instead of white flour -- which also lightens it up. Sour cream - or greek yogurt - is a lighter, creamy alternative to butter. And ripe, sliced bananas adds depth of flavor. Delicious!

Hearty Banana Pancakes

1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup white flour
3 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
2 eggs
1/2 cup sour cream (or greek yogurt)
3/4 skim milk
1 tsp vanilla
4 ripe bananas
Maple syrup

Preheat griddle to 350, and grease well with butter.

Blend dry ingredients together, and stir well to blend. Slice bananas and put aside.

In a small bowl, beat eggs. Add the sour cream and combine, then add milk and vanilla. Stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients, and stir to just combine. Pour by heaping 1/4 cupful, and garnish each pancake with 6 slices of banana. Cook until bubbles begin to form around edge (and bottom is golden), then flip. Serve piping hot with warm maple syrup -- and more bananas!

Summer is here -- Haze, Heat, Humidity

This past week, it's been steamy and hot here in Rhode Island. Though the thermometer didn't pass 90 here by the ocean, the sun was SCORCHING hot, and we experienced 100% humidity. There was no use taking a shower -- clothes, furniture, towels were damp, and you were constantly sticky!

So, when the hot and humid summer air sinks in and you don't want to cook, I turn to easy to assemble "cool" dishes for those hot nights - salads, cold soups (like melon or gazpacho - no stove needed), and sandwiches. One of my all time favorites is pesto, mozzarella, tomato, and proscuitto on a crusty white baguette. The tip to making a truly superior sandwich?Fresh heirloom tomatoes (a rarity this summer!) and my favorite garlicky pesto, inspired by Ina Garten. Here's my recipe:
Basil Pesto

1/4 cup (heaping) pine nuts
9 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste
5 cups basil
1 cup good olive oil
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano

In a food processor, process nuts and garlic until well blended (30 seconds or so). Add the salt and pepper and quickly blend. In batches, add the basil and puree for one minute or so (til well blended). With the processor on, pour in the olive oil through the spout until well blended. Add the parmigiano. Taste -- and enjoy!

My favorite sandwich:

I like to use Seven Stars Bakery's Durum Stick, sliced in two like a roll.
Layer on: lots of pesto
Fresh mozzarella - love Maplebrook Farms
Heirloom tomatoes - Wishing Stone Farms

Slice into 3" pieces, and enjoy!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Raspberry Dreams - Recipe

Here is my recipe for raspberry jam!

5 cups crushed raspberries (don't puree - I leave some whole berries - they break down while cooking)
7 cups white sugar (do not play with this amount - it helps set the jam)
1 package Sure-Jell pectin

1. Make sure you have plenty of clean, dry glass jars. I use the 1 cup quilted crystal Ball jars, as well as the taller quilted crystal (2 cup?) and 3 cup (?) mason jars.
2. Place the bands and lids for the jars in a large pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. This is super important for making sure the jars are properly sealed and shelf-safe.
3. Crush the berries in a bowl and measure out 5 cups. About 3 pints of berries will be needed.
4. Put the berries and pectin in a saucepan (or stockpot - it's easier the first time as it get
s full when boiling) and bring to a full rolling boil under high heat while stirring (full rolling boil is a strong foamy boil that continues even as you stir - it takes a while, so be patient).
5. When it gets to a full rolling boil, I turn off the heat and quickly add my sugar, then turn the heat back on to high. Stir the sugar into the fruit constantly and bring back to a full rolling boil (be careful - it's a very strong and full, foamy boil!).
6. Cook the "jam" at a full rolling boil for one minute, and then turn off the heat.
7. Get the jars lined up in a row for processing. Take the bands out of the pot, and make sure you have tongs to take the dome lids out. I use a special jam funnel that fits around the jam jars, and pour the jam directly out of the saucepan into the jar (leaving 1/4" from the top). I have also used measuring cups to ladle the hot jam. Be VERY careful, as the liquid is supremely HOT!
8. Once a jar is filled, I quickly put a lid and then the band around the jar and tighten to secure, then I flip the jar upside down (this creates the seal). I then repeat with the rest of the jars and jam.
9. Once all jars are filled and sealed, I let them sit and cool for 10 minutes, then I flip them
right side up, checking to make sure the rings are tight and that the dome lids is securely fastened. Let cool completely, and check to make sure the dome lids do stay tight and secure.
10. Enjoy your jam!

Raspberry Dreams

One of my most favorite things to do over the summer is to make jam. I grew up in a family where fruits and vegetables are always taking up a huge portion of our meals -- salads, fruit salads, baked vegetable tians, pies, and more -- and, during the summer, most of these fruits and vegetables either came from our garden (green beans, zucchini, broccoli, lettuce, strawberries, raspberries, peppers, tomatoes, blueberries) or the local farmstand (more beans, corn, lettuce, fava beans, potatoes, more tomatoes). There is absolutely nothing more delightful than sweet sugar snap peas off the vine, picking haricot verts (one in the pail, one in my mouth!) or sun-warmed cherry tomatoes off the vine (I have made a meal of it!). Before we planted our own blueberry bushes a couple of years ago, we would drive to a nearby stand (literally a table by the road, with a coffee can for the money!) and pick up a couple of pints of berries. We always had to pick up an extra, since my sisters and I would often polish off one pint during the 10 minute drive home!

A couple of years ago, I got sick of all the Smucker's jam we would use for peanut butter and jam on toast for breakfast (I like the raspberry-ness, but it's too darn SWEET!), and didn't like the local raspberry jam made nearby. Why not make some?

Having the time to pick my own raspberries and make a bunch of batches of jam has been high (if not #1) on my to do list this summer. Typically, I'll make two batches - although it is hardly enough to last my whole family through the year. Nothing tastes as good as homemade jam -- it captures the light, bright juciness of the berries, warm off the plant, so we can enjoy year round. This year, I want to make four batches -- plenty to give away, plenty for us to last us until next June or August.

The most important step of jam-making, I think, is selecting the fruit. I always opt to pick my own berries -- whether it be raspberries or blueberries -- rather than purchasing them already picked. My favorite place for blueberries is either Jones Family Farm, in Shelton, CT or Boughs & Berry Farm, in Little Compton, RI.

I didn't really have a raspberry place (until yesterday), as I'd pick and save berries from my family's yard, and our neighbors. However, I visited 4 Town Farm in Seekonk, MA yesterday and was utterly delighted by the offerings -- and the big, fat, juicy yet firm raspberries they had! In just an hour, I picked ten pints all for myself -- and my jam project. I highly recommend visiting the farm and market, whether you want to pick berries, or simply pick up some greens and tomatoes for dinner. So much to offer, so good tasting -- and easy on the wallet!

I've already made two batches of jam (see my posting for raspberry jam) -- and can not wait to go back and pick more berries, maybe even get some local peaches to make peach jelly. Stay tuned!

A sweet sip to go along with a setting summer sun

Last fall, I visited Grgich Hills out in CA for a wine tasting and tour. Very much disappointed with the windowless room (I felt trapped in a basement) with tons of people around (I was a tourist, too -- but not as crazy as most the others!), I have kind of stayed away from their wines.

However -- earlier this summer, I had an opportunity to taste their Fume Blanc wine at a local restaurant. Why not, I thought?

I was utterly delighted -- and surprised! Having discovered sweet, dry wines earlier this year when travelling to Miraval over the Christmas holidays (yes, I was detoxing at a spa...and yes, still drinking, albeit in moderation!), I've been tracking some of my new favorites -- including Chateau Ste. Michelle's Columbia Valley riesling. I'm happy to say that Grgich's Fume Blanc is a new favorite, and a pleasant summer sip.

My time and place of choice? Sunset, sitting out on the lawn, overlooking the sea.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Weekend Project II

August is here, and summer has finally arrived! This week, we hope to see temperatures consistently in the mid-80's. I mean, not complaining, but what is a summer without hot sunny days?

One of my favorite morning treats on a hot summer day is iced coffee. Once I started working in the real-world, I started regularly drinking coffee in the morning. Nearly five years later, my morning is not complete without some java. Winter drink of choice? A homemade large 2% cappucchino. My summer drink of choice? An iced coffee, without the strength compromised.

Easy you may think - brew coffee, and put in fridge - right? Wrong! I like to cold-brew my coffee.

A couple of years ago, the New York Times published a recipe for cold-brewed iced coffee. It's less acidic than brewed coffee, and I think a smoother taste. Cold brewed coffee also produces a concentrate - so you can water it down and make it hot, or "water" it down with milk. Your choice!

It's super easy to make:

1 1/2 cups water (you can double, triple...make five or six times as much!)
1/3 c medium grind coffee
Large container (preferably with spout for easy pouring).
Gold coffee filter

Mix together coffee and water in a large container. Let sit at room temperature for 24 hours or so. Pour the coffee and grinds through sieve, discarding solids. Rinse container and refilter with gold coffee filter (you can repeat if you wish - it will remain a bit cloudy - totally okay!). Mix with water and/or milk as you wish and enjoy.