Saturday, March 16, 2019

Creamy Polenta with a Ragû of Italian Sausage & Mushroom…Dinner from Leftovers…and a New Home (....and an Anniversary)

Nine years ago today I started writing a blog. Every year…to mark the date…I have posted a special recipe that includes pistachios.  There is nothing significant about pistachios—other than that I love them…and that I posted a cake featuring them on the first anniversary.  These pistachio recipes have just been a fun way for me to mark the passing of the years.

On this anniversary I don’t have a pistachio recipe.  In fact, I don’t really have a normal blog post.  Three days ago I moved.  I imagine what I am experiencing is pretty normal…but I haven’t moved in almost 30 years and my life is in a bit of an uproar at the moment.  As I have looked for a home and planned for my move I tried to maintain posts to my blog.  But as anyone who has moved (I think that’s everyone!) knows, the chaos peaks with the move and doesn’t really dissipate too much once you are officially residing in the new place.  I hope in the weeks to come that I will be able to post at my normal pace of at least three posts a month…but please know if there isn’t much, I’m not quitting…just busy.  In time I hope to return to my normal pace…or maybe even increase the number of posts I am able to write.

I have been surprised at how difficult it has been to get my bearings in my new kitchen—I cook in other people’s kitchens for a living, so I assumed cooking in my own new kitchen wouldn’t be that difficult.  But somehow it isn’t as easy as I had anticipated.  A lot of my equipment is still packed—and the amount of time I have to spend preparing a meal isn’t that great.  On my first evening, my mother and nephew stopped by.  I decided to make Fettuccine Alfredo for all of us.  When I was ready to put it on the plates I realized I had no silverware!  Dinner service came to grinding halt while I searched for the box and then plowed through it hunting for some forks.

But I have been determined to not succumb to takeout.  So for my first post from my new kitchen (and on the ninth anniversary of my blog) I thought I would share what I have made for my own table for the last three evenings. I think it might be encouraging for anyone experiencing a particularly busy moment in their lives.  My meals have been simple...but delicious.  It is not surprising that on my first night (after the Fettuccine) I made a meal that was almost entirely from my pantry…and I followed two nights in a row with leftovers from that meal. (I love leftovers—they are “prepared food” of the absolute best kind.)

I have actually wanted to post the recipe for my pantry dinner of Creamy Polenta with a Ragû of Italian Sausage and Mushrooms for a long time.  I make it often.  I have never posted it because I make it differently every single time—always according to what I have on hand.  So rather than make up a recipe to type out in the traditional way, I’ll just explain what I do so you will be free to improvise according to what you have on hand too.

To begin, make the polenta.  I have already posted my basic recipe.  You can make any amount you like according to the number of people you are serving.  I think 3 or 4 tablespoons of dry polenta is more than enough for one person.  I always make a little extra so I can spread it out, chill it, and then have the makings of a meal that uses firm polenta (directions are on that same post).  For this dish I like to add a couple of ounces (2/3 cup) of finely grated Parmesan to the basic recipe.

While the polenta cooks, you will have plenty of time to make the ragû (or do other things if you are busy!).  I usually make enough ragû for two (but again, the recipe can be multiplied).  I start by browning a link of Italian sausage (4 to 5 oz.).  Sometimes I brown the link and then slice it.  Sometimes I cut the casing off and crumble the sausage and brown it.  You can sauté the mushrooms (4 to 6 oz. for two—I almost always have crimini on hand) in the pan after the sausage…or in a separate pan—your choice.  Follow the instructions on my basics post for sautéing mushrooms.  You can quarter them or slice them, as you prefer.  If you like, deglaze the mushrooms with a splash of white wine.

If you have some of your own marinara sauce (in the freezer...or canned), bring a cup (or a bit more, if you like a lot of sauce) to a simmer.  Add the sausage and mushrooms and heat through.   In recent years I haven’t been as good about making my own tomato sauce at the end of the growing season.  But canned tomatoes make an excellent sauce.  You can use your own favorite recipe—or the one in the notes at the end of this baked pasta. Sometimes I use just onion—sometimes just garlic.  If you like, you may add some dried oregano…or minced fresh thyme or rosemary.  You may finish the sauce with minced flat leaf parsley.  I imagine basil would be delicious, but I almost never use fresh basil in the winter (which is when I usually make this dish).

This year I froze tomatoes whole and have been thawing them as I need them to make quick sauces.  I think it is one of the best things I have learned how to do recently.  You can thaw exactly what you need.  Just set the quantity of tomatoes you need in a shallow bowl on the counter (or in the microwave) to thaw.  As they thaw, they will exude tons of liquid.  Don’t throw this away—it is delicious and tomato-y (even though it looks like water).  When the tomatoes are thawed, the skin will pull away.  Discard the skins.  Pour the liquid into a container.  Roughly chop the flesh and add to the liquid.  Use this just as you would the canned tomatoes.  A pound of tomatoes (or a 14 oz. can) will make about a cup of sauce.

To serve, place a big spoonful of polenta on each plate.  Make a well in the center and spoon in the ragû, allowing it to overflow.  Shave some Parmesan over if you like, and serve.

Even though I am only cooking for one now, I went ahead and made enough ragû to feed two.  This gave me a head start on my meal the next evening.  Taking my cue from that baked pasta I mentioned above, I tossed the remaining half of the ragû with 3 oz. of penne (cooked very al dente).  I then folded in a generous third cup of coarsely grated Fontina (about 1 1/2 oz.).  Low-moisture Mozzarella would have been good too…I just happened to have some Fontina on hand.  I discovered at this point that I didn’t have any of my regular baking dishes unpacked….  

So I spooned the pasta into a small oven-proof sauté pan, blobbed some ricotta over the surface (maybe 2 oz.) and scattered some finely grated Pecorino over all.  I baked it in a 375° oven until it was hot and bubbly (about 20 minutes).  I would have run it under the broiler to brown it a bit, but I couldn’t figure out how to get my new broiler to work…and I was hungry….

For my second meal of leftovers I cooked the firm polenta as described in the post referenced above that includes the master recipe for soft polenta.  I smeared it with ricotta as described in that post.  To top it I sautéed the rest of my package of crimini mushrooms (just under 4 ounces).  When the mushrooms were done I added a bit more oil, reduced the heat and added a minced green onion.  A little garlic…or some shallot would have been good too.  After about a minute I added a couple of handfuls (about 2 oz.) of very roughly chopped spinach (from this morning’s farmers’ market) and cooked it until it was just wilted.   About the time I added the green onions to the pan I started an egg.  Follow the instructions on this post, covering the pan for the look I got.  If you leave the pan uncovered, your egg will look like the ones in that original post.  Either way is fine.  Place the mushroom and spinach mixture over the ricotta-topped polenta and then top with the egg.


I hope this post will inspire people to feel free to cook without a specific recipe (using basic concepts and techniques instead)…and to cook when they don’t think they have the time.  I know this isn’t always possible…and there is absolutely nothing wrong with take-out—or eating out—when life has become overwhelmingly busy.  But somehow making the effort to feed myself from my own kitchen…and then sit down to enjoy it at my own table…made me feel less frazzled.  Frankly, just writing this post has made life feel a bit more normal….

Hopefully I will be able to keep up a schedule of three or four posts per month, but even if my posts become few and far between for the next few months, I hope regular readers will check back in occasionally to find out what I’m up to.  I can’t wait to put my new kitchen through its paces!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Winter Pasta Salad with Roast Chicken, Carrots & Carrot Top Pesto

Occasionally, in the depths of winter, I teach a salad class.  I know that salad is more of a spring or summer topic, but I find that in the winter—despite the fact that we generally want hearty braises, soups, stews and casseroles—there is a genuine craving for things that are fresh and raw.  A salad is the obvious way to satisfy this craving and there are a surprising number of winter ingredients that can easily fill this niche:  kale, chicories (Belgian endive, frisée, radicchio, and escarole), grated/julienned root vegetables (like carrots, celeriac and beets), cabbages of all kinds…as well as apples, pears and the wide variety of citrus fruits that flood the market every winter.  The aim of the class is to encourage people to think about ways to create fresh, seasonal, winter salads.

But of course “salads” can also be hearty and filling.  I think of roasted vegetable platters, grain salads, barely wilted greens that are doused in vinegar to give them a salad like feel, shell bean salads and pasta salads.  Like salads in general, the latter category is also something that comes to mind mostly in relation to summer.  But a bowl of room temperature pasta, tossed with a savory dressing and roasted or blanched winter vegetables, can be every bit as much of a salad as the summer versions.

For years I taught a pasta salad that included a walnut-parsley pesto and roasted carrots and cauliflower.  It was a fine dish…but it was best when freshly made.  The roasted cauliflower didn’t really hold very well in the fridge.  I really wanted the pasta salad that I did for the class to be one that could hold overnight (or even longer) in the fridge.  So this year, as I was getting ready to teach the class, I decided to look around at what other cooks and chefs were creating with pasta and pesto during the winter months. 

Although I was looking for pesto, I was intrigued by and stopped to take a more in depth look at Deb Perelman’s Pasta salad with roasted carrots and sunflower seed dressing.  I discovered that the sunflower seed dressing was actually a carrot-top pesto!  Since my salad already included carrots, I thought this was perfect.  For my improved winter pasta salad, I jettisoned the roasted cauliflower in my old recipe in favor of shredded roast chicken and decided to use the carrot top pesto that I make with pistachios instead of Perelman’s sunflower seed version. 

I loved the way this salad turned out.  It is balanced and savory…and satisfying without making you feel stuffed (or like you need a long winter’s nap).  Best of all, like all good pasta salads, it is even better the next day.

Winter Pasta Salad with Roasted Chicken, Carrots & Carrot Top Pesto

Carrot Top Pesto:
2 c. (2 oz.) lightly packed carrot tops (Before measuring the carrot tops, trim the feathery fronds away from the thick, ropey stems.  Discard the stems and use the tops only.)
a handful (1 oz.) of arugula
1/2 c. shelled pistachios, lightly toasted
1/2 to 3/4 t. kosher salt
1 large clove of garlic, peeled and smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
2/3 c. olive more if needed to get preferred consistency
1/3 c. (1 oz.) finely grated Parmesan

Place the carrot tops, arugula, pistachios, garlic and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in the food processor and process until everything is finely and uniformly chopped.  With the machine running, drizzle in the olive oil.  Scrape down the sides.  Add the Parmesan and pulse to combine.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and lemon juice if necessary.  If the pesto seems too tight, drizzle in a bit more oil.  Store in the refrigerator in a jar with a tight fitting lid and filmed with oil.  Makes 1 1/4 cups pesto.  

1 large (about 12 oz.) split chicken breast
olive oil
Salt & Pepper to taste
2 lb. carrots, topped, tailed and peeled
3/4 lb. gemelli or penne pasta
3/4 c. (200g.) carrot top pesto (about 2/3 of the recipe)
1 T. lemon juice (or to taste)
2 handfuls (about 2 oz.) arugula
Grated Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 475°.

Rub the chicken with a light coating of olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper.  Place the chicken in a baking dish and place in the  oven, roasting until the skin is crisp and golden and an instant read thermometer inserted in the thickest portion reads 150° to 155°—about 25 to 30 minutes.  Remove the chicken from the oven and let sit until cool enough to handle.  Deglaze the baking pan with a couple of tablespoons of water.  Set aside.  When the chicken has cooled, remove the skin and bones and discard.  Shred the meat into long strips about 1/2-inch wide.  You should have about 2 cups shredded chicken.

If you can find them, tri-color carrots are beautiful in this dish.
If carrots are fatter than 3/4-inch in diameter, halve or quarter lengthwise.  Cut the carrots in scant 1/2-inch slices on a diagonal (so that they are roughly the length of the pasta).  Place the carrots in a large bowl.  Season to taste with salt & pepper.  Add enough olive oil to lightly coat the carrots (about 2 T.).  Toss to coat, and spread on a rimmed baking sheet.  Roast in a 475° oven until tender and caramelized/charred in spots, stirring once—about 20 minutes.  Set the vegetables aside until ready to assemble the salad.

Cook the pasta in 6 quarts of rapidly boiling water seasoned with 2 T. salt.  Stir occasionally and cook until the pasta is just al dente.  Drain, reserving some of the pasta cooking water.  Spread the pasta on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with a tablespoon or so of olive oil.  Set aside until ready to assemble the salad.

To assemble the salad, place the carrots, chicken and pasta in a large bowl.  Toss to combine.  Place the pesto in a small bowl and thin with 3 or 4 T. of the chicken pan deglazings and pasta water.  Pour over the pasta salad and toss the pasta salad until all the ingredients are evenly dressed with the pesto sauce.  

If the pasta salad seems "tight" add more pasta water or olive oil.  Taste and correct the seasoning with the lemon juice, salt, pepper or more pesto.  Add the arugula and toss again.  Serve at room temperature, garnished with Parmesan.

Serves 4 to 6.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Hazelnut Financier with Glossy Chocolate Frosting (and optional sautéed pears)

A couple of posts ago I mentioned a series of classes I have been teaching called “Inspired Cooking by the Book.”  In addition to obviously seasonal recipes (during the winter, recipes that include brassicas—broccoli, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, kale, turnips, etc.—as well as root and other storage vegetables and citrus fruits of all kinds), I always like to include a dessert (classes that end with dessert are always a good idea).  The dessert could of course be something with apples or pears.  But these would most likely show up in the autumn version of the class. During the winter I like to turn to chocolate and nuts for the dessert course.

For the most recent version of the class I decided to teach the Hazelnut Financier that appears in Suzanne Goin’s Sunday Suppers at Lucques.  She loves this cake so much that it was the cake she chose to have made for her wedding.  I think that’s a pretty strong recommendation for a cake.  But really, what’s not to love about a cake made with toasted hazelnuts and browned butter?  It seemed like a slam dunk addition to the class, so as the class approached I focused on the other recipes.  I have been making financiers for years and knew that I would only need to make the cake once to make sure there weren’t any typos or errors in the recipe (because all cookbooks…even really good ones…have recipes with typos….). 

During this same time period I noticed that a cookbook group I am a member of on Facebook was cooking through Sunday Suppers at Lucques.  I don’t have as much time as I would like to participate in this group, but I try to keep an eye on the activities.  It’s a great way to hear about new cookbooks and learn from the experiences of other cooks.  Several people were making the cake I had chosen for my class.  I noticed one version in particular because they had covered the cake with chocolate ganache instead of serving it plain with sautéed pears (as in the book).  

In reading the post, I discovered two things:  First, Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen had made this cake and had been the one to come up with the idea of the chocolate ganache (a fantastic idea, I think).  And second, this cake—which is called a “Hazelnut Browned Butter Cake” (not a Hazelnut Financier) in the book—was not made like a traditional Financier at all.  This was a surprise to me.  I had looked at the ingredient list and assumed the method….

For those who have never made a Financier, you should check out my post from a few years ago for a Rhubarb Financier.  The mixing method could hardly be easier:  Simply combine the dry ingredients…then whisk in the egg whites followed by the browned butter.  The cake in Goin’s book was mixed in an entirely different way:  First, you whip the whites with the sugar to stiff peaks and then you fold in the nut flour/flour mix and the browned butter in alternating additions. 

I was intrigued and a bit put out when I discovered this.  Intrigued because I wanted to know how the cake would be different.  Put out because I was running out of time before my class and would possibly need to make the cake more than once.  (But since this would just mean that I got to eat more cake, I wasn’t too upset.) 

After making the cake both ways, I decided to teach it with the traditional Financier method.  I did this mostly because I really like the texture of a Financier.  Financiers have a dense crumb—in a pleasant, pound cake-like way.  This is the perfect texture if you are making and serving this cake in a single layer—whether you are serving it plain or with chocolate frosting or sautéed pears. 

As for the method from Goin’s book, if you are making the cake to serve as a layer cake (as Goin would have for her wedding) her altered method would probably work well.  The resulting cake should be much lighter. But be warned: the altered method is for an adept baker.  The volume of fat that is folded into the whites is unusually high.  If you are not experienced at whipping whites…and folding heavy ingredients into said whites…you can end up with a fallen/sunken cake.  Several of the versions of this cake I have seen on line have a distinctly sunken look about them.  Furthermore, I know from experience how touchy the batter is.  I got a phone call while I was mixing the cake.  I thought it was an emergency (I wouldn’t have picked up the phone as I was starting to fold things into my whites if I hadn’t thought it was an emergency).  When I discovered it wasn’t an emergency I couldn’t convince the person on the other end that I really needed to get off the phone.  Meanwhile…my whites were losing volume under the weight of the half folded dry ingredients and butter.  I knew the cake was a loss.  But I could tell from the way it behaved around the edges that the method would have produced a nice cake layer if I had been able to prepare it properly.

So I ended up with the cake I had imagined from the start:  a delicious, dense, buttery, hazelnut-y Financier.  But I picked up a great idea for the garnish:  chocolate.  I decided to frost mine with a glossy chocolate frosting that I discovered while searching for a deep chocolate frosting that wouldn’t get as firm as ganache.  I think it is just perfect.  But since I was testing a specific recipe that included sautéed pears, I made those too…and you can do the same if you like.  This is basically a cake that can be served three ways:  plain (for a snack with coffee or tea), frosted with chocolate (for a simple dessert), or with sautéed pears (cake frosted or not…as you please) for a nice dinner party. 

Hazelnut Financier

5 oz. (143 g./1 heaping cup) blanched/skinned hazelnuts
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 t. vanilla
180 g. (1 1/2 cup) powdered sugar
40 g. (1/3 cup) all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
6 egg whites (180 grams)—beaten until foamy

Spread the hazelnuts on a baking sheet and toast in a 350° oven until light golden brown and fragrant—about 12 to 15 minutes. Cool and using a nut grinder, grind the nuts to a flour. (You may use 5 oz. of purchased hazelnut flour if you prefer.)

Meanwhile, place the butter in a small saucepan set over medium heat. As the butter begins to sputter and pop, whisk occasionally. The butter solids will begin to turn brown. When the solids are a golden brown and the butter has a pleasantly nutty aroma, scrape the butter (making sure to get all the browned bits) to another container to stop the cooking process (you should have 180 g. browned butter).  Whisk in the vanilla extract.

Place the ground hazelnuts, all-purpose flour, salt & powdered sugar in a medium sized bowl. Whisk to combine. Whisk in the egg whites. Drizzle in the warm browned butter and whisk until smooth.  Refrigerate the batter for at least an hour and preferably overnight. (This will allow any developed gluten to relax and will give the butter time to firm up.)

When ready to bake the cake, butter a 9-inch round cake pan.  Line the pan with a round of parchment and butter the parchment.   Scrape the batter into the pan and spread it into an even layer.  

Transfer the pan to a pre-heated 350° oven and bake until the cake is golden brown and beginning to pull away from the sides.  A toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean—about 40 minutes.  Cool the cake in the pan for 10 minutes before turning out onto a rack to cool completely.

The cake is delicious served with nothing more than a sprinkling of powdered sugar.  Suzanne Goin serves hers with sautéed pears and lightly sweetened whipped cream.  I like to smear the top with a glossy chocolate frosting (recipe below)…which gives a Nutella-like taste.

Glossy Chocolate Frosting

4 T. unsalted butter (2 oz.)
3/4 c. sugar (150 g.)
1/2 c. plus 2 T. unsweetened cocoa—natural or alkalized (2 oz.)
1/2 c. plus 2 T. heavy cream (145 g.)
2 T. sour cream (30 g.)
1 t. vanilla extract
Pinch of salt

Combine heavy cream and sour cream in a measuring cup, mixing until smooth.  Set aside.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Stir in the sugar and cocoa.  The mixture will be thick and grainy.  Gradually add the cream mixture, stirring until blended and smooth.

Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until sugar has dissolved and the mixture is smooth and hot to the touch. Do not boil.  Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla and salt.

Use warm as a sauce or a glaze, or let it cool and spread it like frosting (it will take about 3 hours at a cool room temperature.  Store the leftovers in a covered container in the fridge.  Reheat gently in a pan of simmering water, or in a microwave on low.

Makes 2 cups  (Recipe is easily doubled.)

(Recipe adapted from Cuisine at Home)

Sautéed Pears

1 lb. Bartlett Pears, peeled, cored and cut into a 1/2-inch dice
1 T. butter
1 T. granulated sugar

Heat a sauté pan that is large enough to hold the pears in a snug single layer over moderately high heat.  Add the butter.  When the foam subsides, add the pears.  Let them cook, tossing once or twice until they stop releasing moisture and begin to caramelize.  This might take a minute or two, but will depend on the ripeness of the pears.  Sprinkle the sugar over the pears and continue to cook, allowing the pears to caramelize in the butter and sugar until they are golden and tender…but not mushy.  Regulate the heat as necessary to maintain a good sizzle without letting the pears scorch.

Makes about a cup and a half of sautéed pears.  Recipe is easily doubled…just choose a larger pan…or cook in batches (rinsing and drying the pan between batches).

Printable Version

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Mocha Walnut Chocolate Chip Muffins

The chocolate-chocolate chip muffins that I'm posting today contain an unusual ingredient (for me at least):  Whole wheat flour.  As a kid this would have appalled me.  And to be honest—that kid’s sensibilities concerning sweet baked goods being sullied by “healthy” ingredients are still alive and well in my adult self.  I think only the good experiences I had had with Margaret Fox's Morning Food: from Café Beaujolais cookbook (and sentimental memories of a trip to Mendocino) could have induced me to try these muffins in the first place.   

For whatever reason, I did try them…and liked them.  I liked them well enough to make a note in the side bar of the cookbook that they were "very good."  Then, as has been the case with so many good recipes over the years, I forgot about them.  But a couple of weeks ago as I was getting ready for my class on grains…and I needed a fifth recipe—preferably something slightly sweet, or even dessert-like…I remembered them.  I thought they would be a perfect addition to the class.

In preparing for the class I altered the recipe quite a bit from the original.  For a start, I used white whole wheat flour.  I’m not sure that white whole wheat flour existed when I was growing up.   Made from a different kind of hard wheat (white, instead of red), it is still the whole grain and every bit as nutritious as the whole wheat made from hard red wheat that most of us in the States grew up with.  It is reputed to have a milder, sweeter flavor than red wheat.  The thing I like about it is that the bran is softer and much less obtrusive.  You can of course make these muffins with regular whole wheat flour, but any whole wheat haters at your table will pick up on the presence of the whole wheat in their muffin after one bite. 

The original recipe used vegetable oil.  In recent years I have been experimenting with using olive oil in place of vegetable oil in some of my baked goods.  Sometimes baked goods made with vegetable oil have a slightly oily texture.  With olive oil this doesn’t seem to be an issue.  The one difficulty is that olive oil has a strong flavor, so you have to be choosy about where you use it.  In general, I have found that baked goods that contain other strong flavors (spices, shredded fruits and vegetables, purées, chocolate, etc.)—or are sweetened with brown sugar or honey or molasses—are all good candidates for experimentation.  Since these muffins contain chocolate and brown sugar I thought olive oil would work well. 

One other significant change I made has to do with how I obtain the coffee flavor.  The original just used strong, brewed coffee for part of the liquid.  This produces a mild coffee flavor at best.  You get a much richer coffee punch if you use actual ground coffee.  If you use espresso pods at home, simply break one open and measure out what you need.  I have a burr coffee grinder which produces beautiful, finely ground coffee, so that’s what I use.  If you don’t have access to one of these methods, I would use instant espresso powder.  But in the end, if all you have access to is strong, brewed coffee, it is fine to use it.  Just substitute a third cup of coffee for a third cup of the yogurt.

I made a few other minor changes too.  I increased the sugar slightly (a chocolate muffin should be sweet, I think…).  I also used whole milk yogurt instead of buttermilk.  I always have yogurt on hand.  I have to make a special trip to the store to get buttermilk.  I’m guessing you could use buttermilk if that’s what you have.  I wouldn’t reduce the sugar.  I think these muffins have just the right amount of sweetness. 

Finally, I feel that I need to say that I no longer dislike whole wheat flour as a general rule.  I love whole grain yeast loaves.  And Irish brown soda bread is one of my very favorite things.  But even as an adult it would have been the chocolate and not the whole wheat that attracted me to these muffins.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the whole wheat adds (giving the muffins a substantial and satisfying feel) rather than detracts.  And this would be the reason that I wanted to remember them and make them again—because they were delicious…not because I thought they were good for me.  But for those who might be interested, these muffins do appear to be loaded with things that have been touted in recent years for their health benefits:  cocoa/dark chocolate, walnuts, olive oil, coffee, yogurt, eggs…and a whole grain.  Even with the inclusion of the refined brown sugar and white flour, I think these muffins definitely count as a win in the nutrition department.

But of course the persnickety eaters at your table don’t need to know all this. The picky child that I was would have been so disappointed to learn that something made of chocolate (and that looked like it was supposed to be cake) was also harboring whole wheat that I probably wouldn’t have tasted them.  And this would have been unfortunate, because I would have missed out.  My advice is: if you are serving these to a fussy eater, just tell them you’ve made chocolate-chocolate chip muffins.  You can wait until they’re reaching for their second or third before you give them the bad news that they’re “good for you.”

Mocha Walnut Chocolate Chip Muffins

120 g. (1 c.) all-purpose flour
130 g. (1 c. less 1 T.) white whole wheat flour
27 g. (1/3 c. sifted) Dutch-processed Cocoa
6 to 8 g. (1 T.) espresso-grind coffee—or use 1 t. instant espresso powder
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
150 g. (3/4 c.) packed light-brown sugar
2/3 c. (73 g.) walnuts, toasted and coarsely crumbled
2/3 c. (115 g.) semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 eggs
1/2 c. (105 g.) olive oil
1 c. (242 g.) whole milk plain yogurt
1 t. vanilla
Turbinado sugar (optional)

Sift the first 8 ingredients into a large bowl.  (There will be bits of bran that won’t go through the sifter.  Don’t discard this…just add it to the bowl.  The goal of sifting is to get rid of lumps and aerate the heavier dry ingredients.) Whisk to combine.  Stir in the chocolate chips and walnuts.  Set aside.

Crack the eggs into a medium bowl.  Whisk to break up.  Add the olive oil while whisking.  Whisk in the yogurt and vanilla.  Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients and fold in with a rubber spatula just until the dry ingredients are moistened.  Work quickly, making each stroke count so as not to over-mix. (Over-mixed muffins tend to be tough.)

Scoop the batter into foil-lined or greased muffin cups.  (I use an ice cream scoop.  If you have a standard muffin pan and use a twelfth of the batter in each—a rounded third cup/3 oz. of batter—the muffin cups will look too full.  Don’t worry; they bake up perfectly, with a nice, puffy, mounded “muffin top.”)  

If you want a little added sweetness and crunch, sprinkle with the Turbinado sugar.  Bake at 375° until puffed and springy to the touch in the center and a tooth pick inserted in the center comes out clean—about 18 to 20 minutes.  (Don’t over bake—this will make them dry.)  Remove to a rack to cool.

Makes 12

(Recipe adapted from Morning Food: from Cafe Beaujolais by Margaret S. Fox)


Monday, February 11, 2019

Celery Root & Wild Rice Chowder

For the past two or three years I have been teaching a series of classes called “Inspired Cooking by the Book.”  The idea of the series is to teach recipes culled from the cookbooks that tend to get the most use in my cookbook library: those that have been written by chefs or seasoned cooks and that are either organized by the season…or by ingredient.  

As regular readers know, I really do cook and eat seasonally.  No matter what the season, I shop for food in a produce-centric way, choosing what looks good at the moment (whether at the farmers’ market or grocery store) and then supplementing with meat, fish, eggs, cheese, grains/pastas/legumes, etc.  When I’m faced with the inevitable “what are we going to have for dinner?” question—and I come up blank—these kinds of cookbooks provide the perfect inspiration for cooking with what I already have in my fridge and pantry.
Sometimes I don’t change the original recipes at all for these classes.  And in some cases the original recipe is really nothing more than a spring board.  The title…or picture…or list of ingredients…appealed to me, but the actual recipe wasn’t what I wanted or expected, so I just create my own recipe using the things that inspired me about the original recipe.  In either case, the resulting recipes make for interesting classes of seasonal foods that provide some insight into the daily home cooking habits of a professional chef.  The classes have been immensely popular and I am currently in the middle of round 2 of the series.
In the winter installment of the series this second time around I included a recipe from Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors for Celery Root & Wild Rice Chowder.  I was attracted to the combination of celery root and wild rice (a fantastic, earthy, pairing).  And I was intrigued by the fact that she called this a “chowder.”  The origin of the term chowder is open to debate (generally thought to have something to do with the name of a cooking vessel), but with few exceptions, it refers to hearty seafood and/or fish soups.  The fact that these soups almost always include chunks of potato…and cream or milk (in which case they are generally thickened with a roux)…has led to a few variations that don’t contain seafood.  Corn chowder and potato chowder come to mind.

This soup does indeed include chunks of potato and heavy cream.  And it has the rustic feel that I associate with a chowder.  If I hadn’t known the name, but had been served a steaming bowl of this soup—with wild rice and little chunks of celery root and potatoes suspended in a rich, creamy base—I think I would have dubbed it a chowder, too.

I changed the chowder very little from Madison’s original (it definitely still qualifies as a chowder!).  I increased the quantity of broth, potatoes and wild rice a bit…and elected to stir the rice in (rather than placing a mound in the center of each bowl).  It is delicious…and it keeps well (reheating beautifully without becoming overly thick and stodgy).  And as one would expect from a chowder, I have found it to be especially satisfying during our recent spate of cold and unusually stormy weather.  

Celery Root & Wild Rice Chowder

4 oz. (2/3 c.) wild rice
1 qt. chicken stock
Salt & Pepper to taste
3 T. butter, divided
1 stalk celery, cut in 1/8th-inch dice (about 1/3 c.)
2 large leeks, white & pale green parts only, cut in 1/4-inch dice and thoroughly rinsed (2 cups)
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 or 3 well-branched sprigs of thyme
2 or 3 parsley stems
1 large celery root (1 to 1 1/4 lb.), peeled and cut in 1/4-inch dice (3 to 3 2/3 cups)
1 Yukon potato (about 8 oz.), peeled and cut in 1/4-inch dice
1/2 c. heavy cream
1 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice, if needed
Finely sliced flat leaf parsley
Olive oil for garnish

If time, soak the rice (see note):  In a medium bowl, pour boiling water over the wild rice. Allow the rice to soak for one hour, then drain.  Place the rice (drained or raw) and the stock in a large saucepan and bring to a simmer. Simmer until the rice is just tender—about 30 to 40 minutes. Strain, reserving the stock and the rice separately.  Measure the stock and add water to make 4 cups.

Melt 2 T. of the butter in a large saucepan set over medium heat, sweat the celery and leeks until beginning to soften—about 5 minutes.  While the celery and leeks cook, tie the herb stems securely together with a piece of cotton kitchen twine (see note).  When the leeks and celery are ready, add the remaining tablespoon of butter.  When the butter has melted, add the celery root and herb bundle along with a good pinch of salt.  Cook until the celery root is beginning to soften on the surface and all the vegetables are sizzling gently—about 5 minutes. 

Add the reserved stock and potatoes.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to a simmer and season to taste with salt.  Simmer gently until all of the vegetables are tender—about 20 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer a cup of the vegetables to the cup of a blender or immersion blender.  Add enough of the cooking liquid to cover the vegetables and purée until smooth.  Scrape the purée back into the soup pot.  Add the heavy cream.  If the soup is too thin, purée some more of the vegetables.  If it is too thick, add some water or stock or milk.   Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper.  If the soup is well-seasoned but still tastes bland, add a squeeze of lemon to lift the flavors.

Add the rice, bring to a simmer and serve garnished with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of parsley.

Makes a generous 1 1/2 quarts soup—serves 4 to 6.

(Adapted from Local Flavors by Deborah Madison)

  • Soaking the rice will cut down on the cooking time only slightly. The main reason to do it is that it helps the rice absorb water more evenly as it cooks.
  • If you don’t have any kitchen twine, you can of course just throw the herb sprigs/stems into the soup. Just remember to count them so you will know how many to fish out of the soup before you serve it.
  • Because this is chowder—and I associate bacon with clam, potato and corn chowders—I think bacon would be a delicious addition. Cut 2 slices (about 2 oz.) of bacon into 1/2-inch squares. In the soup pot, render until just beginning to crisp. Add enough butter to make 2 T. Add the celery and leek and proceed with the recipe.
  • Deborah Madison suggests drizzling a bit of truffle oil over the soup. If you happen to have some on hand, it would be delicious in place of the olive oil. I think a nut oil—particularly walnut or hazelnut oil—would also be good.