Saturday, March 20, 2010

'Smitten' with Warm Mushroom and Arugula Salad........

It should come as no surprise that, as a food blogger, I read other food blogs. Clotilde's Chocolate & Zucchini arouses a little Parisian frisson every time I read a new entry (and you have to love a good ampersand), David Lebovitz always inspires, I have read the entire famed 'Julie/Julia Project' blog from virtual cover to cover, and Deb's smitten kitchen and Molly's Orangette very often make me actually laugh out loud. Even the venerable Judith Jones (she of discovering-Julia-Child fame) blogs, for God's sake, and the woman is in her mid-80s! There's a wealth of food bloggery out there for the taking, the reading, and the (pardon the inexcusable food pun) digesting. And yet I read somewhere that most people don't actually use the wonderful recipes they come across online via food blogs; most people are in it largely for the breathless thrill of food porn alone. Whatever takes your fancy, I've been guilty of the same in the past......but when we're backed up against the wall over here with no dinner ideas in sight, and our imaginations fail us, we turn to three possible sources: The Library, The Files, or The Blogs.

The Library, as the name suggests, refers to Mike's and my collection of cookbooks. No tidy, Dewey decimal'ed shelf of books is this, but rather a sprawling, uneven clutch of books whose epicenter is the far corner of our small kitchen. Hardcovers, paperbacks, large and small books and pamphlets of all kinds squat together, punctuated by the occasional corner of a white sheet of paper protruding from a book, on which might be a handscrawled recipe for cornbread from Mike's dad, or printed out instructions from Alton Brown on how to construct the perfect holiday turkey from all the way brining to roasting. A pickling cookbook sits next to one specifically for soup, a book of traditional Austrian recipes nestles between Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles cookbook and Thomas Keller's French Laundry cookbook, and even Julia Child and Martha Stewart manage to bunk decently together without any elbowing or girlish hair-pulling.

The Files, as they are so vaguely referred to, represent years' worth of pulled recipes from magazines of all sorts that long ago met their fate in the recycling bin. These include such venerable publications as the New York Times Sunday magazine, Food & Wine and Bon Appetit, but also Every Day with Rachel Ray (what can I say? She's had some good recipes) and even the now-defunct JANE magazine (R.I.P.). When I see a recipe I'm likely to try (or even one I'd like to think I'll get around to, you know, someday), I pull it for The Files. Don't let the name fool you. Much like The Library, The Files are no glossy, organized affair, but an unbound, messy, sliding stack of loose magazine pages that have occupied various spots in the house and occasionally gets lost (as it did a few weeks ago when we misplaced the whole stack somehow and were desperately searching for a certain treasured jerk chicken recipe that was certain the be in The Files.....if only we could have found them! Alas.). The Files currently occupy one corner of a low ottoman in the dining room, next to some back issues of the Times and empty boxes we are saving one at a time for our move. At least, I think.

Finally, we also sometimes turn to The Blogs, a category which includes all the blogs I listed above plus many, many others. And it was in turning to The Blogs this past Monday that I found this gem via smitten kitchen: Warm Mushroom Salad with Hazelnuts (original recipe can be found here). My heart went pitter-pat. Warm mushrooms! Hazelnuts! Peppery greens and slivers of sharp pecorino! I had to have it, exactly as Deb suggested, with a slice of crusty bread alongside it and a warm poached egg snuggled on top. I even baked a loaf of bread specifically to have some on hand to go with this salad.

After making a few substitutions (okay, I hesitate to say 'compromises'), the tale of the warm mushroom salad had a happy was delicious! I used grated parmesan as the cheese, formerly-dried morels and baby portobellos instead of an assortment of fresh wild mushrooms, and pecans stood in for expensive hazelnuts (oh, for the day we move to Oregon, where the streets are paved with hazelnuts and fresh morels!), it's true. But once the runny golden yolk of the poached egg was pierced and spread silkily throughout the warm innards of the salad, I was hooked on the nutty, rich, crunchy flavors. A little compromise worked out just fine in this case. With crusty bread in hand, I wiped the plate clean, readers.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Lest you think it's all Martha Stewart around here........

Glamorous moment in the life of a Food Blogger: Mike and I purchased a brand-new, schmancy mandoline from Williams-Sonoma to replace our old basic model yesterday. It's twice the size of the old one, deadly sharp, and best of all adjustable. Ahhhh. Slicey bliss.

Unglamorous moment in the life of a Food Blogger: Uhhh, I just uncovered a be-Tupperwared slice of cake at the back of our fridge. From our wedding shower. On October 4th.

Such is life. ;)

Chef Laurel's School of Asian Delights........

Being the independent, self-employed person* that I am, I'm used to wacky schedules, fluctuating workloads, and picking up the occasional odd job to make ends meet. It's a far more interesting lifestyle than the typical 9-to-5 grind I left behind, and I honestly wouldn't trade it for the world (if for no other reason than that I'm never going back to wearing pantyhose and heels again--never!). But I've never had quite such an interesting odd job offer as the one my mother laid in front of me a few weeks ago: teach a cooking class at her semi-regular 'Girls' Night' gathering. Would I accept? Of course I would! I think I may have actually done a little happy dance! Chef Laurel was ready to roll.

I love little finger foods, and I love Asian flavors. And what I really, especially love is teaching people to cook something new when they're at their happiest--glass of wine in hand, surrounded by lifelong friends in a warm glowing kitchen, not intimidated, totally relaxed and ready to have fun. This is the mindset I always try to achieve before I start my own cooking, and I've found there's nothing like being in a good mood to enhance the possibility of success when trying something new. A glass of wine or two helps things along, as well.

So keeping all this in mind, plus the time constraints of the evening, I narrowed the curriculum down to two irresistible bite-sized treats that most people have tasted but never made from scratch before: Potstickers (gyoza) and Chinese Almond Cookies.

* at least, that's the way I like to refer to myself on the good days, which truthfully are many. On the bad days, which are few, I can be found wailing on the floor, clutching the job section of the classifieds, beating my breast and tearing my hair. You know. The usual. ;)

Pictured: A warm batch of just cooked potstickers. Yum.

Potstickers (Japanese Gyoza Dumplings)

1 lb. ground pork
½ head Napa cabbage, shredded
1 large carrot, grated
3 green onions, finely chopped
1 tsp. fresh ginger, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
5 Tb. vegetable oil
3 Tb. soy sauce
1 egg
wonton wrappers (commercially made ones are great & easy to find; I usually see them in the ‘salad’ area of the produce section)

For dipping sauce:

Soy sauce
Rice wine vinegar
Toasted sesame seed oil
Red chili flakes or Asian hot sauce

Heat large skillet (make sure you are using one with a lid, as you will need it later) to medium high and add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add pork and brown in oil until meat is about halfway cooked. Add cabbage, ginger and garlic, and continue to stir until cabbage is wilted. Add carrot, green onions and soy sauce and stir for a minute longer. Break egg into skillet and stir quickly to combine with all ingredients. Cook 1 minute longer, then remove from heat and let cool. Spreading it on a plate and cooling it in the refrigerator for at least 30 min. is ideal, since this will allow filling to cool completely and the flavors of all the ingredients to combine.

Prepare a small amount of paste of equal parts cornstarch and water in a bowl. Place a small amount of the cooled filling in the middle of each wonton wrapper, dip your finger in the cornstarch paste, and spread a little around the edges to act as ‘glue.’ Pinch wrapper closed to seal, pleating with your fingers as you go. Makes about 45 potstickers.

Heat large skillet to medium high, add enough vegetable oil to cover the bottom generously (roughly 3 Tb., you may need more or less than this). Add dumplings in a single layer, cook about 1-2 minutes on each side (check them frequently, turn when they have a nice brown layer on each side. Add water to skillet until it is ¼” deep (STAND BACK, adding water to hot oil sometimes causes splatters!), place a lid on skillet and let potstickers steam until thoroughly soft, about 3 more minutes. Remove from pan and place on serving plate.

Mix soy sauce, rice wine vinegar (in roughly equal amounts) in a small bowl, add a splash of sesame oil, red chili flakes/hot sauce and sugar to taste, mix thoroughly. Dip potstickers in this sauce & enjoy!

Chef Laurel lays out the lesson plan! It's interesting preparing for something like this, almost the way I imagine crews have to prepare for a cooking show. I laid out all ingredients in pre-measured amounts and had 'starter' batches as well as 'finished' batches to demonstrate with, in order to cut down on time. Lots of work!

Demonstrating proper pleating & folding technique.

This is my best 'TV chef' face, ha ha! I'd like to think I'm channeling Martin Yan more than, say, Rachel Ray here, but either way I suppose it's a little cheesy. 'Look everyone......cabbage!'

After demonstrating a few myself..........

.......I put the ladies to work, assembly-line-style. Many dumplings were folded, and I'm proud to say none were lost. Such good students!

All in all, it was a great success. I'd love to do some more parties just like this! The group (about ten in all) was just the right size and eager to learn, and the dumplings and cookies (warm, almond-scented buttery treats, shiny with glaze and studded with sesame seeds) made perfect party snacks once we were done. They were challenging enough that no one had ever tried to make them before, but simple enough that they were amazed once they'd actually done it. Triumph!


Chef Laurel is officially available for parties, should you need her. ;)

Chinese Almond Cookies

1 cup (8 oz.) butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon milk
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame seed oil
1/3 cup whole almonds
2 tablespoons sesame seeds

Place whole almonds in a bowl and cover with boiling water until covered, to blanch. After 1 minute has passed, pour off water, rinse with cold water, and drain again. Slip almonds out of their skins and set aside.

Beat butter and sugar together in a bowl until smooth, either with an electric mixer or by hand. Add whole egg, almond extract and vanilla, and beat until well blended. Start beating in flour and baking powder a little at a time until you've added the full amount and dough forms. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour, up to overnight.

Preheat oven to 325°. Divide dough into 48 small pieces, flatten each slightly into disks and place about 1 inch apart on lightly oiled or parchment-lined baking sheets.

In a small bowl, beat egg yolk with milk and sesame oil (really, make sure you get the toasted sesame oil, which is a lovely nut brown color and has a wonderful sesame aroma, rather than the pale yellow regular sesame oil, which has almost no taste at all) to blend. Brush the cookies lightly with egg mixture. Press an almond into the center of each cookie and sprinkle each lightly with sesame seeds.

Bake cookies in a 325° oven until lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cookies cool on sheets for just a few minutes, then use a spatula to transfer to racks to finish cooling.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Celebrating 'Pi Day' Two Ways............

It's March 14th, also known as Pi Day (3/14), which means........I suggest we all get busy baking some pie! Sure, there are a world of options out there in pie-land, a thousand variations on fruit pies and other dessert pies to choose from, but before you become overwhelmed: consider the humble pizza pie. Perhaps not so humble, when topped with bits of prosciutto, a tomato-onion-butter sauce, and a tender blanket of fresh, green baby arugula.

This is the way we ate ours a few days ago, and I can think of no better way to honor Pi Day than by re-creating this wonderful pie. In about an hour and a half, this slice of heaven could be on your plate!

For the crust:

2 C. all-purpose flour
1 packet active dry yeast
1 C. warm water
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
olive oil

For everything else:

1 can diced tomatoes (in tomato season, I'd use fresh ones, but in March you're much better off using canned tomatoes than the mushy, pale pink blobs they sell in the produce aisle)
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 red onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
salt/pepper/sugar to taste
small pinch of dried oregano
a few slices of prosciutto
1 ball mozzarella
baby arugula

To make the crust, combine warm water and active yeast in a small bowl, and set aside for 5 minutes. Combine flour, salt and sugar in another bowl, add yeast mixture, and combine until dough forms. Knead vigorously for 1 minute on a well-floured surface, then place in an oiled bowl to rise for 1 hour.

While dough is rising, heat butter in a saucepan over medium heat, add onions and saute until translucent. Add garlic and saute for about a minute longer, then add tomatoes and cook for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes just begin to relax into 'sauce.' Taste & adjust seasoning with salt/pepper/sugar as needed, then set aside to cool.

When dough is ready, preheat oven to 450 and prepare a baking pan by liberally covering it in olive oil. Stretch dough to desired size/thickness in pan, sprinkle lightly with salt, pepper, and dried oregano, pat into crust. Spread sauce thinly over crust, then cover with slices of mozzarella. Finally, add small pieces of prosciutto. Place in hot oven and cook until cheese is bubbling and browned in places (about 20 minutes, but your milegae may vary, so keep a close eye on it). Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly, then cover with a generous handful of lightly chopped baby arugula. Slice & serve!

But what to serve after this perfect pizza pie, your sweet tooth cries? Smooth mozzarella, salty ham and the perfectly peppery bite of arugula leaves are all very well, thankyouverymuch......but what if your soul still cries out for dessert on Pi Day?? Okay. Maybe, if you happen to have a neglected lemon kicking about in the kitchen, a handful of other basic ingredients, and some adorable little tart pans, maybe you can make Lemon Tarts for Two.

Lemon Tarts for Two

2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 crumbled gingersnap cookies
pinch of salt
juice of 1 lemon
1 egg
2 tablespoons powdered sugar, plus extra for dusting

Preheat oven to 350. Place butter, brown sugar, cookies, salt and 2 of the 4 tablespoons of flour in food processor and pulse until everything is combined and crumbly. Press into two mini tart pans to form crust, and bake until lightly golden brown, about 15-20 minutes, then remove and lower heat to 300.

Beat egg and lemon juice together, then add sugar and combine until dissolved. Finally, beat in remaining 2 tablespoons of flour until the mixture is creamy and no lumps remain. Pour into tart pans and bake at 300 for about 20 minutes, or until lemon filling is just set. Remove from oven and let cool thoroughly, then dust lightly with extra powdered sugar. Share with the one you love. :)