Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pumpkin Bread Pudding Parfait

I spent the morning before Thanksgiving this year making two swings out to the airport, contented with the accompaniment of Mario Batali and Rick Bayless.  The conversation, as would be expected, centered on the holiday meal... the ins and outs of getting a great turkey on the table, new twists to traditional sides, etc. It was thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking. The fact that these masters of cooking traveled with me via satellite radio is but a minor detail.

The important point here is that I came away from this listening experience questioning whether I have been playing it too safe with my holiday meal. I had, over the years, come up with a set menu... a compilation of our favorites. And yet, after listening to the milieu of dishes being served up by the callers into this morning program,  I desperately wanted to join their ranks... throw something new into our treasured line-up.

Being one that leans more toward the savory than the sweet, I figured the dessert course was a safe place to mix things up and a bread pudding just seemed like a perfect way to reconfigure our traditional pumpkin pie. The primary flavor component remains true to the season, yet the versatility in plating allows for a more festive offering. Basically kicking pumpkin pie up a notch (or two).

While many bread puddings use breads like challah or brioche, I chose to go with a cinnamon-swirl bread from a local bakery. This bread has a similar density to that of the two more traditional choices, yet with the added benefit of a bit more flavor. Given that it wasn't day-old, as is fairly common in bread puddings, I cubed the bread, tossed it with a bit of melted butter, dusted it with a little more cinnamon and brown sugar (believing there is never enough of the "swirl" to go around), and toasted it in the oven for about 10 minutes before adding in all the other ingredients and popping the whole thing into the oven to bake.

The pudding can be cut into squares and plated with a simple dusting of powdered sugar... or elegantly stacked and then dusted. It can be placed on a puddle of cream anglaise (melted vanilla bean ice cream, in our case) and dolloped with some sweetened whipped cream.

Or, as shown here, cut into cubes and layered in a glass with sweetened whipped cream and candied walnuts. (Though this might look like a more decadent offering, it's truly just the same square of pudding, cut into cubes.)

Regardless of how it's presented, it's a great holiday treat... a perfect finish to a great dinner.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Ever-So-Simple Cranberry Sauce

I have a mission. It's a quiet little mission... a simple little culinary-sort-of-mission... nothing really daunting or overwhelming. In fact, it is entirely miniscule in the grand scheme of life, but oh-so-transforming to a holiday feast.

It's a personal little mission about cranberry sauce (or lack thereof).

Given the number of people I know that still slide their cranberry sauce out of a can in one solid mass, replete with the imprinted lines of the tin, I am convinced (by experience and not pure emotion), that many perform this ritual from habit alone... few even partaking in the sugar-sweet, gel-like concoction.

I understand and respect tradition if it's something held dear... tried and true. I love that there are scores of different camps you can turn to on how best to serve up a golden, juicy and crisp-skinned turkey; silky smooth mashed potatoes; flakey biscuits; or, a flavorful stuffing that takes bread to a whole new level of experience. I respect the fact that there are legions of folks, for example, that lovingly dot their sweet potato bake with a snow-like scape of tiny little marshmallows; or that there are whole camps that profess a genuine love of the canned green bean/mushroom soup/dried onion casserole. On both these fronts, I respectfully remain silent. However, when it comes to pulling cranberry sauce from a can, I feel compelled to offer an alternative that is just as easy and quick, deliciously tart and subtly sweet, and so much fresher and pleasing to the palate than anything out of a can could possibly be. It's not a grand discovery. It's something that has been around... and around... in some form or another. I believe it must be something that is assumed to be difficult. And yet, it's so very easy... it's hardly a recipe.

So this is my little mission...

Buy a package of fresh cranberries in the produce department of your neighborhood market and invest 10 minutes time. A few days before the big day (or a whole week prior), heat up some water, and toss those cranberries in with a little sugar, some fresh apple and pear, and a bit of fresh orange zest and juice, and be fully prepared to wholeheartedly convert from that canned mass to a fresh relish on this holiday... and every one hereafter.

Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup {with Red Pepper, Apple, Red Onion, Jalapeño, Curry & Toasted Pepitas}

The hardest thing I encountered in making this soup was coming up with a simple title. It's not really just a Roasted Butternut Squash Soup... as all of its components play such an important role in its success. It's more of a Sum-of-Its-Parts sort of soup. (Now that sounds enticing.)

It was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend last week after a late afternoon walk on what was probably the prettiest day of fall.

She was having leftovers for dinner, namely a butternut squash and red pepper soup. I liked the idea of combining those two flavors. Thinking of a soup I posted a while back, I decided to include a bit of apple for sweetness... and, of course, red onion. I tend to include red onion now whenever I roast butternut squash. I love how it sweetens up and chars just a bit, mellowing its bite so that it melds more fluidly with the squash without overpowering it.

Believing that both the red pepper and red onion would work to ground the soup, and the apple would impart a lighter note, I wondered how a jalapeño pepper might contribute. Seeded and cored I knew it wouldn't be too hot. And, once roasted, would likely give the soup a subtle, smoky undertone of flavor.

Everything gets tossed onto a sheet pan, drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper and popped into the oven to roast for 20 to 25 minutes. I'll admit here that I accidentally grabbed a bottle of balsamic vinegar instead of olive oil and drizzled about a tablespoon of it over the veggies before I realized my error. Though I don't think you can pinpoint this flavor in the soup, I think it's a mistake I'll make again... not wanting to mess with a good thing. I also sequestered the chopped jalapeño off to one corner of the sheet pan, not fully committed to using it. However, about half way through roasting I knew it would make the cut. Given the amazing aroma it was adding to the mix, there was no denying the flavor it would provide.

The greatest thing is everything comes together in minutes... especially since I bought a container of pre-diced fresh squash. After a quick chop and roast, it's virtually done.

Once out of the oven, the whole lot gets dropped into a food processor, along with two or three cups of vegetable broth to help get it all broken down. Then, once fully puréed, you just transfer it to a large pot set over medium heat, add the remaining broth, and warm it through.

Wanting just a little extra something, I added a good teaspoon of curry powder into the soup. This last little addition is what put it over the top for me. It gave it just the right sweet-savory balance... with an added little kick of warmth. Not a wallop, just a good little pop that gets your attention in the nicest of ways. Then some toasted pepitas sprinkled over top add a perfect little nutty crunch.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Baked Taquitos filled with Baby Red Potatoes and Caramelized Onions... Topped with Tomato-Avocado-Cilantro Salsa

There's absolutely no hiding the fact that a quick dip in a vat of hot oil does something sinfully good to a host of different foods. Think classic French fries, beignets, fried chicken, tempura. These are all super tasty treats and, if not for concerns of heart or heft, foods I'd gladly partake in... and, often. Truth be told, if there were no consequences whatsoever, I'd probably deep fry my morning oatmeal. However, being one that profiles more along the lines of a well-seasoned actuary than a throw-it-all-to-the-wind daredevil, deep frying rarely occurs in our kitchen.

Having said all that, I do believe in moderation... and happily enjoyed a version of these taquitos on one of our most recent Bay Area excursions. Though our little San Francisco treat was no doubt deep fried, the version I made is baked and... surprisingly... delivers enough crispy character that there is little nostalgia for the taquito from which they were conceived. Unlike more traditional taquitos, filled with pulled pork, beef, or chicken, these little rolls are filled with a sweet caramelized onion and some well-seasoned baby red potatoes, a perfect pairing for the fresh and tangy salsa that gets scooped over top.

While they'd be equally good paired with a side of spiced up black beans, or lime- and cilantro-seasoned brown rice, we opted for a a lighter, fresh jicama-orange-cilantro slaw, drizzled with some freshly squeezed lime juice and a good little dash of salt, ground paprika and chili powder.
(Sorry... pic taken prior to the last of these dashes:)

Topped with a fresh and zesty, lime-drizzled salsa of tomato, avocado and cilantro, and a generous sprinkle of cotija cheese, these taquitos are as tasty and enjoyable to consume as if they were pulled from the guilt-inducing depths of a hot fryer. Yet baked with just three or four tablespoons of olive oil (brushed over 10 taquitos) makes them a treat with little to no consequence... unless, of course, you consume the entire platter yourself.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Roasted Tomato, Parsnip and Basil Soup... with Gruyére Cheese Toasts

It's hard to beat a great tomato soup served along with some crisp rustic bread slathered with melted cheese. It's just a comfy, soothing combination... like a great book and a toasty fire; each can be enjoyed on its own, but put together they become kind of magical.

And, surprisingly, making tomato soup from fresh tomatoes in the thick of Fall is kind of a perfect way to eat the less-than-spectacular bounty of tomatoes in markets this time of year. While sweet, sun-ripened, straight-off-the-vine tomatoes are about as good as it gets, they are truly not required to produce a tasty tomato soup. Ho-hum tomatoes can make a Cinderella-like transformation with little to no effort... and just a little time.

Seemingly tasteless plum tomatoes drizzled with just a touch of olive oil and a good sprinkling of salt and pepper turn into such delicious little bites that it's hard not to eat them straight from the sheet pan. They're great in soups... and also great in pastas, sandwiches, and salads.

This soup is simply a combination of slow roasted tomatoes and roasted parsnips, blended up with a little fresh basil and vegetable broth. It's a great way to "cream up" a fresh tomato soup without adding any dairy. The parsnips offer a sweet, mellow balance to the tartness of the tomatoes and also serve as a bit of a thickening agent. And, like the roasted tomatoes, are hard to resist straight out of the oven. (Truly, you can cut these like fries and serve them up with a little ketchup... or on their own... they are so good.)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Lemony Roasted Broccoli with Toasted Pine Nuts, Fresh Basil, Red Onions, and Parmesan Cheese

Growing up I would say I liked vegetables just about as much as the next kid. And, like most, had several on a short list of ones that I would have done just about anything to avoid eating. Though I have openly admitted my youthful disdain for brussel sprouts, I'd say that broccoli was a very close second.

As I recall, this particular veggie came sealed in a plastic bag and was pulled from the vast depths of a freezer that was often in dire need of a good defrosting. Given the fact that microwaves were all the rage at the time, our veggie side could magically transform from a colorful block of ice to a dinnertime side dish in just a few short minutes. Popped into a dish, slapped with a pat of butter and a few shakes of salt and pepper and we were good to go... all components of the food pyramid rightly accounted for.

It wasn't until much later that I realized just how much better fresh broccoli tasted and, just as important, that I liked my veggies to retain a whole lot more of their original character than a zap in a micro or a long soak in a hot bath or steam could possibly produce. And, surprisingly, time didn't have to be compromised. After a quick blanching... two to three minutes tops... these brilliantly green florets can be drained, dressed, and delivered in a dash of time.

And, then, as if it couldn't get any easier or better, I discovered roasting...

Cauliflower florets drizzled with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, pepper and parmesan cheese... crazy good. Parsnips... red onions... sweet potatoes... tomatoes... you name it... awesome. There is just something magical that happens to veggies when they are roasted and so little is required to achieve success: a good dicing, a little olive oil, some seasoning, and voilá. Pungent flavors, bitter notes, strong odors... whatever the malady... roasting just seems to mellow, sweeten and beautifully transform veggies into a better form of themselves.

While it doesn't take much to make roasted veggies pop, I was particularly taken by this little recipe from Ina Garten. I've only slightly tweaked it -- as I made it the first time out from just what I could recall her doing. It's just a basic little roast but it's got this genius bit of topping that you mix into your veggies once they've come out of the oven.

Super good, super easy... a little bit more dressed up... and definitely tasty enough for even the most critical of critics.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Simplest Lentil Soup

This soup has been in our family for nearly 25 years, give or take a few, and happens to be one of "our" favorites. Given that it's basically legumes and water it may seem like a bit of a stretch to offer it up as a bona fide "recipe." However, because it is so representative of just how good something so incredibly simple can be, it deserves a nod.

We distinguish this lentil soup from others I make by simply referring to it as "lentejas," which I suppose is apropos given that this is basically a meal of lentils. Unlike another favorite lentil soup I make that is far more hearty and rich in flavor, this soup is especially unassuming in its simplicity. Though I make it throughout the fall and winter, I'd say it is particularly nice as a transitional soup; one that welcomes you into fall and the onset of cooler temps and crimson leaves... with a gentle nudge.

Having said all that I have to confess that I mentioned this soup to our eldest... as part of our usual check-in on how the day went/what's for dinner routine... and she said it wasn't her favorite. Huh? Not a favorite? That's okay. I'm not sure I can say that everything I enjoy eating is my "favorite" but I still wouldn't toss them aside with nary a second look. So... while respecting her opinion (she loves the aforementioned soup), I'm posting it anyway as a mother's prerogative. It's super fresh, nutrient-rich, easy to make, and just about as cost effective a meal you can imagine... so it's a great option to have in your repertoire.

It features brown lentils, which are a bit firmer than their lentil brethren so they hold up nicely as the key player here, retaining their shape and substance. These lentils have a uniquely subtle, mild earthy flavor. I happen to love them, which I have to admit is somewhat critical to appreciating this soup. The simplicity of flavor offered by the brown lentil contrasts nicely with the more gently robust, herb-y and acidic notes of the onion, garlic, cilantro, and tomatoes that make up the balance of the stock. A bay leaf tucked into the soup as it simmers, along with a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper is all that is needed to make this less-than-glamorous but highly nutritious legume really shine.

Given the protein-packed richness of the brown lentil, this soup is a great option as a meatless, vegan-friendly meal. We, however, often pair our bowls of soup with some warmed tortillas dotted with fresh cotija cheese. You can also tuck in a few sprigs of fresh cilantro if you like. All in all, it's a super simple, fresh, and satisfying cooler-weather kind of soup/nudge (...nudge).

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bucatini with Fresh Broccolini, Tomatoes, Turkey Bacon... and a Poached Egg

Who knew what an egg could do?

I'll preface this query with the disclaimer that I'm infinitely aware that there are far more important questions to pose and discoveries to be made. However, this egg on this pasta is a nice little place to start before venturing on to greater pastures.

I'm not really a poached egg sort of girl. I do like eggs in moderation, but prefer an over-easy egg to a poached. The egg white is a bit firmer and then, of course, there's the added benefit a bit of butter infuses. Served on a slice of toasted fresh grain bread, then topped with a good sprinkle of salt and pepper and that runny yolk does great things. Throw eggs together to make a frittada, or whip them up into a scramble with some onions, peppers and such... yum. But poached? Not so much.

I know a lot of people that love Eggs Benedict and scout out all the great brunch locales that deliver on this particular culinary treat. I am not one. I'll have the Huevos Rancheros instead, thank you.

Then we took a trip to the Napa Valley wine country recently which included visits to several of the great restaurants that area has to offer. On one particular night out we asked for a "go to" suggestion for our primo piatto and a version of what has become this little pasta was recommended. Throwing caution to the wind, we ordered it... poached egg and all.

While topping pasta with a poached egg is not new, I had never tried it and was completely unprepared for the absolute party it brought to not only the flavor of the dish but to the consistency. It beautifully enriches and enhances the sauce, melding perfectly with the tomato- and parmesan-flavored base that would certainly be great on its own but is much more interesting and inviting with the addition of that little egg. Once the poached egg melds into this dish you really don't know it ever existed. And that's the beauty of it. While it diffuses into the background, its presence is absolutely paramount to the flavor and richness of the pasta. It's also much more fun from a presentation perspective than, say, incorporating a couple of egg yolks directly into the sauce would be.

Though our Napa version of this pasta had guanciale in it, we didn't realize this until after we delved in. Guanciale is kind of the "king of bacon," noted for its leaner quality and rich flavor. It wasn't overly present in the dish we had but I knew that it provided a layer of flavor that really shouldn't be overlooked. The issue is that we don't really eat meat. I do, however, have a thing for turkey bacon. I use it in various dishes and just kind of figure it's an occasional splurge in our mostly vegetarian-pescatarian leaning that works for us. While real meat lovers may want to go with guanciale, I felt that the turkey bacon provided enough of the same flavor profile to keep us happy.

Also, our Napa version incorporated a parmesan brono (or broth). I simply popped a good chunk of parmesan rind down into the tomato base and let it simmer away, breaking down and releasing its great salty-cheesey bite. Some pasta water and a good little pop of black pepper also helps to get things sauced up and flavored right. Once plated, add a sprinkle of freshly grated parmesan cheese, if you like, and lay that little poached egg on top. It makes a great presentation. Each person can then crack open their own egg and let it run through their pasta, making sure it gets fully incorporated. Like magic, that little poached morsel virtually vanishes. Only you...and the egg...will ever truly know it was there.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

French Meringues with Chantilly Cream and Fresh Strawberries

I tried my first French meringue at a tiny little shop set in an outdoor strip mall near our family home in Southern California when I was about 12 years of age. Anchored by a large Sears Roebuck's and set amid a smattering of even less glamorous establishments, a Parisian patisserie it was not. And yet, it was just as enchanting and charming to my pre-tween palate and perspective as if it had been.

Though I can't recall the name of the shop, it was owned and operated by a woman of European heritage, the mother of a school friend. To this day, I believe she made the best meringues I've ever had... billowing clouds of crisp meringue, generously filled with a light, slightly sweet and completely ethereal whipped cream that was then covered with a cascade of fresh, sliced strawberries. They were heavenly.

Given this nostalgic imprint, you'd think that meringues
would be a staple in my little dessert arsenal... but no. It really wasn't until just recently at a friend's dinner that I remembered just how much I loved those meringues. At the end of our dinner, five of us shared a large piece of Boccone Dolce cake... a tower of beautiful meringue layers separated by sweet Chantilly cream and fresh strawberries; the whole thing drizzled with ribbons of dark chocolate. It was heavenly.

And so, when it came time to think of a dessert appropriate for a birthday dinner I was hosting, I immediately thought of meringues... single little pillows of crisp French meringue filled just like the ones I'd had as a young girl.

Meringues are a very easy (and surprisingly light) dessert. They are basically just egg whites and sugar. Not complicated. There are really just two things that you absolutely want to make sure you do... get as much volume in your egg whites as you can, and bake them to a crisp without browning or cracking them. And the only real culprit to impeding either of those two efforts is moisture! So, a drippy (or humid) day is not the day to make meringues.

Most everything you read says to make meringues on a sunny, dry day. However, given the fact that it has been raining here, nearly nonstop, for months (!&?##!!), I settled for a dry and gray day where the clouds hovered high and serene, letting in more light and promise than we've come to expect lately. Not a heavenly day (for meringues at least), but good enough.

The trick is to bake meringues slow and low. Then, let them sit... and sit. There are so many variations on the best way to bake meringues, some that suggest baking for long hours and resting them in the oven overnight, to others that suggest a quick hour of baking and another hour of rest.

After reviewing a few recipes, I ended up melding the recipes of Ina Garten and David Lebowitz. I like the addition of cream of tartar (as recommended by Ina) because it works as a stabilizer in whipping whites, helping to add volume. It also keeps sugar from crystallizing so your meringue will be smooth and silky. And, I like the idea of using some confectioner's sugar (as David recommends) as it takes little or no time to break down. You don't want sugar granules remaining in your whipped egg whites (undissolved sugar attracts moisture).

The resulting meringues turn out extraordinarily light and crisp, brilliantly white, and demurely sweet. The Chantilly cream is a perfect filler for these little pillows, equally light and ethereal, and beautifully flavored with a blanket of fresh strawberries that have just a hint of sweet-tart flavor. Heavenly!

Friday, February 25, 2011

White Corn, Potato, Leek & Turkey Bacon Chowder with Jalapeño-Cilantro Pesto

Instead of getting to our taxes I'm sharing this little soup with you. Not entirely a wise choice but infinitely more appetizing.

I think I've become a bit of a soup snob. Though I've never hidden my penchant for soups, I rarely order them in restaurants unless they come served with amazing accolades. I've been disappointed so many times, pushing aside a too-thick, flour-laden, tasteless chowder, or a watery bowl of broth with nary a vegetable in sight. When I do come across a soup that makes a distinct impression, however, I am a loyal follower and an avid consumer (you may recall this one.)

Many times I spy something in a cookbook or magazine that sounds exceptionally good. Though I might tweak it a bit to our own liking, the "bones" of the recipe remain intact. Or... I completely go off on my own tangent... slicing, dicing, mixing, and simmering until it tastes like what I'm after.

This particular soup is more of the tangent-variety. It came about in the middle of the produce section at the market, after realizing that I had once again left my detailed list at home. Scanning the selection of produce, I remembered a corn and potato chowder that was featured on a cooking show I'd seen. So, yes, I guess I initially "spied" it, but it veered dramatically from that initial thought. That particular recipe called for both flour and cream, neither of which I wanted to use and both of which are fairly common in chowders (and the reason I steer clear). I do, however, like the thought of a chowder... its chunky, hearty, warm-you-to-the-bones nature. I figured a good pop of potatoes would release enough starch to give this soup the oomph it needed to qualify as a "chowder" and deliver that characteristic comforting satisfaction.

The other part of pulling this chowder together was coming up with something that would give it a fresh pop... chowders can be a little boring without a little pop of heat or freshness (just my opinion).

I immediately thought of jalapeños, thinking I could mince them up and cook them along with some onion, or such, to get the base started. Then I spied cilantro... and the whole picture came together.

In reality, I only looked lost and forlorn in the produce section for maybe two minutes...

And the good news is that the chowder turned out great. It was just thick enough to adequately be called a chowder -- tasty with a start of sautéed leeks and turkey bacon to get the broth going; satisfying with generous bites of diced potatoes that are cooked through just until they have that perfect toothy goodness without getting overly mushy; and nicely balanced in texture with a subtle crunch of white corn.

Then... there's the pesto. A dollop atop a steaming bowl of this chowder melts and melds into the broth giving each spoonful a perfect little pop of fresh, zesty flavor.

I can now only hope our taxes come together with the same ease and satisfaction.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Black Bean, Brown Rice, Roasted Butternut Squash and Kale Green Chile Enchiladas with Cumin-Lime Yogurt Crema

Tick-tock. Tick-tock. It was early December and then... in the blink of an eye... it was no longer.

Both Claus and Cupid have come and gone, and with them a whirlwind of activity... much of the reason why time has stood so still in this little space.

The other is the simple fact that I've gathered much of what I need to complete the project for which this space was created and my attention has waned. Blogging is a business for many... adeptly and creatively accomplished by a large number of folks. For me, it's simply been a great deal of fun. And now, with the objective of my efforts coming to fruition, my visits have definitely ebbed.

For now, however, it seems only obvious that one needs to share when that which is cheesey, creamy, flavorful, healthy, easy, satisfying, and comforting... is found.

And so... I offer up these enchiladas. They happen to be my new favorite (enchilada, that is). And... they include my new favorite crush food... kale -- the perfect "super" food in every sense of the word. Not only is it great for you, it works well in so many dishes.

The inspiration for these enchiladas was a rice and veggie dish we had several months ago at one of our favorite brew pubs. The doggie bag leftovers from that night went into enchiladas the next night... and a new dish was born.

The great thing about this little concoction is that you can go in any number of different directions and it would be just as good. Roasted mixed veggies instead of roasted butternut squash. Delicata squash if you want it a bit sweeter. Quinoa instead of brown rice. Kidney beans instead of black. You get the drift.

And, like so many dishes I like to make, this one has great morphing capabilities. The filling is so good on its very own... a la brewpub variety... for a great vegan option. And, I'm thinking it could even be processed with a few other binding ingredients for a great veggie burger.