Monday, January 30, 2012

Raspberry-Almond Muffins and a Question about Mixing Method

This past week I taught one of my all-time favorite classes: Breakfast Breads. The class includes some of my favorite recipes for breads and cakes and covers a wide variety of mixing methods. One of the methods I teach is the "muffin method". Because I typically teach this class in the fall, most of the time the muffin that I use to demonstrate this particular technique is Pumpkin Chocolate Chip. Occasionally, when the class falls during the winter months, I use a recipe for Raspberry-Almond Muffins instead. Since I have already posted the Pumpkin Chocolate Chip recipe, and the Raspberry-Almond are always a class favorite, I thought I would share that recipe too.

Not only are these muffins popular in my classes, they have always been one of my favorites. They were in fact the starting place for my recipe for Everyday Blueberry Muffins (long time readers may remember my quest for the perfect "muffin method" blueberry muffin). Because I like my blueberry muffin recipe so much, as my class approached, I thought I would try that recipe with raspberries and almonds to see if I liked it better than my original raspberry-almond muffin. To my surprise, I did not. Since I don't have an explanation of why one recipe works better with raspberries and the other with blueberries, I won't dwell on it. But I did want to mention it since I ended my blueberry muffin post with the thought that the recipe would probably make good raspberry muffins. This did not turn out to be the case.

In my blueberry muffin post I go into some detail about the muffin method (basically you mix all the dry ingredients in one bowl, all the wet in another and then quickly combine them). One thing I didn't address in that post is the role of sugar. If you were to randomly examine muffin recipes that use the muffin method, you would find that some recipes include sugar in the dry ingredients and some include it in the wet. I have never thought too much about why you would want to choose one way over the other. Most of my recipes include sugar with the dry ingredients. Uncharacteristically for me, my raspberry-almond muffin adds the sugar to the wet ingredients (which probably has something to do with the original source of the recipe more than anything else).

In the recent class, someone asked "why" one would choose one way or the other. Since I didn't know the answer, I came home and looked it up. One source (Baking911) said they always included sugar with the liquid because it resulted in better aeration... No explanation was there as to why this might be true, but I was interested to find an experienced baker who expressed a preference. Shirley Corriher in her book Bakewise doesn't address the issue at all (at least that I could find). But all of her muffin-method muffins use sugar as a dry ingredient.

Some of the more detailed information that I found on the subject was in a post at Finecooking.  The author of the article felt that adding sugar to the liquids would limit the development of gluten.  (Too much gluten is what makes a muffin tough.) In brief, his reasoning was as follows: Since the proteins that combine to form gluten must have access to water in order to form gluten, and since sugar is attracted to water, adding sugar to the liquid ingredients ties up some of the water making it unavailable for the formation of gluten. This sounds plausible, except that it is my experience that sugar always makes baked goods more tender—for the very reasons described—no matter what the mixing method. My understanding is that when glutenins and gliadins (the gluten forming proteins) are in a competition with sugar for water, sugar always wins.

At this point, it seemed to me that the only reasonable thing to do was to test both methods with my recipe for raspberry-almond muffins to see which one I liked better. So that's what I did. I made half a recipe each way and then sampled them (along with a blind taste tester).

In the final analysis, there was no discernable difference between the two muffins. The batter is more liquid when the sugar is added to the liquid ingredients and it seemed to me that they baked slightly faster and were perhaps a hair taller with this method (better aeration?)...but when I tasted them side by side, I could detect no difference in taste or texture. I was surprised by this. After reading the post at Fine Cooking I had been ready to discover that including the sugar with the liquids was superior and that I was going to have to go back and adjust all of my muffin recipes.... But this will thankfully not be necessary.

Things were slightly different with my blind taste tester. Because it took me some minutes to mix up the second batch (the one that included the sugar with the dry), the two batches of muffins came out of the oven at different times. The batch that included the sugar with the dry was warmer than the batch that included the sugar with the liquid when she sampled them. When she reported to me that she thought one was more tender, I asked if maybe her perception wasn't due to the fact that the one she liked better was still warm. Neither of us complained when we had to sample another pair of muffins at a later point when they were both cold. And at this second sampling my taste tester could not tell the difference between the two muffins either.

Method 1 (adding the sugar to the liquids):

Method 2 (adding the sugar to the dry ingredients):

I think the lesson least for what I already knew: the most important thing when mixing muffins using the "muffin method" is to not over-mix them. Over-mixing is a huge temptation. The batter will still have lumps and visible bits of flour in it when it is done. But, if you resist the temptation to keep mixing until the batter is smooth and looks fully blended, you should be able to produce light, tender muffins.

Another thing I should point out about this recipe is that I use frozen raspberries. Most of the time when you add frozen fruit to a batter, the batter immediately seizes up and becomes very difficult to work with. This is because the frozen fruit is firming up the butter. In this recipe the batter (especially when the sugar is included with the wet ingredients) is very liquid. So liquid that when you mix it up you will think you have made a mistake. But, if you stop mixing at the appropriate moment, and wait a minute or two, the frozen raspberries will chill the butter and the batter will become firm enough to scoop. If you want to make it with fresh raspberries, you should most definitely include the sugar with the dry ingredients because the batter is less liquid when made this way.

I actually prefer to use frozen raspberries because I can break them up a bit before I add them. This disperses the raspberries throughout the muffins more evenly and in random sizes—which is much more pleasant than muffins loaded with big soggy lumps of raspberry.

Finally, I think it is worth mentioning that whenever you add berries, chunks of fruit, dried fruit, chocolate or nuts to a muffin, you should always toss them with the dry ingredients before adding the liquid. Combining the liquid with the dry and then folding in the aforementioned "mix-ins" will necessarily involve over-mixing the batter.

The recipe that I am posting includes instructions for both of the methods I tested. You should choose whichever method pleases you....just remember to not over-mix....

Raspberry-Almond Muffins

2 1/4 c. All-purpose Flour (265 grams)
1 T. Baking Powder
1/2 t. Salt
3/4 c. Sugar
1 large Egg
8 T. Unsalted Butter, melted
1/2 c. Heavy Cream
1/2 c. Milk
1/2 t. almond extract
1 1/3 c. frozen (unsweetened) raspberries, lightly broken—do not thaw
1/2 c. sliced almonds
Sugar for sprinkling (granulated or Turbinado)

Preheat the oven to 400°. Spray, grease or line with muffin-liners, a 12-cup muffin tin. Set aside.

Method 1 (sugar with the liquids):
In a large bowl, whisk together the first three ingredients; set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk the egg, butter and sugar together. Whisk in the cream, milk and almond extract. Add the frozen raspberries to the dry ingredients and toss to coat. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry and stir until just combined—this will only take a few strokes. A few clumps of flour will be visible in the batter—this is as it should be (do not over mix!). The batter will appear to be very liquid. After sitting a minute or two, the frozen berries will solidify the butter and the batter will firm up considerably.

Method 2 (sugar with the dry ingredients):
In a large bowl, whisk together the first four ingredients; set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk the egg and butter together. Whisk in the cream, milk and almond extract. Add the frozen raspberries to the dry ingredients and toss to coat. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry and stir until just combined—this will only take a few strokes. A few clumps of flour will be visible in the batter—this is as it should be (do not over mix!).

Bake the muffins:
Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin cups. Sprinkle the top of each muffin with some sliced almonds, and pat gently to help them adhere to the muffin top. Sprinkle each muffin with a bit of sugar.

Bake for 18 to 22 minutes—until the muffins are golden and a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean. Serve warm. Makes 12 muffins.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Braising (and Stewing) Basics

January and February are my favorite months of the year for making braises and stews. Here in the Midwest, the weather is technically appropriate from early fall and on in to March. But there's something about the slower pace of life after the holidays.....the slow processes of braising and stewing become very appealing.

Sunday was not really cold, but the weekend was generally blustery and gray—weather that seems to call for a braise. So for dinner on Sunday I prepared a variation of Alice Waters' Beef Stew from her book The Art of Simple Food. It was very good. It is also a classic and basic recipe. Since it has been my intention since I started this blog to write a post on the basic techniques of braising, now seems like a convenient time for such a post. I have included my variation of Ms. Waters' stew at the end of the post.

My understanding of the science of what is going on in the braising pot is mostly intuitive—based on practical experience and snatches of things I have read over the years. Consequently, I will not be delving into the science of the braise in my post. Rather I will be giving a step by step procedural of how a braise or stew is accomplished. My purpose, as always, is to get people cooking. It is my hope that after reading this that you will be able to execute any recipe for a braised meat with more confidence, eventually with more skill, and always with a measure of success.

For the remainder of the post, I will use the term braise and stew interchangeably. The only differences between a braise and a stew are the size of the cut of meat (braises are typically made with large cuts and stews with smaller pieces) and the amount of liquid involved (braises are usually accomplished in less liquid than a stew).

Braising is a moist heat cooking procedure. Its purpose is to tenderize. Cuts appropriate for braising will be tough, sinewy and often fatty. They frequently are located near or around a joint. They are loaded with collagen which, under the braising process, breaks down into gelatin. The final result of a well-prepared braise is meltingly tender and succulent pieces of meat. Examples of good braising cuts are lamb shoulder, lamb shank, veal shank (osso buco), veal breast, pork butt (shoulder), pork “country ribs”, beef chuck, beef brisket, beef short ribs, ox tail and chicken legs.

Braising does no favors for tender and lean cuts of meat. In fact, the long cooking will ruin these (usually expensive) cuts. When subjected to the long braising process, they will become dry and stringy. Classically you will find chicken breasts (a lean and tender cut) included in the French sauté—which is a type of stew. Unless you are using an old "stewing hen", I think that these kinds of preparations are better when made with just the legs and thighs, but if I do include the breasts, I always remove them when they are "just" done—which is some time before the stewing process is complete. This way the breasts are not really stewed—the cooking process they undergo is more akin to poaching or steaming. To finish these sautés that include the breasts, I return the breasts to the pan with the legs and thighs for a short reheat in the sauce just before serving.

Braises are even better if the meat is given a pre-cooking treatment of some sort. At a bare minimum I like to pre-salt the meat. This insures that the meat is well-seasoned throughout. I also think that it improves the texture of the final product. If you are not familiar with pre-salting, I wrote a short post about it last winter. Meats to be braised can also be treated to a dry rub and frequently they are marinated (in some wine, aromatic vegetables, herbs, spices, etc.). All of these things will improve and enhance flavor—but none are strictly necessary.

For the cooking of the braise, choose a pan/pot that is just large enough to comfortably hold the meat and any vegetables that will be added in a snug single layer. If the meats and vegetables are piled on top of one another they will not cook evenly. It is also best to choose a short-sided pan so that there is not a lot of air space left between the braising meats and the lid.

The first step of a braise is to brown the meat. Browning adds color and flavor to the final dish. This may be done in any fat of your choice (olive or vegetable oil, bacon fat, butter, etc.) in a pan on the stovetop. For large, unwieldy cuts, it is sometimes done by rubbing the entire piece of meat with fat and placing it on a rack in a hot oven (425° to 475°) and roasting until browned—20 to 30 minutes. Whichever method you choose, to get the most flavor you should make sure that all of the surfaces reach a deep, rich, solid brown.

When sautéing, the meat should first be patted dry (so that it won't steam) and the pan and fat should be very hot before you add the meat. Once the meat is added, regulate the temperature so that it is high enough to maintain an active sizzle, yet not so high that the meat (or the caramelization developing on the bottom of the pan) burns. If you have more meat than your pan can comfortably hold (there should be some space between the pieces of meat), brown in batches.

The process as described above is universally applicable to every braise with a couple of exceptions: Sometimes you will be directed to dredge the pieces of meat in flour prior to browning in fat on the stovetop. This aids in browning, but more importantly it will help thicken the final liquid. You will occasionally run across a classic "white" stew (like Blanquette de Veau) or other preparation (like the Mexicali Meat I posted last March) that is not browned at all.

When the meat is well-browned, lift it out of the pan. At this point aromatic vegetables (onion, garlic, leeks, carrot, celery, fennel, peppers, etc.) are usually added to the pan. You should adjust the amount of fat in the pan as necessary to obtain a thin film that will coat the vegetables. You may need to add more or pour off the excess. The vegetables may be caramelized or simply softened in the fat. This will depend on the depth of color desired in the final dish. Again, regulate the heat accordingly and as necessary.

Next, deglaze the pan. Basically deglazing a pan is dissolving the caramelized sugars and proteins left in a pan after roasting or pan-frying by adding a liquid. Any liquid may be used for this—water, stock/broth, wine, fortified wine, tomatoes, etc. Any fat remaining in the pan should be poured off before the deglazing liquid is added. The goal of deglazing is to capture the flavor in the caramelized food substance and preserve it for the sauce—or in this case the braising liquid. It isn't enough to simply add the liquid and allow it to boil, you need to use a flat wooden spoon (or something similar) to actively scrape the bottom of the pan. This will insure that the caramelized bits are released into the sauce. If wine or a fortified wine is used to deglaze, it should be boiled to reduce the volume, concentrate the flavor and soften the harshness of the alcohol. And although tomatoes are not as acidic as wine, when used as the deglazing agent for shorter braises (less than an hour—in a chicken sauté, for example), they too will benefit from a brief cooking to concentrate their flavor and soften their acidity.

Reducing the red wine used to deglaze the pan

Once the deglazing liquids have been reduced, return the meat to the pan. Sometimes the braising vegetables are removed from the pan prior to deglazing. If this is the case, return the vegetables to the pan with the meat. Next add the braising liquid. The liquid may be water, stock (if you are not able to match the stock to the meat, chicken stock makes a good all purpose cooking medium) or the wine marinade. When I use the wine that I have marinated the meat in as my braising liquid, I always bring it to a boil (in a separate pan) before using it, skimming off and discarding any impurities that rise to the surface in the form of foam. If this is a braise that will cook for less than 2 or 3 hours, reduce the wine marinade by half before using it as the braising liquid (for the same reason the deglazing wine is reduced—to rid it of the harshness of the alcohol and concentrate the flavor).

I mentioned at the beginning of the post that one of the differences between a braise and a stew is the amount of liquid used. If you are braising, you should add only enough liquid to come one-quarter to two-thirds of the way up the sides of the meat. If you are making a stew, the liquid should come all of the way up the sides of the pieces of meat so that only the tops of the pieces of meat are visible (some recipes will call for even more).

The stew...ready for its long simmer

Bring the liquid to a good simmer. Reduce the heat, cover tightly and cook. It is important that the cooking be accomplished at a bare simmer. A rapid simmer or hard boil will ruin the braise—it will produce dry, stringy, meat and murky, greasy sauces. Moreover, the meat will not cook any faster at a boil than it will at a bare simmer. The cooking may be done on the stovetop or in a low oven—whatever temperature produces a bare simmer. Start at 325° and check after the first 20 minutes and occasionally thereafter. Adjust the oven temperature as necessary.

I prefer to cook a braise in the oven—the oven will maintain a consistent, all around gentle heat (as opposed to strong bottom heat). The oven also mimics to some degree a "true" braise. The word braise is from the French and refers to a pot with a concave lid. This pot was filled with the meat, vegetables and liquid, placed directly in the coals and more coals were piled on top—creating an all around gentle heat. (Some recipes will direct you to press a piece of parchment or foil to the surface of the braise, underneath the lid.  This creates an interior space in the pot similar to that of a traditional braising vessel.) The other thing I like about cooking the braise in the oven is that it requires less attention from me—and part of the beauty of a braise is that once started, it pretty much cooks itself.

When you check the braise, resist the temptation to stick a spoon in the pot to stir things up. This is completely unnecessary (particularly if the braise is in the oven and/or you have put the meat in a pan that holds it in a single layer). As the meat begins to get tender, stirring will cause the meat to shred and fall apart. In general, a finished braise should be comprised of beautiful chunks of glistening meat—not shredded bits.

If you are making a braise that uses very little liquid, it may be necessary to turn the meat over from time to time. But if this is the case, take the time to carefully turn each piece over with a tongs so that the pieces of meat will remain intact. Occasionally, the goal is shredded meat—if this is the case, it is of course fine to stir.

The braise is finished when the meat is meltingly tender. The tip of a knife will encounter no “grab” or resistance—it will slide in and slide out of the meat. Meats cooked on the bone will be nearly falling off of the bone. No matter what the recipe says, continue to cook until this point is reached—it may take 3 or 4 hours (or more for very large pieces of meat).

The final dish may include the aromatic vegetables from the initial cooking or they may be strained out for a more refined dish. When the sauce will not be strained, it is not uncommon for additional vegetable “garnish” to be added to and cooked with the braise. These vegetables are simply added at an appropriate point during the cooking process so that they are not only cooked, but very tender when the braise is done. A good example of this is the kind of pot roast my mother made when I was growing up. The pot roast was started with the onions and liquid and then an hour before she planned to serve it she added carrots and potatoes to the pot.

When the aromatic vegetables are strained out, a separately cooked vegetable garnish (poached, roasted, sautéed, etc.) is often added and simmered in the finished sauce with the meat for 5 or 10 minutes prior to serving. Good examples of this are the stew I am posting today or the Poulet Basquaise I posted a couple of years ago.

The finished stew, ready to serve--braising vegetables have been strained out, the sauce lightly thickened and fresh cooked carrots added.

To strain the sauce, lift the meat out to a plate and pour the remaining contents of the pot through a fine-meshed sieve (use a Chinois if you have one). I like to press on the contents of the sieve to extract as much liquid as possible, but inevitably, some of the soft, cooked vegetables will pass through the mesh. If this bothers you, press very gently, or don't press at all (but you will lose some of the precious sauce if you don't press). I don't mind when some of the vegetables get through—they have been reduced to a purée by virtue of the cooking and straining process and they only serve to thicken the sauce.

If not serving right away, cool the meat in its cooking liquid. Braised meats generally improve in flavor and texture if allowed to sit overnight (or for several hours). Furthermore, meats that are so tender they are falling apart will be easier to handle and serve if they are allowed to rest and/or cool in the cooking liquid.

Whether you are serving it right away or not, the liquid should be skimmed of as much of the surface fat as possible. This is easily accomplished if the braising vegetables are going to be strained out—strain the liquid into a deep container, allow it to sit for a moment or two and then use a ladle to skim off the fat. If you are not straining the sauce, a good trick is to skim off as much as you can with a spoon then take several thicknesses of paper towels and press them to the surface of the braise—the towels will absorb the fat first and the fat will repel the liquid, enabling you to get rid of the maximum amount of fat with minimal loss of the tasty sauce. If the stew is to be served the next day, simply chill it (without skimming) and the next day scrape/lift off the hardened fat.

The final step of the braise is to finish the sauce. It is rare for the sauce to be too thick, but if it is—or if there isn't enough of it (for a stew, for example), simply add some stock or water. If the sauce is too thin, it may be reduced—particularly if the flavor isn't as strong as you would like. To reduce the sauce it may be gently simmered or, if the meat and vegetables have been removed, boiled. A too thin sauce may also be thickened with a cooked roux or beurre manié (equal quantities of soft butter and flour, combined to make a paste). Bring the sauce to a simmer and whisk/stir in the roux/beurre manié a little bit at a time, waiting after each addition for it to take effect before adding more. You don't want it to be too thick... Taste and correct the seasoning and you are done.

The recipe for the stew I am posting today was intended to be a casual affair of big chunks of meat with the soft braising vegetables left in it...and I'm sure it would have been very good that way. But I was in the mood for something a bit less rustic, so I opted to strain out the braising vegetables. To the meat and finished sauce (thickened with a small amount of beurre manié) I added some freshly cooked carrots. I served it over buttered noodles (you should always serve a nice starch—potatoes, rice, couscous, noodles—with a stew or braise to soak up all of the wonderful sauce). Altogether it made an elegant, flavorful and satisfying Sunday night dinner. And if you are new to the technique of braising, this dish would be a good place to begin.

Red Wine Braised Beef

3 lbs. beef chuck, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2 to 2-inch cubes (see notes)
Salt & freshly ground pepper
2 T. olive oil
3 slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch squares
2 onions, peeled and quartered
1 large or 2 small carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch lengths
1 small head of garlic, cloves peeled and lightly crushed
2 cloves
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
a few peppercorns
3 T. brandy
1 1/3 c. red wine
half of a 14-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed with your hands
1 thin strip of orange zest
2 cups chicken stock (this is what I used, but if you have beef stock, you should use it)
Kneaded butter (beurre maniésee notes)

Season the beef generously with salt and pepper. If possible, do this a day ahead. Wrap and chill. Whether you have pre-seasoned the meat or not, let it sit at room temperature for an hour before browning.

In a wide, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and cook until rendered and lightly brown, but not crisp. Remove to a plate. Add the beef to the pan and brown well on all sides. If necessary, brown the meat in batches. Transfer the browned meat to the plate with the bacon. Pour off all but a tablespoon or so of the fat, reduce the heat slightly and add the onions, carrots, garlic, herbs and spices to the pan. Toss to coat in the fat and cook until lightly browned. Add to the platter with the beef.

Increase the heat and add the brandy—be careful, as the brandy may flame. Reduce by half and add the wine. Bring to a simmer and reduce the wine by two-thirds, scraping up all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. When the wine is reduced, add the tomatoes, orange zest and stock. Bring to a simmer.

Return all of the meat and vegetables, along with any accumulated juices to the pan—everything should fit in a snug single layer. Check the level of the liquid. It should be at least three-quarters of the way up the sides of the beef. Add more stock, or water, if needed. Cover the pan and transfer to a 325° oven. Cook at a bare simmer until the meat is meltingly tender—2 to 3 hours. Check the stew occasionally to be sure that it is not boiling—reduce the oven temperature if it is (I ended up cooking the stew at 275°). If the level of the liquid becomes too low, add water.

When the meat is tender, remove the pan from the oven. Lift the pieces of meat out and transfer to a plate. Strain the liquid into a deep container, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids. Allow the liquid to stand for few moments so that fat can separate to the surface. Skim away the fat. You should have a minimum of 2 cups of liquid. Return the liquid to the pan and bring to a simmer. If the liquid is too thin, gradually whisk in some of the kneaded butter until the sauce lightly coats the back of a spoon. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. Return the meat to the sauce along with some cooked carrots (see notes). Cover and simmer very gently for 5 minutes to heat through and allow the flavors to blend.

Serve the meat, carrots and sauce over pappardelle noodles (2 oz. per person) tossed with butter and minced flat leaf parsley. Scatter more parsley over all. You should have enough meat and vegetables to make 4 to 5 generous servings.

• I purchased a chuck roast that was 2-inches thick, so my pieces were on the large side—which I prefer. For slightly smaller, more traditional "stew" sized pieces, try to find a chuck roast that is 1 1/2-inches thick. (And you should purchase a whole chuck roast when you make stew—the "stew meat" sold at the butcher's counter is odds and ends of different cuts—some of which are really not that great for stewing. If you don't want to cut it yourself, purchase a whole roast and ask the butcher to cut it for you.)

3 lb. beef chuck roast

Cut into chunks for stewing.  The 3 lb. roast yielded 4 oz. of fatty trim and 14
 nice sized pieces and 3 slightly smaller pieces.

• For this recipe I mixed together a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon of flour for the beurre manié. I used half to three-quarters of this mixture to thicken the sauce.
• To prepare the carrots to add to the final stew, trim and peel a pound of carrots. Slice the carrots a generous 1/2-inch thick on the diagonal. Place the carrots in a covered pan (something wide and shallow) along with a tablespoon of butter and a generous sprinkling of salt. Add enough water to the pan to come half way up the carrots. Cover, bring to a boil and simmer until the carrots are tender—about 20 minutes. Uncover, increase the heat and cook until the liquid has evaporated and the carrots are glazed with the butter.

• Alice Waters suggests adding a half cup of pitted black olives to the finished braise and while I didn't do this, I think it would be very good. Add with the carrots to the strained sauce.

(Recipe adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Basmati Pilaf with Dried Tart Cherries & Pistachios

I love grain pilafs. I love their textures...I love their taste possibilities...I love their versatility. They can always be counted on to make an interesting side dish, but more and more, I am enjoying them as the main event. And because many of the things I like to put in my pilafs are pantry staples—grains, nuts, dried fruits, spices—they can be pulled together quickly and easily without too much advance planning.

Typically I don't think of making a meatless entrée pilaf out of rice (possibly because rice is fixed in my mind as a side dish). But recently, when I ran across a recipe for a Chicken, Chickpea and Rice Pilaf at Cookstr, the presence of the chickpeas made me think of a couple of bulgur pilafs that I have posted here—both of which I serve as a main course.  I thought a meatless pilaf in the style of this one would make a good main course too.  And it did.

To make the pilaf, I started with a base of saffron rice. One of the tastiest ways I have ever had saffron rice is with a topping of crispy fried onions. I'm not crazy about frying in general—and certainly not for a weeknight meal (every cook has certain tasks they would rather not do)—so I just incorporated some caramelized onions into the base of a French-style pilaf. It isn't the same, but it tasted very good.

Lightly caramelized onions
Briefly cooking the rice with the onions

Other changes I made to the pilaf were aimed at adding color and a bit of contrasting tartness. With an eye to both of these things, I substituted tangy and dark dried tart cherries for the pale and sweet golden raisins. I added more color by using pistachios instead of almonds.  For a final bit of zip, I sizzled the chickpeas in some olive oil along with a bit of Cayenne.

Serving the pilaf with plain yogurt adds some nice contrast too. If you are not going to serve it with yogurt, you should definitely give the pilaf a squeeze of lemon juice at the end. Even if you are serving it with yogurt, you might still want to add the lemon—it seems to lift and enhance all of the other flavors.

The original pilaf didn't include a roasted vegetable. Because I like chunks of vegetables in my main course pilafs, I added some roasted carrots.

Carrots roasted with cumin and coriander

If you don't like carrots, cubed and roasted winter squash would also be good. And while they have an entirely different flavor profile, I think turnips would be a nice option too (or almost any root vegetable, for that matter).

I do of course understand that many people feel they haven't had dinner if they haven't had meat or fish. If you fall into that category, you can still make this flavorful pilaf. Just serve it as a side—as is, or without the carrots and chickpeas. I think it would be especially nice with lamb...but fish—or the original chicken—would be good too.

Basmati Pilaf with Chickpeas, Dried Tart Cherries & Pistachios

1 lb. carrots, peeled and cut on the diagonal 1/3-inch thick
Salt & Pepper, to taste
olive oil
1/2 t. (heaped) ground cumin
1/2 t. (heaped) coriander

2 T. olive oil
1 medium onion (about 8 oz.), diced
1 fat clove garlic, minced
1 c. basmati rice
2 c. boiling water
a generous pinch of saffron

1/2 c. dried tart cherries
1 T. olive oil
1 15-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/8 t. Cayenne (or more to taste)
3 T. minced flat-leaf parsley
1/2 c. toasted pistachios, coarsely chopped
Lemon juice, to taste (optional)

Place the carrots in a large bowl. Season to taste with salt & pepper. Add enough olive oil to coat along with the spices and toss to coat. Spread on a baking sheet. Roast in a 425° oven until tender and browned in spots, stirring once—about 25 to 30 minutes. Set the vegetables aside until ready to assemble the pilaf and reduce the oven temperature to 350°.

While the vegetables roast, warm 2 T. olive oil in a medium saucepan with a tight fitting lid over moderate heat. Add the onions along with a pinch of salt and cook until they are tender and beginning to caramelize (20 minutes or so). Add the garlic and cook until fragrant—about a minute.

Add the saffron to the water and keep hot.

Increase the heat under the onions to medium high and add the rice along with a generous pinch of salt. Continue to cook for a 2 minutes or until the rice is well-coated with oil and has begun to turn opaque. Add the water and bring to a full boil. Season with salt, reduce the heat to low, cover and transfer to a 350° oven. Cook for 18 minutes. Remove from the oven and scatter the cherries over the surface of the rice.

Cover and let stand for 5 minutes.

While the rice is resting, warm a tablespoon of oil to a medium sauté pan. Add the chickpeas and cayenne and heat through. Return the roasted vegetables to the oven to heat through.

Transfer the rice and cherries to a large bowl. Add the carrots, chickpeas, pistachios, and parsley. Toss until everything is well combined.

Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. If the pilaf tastes flat, add a squeeze of lemon. Serve accompanied by some plain yogurt. Serves 3 or 4 as an entrée.

Printable Recipe

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cauliflower Pizza with Cheddar & Bacon

In a recent post I mentioned that I've been on a bit of a pizza making kick. I still am. This week we had a pizza that seemed—to me at least—a bit unusual: Cauliflower with Sharp Cheddar and Bacon. It was delicious. I have always believed that just about any vegetable could be turned into a successful topping for a pizza and it is in the spirit of that belief that I am sharing this recipe.

Since anything that releases water during the cooking process (i.e. most vegetables) needs to be cooked before it can be used to top a pizza, I sliced and sautéed the cauliflower first. If you prefer, you could roast the cauliflower: Cut it into uniform florets, toss it in some olive oil and roast in a hot oven. I would not recommend blanching or steaming since both of these methods would introduce more water...not to mention the fact that sautéed or roasted cauliflower is so much more interesting than cauliflower that has been boiled or steamed. If you have never sautéed cauliflower before, check out my post on Pasta with Sautéed Cauliflower from last winter.

To go with the cauliflower, I simply chose some traditional pizza toppings that taste good with cauliflower. For a cheese, sharp Cheddar was at the top of my list, but Gruyère and Parmesan would also be good. I think cauliflower needs something salty, so I added some bacon. You could go meatless and use capers and/or olives as your salty component—just add them to the cauliflower sauté towards the end (as in the pasta post). Finally, I added some caramelized onions. I like the sweetness they contribute...but if you are short on time, you could probably leave them off.

As I said at the start, this pizza was delicious. I can't think of a better way to get someone who thinks they don't like cauliflower to give it a try. I love cauliflower now, but this hasn't always been the case. I don't remember the moment when I began to enjoy cauliflower, but I'm guessing it involved either caramelization (from roasting or sautéeing) or cheese....and possibly some bacon. This pizza scores on all points.

Cauliflower Pizza with Cheddar & Bacon

3 strips of bacon (about 3 oz.), cut cross-wise in 1/4-inch strips
1 small onion (4 or 5 oz.), trimmed, halved, cored and thinly sliced
Half a medium head of cauliflower, leaves trimmed and tough core removed—you should have about 10 oz. of trimmed weight
1 to 2 T. Olive oil
1 ball of pizza dough (see below), rested
5 oz. Sharp Cheddar, coarsely grated

Place the bacon in a medium sauté pan and cook over medium-low heat until well-rendered and beginning to crisp. Using a slotted spoon, remove to a paper towel. Pour off all but a tablespoon of the bacon fat and add the onions to the pan along with a pinch of salt and increase the heat a bit. When the onions begin to sizzle, reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook—stirring occasionally—until the onions are soft (20 to 30 minutes). Uncover, increase the heat and cook until the onions are caramelized—about 10 minutes. Set aside until cool enough to handle.

While the bacon and onions cook, lay the half cauliflower—cut surface down—on the cutting board. Slice in 1/8- to scant 1/4-inch thick slices. You will have slices of varying size cross-sections and small bits of floret when you are done.

Warm a tablespoon of olive oil in a large sauté pan (the pan should be large enough to hold the cauliflower in a shallow layer—if it is piled to high it will steam rather than sauté) over medium to medium-high heat. Add all the slices of cauliflower to the pan, for the moment leaving the smaller bits behind on the cutting board.  The cauliflower should sizzle gently in the pan.

Allow it to cook undisturbed until the edges are beginning to brown—about 3 minutes or so. Add the remaining bits of cauliflower and a light sprinkle of salt and give the contents of the pan a toss or two (or stir and fold) to redistribute the cauliflower in the pan.

If the pan seems dry, drizzle in a bit more oil. Continue to cook, regulating the heat so the cauliflower doesn't burn and tossing or stirring only as the bits and edges of the cauliflower take on color (the amount of stirring will probably less than you are inclined to do).

Continue to cook until the cauliflower is tender and caramelized.

The volume will have shrunk quite a bit.  When you taste some, the flavor should be concentrated and the texture should be tender with occasional crunchy/chewy bits—it should not seem watery or soft and mushy. The total cooking time will be about 15 minutes. Taste and correct the seasoning. Set aside to cool. Combine the bacon, cauliflower and onions. Taste and season with salt & pepper as necessary.

Build the pizza: On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into a 12-inch circle. Transfer the dough to a pizza pan, baking sheet or pizza peel that has been dusted with flour. Using your fingers, push up the edges of the dough to make a slight rim. Scatter half of the cheese over the dough. Spread the cauliflower mixture over the cheese and scatter the remaining cheese over all.

If using a pizza pan or baking sheet, place the pizza in the pan on a pre-heated pizza stone in a pre-heated 450° to 500° oven. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is bubbling, about 12 to 15 minutes. To insure a crisp crust, slide the pizza off of the pan and onto the pizza stone as soon as the crust is set (after 4 or 5 minutes).

If using a peel, slide the pizza directly onto the preheated baking stone. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is bubbling—about 8 to 10 minutes.

When the pizza is done, transfer to a cutting board and cut into wedges and serve.

Pizza Dough:
1 cup warm water (100º-110º)
1 package (2 1/4 t.) active dry yeast
2 1/2 to 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 T. olive oil
1 t. salt

Place the water in a large bowl and add the yeast.  Let soften for a minute or two.  Add 1 1/2 cups of the flour and whisk until smooth.   Add the oil, salt and another cup of the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough that holds its shape. Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and sprinkle with a bit more flour. Knead the dough, adding just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, until the dough is smooth and springs back when pressed lightly with a finger—about 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in bulk—about 1 hour. Punch down the dough and turn it onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into two pieces (for 12”-pizzas) and roll into balls. Cover with a towel and let rest for 10 to 20 minutes. The dough is now ready to be shaped, topped and cooked or frozen.

(Crust recipe adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins)

Variation for a Whole Wheat Crust: Instead of unbleached all-purpose flour, use 1 ½ c. bread flour and 1 to 1 ½ c. whole wheat flour (the new “white” whole wheat flour is a good choice).

Lunch of leftover pizza and Waldorf Salad

Monday, January 9, 2012

Classic Waldorf Salad

Nothing complicated or fancy today...just a quick post of one of my favorite winter salads: Classic Waldorf. I know there are lots of variations on this old favorite, but to me a Waldorf Salad should just be apples, walnuts, raisins and celery (not too much!), lightly bound with a sweet and tangy mayonnaise-based dressing. At a time of year when raw and fresh seem like a distant memory, the presence of this crunchy and juicy salad on the table is a delight.

Waldorf Salad

1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 T. lemon juice (or more to taste)
1 T. honey

2 medium-sized sweet-tart apples (I like Pink Lady), cored and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 large rib of celery, trimmed, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1/2 c. (2 oz.) toasted walnuts, coarsely broken
1/2 cup (heaping) golden raisins

Place the mayonnaise, lemon juice and honey in a small bowl and whisk to combine. Taste and correct the sweet-tart balance with lemon juice. Set aside.

Place the remaining ingredients in a bowl.

Pour the dressing over and fold together until the apples, celery, walnuts and raisins are evenly dressed. 

Serves 3 or 4.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Creamy Cauliflower Soup

My first class in the new year will be a soup class. One of the soups I will be making is a simple and elegant Creamy Cauliflower Soup. The original inspiration for this soup was Alfred Portale's Cauliflower Vichyssoise. Made with cauliflower and leek instead of potato and leek, I think its texture is even more smooth and silky than its namesake. It is identical in color to a traditional potato leek soup, so it might be possible to trick someone who normally wouldn't be inclined to like cauliflower into trying it. I think that once tasted though, it will be finished (with possible requests for seconds). This soup, with its mild flavor and amazing texture, is easy to like.

I have changed Portale's soup only slightly. Since cauliflower lacks the natural starch present in potatoes, I have added a small amount of rice to the soup (just like the Celery Root & Apple Soup I posted in November). In this soup the starch isn't really necessary for thickening, but it does act as a binder, enhancing the velvety texture and keeping the vegetable solids and liquids from separating.

The other change I have made is to finish the soup with heavy cream. I just can't help myself. You can of course leave it out, but I think its presence would be missed. When you think about the number of servings you can get out of two quarts of soup, the amount of cream per person is really pretty small. If the cream truly bothers you, maybe use less. But as I tell my classes, I don't think that Americans are getting fat because they put heavy cream in their homemade soups.

My favorite way to garnish this soup is with toasted walnuts and crumbled Roquefort,

but there are many other possibilities. These same two ingredients could be served on a crostini and floated on the surface of the soup (like the goat cheese crostini that garnishes my Asparagus Soup). Alfred Portale suggests a cauliflower garnish. To make it he removes three or four large florets of cauliflower from the simmering soup after 3 or 4 minutes (they should be barely tender), slices them thinly. The nice looking slices are sautéed in a bit of butter and are set afloat in each bowl of soup (accompanied by a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of chives). Any not-so-nice slices and bits of cauliflower are returned to the simmering soup.

I have never tried it, but I think that crisp bits of bacon, some grated white cheddar and minced chives would also make a nice garnish....or some nice little garlic or parmesan croutons along with some minced parsley....

As I gathered my ingredients to make this soup, I was struck by the monochromatic color palate of the ingredients.

After the bright and intense colors of the holiday season, the whites, ivories and pale greens of the ingredients had such a tranquil look about them. The flavor too of this soup is simple and clean. It seems that making it...and eating it...could be a nice curative for the over-stimulation of our holiday season. Happy New Year.

Creamy Cauliflower Soup

4 T. unsalted butter
1 small to medium onion (6 to 8 oz.), diced
3 leeks, white and pale green only, thinly sliced (to make 3 to 4 cups) and thoroughly rinsed in several changes of water
1 T. rice
2 med. cauliflower, cored and cut into uniform florets (you will have about 7 c., weighing roughly 1 3/4 lb.)
5 c. water or light chicken stock (or half water and half stock)
1 c. heavy cream

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onions and leeks along with a pinch of salt and sweat until translucent—do not let them color. Add the rice

and cook a minute or two. Add the cauliflower and some salt and stir to coat. Cook for a few minutes. Add the water or stock (I like to use half stock and half water) and salt to taste.

Increase the heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook for 18 to 20 minutes or until the cauliflower is quite tender.

Purée the soup and pass through a fine strainer. Add the heavy cream and heat the soup through. If necessary, thin with water or stock. To serve, gently reheat the soup. When hot, taste and correct the seasoning. Serve immediately with a garnish of your choice.

Makes 2 generous quarts