Recipes and Me

Friday, October 12, 2012

Creamed Corn Skillet Cornbread with Maple Butter

I’m from Georgia so me and cornbread have always gotten along very well.  Cornbread is a simple yet classic southern staple that almost any southerner has a version of in their recipe box.   And this is the time of year when I really start to crave it.  October is now here and though I’m still saying “where did summer go?!” I’m finally starting to settle into the things I love so much about the fall.  From the beautiful deep hues of orange and red on the trees, the plethora of autumn vegetables that practically beg to be picked up from the market, and the crisp cool days and cooler still nights that make you want to get cozy on the couch with something warm in your hands, fall is a wonderful season.  And it’s a chance to get creative in the kitchen with richly spiced soups, stews, and dutch oven comfort food.  One of my favorite ways to enjoy cornbread is with chili or a really aromatic soup.  On a cold day when you’d rather just stay put in the house and maybe watch a game or a good movie, chili and cornbread can really hit the spot.  Here is one of my favorite versions.  I sift it and use creamed corn and milk instead of the traditional buttermilk to give it a really smooth texture.  Then I top it with a creamy maple butter sprinkled with a bit of sea salt.  This one may be a bit funkier and jazzed up from what I grew up with but at the end of the day, it's still good old southern cornbread.

Creamed Corn Skillet Cornbread with Maple Butter
Serves 4


1 cup flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
¾ cup creamed corn
2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons melted butter

Maple Butter:
1 stick of unsalted butter at room temperature
3 tablespoons good maple syrup
Coarse sea salt

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.  If you are using a cast iron skillet (preferred; standard 9 or 10 inch works well.  I also sometimes use miniature cast iron skillets), put the skillet in the oven to preheat.  You can also use a glass dish, that works just fine.  Over a large mixing bowl dump the flour, cornmeal, and baking powder into a sifter and sift the ingredients into the bowl.  You can of course skip the sifting if you don’t have a sifter and just whisk together but sifting helps to give the cornbread a softer texture.  Add the kosher salt and sugar and whisk the dry ingredients together.  In a separate medium sized bowl, whisk the eggs until fluffy (20 seconds or so).  Add the milk and creamed corn and whisk together.   Pour the wet ingredients into the large mixing bowl with the dry ingredients.  Add the melted butter and whisk everything together.

By now your skillet should be nice and hot from the oven.  Remove the skillet and pour the oil into the hot skillet (caution-cast iron gets hella hot).  Swirl the oil around the skillet, getting the sides covered as well.  Don’t worry about getting every square inch; the oil will rise when you pour the batter in anyway so it will get to where it needs to go.  Pour the batter into the skillet and put the skillet in the oven.  Cook for 20-22 minutes until the cornbread is golden brown on top.

While the cornbread is cooking, make the maple butter.  In an electric mixer, blender, or food processor add the room temperature butter and the maple syrup.  Mix until the mixture is blended and smooth.  Use a spatula to scrape into a dish and refrigerate until you are ready to use.  The maple butter is simple and can be made days ahead.  When you are ready to serve the cornbread, serve it alongside the maple butter and sprinkle the maple butter with a bit of coarse sea salt.  Enjoy!


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Grilled Corn with Crazy Good Toppings

Where did summer go?  I feel like I’m always asking myself that question come mid-August when, even though still hot, the air starts to change, premature Halloween decorations show up at grocery stores, and fall fashion starts to take the lead.  It always passes too quickly for me because there are always so many great things to fill the season with, from free music concerts, to laid back BBQs that make you drool at 10:00am, knowing you’ll be eating something really fantastic by that afternoon, and simple seasonal recipes that are so easy to prepare yet full of phenomenal flavor.  I love cooking and baking all times of the year so it’s hard to pick a time or a season that I would call “favorite” but I will say, I love cooking in the summer!  The seasonal produce is so colorful and plentiful and the options really are endless, from simply grilled fruits, vegetables and meats, to freshly blended herb sauces and fruit smoothies.  So as we begin to feel the beginning of the end of summer, I’ve decided to pay tribute to the season once again with one more fabulous grill recipe that is easy, fun, beautiful, and always a great showstopper for friends and family.

Grilled Corn with Crazy Good Toppings
4 servings

4 fresh ears of corn (get them from the farmer’s market if you can)

And for…

Version 1: Grilled Corn with Butter and Old Bay
I’ve been making this version for years. When you spend years on the East Coast…
*1/4 cup Butter (I’ll be honest, I’ve never really measured the butter I put on the corn – just slather it on there so all of the corn is covered and you’ll be fine)
*2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning (or more if you’re an Old Bay fan, like me!)

Version 2: Grilled Corn with Mayo, Parmesan, and Parsley (a la Utah)
I learned this version while on vacation in Utah, never would have thought of mayo
*1/4 cup Mayonnaise- 1 Tbsp per ear (trust me – it’s good like you wouldn’t believe)
*4 teaspoons finely grated Parmesan
*1 small bunch of finely chopped Parsley

Version 3: Grilled Corn with Cotija Cheese and Lime
The favorite in my house!
*2 limes, freshly squeezed over the corn
*1/4 cup Cotija Cheese
*2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro (optional)

Soak the corn, husks on, for about 20 minutes in a large dish.  Meanwhile heat your grill to high heat, about 500 degrees Fahrenheit.  Once the grill is ready place the ears of corn, still in their husks, over direct heat on the grill.  Grill the corn for 20 minutes, turning every 5 minutes or so to ensure all sides of the corn are evenly grilled.  Remove the corn and let it sit for a few minutes to cool before trying to handle it.  Pull back the husks (you might want a trash can nearby) to expose the corn.  Sometimes I remove the husks but most times I leave it on because I love the rustic look of it.  You can tie the husks back with small twist ties or rubber bands.  It makes a fun handle for people to hold their corn.  Go with whatever topping version you like.  It’s not complicated so don’t go crazy with exact measuring.  Just make sure each ear of corn is sufficiently covered with the ingredients.  Sometimes I make one topping and sometimes I make a few so friends can enjoy different flavors.  You can always grill more ears of corn and prepare a couple of topping varieties for friends to try.  Have fun with it!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Another spoonful of chimichurri for my steak please!

This is easily one of my favorite summertime recipes.  I’m constantly thinking of new twists on recipes for the grill because that’s pretty much where I stay in the summer.  Who wants to turn the oven on in the house when it’s 95 degrees outside?!

If you use a good quality steak, the flavor can be immense, and topped with this freshly made chimichurri sauce, this dish is taken to another level.  I learned a chimichurri recipe from a friend years ago and I was blown away by how simple but delicious it was. I’ve tinkered with it over the years and I still do sometimes if I want to try incorporating a different herb or a bit more heat.  Don’t be shy about adding or subtracting something to make it suit your taste.  I love the addition of cilantro but some may leave that out.  I’ve also added red bell pepper before and it was very tasty.  The key thing is to make this sauce fresh.  Store bought varieties, sitting preserved on the shelf, really can't compare.  

This dish is extremely quick to pull together and yet it definitely qualifies as a showpiece if you’re having friends over for a relaxed dinner on the patio.  I love serving this with other rustically grilled vegetables, like an array of whole peppers and potatoes that I toss in garden fresh herbs like chives and parsley after they come off of the grill.  I feel like this meal is the epitome of summer al fresco eating.  Take advantage, summer passes us too quickly!

Grilled Flank Steak with Chimichurri Sauce
4 servings

2 lbs flank steak (will probably need to buy 2 or 3 pieces)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

For Chimichurri:
1 bunch of flat leaf parsley, chopped
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
5 cloves of garlic, minced
¾ - 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup red wine vinegar
½ lemon, juiced
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt

Preheat your grill to high heat (about 500 degrees fahrenheit on a gas grill).  Meanwhile prepare the steak. I usually place it in a large glass dish, drizzle the olive oil on both sides and then massage with my hands to make sure all of the steak is lightly coated with the oil.  Then sprinkle it with the salt and pepper.  Grill the steak over direct heat for 3-4 minutes per side (depending on the thickness of your steak).  This will give you a nice medium rare and as it rests it will cook through just a little more.  Remove the steak and cover with foil.  Set it aside to rest for 5 minutes. 

While the steak is resting, prepare the chimichurri.  Put the chopped parsley, chopped cilantro, minced garlic, red pepper flakes, oregano, and salt into a food processor (you’ll need more than one of those “mini-prep” processors for this).  Juice ½ of a lemon, minus seeds (!), into the processor.  Pulse the processor a few times to chop the ingredients a bit more and to get them mixed together.  Through the processor’s pour spout, slowly pour in the red wine vinegar as you hold the chop setting on your processor.  Do the same thing with the olive oil until you have a consistency you are happy with, for some people this may be ¾ cup olive oil and for some it may be the thinner consistency preferred, using the entire 1 cup of olive oil. Taste and make any adjustments if necessary (a bit more heat, more salt,etc.).

Cut the steak thinly across the grain of the meat.  Pour the chimichurri sauce over the steak and enjoy!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Grilling Dessert, Simplicity At Its Most Delicious

Peaches in the summer are a staple at my place.  I pretty much can't help myself from buying them at any market I walk by during the summer months.  The smell of perfectly ripe peaches is so enticing and thankfully they are something I never have to feel bad about eating.  One of my favorite ways to prepare peaches is to grill them for dessert.  The lightly charred caramelization on the grilled surface of the peaches is such a nice contrast to the sweetness of this fruit.  I top the peaches, still warm from the grill, with gelato and crushed caramelized cookies for a light buttery caramel flavor.  I picked up a bottle of peach white balsamic vinegar a couple of months ago after a tasting at an oil and vinegar store blew me away.  Ever since, I've found it has endless uses in the summertime and one day when I drizzled some of it on this dessert, that I had made many times before, I was hooked.  So I'm putting it in the recipe as an optional addition but I really encourage you to try it.  You'll find so many uses for it beyond this recipe.

Grilled Peaches with Vanilla Bean Gelato and Caramelized Cookie Crumble
4 servings

4 Ripe Peaches (highly advise getting them from the farmer’s market, big difference)
4 teaspooons vegetable oil (any neutral oil will work)
1 Pint Vanilla Bean Gelato (Ice Cream will work fine too)
½ half sleeve Caramelized Cookies or Biscuits (Biscoff Cookies work very well)
4 Tablespoons Peach White Balsamic Vinegar (optional)

Set your grill to medium high heat (about 400 degrees Farenheit).  While the grill is heating up prepare your peaches.  Cut each peach in half, working around the pits to leave them in tact.  Gently pull the halves apart and remove the pit from each peach.  Brush a little vegetable oil on the cut side of each peach to prevent it from sticking to the grill.  Grill the peaches 2-4 minutes cut side down until you have nice grill marks.  Plate 2 peach halves per person on each plate.  Set aside.  Take 2 cookies per person and place in a durable plastic bag (ziploc works well). Securely close the bag. Place a folded towel underneath the bag and with a rolling pin crush the cookies for about 10 seconds.  There will still be some chunkier pieces of cookie and that's okay.  Rustic is good!  Take out your vanilla bean gelato and place one small scoop in each peach half.  This directive is optional but it really amps up the flavor of this dessert: drizzle 1 teaspoon of peach white balsamic vinegar on top of each plated dessert.  Sprinkle the crushed cookies on top of each plate.  Finish the plates off by placing one whole cookie on each.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Ultimate Summer Sandwich - Bahn Mi Part 2

Sorry for the wait foodies!  I took a little vacay in sunny Puerto Rico, plenty to make me lazy for a couple of weeks.  But I’m back and so excited about this recipe!  As I mentioned in my previous post, Bahn Mi sandwiches are one of my favorite summer lunches.  The melding of flavors and textures in this sandwich is so unique and delicious.  The pickled carrots and radishes, crunchy cucumber, fiery jalapenos, and bright green cilantro, with a slather of good mayo are a fantastically fresh combination and surprisingly refreshing for a sandwich.  The meat on the sandwich acts as a condiment too so there will be no deli style meat stacking here, just a couple of slices so veggies and meat get equal love.  The biggest component, I feel, of a good Bahn Mi sandwich though is the BREAD!  Yes, the bread.  Choose the freshest baked baguette bread you can get without going too crazy.  You want baguette loaves that strike the perfect balance of crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside.

All in all, a really simple recipe with a big flavor payoff!

Bahn Mi Sandwiches
4 servings
*Please see previous post for pickled carrot and radish mixture recipe

*4 freshly baked mini baguette rolls (or good 6 inch club rolls)
*Meat of choice (I love good quality roast beef; grilled pork or chicken are also great) – just a couple of slices per sandwich (these are not NY deli sandwiches, don’t crowd the sandwiches with a ton of meat)
*1 cup of pickled carrots and radishes (approx. 1/4 cup per sandwich)
*8 long thin slices of cucumber (2 per sandwich)
*4 jalapenos, sliced rounds (approx. 1 jalapeno per sandwich)
*1 bunch of cilantro (approx. 1 healthy sprig per sandwich)
*3 tablespoons good mayo (a healthy slather per sandwich)

Slice each baguette almost all the way through lengthwise, leaving one long side in tact (you want the baguette to open much like a hot dog bun).  Slather each baguette with a dollop of mayo.  From here on it’s really just assembly.  I like to place the slices of meat first, followed by the jalapenos, pickled veggies and then cilantro.  Close the sandwiches up and enjoy!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Ultimate Summer Sandwich - Bahn Mi, Part 1

If you haven’t tried Bahn Mi before, you better get on it.  For those of you that know and love Bahn Mi, you understand why I’m dedicating a Part 1 and 2 to this special lunch treat.

Bahn Mi is a Vietnamese specialty.  It’s a sandwich consisting of a variety of fillings from grilled pork to lemongrass chicken to meatballs or pâté, or even tofu, as well as a variety of condiments including pickled carrots and daikon radish, cucumber, cilantro, fiery jalapenos, and a bit of mayo.  All of this is stuffed inside of a just baked baguette (if your Bahn Mi place is really good), crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside.  Of course Bahn Mi is delicious any time of the year but for some reason, for me, the summertime tends to bring on strong cravings for these delicious sandwiches and I’ve found other Bahn Mi lovers have similar summer sandwich cravings.

I’m doing this recipe in 2 parts since it involves pickled vegetables, which takes a little forethought.  So for now I’m going to focus on the recipe for the pickled carrot and radish mixture (super simple) which you’ll let sit for a few days before making your Bahn Mi sandwich.  I’ll post Part 2 within the next couple of weeks, promise!

*Tip: the pickled carrot and radish mixture is addictive and does not have to be reserved for just Bahn Mi. Try it on a salad, a pulled pork sandwich, or any old sandwich you want to liven a bit.  It’s delicious!

Pickled Carrot and Radish (Do Chua)
1 pound carrots (approx. 2-3 medium sized carrots), outer layer peeled
1 pound daikon radishes (approx. 1 large daikon), outer layer peeled
1 ¼  cups distilled white vinegar
½ cup plus 4 teaspoons of sugar
1 cup very warm water 
1 teaspoon table salt
A large jar (one that seals well)

Julienne the carrots and the daikon radishes so you have matchstick size strips of each.  To do this you should trim off a layer on four sides so that you have a long rectangle to work with; from there you can cut lengthwise so you have long strips that are thin with regards to thickness but are wide across.  Stack the strips and cut them again lengthwise into matchstick size pieces. Put the carrots and radishes in a large bowl. Sprinkle the vegetables with 4 teaspoons of sugar and 1 teaspoon of table salt. With your hands massage the sugar and salt into the carrots and daikon until well coated.  Continue to massage until they soften quite a bit.  It should take about 4-5 minutes. When you can gently bend a piece of radish all the way back without it breaking, you are good to go. Dump the carrots and radishes into a colander and rinse well with cold water. 

In a large measuring glass (mine is 4 cups) or medium sized bowl, mix together the remaining ½ cup of sugar, the white vinegar, and the warm water, until the sugar dissolves.  Wash the jar with warm and soapy water.  You don’t have to sterilize the jar since the vegetables aren't being cooked.  Put the radishes and carrots in the jar. Pour the vinegar and sugar mixture on top and seal (the liquid should cover the vegetables).  Refrigerate.  In a couple of days this mixture will be perfect for your homemade Bahn Mi sandwich.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Brunch Time!

Who doesn’t love French Toast?  It certainly isn’t a hard sell BUT there are at least half a dozen ways to prepare French Toast so it’s one of those breakfast foods I feel you can have a lot of fun with on a lazy Saturday or Sunday morning.  This recipe is a favorite born out of inspiration from an amazing breakfast of Challah French Toast I once had at a restaurant brunch years ago.  I came out of that meal sure that Challah bread was the epitome of perfection when it comes to French Toast.  The only thing to really keep in mind here is that with any bread you use for French Toast, it needs to be day old/stale.  Soft bread can’t stand up to the egg/cream mixture and you’ll end up with something more like a bread pudding consistency.  So buy some Challah early in the week when you do your regular grocery shopping and by the weekend it will be perfect for French Toast!  I serve this recipe with fresh berries and homemade whipped cream.  Just trust me on the homemade whipped cream, there is no real substitute.

There’s no doubt about it, this one is certainly decadent and not your everyday breakfast but for a fun brunch with friends, family, or a special person you want to impress, this one really is a showstopper.

French Toast with Mixed Berries and Whipped Cream
Serves 4-6 (probably 4-5 if this is all you are serving, 6 if you’re also serving eggs, etc.)

6 extra large eggs
1 ½ cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon honey
1/4 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 Challah Loaf, cut into 8 large slices about ¾ to 1 inch thick (don’t include the ends)
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons Canola oil or other neutral oil
Agave syrup
3 cups of rinsed mixed berries (I suggest Blackberries of Blueberries and Raspberries)
2 cups heavy whipping cream (optional, for homemade whipped cream)
¼ cup granulated sugar (for whipped cream)

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F.  If you’re going to make whipped cream to go with the French Toast (highly recommended!), put your mixer’s clean bowl and whisk attachment or beaters in the fridge or freezer to chill.  Combine the eggs, whole milk, honey, vanilla extract, salt, and cinnamon in a large bowl. Whisk it all together. Pour the mixture into a large shallow baking pan and soak the challah bread slices in a single layer for 6-7 minutes, turning the bread once.  If all of the bread won’t fit, it’s okay.  Just do as many as you can and then you’ll fit the remaining pieces in the baking pan on the second round.

Heat 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet, over medium heat.   As soon as your skillet is hot and you start to smell the butter you’re ready.  Add 2-3 slices of soaked bread (as much as will fit in your pan without crowding) and cook for a couple of minutes on each side until golden brown.  If it seems like they are browning too quickly just lower the heat a touch so they still cook through without browning too much on the outside.  Add more butter and oil as needed for each batch.   Using a clean spatula, move the cooked slices to a large baking pan in the heated oven so they stay warm while you cook the rest.  Once you’ve put the last batch of bread on the stove, go ahead and pour the heavy whipping cream into a mixer and mix on high speed until the cream starts to become thickened.  Now slowly add the granulated sugar while continuing to mix on high until you get light soft peaks.  This shouldn’t take more than five minutes.  DO NOT overmix (I feel like a broken record saying that in every recipe but it’s true.  Overmixed anything is not your friend).  If you do overmix, your cream will become lumpy and start to turn into butter, not what you’re going for here.

Serve the warm French Toast topped with a generous helping of the mixed berries, a drizzle of Agave syrup (you can use any syrup you like but the Agave syrup has a lighter flavor and goes amazingly well), and a dollop of the homemade whipped cream.  You will be in heaven while eating this, just warning ya!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Get Your Basket Ready – It’s Time For a Little Shopping!

                   **bought this beautiful swiss chard from the Creek Side Produce table 

Farmers Markets seem to be uber trendy these days so the advantage in that is that they’re very accessible now to so many people, not just the people living in the biggest of cities.  Every vendor with something special to offer is getting in on the game.  Especially now with the Farm to Table movement and similar restaurant offerings which have taken off with such success, us diners are looking for fresh ingredients grown in season near our own town without the need for a ton of chemical preservatives sprayed all over to ensure ingredients survive a journey half way across the country.  We’re just looking for simple quality, and local farm grown veggies and produce is where it’s at!

* vibrant zucchini and yellow squash and perfect little oval radishes from Westmoreland Produce

I’m lucky to live right outside of DC where markets are scattered pretty much everywhere with a large variety of vendors competing to be household names known for their quality selection.  And this only seems to drive the quality up, good for us home shoppers and chefs looking to experiment with their seasonal menus!  So these days it’s easy to visit a market on Wednesday, another one on Thursday, and easily Saturday and Sunday if you like.  It doesn’t get much more convenient.  I frequent a market right near my home on Sunday mornings.  There are vendors selling bright red tomatoes, vibrant zucchini and yellow squash, fresh made pastas with herbs, a rainbow of swiss chard, as well as sweet strawberries and pastries to tempt the most devout dieter.  There are often samples of the tomatoes, apples, pickles, etc. put out for you to taste so you know exactly the kind of quality you’re buying.  The proof is in the pudding right? For those of you that say "I get perfectly good ingredients from the store, I have no need to go to a hip local market" you are partly right.  Yep, I'm a food enthusiast and I just said that, which I know seems like a complete contradiction to this article but let me explain. 

             **I always end up buying strawberries, this time delicious ones from Creek Side Produce 

 The store offers endless aisles packed with items to meet every need you might have, that is true.  But here, to show you why I think markets have such a valid place in our weekly routine, I ask you to enact the tomato test.  You heard right, the tomato test.  It's one of my favorite ways to show friends who don't believe me that there's any difference between a garden or farm grown tomato and a store bought one.  Let me just say this, I've yet to feed a friend that wasn't convinced.  Ok on to the test.  So go to your regular grocery store and buy whatever you need for the week plus one nice red tomato.  Then go to a local farmer's market and also buy a nice looking red tomato from one of the vendors there.  Cautionary note: DO NOT put your tomatoes in the fridge.  They do not like it, in fact they hate it.  Putting them in the fridge makes what I'll call "I hate you" compounds react in the tomato and it literally changes the way they taste...and it makes them mealy (eewww).  Now, take both tomatoes you bought, the one from the store, and the one from the market.  Rinse them off and then slice off a nice hearty piece from each tomato.  Take a bite of the store bought tomato, think about what you like and what you taste while eating it.  Now take a bite of the tomato from the market and analyze in the same way.  I'm willing to bet you that you'll notice a pretty big difference between the taste of the two, favoring the market tomato.  

Tomatoes sold in stores are often picked when they're still green and not yet very flavorful; they're put in a ripening room so to speak where they turn red and then they are sprayed with whatever preservatives and stored at cool temperatures for shipping so that they will survive the journey to stores.  So you're pretty much getting a tomato that was picked before it tasted like it was supposed to, made to look like it tastes fantastic (aka very red), and stored at a cool temperature, even further hurting the flavor.  And that's all before it's even made it into your hands.  But at a market you're getting a tomato that was picked at full ripeness and only had to make the short journey to the market.  A whole lot simpler isn't it?  So it's not that store bought tomatoes are bad, they just never got a chance to develop the flavor they're supposed to in nature.  And therein lies my reasoning behind keeping markets in your weekly errands list.  It may not be a reasonable expectation or even intention to do your full grocery shopping at a local market but tomatoes are a good example because they demonstrate the actual logic behind and advantage of shopping at local markets.  It's not just a "hip" thing to do.  You are quite literally getting more (quality) for your money. 

      **Bonaparte Breads have unique loaves like this rosemary lemon round sitting proudly on top

So today I’m just sharing with you my love of these local markets and all the charm they bring to a neighborhood, the way they bring communities together, the way they help us eat better, and the way they support local farmers and local businesses.  Get your basket ready and show some support!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Who’s Ready for a Cocktail?

Oh good cocktail, the love affair you and I have.  But not just any cocktail will do.  Yes, even cocktails have seasonal personalities.  When spring and summer come around and daydreams of what vacations might be taken start to enter the mind, a great cocktail provides easy access to a mini-vacation of sorts.  Who cares if you’re only lounging on your own patio, hearing those two or three police cars whiz by on the neighboring street, sirens blaring? With a refreshing cocktail in hand and perhaps a friend or two nearby to clink glasses with, it becomes much easier to drown out all that background noise.  And let’s be honest, we’re all desperately in need of a little less background noise in our lives right?

This cocktail is fruity and downright fabulous.  It’s inspired by a cocktail I have sometimes at The Mandarin Oriental when I go to lounge with friends and listen to some great musicians (at a hotel, who knew right?). 

Peach & Pear Pomegrantini
2 martinis

2 shots (3 oz.) peach rum
2 shots (3 oz.) pomegranate juice
¾ cup (6 oz.) pear nectar 
Martini shaker (chilled)
2 small nontoxic flowers (optional)

Pour all 3 liquids into a chilled martini shaker.  Add a nice handful of ice, close the shaker, and shake like you mean it (aka until mixed well).  Pour into two martini glasses and garnish with a couple of small flowers for looks (and that vacationing feeling).

Friday, May 11, 2012

I’ve Got the Strawberries, You Bring the Rhubarb…

Strawberries and rhubarb make fantastic companions. It’s a shame they’re both only in season for a fairly short period each year.  And for me, that’s the perfect excuse to take advantage of their wonderful peak period and make strawberry rhubarb tartlets on a sunny spring or early summer afternoon.  The kitchen will smell amazing and your friends, not to mention your own tummy, will thank you.  I love to pair these beautiful little tartlets with fresh whipped cream or, open mind please, ginger ice cream.  That’s right, ginger ice cream.  If you’ve never had it, try it!

People often have misconceptions about making dough, thinking it must be difficult or cumbersome.  But it isn’t! Or at least it doesn’t have to be.  For this dough I use a quick recipe that won’t take more than 5-10 minutes to pull together.  AND you probably already have all of the ingredients for it.  So turn up some music (suggested favorites include a little Camera Obscura, Maudlin era perhaps, and Arcade Fire), get in the kitchen, and give it a shot.

Strawberry Rhubarb Tartlets
 4 tartlets

            1 ¼ cup flour
            1 ½ teaspoon granulated sugar
            ½ teaspoon salt
            ½ cup chilled unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
3 tablespoons ice cold water

            ¼ cup flour
            1 cup sugar
            2 cups sliced rhubarb (approx. 2 long stalks)
            1 ½ cups sliced strawberries

Start with the pastry crust.  In a food processor add the flour, salt, sugar and pulse a couple of times until combined. Add the chilled butter cubes and process until the crust looks like coarse crumbles.  Pour the ice water into the processor and mix briefly until the dough just comes together (this should only take a few seconds, don’t overmix). 

**If you are without a food processor, that is okay.  I find this dough can be made without it, and instead in a large bowl with a pastry cutter or two knives, though a food processor helps the ingredients incorporate evenly and helps the dough come together quicker.

Sprinkle a little flour onto a work surface.  Turn the dough out onto the surface and work it just briefly into a loose ball.  Divide it into 2 halves and also work those halves into balls.  Flatten each halve into a disc like shape and wrap in plastic wrap.  Chill the dough in the fridge for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Combine all of the ingredients for the filling in a large bowl and set aside.  Once the dough has chilled bring it out onto the work surface.  Divide each disc of dough in half so that you have 4 equal portions.  Roll each quarter lightly into a ball, sprinkle some flour on a rolling pin, and the surface area again if needed, and roll each quarter out to a circle, about 7 inches in diameter.  Working one at a time on the parchment lined baking sheet, spoon some of the strawberry rhubarb mixture into the center of each circle of dough, the filling should come to about 1 ½ inch from the edge of each pastry circle.  Fold the edges of each pastry circle up, leaving the very center open, and press the edges together while working in a circle.  This is where rustic is your friend, don't get carried away trying to make these perfect.  Bake the 4 tartlets for approximately 27-30 minutes.  Let them cool slightly before topping with some fresh whipped cream or ginger ice cream and serving.  Enjoy!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Tarragon Chicken Salad

Tarragon Chicken Salad

1 Rotisserie Chicken (typically 2 pounds or so)
½ cup mayo
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Splash of fresh lemon juice (squeezed from ½ lemon)
1-2 stalks diced celery (depending on your love of celery)
¼ cup dried cranberries
¼ cup walnuts
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
Kosher salt
Fresh Black pepper

I love that time of spring when herbs have all peeked out of the garden and you can start dreaming up all the possibilities for things you’ll try or create this season.  I anxiously await that day when I can go into the garden and start clipping away at my favorite herbs.  Tarragon is one of the herbs I grow in my garden and for me it’s synonymous with spring.  It’s a fantastic companion for lighter dishes with seafood, eggs, and vegetables.  Tarragon and chicken also make a very happy couple.  I’ve always loved chicken salad and over the years I’ve played around with a number of different versions.  At a sandwich shop I once had a chicken salad sandwich with tarragon on Ciabatta bread and it was delicious.  It had an incredible taste and the tarragon really boosted the entire flavor of the salad.  I clearly remember leaving a very clean plate behind. 

This recipe is inspired by the lunch I enjoyed that day.  I love the combination of crunchy versus smooth so I’ve included celery and walnuts but as I always say, this recipe is for you so don’t be afraid to take liberties.  If there’s something you’d like to try in the salad, throw it in and see what happens.  If you like almonds better than walnuts, try slivered almonds perhaps.  You may decide that was a good decision or a bad one but at least it will inform your creativity and desire to take chances in the kitchen and that’s what counts!

If you’ve just bought the rotisserie chicken, let it cool off for a bit. If you cut it while it’s still hot, it will prove to be a very difficult task.  Cut the rotisserie chicken, removing the legs, wings, and cutting off the breasts and thighs.  Remove the skin as well.  The great thing about rotisserie chicken is that the style of cooking allows so much flavor to permeate the meat so you won’t miss the skin at all.  Cut the chicken pieces into nice sized chunks, ½ to 1 inch depending on how chunky you like your salad.  Put the chicken chunks into a large bowl.   Add the mayo, Dijon mustard, and fresh squeezed lemon juice.  Stir the wet ingredients in the bowl just a little bit to mix them all together.  Add the cranberries, walnuts, diced celery, and chopped fresh tarragon.  Stir everything together.  Taste and add a sprinkle of salt, as needed (I find the rotisserie chicken is typically pretty salty so I don’t need to add more than a sprinkle of kosher salt to the mixture), and cracked black pepper.  Give the mixture a final stir and then store in the refrigerator for a couple of hours or overnight.  This salad tastes even better the second day!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Balsamic Glaze – The Champion of Versatile Sauces


Balsamic glaze is hands down my pick for most versatile sauce.  Oh there’s a list, don’t worry, but right now, for me, a balsamic glaze (aka reduction) is really up there.  I was first exposed to balsamic glaze at a farmer’s market in California.  The market was enormous and had something for everyone, which translated to me wandering the market for hours, exploring every unique station.  There were fine baked breads and pastries, more charcuterie than one would know how to choose from, interesting cheeses, wine, and more.  There was one Italian vendor there selling fresh pastas, mozzarella, and a number of other Italian specialties.  One I noticed was balsamic glaze.  As the vendor explained to me the wonder of balsamic glaze and its simple creation, I was easily sold, shamefully so.  It’s surprising I didn't ask to purchase a case right then and there.  No, since I was traveling I just bought one bottle. But when I arrived back home and started using the glaze in the kitchen, I found nearly infinite uses for it.  And to this day I often find new dishes that are enhanced by the flavor of balsamic glaze.  Its thick syrupy consistency and concentrated, yet sweet, balsamic flavor goes well on everything from grilled meats, prosciutto, sharp tangy cheeses, ripe grilled peaches, and caprese salads with ripe garden tomatoes and bright green basil, to vanilla ice cream and sweet strawberries.  It’s a wonderful thing, made more wonderful by the fact that it only involves two ingredients, balsamic vinegar and a bit of sugar. 

Balsamic Glaze

2 cups balsamic vinegar (does not have to be expensive, just use one you really like)
2 tablespoons brown or granulated sugar

Pour vinegar and sugar in a small saucepan and bring it to a boil. Reduce to low heat and simmer the mixture 20-25 minutes until it has the consistency of syrup.  Do not try to speed things along by increasing the heat.  It seems to make the acids in the vinegar more potent and will give the syrup a somewhat bitter taste.  Just simmer it low and slow and keep an eye on it towards the end so you don’t risk burning it.  As it reduces significantly you may need to turn the heat even lower to make sure the vinegar doesn’t start boiling.  You should be able to coat the back of a spoon with the mixture.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and let the mixture cool for 5 minutes or so.  It will thicken as it cools.  Pour the mixture into a squeeze bottle and let it cool completely.  I find my balsamic glaze keeps in the fridge for a few months.  It probably can last longer but I’ve usually used it all up by then! When ready to use, just reheat it in a small saucepan of warm water.  It can also last on the shelf if you prefer, with a slightly shorter shelf life. 

*Believe it or not, this recipe can be made even simpler with the subtraction of the sugar.  Many traditional glazes are made without sugar as there is already a suitable content in the vinegar.  The addition of sugar, I find, helps the sauce to thicken to a nice consistency and balances the bite of the vinegar.  But if you want to be super traditional and want a bit more tang to your glaze, forget the added sugar and just reduce the vinegar on very low heat and for a longer period of time to concentrate the sugars already in the vinegar.  Be sure to watch it towards the end so it does not burn, not pretty.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Not your Grandmother’s Scones

Scones get a bad wrap sometimes and I can’t say I completely disagree with the sentiment.  For years, scones were not my pastry of choice.  I found them to be quite dry and crumbly and, just not my cup of tea (wink- get it?).  But a couple of years ago while happily perusing a neighborhood farmers market I came across a bakery vendor selling beautifully crusty baguettes, sourdough rounds, aromatic rosemary loaves, ridiculously tempting cookies, and more.  They also had scones.  When I arrived to the bustling market I was fashionably late and much of the breakfast breads were already sold out.  They had only a few scones left. Hungry after quite a bit of walking, I “settled” for the scone.  But when I had my first bite I was completely blown away.  This moist flaky bread studded with beautiful cranberries and tart orange zest was beyond delicious.  It was unlike any scone I had ever had.  And that is when I found my hidden love for scones.  What I came to find is that there are some very strong opinions out there about what a scone should and shouldn’t be but the most important thing to realize is that there are different types of scones.  I don’t love the dry crumbly scone you must dip in tea to absorb any sort of moisture but many purists feel that’s exactly what a scone should be.  But I am a complete sucker for a flaky moist scone studded with a variety of goodies, sweet or savory, so that’s the recipe I’ll keep in my back pocket.

This is a recipe I developed awhile ago as a result of my newfound love for scones and all of their possibilities.  As a tribute to the one that started it all, these are cranberry orange flavored but feel free to play around with ingredients to mix into the scone batter.  I’ve made blueberry, lemon poppyseed, and bacon and cheddar scones all using this batter so it can be very versatile.  Have fun!

Cranberry Orange Scones
(makes 8 scones)

2 cups all purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar plus extra for sprinkling
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into little squares
½ cup dried cranberries
1 tablespoon orange zest
¼ cup orange juice (from zested orange)
2/3 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons milk or cream

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.  Zest the orange until you have 1 tablespoon.  Cut the orange in half and juice it into a smallish (cereal size) bowl.  Pour the dried cranberries into the bowl with the orange juice.  After a few minutes they will start to plump up a bit as they absorb some of the fresh orange juice.  In a large bowl, combine the flour, ¼ cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or with your fingers (lightly and quickly) until the mixture forms pretty coarse crumbs. 

Drain any excess juice from the bowl of cranberries (I usually drink it, it’s so tasty!).  Stir in the orange soaked cranberries and orange zest. Gradually add the buttermilk and stir until a soft dough forms.  Do not overmix, this batter will not come together completely from the added moisture.  Your hands will assist in doing that.  Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead the dough gently five or six times.  Pat it into a circle (about 7 or 8 inches round).  

Cut the circle in half and then again crossways.  Cut across the round twice more as if cutting a pizza, to give you 8 equal sized wedges.  Place the wedges on the parchment lined baking sheet. Brush the wedges with the bit of milk or cream.  Sprinkle the tops with sugar (this will help them brown and will give the scones an addictively crunchy crust).  Bake 20-24 minutes until golden brown.  Transfer to a wire rack to cool, if you can keep yourself from them that long.  I think they’re best nice and warm so if making them for company I often just slide them right off of the baking sheet onto a platter so everyone can help themselves.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Avocado and Grapefruit - the Perfect Marriage

I’m on a roll with salads as of late!  This recipe needs little introduction, it’s that good.  And best of all it is one of the simplest salads (say that five times) you could prepare, yet it looks so pretty that it can easily be served when you have friends or more formal company over for lunch or dinner.  I confess that I sometimes have eaten this salad 3 days in a row when I am experiencing an addiction to grapefruit or avocado.  The most surprising thing is how full you actually feel after eating it.  It looks so demure and delicate but the healthy fats from the avocado keep you full and happy and the grapefruit is refreshing and light.  It’s a perfect marriage.   I first had this salad at a nice restaurant years ago and I don’t remember the meal being particularly memorable but the salad certainly was and ever since then I have loved the combination of avocado and grapefruit.  About a year ago I came across a recipe Ina Garten has for this salad and I liked the simplicity and flavor of her vinaigrette recipe.  The tanginess it adds is perfect with the buttery avocado.  This version is an adaptation of Ina Garten’s recipe from her book, Barefoot in Paris (beautiful book).  Enjoy!

Avocado and Grapefruit Salad
Serves 4-6

3 ripe Hass avocados (the ugly looking brownish ones – they are the best)
3 large red grapefruits
1/2 cup good fruity olive oil
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

Place the Dijon mustard, lemon juice, salt, and pepper in a bowl.  I have a trick here for dressings – I use an oblong bowl which is so good for the whisking motion needed to make a mixture emulsify into a dressing.  Slowly whisk in the olive oil until the vinaigrette is emulsified.

Cut the avocados in half and remove the pits (just whack the pit with a knife and it will come right out).  Use a medium sized spoon to get under the avocado skin and run the spoon all the way around to lift the avocado meat, in tact, out of the skin.  Cut each avocado half into 5 slices. Place the slices in the vinaigrette and set aside. Use a large sharp knife to slice the peel off the grapefruits, removing any white bits from the skin.  Hold the grapefruit in one hand and, with the other hand, cut between the membranes to release the grapefruit segments.  The juices will start to spill out of the grapefruit so make sure you are doing this over a cutting board or paper towels!

I like to arrange the grapefruit on individual serving plates as a bed for the avocado, just spoon the avocado out of the vinaigrette and place on top of the grapefruit.  It’s just such a beautiful display of color.  Arrange it however you feel looks best, you really can’t go wrong with arranging this salad.  If needed, drizzle a bit more vinaigrette on top, and give it one last sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spring on the Salads!

Spring is finally here and as if my taste buds have automatically adjusted to the change, I’ve been having cravings for great entrée salads.  Not just a boring plate of greens and dressing, but something interesting with a lot of flavor.  So last weekend while sitting outside on the patio, catching up on some reading, I got a craving for one of my favorite salads – Salade Lyonnaise.  It’s a salad I discovered while living in France for a short while.  It involves a wildly free type of lettuce, a warm dressing with bacon and sweet shallots, crispy homemade croutons, and a beautiful poached egg right on top.  It seems as if every bistro in Paris has a rendition of this salad, it truly is a classic.  And it’s genius. It involves but a few components and yet the variety of textures and flavors is so satisfying.  Now there is one thing I must say upfront.  This recipe involves a poached egg, a really runny one.  For all you anti-runny egg people let me say, I’ve never been a huge fan of runny eggs either (well I guess until I discovered this salad).  Admittedly, I’m mostly a scrambled egg kind of girl.  But in this recipe having the bright yellow yolk nice and runny is so key to the flavor and creaminess of this salad.  Just trust me, don’t overcook the egg.  You’ll like it…a lot.

Salade Lyonnaise (Frisée Salad with lardons and poached egg)
4 servings

7-8 cups (8 oz. or so) frisée lettuce, washed and trimmed into bite sized pieces
Rustic bread (I use a sourdough boule, French baguettes work well also)
½ pound good quality thick sliced bacon
2 small or 1 medium shallot, chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
4 tablespoons sherry vinegar (could also use a nice white wine vinegar)
1 tablespoon mild Dijon mustard
4 eggs (use VERY fresh eggs, they won’t poach correctly if they’re not fresh)
1 teaspoon white vinegar
Kosher salt
Cracked black pepper
Olive Oil (I prefer a lighter fruity olive oil for salads)

Put washed and trimmed frisée lettuce in a large salad bowl and set aside.  Slice bread into 3 slices that are about 2 inches thick.  Remove the crusts from the slices of bread and discard.  Cut the bread into big cubes, about 1 inch in size.  Drizzle just a little olive oil over the bread cubes, sprinkle a tiny bit of salt and pepper over the bread and just toss a couple of times with your fingers to moisten all of the bread.  Heat 2-3 tablespoons olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat.  Throw the bread in the pan and toast, turning as needed to toast on all sides, for 5-7 minutes until the bread cubes have turned into golden croutons.  Turn off the heat, remove the croutons from the pan and set aside (it’s ok to snack on one or two to reward yourself for your crouton making patience, they are pretty irresistible).  Wipe the pan so there aren’t any bread bits left. 

Cut the bacon slices crosswise into strips about ½ inch thick.  Put 2 tablespoons olive oil in the pan and bring it to medium heat.  Put the bacon in the pan and fry for about 10 minutes until crisp.  Remove the bacon strips (lardons) and place them on a paper towel.  Add the chopped shallots to the pan and cook for a couple of minutes until they become soft.  Add the sherry vinegar and Dijon mustard to the pan and whisk until it begins to boil and then turn off the heat.

Meanwhile, bring a saucepan (4 qt. or slightly larger) with 2 inches of salted water and the teaspoon of white vinegar to a very gentle simmer.  Crack an egg into a small dish and at water level tip it into the simmering water.  Wait just a few seconds and then use a spoon to push the white of the egg around the yolk so it is completely covered (with an older egg, you’ll have a bunch of wispy pieces of the white that pull away from the yolk and leave the yolk exposed).  Let it poach for 2 minutes. Meanwhile crack the next egg and follow the same step (I usually do 2 eggs at a time in the pan and then start over with the last 2).  Remove the eggs as they are ready and place on a plate with a paper towel to drain off any water.

Throw the croutons in the bowl with the greens.  Put the bacon back in the pan with the dressing, bring it to medium heat just for a minute to warm through, and stir (the dressing may separate a bit, it’s ok).  Pour the warm bacon dressing over the lettuce (it will wilt a little) and toss to coat.  Sprinkle with kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste.  Top each person’s salad portion with a poached egg (everyone gets to break their own egg and let the creamy yolk become part of the salad dressing).