Monday, March 26, 2012

Cooking for One...a few ideas

I was home alone this past weekend. It was a welcome interlude for the most part. I find the occasional patch of solitude to be peaceful and restorative. The downside of course was that my situation meant that I would be dining alone. It has been a long time since I was in this position every day, and to me this can be the worst part of solitude. The table really is a gathering place...a place for conversation. But it is also a place for necessary physical nourishment. And in order to be nourished, we have to eat well.

My weekend reminded me of how many people eat alone on most days. I know that many of these people feel that it just isn't worth the effort of cooking (and cleaning up) to feed just themselves. But, it really is worth it. And meals of real food don't have to be complicated. As proof of this, today while it is still fresh in my mind, I thought that I would share a few snapshots (literally...blogging has put me in the weird habit of taking pictures of my food) of the things I cooked and ate over the course of the past five days. My hope is that it will provide some ideas for others concerning what to cook when home alone and facing dinner.

I started my long weekend of solo dining with a plate of pasta. This is honestly my favorite "easy" meal for one. If you have vegetables, some kind of fat (olive oil, butter, bacon), and dried pasta, you have dinner. Additional pantry items like stock, heavy cream, a hard grating cheese (Parmesan or Pecorino), onion and/or garlic, anchovies, fresh herbs/spices will make your possibilities almost without limit.

Some of the easiest pastas can be made from start to finish in a sauté pan—particularly when you are cooking just one or two servings. I thought everyone made their pastas in a sauté pan, but this must be a restaurant habit because in the past year I have come across two magazine articles that teach this method as if it were insider information. The one that ran in Bon Appétit last spring (May 2011) was detailed and very helpful. It is available on line and is definitely worth a look. If you are cooking for one, you will need an 8-inch sauté pan (measured across the cooking surface...not rim to rim). Other than the sauté pan you will only need a few utensils (wooden spoon, tongs...) a 3-quart (or thereabout) saucepan for boiling 3 or 4 oz. of pasta, and a strainer or colander to drain the pasta. Of course, not all pastas are made this way...but a great many are...and it is an especially convenient method to know if you are cooking one portion.

I have always believed that any vegetable could be turned into a respectable sauce for pasta. The pasta I had for dinner the other evening was a good example. When I opened up the refrigerator to see what I had to work with, I ran into the last little chunk of a large head of cabbage. I had a vague memory of seeing a cabbage-based pasta sauce in a favorite pasta cookbook (Four Seasons Pasta), so I went to look. The resulting pasta was delicious—shredded cabbage cooked with caramelized onions, some garlic, pepper flakes and fennel spice....topped with a shower of Pecorino.

If you are at a loss for ideas for pastas that use seasonal vegetables, check out the recipe page of my blog and scroll down to the section on pastas. Or, plug the vegetables you want to use into an internet search engine along with the word "pasta" and see what pops up. If nothing else, you will definitely get some ideas. Almost any pasta sauce recipe can be made for one—just calculate the amount of each ingredient you will need based on 3 or 4 oz. of dried pasta. For most recipes this will mean you will be dividing all of the ingredient quantities by four (for some of mine you will divide by two since I frequently post recipes that are for two portions).  If this is still too much food for you, the leftovers will make a great lunch.

My next evening meal was a substantial green salad. Just as pasta can be used as a vehicle for vegetables, so can salad greens. A large handful of lightly dressed greens is a great canvas for some roasted or blanched vegetables (these can be dressed with vinaigrette too) and a piece of grilled/sautéed meat or fish...or a nice poached egg. But you don't even have to have meat or fish...or even an egg. For my salad, I roasted a generous quantity of baby potatoes (6 oz.) and when they were done, I topped them with a few slices of brie and a scattering of crisp bacon and returned it to the oven for a minute or two to allow the cheese to just begin to soften. For people who don't think salads are filling, I encourage you to try a salad like this one.

Potatoes, Cheese & Bacon--just out of the oven--in a small "single serving" stoneware baking dish (4 1/2- x 6 1/2-inches)

One of the things that can be an issue for a solo household is food spoilage and waste. You might be wondering about the use of fresh greens, bacon (which must be purchased by the pound), etc. But these things are not insurmountable. If the greens you purchase are fresh and are properly stored, they will typically last a week or more. A small 4 or 5 oz box of greens will make about 4 salads...depending on your appetite. And even if the greens are not used in such a prominent way on your plate, it is never a bad idea to get into the habit of adding a small mound of lightly dressed greens to your meals on a regular basis. Having them on hand will encourage it.

As far as the bacon is concerned, it can be kept in the freezer. Unless you want to cook whole strips, it is very easy to use frozen bacon. Freeze the bacon as it comes in the package, then when you are ready to cook, pull the frozen block of slices from the freezer and take just what you need by cutting crosswise across the shingled slices. Once cut, it can be thawed or cooked while still frozen (it will begin to thaw immediately).

As for the Brie...I admit, I purchased it just for this salad. But cheese is never wasted in my house. And many cheeses will keep for quite some time. Brie however, will not. But that's OK, I have been enjoying the remainder of the mini wheel I purchased with apples and toasted semolina bread for's almost gone.

But I could have used some of that brie on a sandwich...or in a quesadilla. One of my favorite solo meals is a cheese quesadilla. They are equally good with an avocado and tomato salad, a green salad, or some fruit.  For one of my meals, I had just that: 

If you are feeling energetic, quesadillas can be filled with cooked vegetables and/or meats in addition to the cheese. Sandwiches too are a great option for solo meals. Some of my favorites are grilled cheese, fried egg, egg or tuna salad and BLT. Like the bacon, sliced bread stores very well in the freezer. Slices can be thawed in the toaster or covered in plastic wrap and thawed on the counter at room temperature (where they will thaw very quickly).

I finished up the weekend with another great meal for one: a pan-fried piece of meat/fish served with a medley of vegetables. You can of course make a dish like this as complex as you like, but if you aren't in the mood to wash a lot of dishes, this type of meal can easily be completed in two pans—one for the meat/fish and another for the vegetables. Just as for the pasta, the vegetables can be cooked in a single pan on the stovetop. Or, they could all be roasted together in one pan in the oven. Whether braising, poaching, sautéing or roasting, just make sure all of the vegetables are cut the same size so they will take the same amount of time to cook. They can be cooked plainly, or enhanced with bacon, olives, herbs, spices, nuts, etc. A little extra olive oil or butter to finish is always a good idea. Make sure everything is well-seasoned before mounding it on your plate and topping it with your simply prepared meat or fish.

For my dinner I had a pan-roasted lamb chop served on a bed of potatoes and artichokes. I posted a recipe for a similar vegetable medley served with chicken a couple of years ago. For an idea using salmon, check out my Salmon served on a bed of Brussels Sprouts, Carrots and Potatoes from last month. As with the pasta sauces, there are lots of ideas for seasonal vegetable medleys to be found on my recipe page.

If you have time, it's always nice to add a little flavor with a rub or a marinade.  For my lamb chop, I used some olive oil, toasted cumin seed, lemon zest, crushed garlic and fresh mint.

Lamb with baby potatoes, chunks of artichokes and a few spears of asparagus.

Finally, for me, life is not complete without cake (...or cookies...). So I even made a small cake this weekend. After enjoying a slice, I portioned the remainder of the cake, wrapped the slices individually and put them all in a zip lock bag in the freezer. Like sliced bread, they will thaw quickly if allowed to sit (still wrapped in their individual wrapper) on the counter for an hour or two. Or, if you can't wait that long, the microwave does a fine job of thawing sweet (unfrosted) baked goods. If you aren't a cake person, cookies freeze well too.

As you have probably noticed, I use my freezer a lot—whether I'm alone or feeding my normal household of two. For small households, in addition to maintaining a well-stocked pantry of favorite staples, learning how to use your freezer can be one of the keys to having really good, fresh, homemade food on a regular basis.

I hope this random snapshot of my solo meals was helpful. I honestly didn't feel like I spent a lot of time in the kitchen this weekend—cooking or washing up—and I truly enjoyed my meals. Feeding oneself well when you live alone is a learning process—learning how to shop, how to store food and how to plan...not to mention how to cook. There is no way that I could address all of these things in an exhaustive way in a short blog post. (Entire cookbooks have been written on the subject.) Mostly my purpose today has been to provide a few ideas, so that the occasions when you find yourself in front of the computer with a bowl of popcorn...or the TV with a bag of pretzels and an open jar of peanut butter...will be few and far between. (I admit to having done both of these things...although, not this past weekend.) It is worth it to cook. Maybe not every day...but most days. The more you cook, the easier—and more enjoyable—it gets.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Cabbage & White Bean Soup

I don't think it's any secret that I enjoy vegetables....all kinds of vegetables.  Cabbage is a vegetable that I like a great deal, but it is not one that I tend to purchase very often.  This is mostly due to its size.  The green cabbages that are available at my grocery store during the winter months tend to be huge. When you are only a household of two, one of these heads can last quite a while. After purchasing one, we will eat it in many and varied forms over the course of a week or so.  And when it is gone...even though I like cabbage...I need a bit of a break from it.  We still have a wedge of my most recent purchase left—even after feasting on Warm Cabbage Salad with Goat Cheese, Colcannon Potatoes and Cabbage Soup.

The fact that a cabbage based soup requires a large quantity of cabbage means that no matter what the originally intended use, I often end up using some of the head for a big pot of soup. Cabbage based soups are delicious. Unfortunately for my blog they are not terribly photogenic. They are typically monochromatic—cabbage being particularly compatible with other pale foods...potatoes, shell beans, turnips, leeks, onions.... To make things worse, these soups also have a bit of a watery and lumpy look about them.  Several times I have intended to post the recipe for the most recent incarnation of a cabbage soup to come out of my kitchen only to look at the pictures and decide not to.

But this time, I decided to go ahead with a post because this batch was especially good. When I made the soup, I expected that we would be enjoying it for several days. It was gone in two. Perhaps it was the addition of a bit of smoked ham (I had some left from my Warm Cabbage Salad)....  Perhaps it was the fact that I added a little more onion than I usually do (after a favorite Kale & Potato Soup from Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food).... I'm not really sure. Whatever it was, I will definitely be making this soup again.  And it will be taking its place at the top of my mental list of "favorite things to make with that large head of cabbage."

Cabbage & White Bean Soup

2/3 c. Cannellini beans (about 4 oz.), soaked over-night (or "quick-soaked"), drained and rinsed
5 T. Olive oil
sprig of thyme
6 oz. smoked ham, rind removed and cut in a 1/2-inch dice (1 cup diced)
2 medium onions (10 to 12 oz.), halved, cored and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled & chopped
1 medium Idaho Potato (about 12 oz.), peeled, quartered lengthwise and sliced cross-wise 1/4-inch thick
12 to 14 oz. wedge of green cabbage, core removed and cut cross-wise in 1/4-inch ribbons (if the wedge is very fat, halve it lengthwise before slicing)
1 quart chicken stock (or low-salt canned broth)

In a small saucepan, cover the beans with water by two inches. Bring to a gentle simmer. Skim and discard the foam that rises to the surface. Add a tablespoon of olive oil along with a sprig of thyme and cook until the beans are tender and soft, stirring occasionally and adding salt to taste when the beans are half cooked. Reserve the beans in their cooking liquid. (Beans may be prepared ahead—store in the refrigerator.)

In a heavy soup pot set over moderately high heat, warm 2 T. of the olive oil. Add the ham and sauté until golden brown in spots—2 to 3 minutes. Remove the ham to a plate.

Reduce the heat to medium and add the remaining 2 T. of olive oil. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, tender, and slightly browned—about 12 to 15 minutes.

Add the garlic and continue to cook until fragrant—1 or 2 minutes. Add the potatoes and cabbage along with a generous pinch of salt (be careful, the ham is salty). Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 or 3 minutes—the cabbage will start to wilt.

Pour in the stock. Raise the heat, bring to a boil, then immediately reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes, or until the cabbage and potatoes are just tender. Add the beans (along with their cooking liquid) and ham. Return to a simmer and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes. Taste the soup and add more salt if necessary.

Makes 2 quarts soup.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Only the Name Has Been Changed...

Today's post will not include a recipe (or any pictures...). Rather, I am announcing today that I am changing the name of my blog. After today, when you visit, you will no longer see the title "A Cooking pursuit of everyday excellence", instead you will see "For Love of the Table...pursuing excellence in the kitchen...every day".

Since I have been blogging under the name "A Cooking Life" for two years, changing the name of my blog will probably seem like a radical move—one that requires some sort of explanation. Never fear...I am never short on explanations. Today's post will be devoted to the story of why and how this change came about (and how I chose my new title).

Shortly after I began keeping my blog I discovered—completely by chance—that there was another blog called "A Cooking Life" (a lovely blog, by the way...but with such a great name, how could it be otherwise?). By the time I made my discovery some time had passed since there had been a new post on this other blog. I wondered about this...were they taking a break? had they quit? moved to another location? etc. I checked occasionally during that first year, always to see the same post still displayed. Because I had been blogging under the name "A Cooking Life" for several months at that point, I pretty much decided to forget about it and keep doing what I was doing.

Recently however, it came to my attention that the woman who writes the other "A Cooking Life" would like to resume blogging. Since she had the name first, and since neither of us wants to be confused with the other, it seemed reasonable to me that I should change my name.

Reasonable and easy are of course two different things....and this has not been an easy change. I happen to like the title "A Cooking Life". It is an excellent nuts and bolts explanation of what I do and how I live. I cook constantly—whether at work or at leisure....whether literally or mentally (no one would believe how much cooking goes on inside my head).

Rather than viewing this turn of events as a disaster, I decided to see it as an opportunity—an opportunity to review the contents of my blog and maybe give it an even more appropriate name. When I started my blog I really had no idea what I was getting into and where I was going with it. The two year mark seemed like a good time to look back to see what I had been doing and more importantly as it turns out, why I was doing it.

For the past two years I have filled my blog with recipes and short lessons on basic (and not-so-basic) techniques. I had originally intended to write more technique-driven posts (and will continue to write them occasionally) because my goal has always been to help people really cook—that is, to go beyond the recipe and apply good techniques to good ingredients in order to create wonderful food. I have always made sure that the recipes that I post actually work, because I want people to experience good success with the things they cook so that they will want to cook even more. But the recipes really aren't what this blog is about; cooking...learning how to nearer the mark.

Besides the recipes and the techniques, there are several other things that appear again and again in my blog entries—whether stated or not. My posts almost always feature ingredients that fall into the category of "fresh, seasonal, local". It would be hard to over-state how important this concept is to me. Also, with the exception of the occasional can of beans, I emphasize cooking with minimally processed ingredients...."real" food, if you will. Finally, even though I am a chef, most of the recipes I post have not been "chef-y" affairs, but rather the things I like to eat at home—truly accessible food. Once again my intention is that the people who visit my blog will actually prepare the recipes that I post...or at least be inspired by them to cook something similar. I have wanted my blog to be more like a cookbook that actually gets used as opposed to one that sits on the coffee table.

Pulling a title from all of this was, as you can imagine, not really possible. Something would be left out. I began to think it would be a bit more fruitful to think about why I wanted people to cook. Why, in fact, I cook. As it turns out, the title of my very first post was "Why I cook...". In the end I had to look no further than that first post to find a new name for my blog.

I concluded my first post with a long list of all of the things I love about food and cooking. I ended that list with the following statement:

"I love it...that as people we connect and maintain connections with family and friends at the table. ...I cook in private homes to give people a chance to make those connections with family and friends at their home table rather than in restaurants. I teach so that people will have the tools to create those moments in their own homes, at their own tables, every day."

And there it was. I cook....I teach...I blog.... for love of the table.

So, there you have it. My new title. There is of course also this matter of "pursuing excellence"...the subtitle. In many ways, this pervades all of my cooking and consequently all of the things I post about. There was never any question about changing this. I knew that whatever new title I settled on that the subtitle would remain essentially the is who I am. But as I posted about back in July of my first year, even my pursuit of excellence is subservient to this best of all reasons to cook...the table.

Over the next few days I will be setting up my new domain ( but I will still have the same Blogger URL too (which I understand is supposed to map to my new domain)—hopefully everyone will still be able to find me, no matter what. I will also eventually be updating my blog's Facebook page. I'm not particularly tech savvy, so this could all take a few days. If you try to find me and can't for some reason, please try back. Finally, I do hope everyone likes my new title....but even if you're not crazy about it, I hope you will continue to visit, continue to read and—above all—continue to cook, every day.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Another Year...Another Pistachio Cake

Just a short and simple post today to mark the completion of two years of blogging. Last year, to celebrate my one year anniversary, I posted a recipe for a rich pistachio cake. Since cake is always a good idea, I am posting another cake recipe to observe the day this year. And not just any cake...another pistachio cake (I do love pistachios...).

This year's cake is a Pistachio & Chocolate Tea Bread. In texture, it is very much like a pound cake...fine grained and firm. It slices beautifully into thin slices that are perfect for a late afternoon cup of coffee or tea. But what I really like about this cake is that it is meltingly seems to dissolve in your mouth. Because of the high percentage of egg, classic pound cakes can be tough. So like most modern pound cakes, this cake contains fewer eggs. Further tenderness comes from the fact that finely ground pistachios replace some of the flour...not to mention the fantastic flavor and color they give.

Besides the flavor of pistachio, the cake is enhanced with flecks of bittersweet chocolate and orange zest. I love both chocolate and orange with pistachio...but I'm sure the cake would be pretty fine if either (or both) of these were left out.

I made two different glazes to embellish the finished cake—one to pick up the chocolate aspect and another the orange. I fully expected to prefer the cake glazed with chocolate ganache. But I was surprised by how much I liked the one iced with a simple powdered sugar and citrus glaze. The one you choose to use may depend on the time of year...the chocolate one seems more appropriate for cold weather, while the citrus seems light and refreshing for spring. Your choice may also depend on how and when you are going to serve it. If you are making it for a dessert or afternoon consumption, chocolate is the likely choice....while the citrus glaze is better for a morning tea...or a brunch.

I don't know if I can promise that I will post a pistachio cake every year on my anniversary. But, you never know what the future will bring. It is in fact a bit hard for me to believe that I have been keeping a blog for two years. Yet, here I am, continuing with no end in sight. What started out as a tentative experiment has turned into a constant presence in my life. And as far as the annual appearance of a pistachio cake is concerned, my anniversary will always fall on the eve of St. Patrick's day, making a lovely green cake an especially fitting tribute to the season.

Pistachio & Chocolate Tea Bread

70 g. pistachios, lightly toasted (see notes) and very finely ground (1/2 c.—measured before grinding)
330 g. sifted cake flour (3 1/3 c.—sift before measuring)
1 t. Baking Powder
1 t. Baking Soda
1 t. Salt
300 g. Unsalted Butter, room temperature (1 1/3 c.)
400 g. Sugar (2 c.)
Zest of 1 or 2 oranges (optional)
2 t. vanilla
4 Eggs, room temperature
320 g. Sour cream (1 1/3 c.)
4 oz. finely chopped bittersweet chocolate

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour 2 8-cup loaf pans.

Combine the dry ingredients and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy (about 5 minutes).

Beat in the zest if using along with the vanilla. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Fold in the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the sour cream in two additions, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.

Turn the batter into the prepared pan(s). Bake until golden and a cake tester comes out clean—about 50 minutes to an hour.

When the cakes are done, cool in the pans for 10 minutes; invert the cakes onto a wire rack and cool completely.

Glaze with Chocolate Ganache or Citrus Glaze (below).

• To toast the pistachios, spread on a baking sheet and place in a 350° oven. Bake, stirring once or twice, until fragrant and tinged with gold—about 5 minutes.
• I have not tried it, but I imagine that a 3/4 sized batch would be perfect for a 12-cup bundt pan.

Chocolate Ganache

3/4 c. Heavy Cream (6 oz.)
6 oz. good-quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 to 3 t. brandy

Place chocolate in a large bowl. Bring heavy cream to a simmer. Immediately pour cream over chocolate. Stir once to distribute cream and let sit for a minute or so to allow the heat to penetrate the chocolate. Whisk until chocolate is melted and ganache is smooth. Use right away, or allow to cool briefly before pouring over the cakes. Use an offset spatula if necessary to smooth the top. The glaze should drip down the sides of the cakes.

Citrus Glaze

2 1/2 c. powdered sugar
3 T. freshly squeezed orange juice
Zest of one orange
1 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice

Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and beat until smooth. Taste and correct the balance of flavor with lemon juice. The glaze should be thick....if too thin add more powdered sugar...if too thick add more orange or lemon juice. Pour half of the glaze over each cake and use an offset spatula to smooth the top and force the glaze to the edges where it should drip slowly and randomly down the sides of the cake.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Medley of Cauliflower & Brussels Sprouts with Bacon & Toasted Breadcrumbs

The recipe I'm posting today was inspired by a missed opportunity....a dish that I didn't taste when I had the chance. It was served at a Christmas party I attended in late January. If this seems like a strange time of year to be attending a holiday party, you should know that people who work in the food industry typically have their holiday parties after the holidays (everyone is too busy to have a party during the actual holiday season).   This year two of the holiday parties I wanted to attend were scheduled for the same Sunday evening in January. Not wanting to miss either party, my friend Nancy and I chose to attend both, leaving one early and arriving slightly late at the other. The first party was held by a good friend who owns a catering company. The food spread was amazing (it always is). But since I knew I was headed to another bountiful table, I ate lightly. While Nancy and I drove to the next party, we compared notes about what we had eaten at the first. Nancy wanted to know if I had tasted the medley of cauliflower and Brussels sprouts with bacon. I had not. She couldn't believe it (I must have a reputation when it comes to vegetables...and bacon...). She assured me that I had really missed out...that I would have loved it.

On a recent evening, as I was staring into the vegetable drawer in my refrigerator trying to come up with something for dinner, my eyes fell on a partial head of cauliflower and a handful of Brussels sprouts. Realizing I didn't have enough of either one to make an entrée (or even a side dish) for two, and remembering the dish that I had missed, I decided that I should take the opportunity presented to taste these two vegetables in combination.

At that point all I had to do was decide how I would prepare them. I'm fairly certain that my friend's dish was prepared by first roasting the vegetables. And I considered doing just that. But before I did, I thought I would poke around on line a bit to see how other chefs and cooks were treating this combination of vegetables. Much of the time, it seems these two vegetables make their appearance together in a gratin...something I will have to try...but the recipe that really caught my eye was a quick pasta built around a sauté of the two.

The sauté for our dinner came together easily and quickly. The pasta I had seen on-line included anchovies and breadcrumbs—a wonderful combination—but I wanted to use bacon (as my friend had in his side dish). So I started by crisping large squares of bacon (to match the large chunks of vegetables) and then used the bacon fat for the sautéing. Once the vegetables had acquired lovely golden brown patches from their sauté in the bacon fat, I added garlic and thyme, reduced the heat and covered the pan briefly so the vegetables could finish softening in a steamy environment. To finish, I returned the bacon to the pan along with a shower of toasted breadcrumbs.

If you have never made toasted breadcrumbs, it's just about the easiest thing in the world. Please don't use something out of a can or a box. Simply take some day old (or older) bread and grind it up in the food processor. A nice hearty loaf is preferable (one without olives, nuts, fruit, etc.), but anything other than a soft commercial sandwich bread will do. Grind the bread to the coarseness (or fineness) that you prefer. Spread it out on a baking sheet and toast it in a 350° oven until golden brown. You will have to stir it regularly or some of the crumbs will become charred before others have taken on any color at all. The toasting time will depend on the quantity of breadcrumbs and the freshness of the bread. Fresh bread takes longer (the crumbs have to dry out a bit before they will begin to brown). In general, expect it to take 10 to 20 minutes. When the crumbs are uniformly golden and crisp, drizzle with a small amount of olive oil—just enough to add a bit of moisture and flavor—and toss to distribute. I love finishing pasta dishes with toasted breadcrumbs—they add sweetness and crunch. So that I will always have some within easy reach, I occasionally make up a large batch, put them in a zip lock freezer bag and store them in my freezer. They keep very well for a month or two.

The cauliflower and Brussels sprouts were wonderful together. I liked this crunchy, salty, slightly bitter, slightly sweet combination so well on the pasta that we had it again last night as a side dish to go with a pork chop and some sweet potatoes.

As a nice bonus, this medley of sautéed vegetables turns out to be very practical for a small household. It is rare that I have the need in my household of two to use an entire head of cauliflower. So it is nice to have an idea to add to my regular rotation of winter recipes that uses up a small portion of a head. Although, I liked it so much that I may end up purchasing cauliflower for the express purpose of making this dish...

Medley of Sautéed Brussels Sprouts & Cauliflower
with Bacon & Toasted Breadcrumbs

1 1/2 to 2 T. olive oil
2 or 3 strips bacon (about 2 oz.), cut cross-wise into generous 1-inch squares
6 oz. Brussels Sprouts, trimmed and quartered (about 1 1/2 c.)
6 oz. Cauliflower florets (scant 1-inch sized—about 2 c.)
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 T. picked thyme, coarsely chopped
3 to 4 T. toasted breadcrumbs
1 to 2 T. minced Italian flat-leaf parsley

Warm 1 T. of olive oil over moderate heat in a 10-inch sauté pan. Add the bacon and cook, stirring regularly, until the bacon is beginning to crisp. Remove to a plate.

Increase the heat to medium-high. Add the sprouts and cauliflower. Sauté, tossing occasionally, until well-browned in spots—about 4 or 5 minutes. If the sautéing vegetables seem dry (this will depend on the fattiness of the bacon), drizzle in a bit of olive oil (1/2 T. or so). When the vegetables are golden, season with salt and add the garlic and thyme. Continue to sauté until fragrant—another minute or so.

Add a splash of water (about 1/4 cup) to the pan and toss to combine. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to very low. Cook until the vegetables are just tender to the tip of a knife....2 to 4 minutes. Uncover, increase the heat and cook until any remaining water has evaporated off and the vegetables are once again sizzling in the fat. Return the bacon to the pan and toss to combine. Add the breadcrumbs and parsley and toss again.

Taste and correct the seasoning. Remove from the heat, drizzle in a bit more olive oil if you like and serve.

To prepare as a pasta sauce:  About the time you cover the vegetables, drop the pasta in a large quantity of boiling salted water; cook until al dente. I used Farfalle (6 1/2 oz. for this amount of vegetables), but any short sturdy pasta would be fine. Scoop out and reserve a small amount of the pasta cooking water before draining the pasta. When the vegetables are tender and sizzling, add the bacon and reduce the heat to very low, keeping the vegetables and bacon warm while the pasta finishes cooking.  Add 3 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs to the cooked vegetables. Then toss in the drained pasta, followed by the parsley. Drizzle in 1 or 2 T. of olive oil and toss to coat. If the pasta still seems dry, add some of the pasta cooking liquid. Toss again. Taste and correct the seasoning. Divide among two plates and top with more breadcrumbs.

Printable Recipe

Friday, March 9, 2012

Pasta Puttanesca...and the Superiority of Salt-packed Anchovies

For all of my professional career whenever a recipe called for anchovies, I always reached for a tin of the oil-packed variety. At the restaurant where I received the bulk of my training we had access to an astonishing array of the highest quality ingredients...and we used oil-packed anchovies. The food we made there was truly excellent so I never felt very motivated to use anything else. Recently however, I made the switch to salt-packed anchovies...and I will never go back.

I made the decision to give salt-packed anchovies a try during a cooking class that I was co-teaching with a chef friend. She was making Caesar salad and had pulled out her big jar of salt-packed anchovies and was taking a moment to expound on how vastly superior they were to the oil packed variety. I have always thought my friend made a pretty tasty Caesar salad, and as I listened to her I began to wonder why I hadn't ever bothered to seek out salt-packed anchovies. I am, after all, a true believer when it comes to the superior results achieved when cooking is done with really good ingredients. I guess I had just never really believed that salt-packed could be that much better—at least not so much better that it would justify purchasing such a large amount. But I decided then and there to take the plunge and give them a try in my own cooking.

My experience with my new anchovies was completely unlike my disappointing experience with the supposedly superior imported oil packed tuna. When I opened my jar of salt-packed anchovies, I was first struck by the fact that there was no strong odor. The contents actually had a faint briny smell. When I pulled out one of the anchovies, it was immediately apparent that I was looking at a fish(!)...not a mystery strip of flesh that I had to take on faith as having once been a fish. After rinsing and deboning (easily done—gently pull each filet away from the skeleton, beginning at the head end), I found the individual filets to be plump and firm.

2 salt-packed anchovies (4 filets)
1 de-boned anchovy (2 filets)

The first thing I made with my new anchovies was Pasta Puttanesca. On the off chance that someone reading this has never heard of this rather unfortunately named dish, it is a highly seasoned pasta that can be made very quickly with the standard items on hand in an Italian pantry. The most frequent explanation of the name is that the ladies of the evening, for whom it is named, favored this dish because making it didn't keep them away from their clients for long. I found what sounds like a more likely explanation in Diane Seed's The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces. She explains that at one time brothels in Italy were owned by the state. Women who worked in the brothels were only allowed to shop once a week...making a repertoire of dishes that could be made with non-perishable items a necessity. This tomato sauce, heavily seasoned with garlic, anchovies, capers, olives and hot pepper flakes, fills the bill nicely. 

It was this dish that really convinced me to make the permanent leap to salt-packed anchovies. I have been making Pasta Puttanesca for years. And while always had never been this good before. All of the ingredients blended together into a flavorful, harmonious whole....whereas before, occasionally the anchovy taste was out front and center, screaming for attention. I couldn't believe the difference they made.

Salt-packed anchovies can be used exactly as you would use oil-packed—use one filet (half a fish) as you would use a single oil-packed anchovy. But since you will like them so much will probably want to use more. The salt packed anchovies impart the salty richness that one wants from an anchovy, without any of the faint rancidity that often accompanies the oil-packed variety (particularly those that have been opened and sitting for a while in the refrigerator).

As far as storage goes, salt-packed anchovies should be kept in their salt. If the ones you buy come in a tin, repack them in a jar (adding more salt to cover, if you like) for long-term storage in your fridge. Most sources will tell you that you can keep them for a year. Although, it seems to me they might keep indefinitely if kept chilled and well-covered with salt.

Besides the Pasta Puttanesca, I have used my new anchovies in one other pasta from my regular rotation—one that features broccoli. It was also excellent. I can't wait to try them in other old favorites. Perhaps I should make a Caesar salad next.

Pasta Puttanesca

1/4 c. Olive Oil
4 to 6 anchovy filets, minced
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 t. Red Pepper Flakes (or to taste)
28-ounce can Italian Plum Tomatoes, passed through the coarse disc of a food mill (or pulsed in the food processor)
2/3 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and cut into quarters
2 T. capers, drained and rinsed
1 lb. Penne pasta
1/4 to 1/2 c. minced flat-leaf parsley

Place the olive oil, along with the anchovy, garlic & peppers in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Stir to coat everything with the oil and cook until the garlic is beginning to turn golden, but is not brown—2 minutes or so. Add the tomatoes with the olives and capers. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sauce begins to thicken, about 10 to 15 minutes.  Taste for seasoning.

Meanwhile, bring 6 quarts of water to the boil in a large stock/pasta pot. Add 2 to 3 Tablespoons of salt. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain. Add the pasta to the sauce and toss well. Add the parsley and toss again. If you like, drizzle in a bit more olive oil to give the sauce a nice sheen. Serves 4 to 6

• Most of the flavors in this dish are “to taste”—so, add anchovy, garlic, pepper flakes, capers and olives in quantities to suit your taste.
• During the growing season, use fresh tomatoes that have been peeled and chopped. You will need about 2 pounds of tomatoes.

(Recipe adapted from Trattoria by Patricia Wells)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Quinoa Salad with Golden Beets & Avocado

I recently purchased a copy of Yotam Ottolenghi's new vegetable cookbook Plenty. I have occasionally picked it up to glance through it, but I really hadn't had time to examine it carefully until last week. What a pleasure it was to look through! Like his first book Ottolenghi: The Cookbook (co-authored with Sami Tamimi), Plenty is filled with page after page of recipes and photographs of the beautiful, exuberant and inspiring food served at the restaurant Ottolenghi in London.

I am particularly attracted to the interesting and inventive ways Ottolenghi uses grains in salads and pilafs, and when I turned to the chapter on grains I was immediately drawn in. On the first page was a colorful salad of quinoa and avocado, bursting with fava beans, radishes and purple radish cress. I really wanted to make that salad. Unfortunately I rarely have access to large quantities of fava beans...and in any case, they aren't in season yet. But avocados are in season, and I just happened to have a large bag of them sitting on the counter. I immediately began to think about how I might make a quinoa and avocado salad with other things that are in season.  

As I pondered the possibilities, beets immediately came to mind—gold ones, since red would dye the salad pink. I could of course have used red and made a layered salad, but I liked the idea of tossing everything together.

Avocado has an affinity for all kinds of citrus. The original salad used 2 whole lemons—peeled, segmented and juiced. I love this idea, but since beets are good with orange, I thought I would use oranges instead. This would give me the chunks of citrus (albeit, in a much milder form), and would repeat the golden color of the beets.

At this point, the rest of the salad fell into place. Shaved fennel is wonderful with both beets and orange. It adds sweetness and a needed crunchy element. Arugula adds freshness and a mild bite and olives provide some salty interest. To pull the salad together I added lemon juice, garlic and olive oil for balance, flavor and moisture.

My avocado and quinoa salad turned out to be astonishingly satisfying. It practically danced with flavor and texture. And the combination of the buttery avocado with the nutty quinoa was a revelation—I'm not sure I would have ever thought to put these two ingredients together. We enjoyed the salad for dinner one night and I had the leftovers for lunch the next day.

I was surprised at how well it held up. It would definitely make a good salad to pack in a lunch and it would be beautiful mounded on a large platter on a buffet.

The salad also turned out to be a perfect meal for an unexpectedly warm day. The thermometer hit 70° that day (on March 1!) and I picked the first of our daffodils (the earliest I ever remember having them).

I'm not saying that the salad wouldn't have tasted good if it had been cold and wet...but it wouldn't have been nearly as appropriate. Since the weather in Kansas City is highly variable in February and March—cold and icy one day, warm and windy the next—I'm sure this bright and hearty salad of winter one form or another....will show up again and again on my late winter table.

Quinoa Salad with Golden Beets & Avocado

4 medium-sized Golden Beets (about 2- to 2 1/2-inches in diameter), trimmed
Sherry vinegar, to taste
1 1/4 c. water
1 c. Quinoa, rinsed and drained
2 large oranges (I used Cara Cara)
2 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
2 medium Avocados
1 medium head fennel, trimmed, halved and cored
2 large handfuls Arugula (about 2 oz.)
1/2 c. pitted Kalamata olive, halved lengthwise
1/3 c. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Scrub beets and place in a shallow baking dish. Add a quarter inch of water, cover tightly with foil and transfer to a 375° oven. Roast until tender to the tip of a knife—this will be anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and fifteen minutes, depending on the beets. Uncover the beets and let cool. When cool enough to handle, trim the stem and root away. Rub the skin off using a paper towel. Cut the beets into 8 wedges and place in a small bowl. Taste. If the beets aren't very sweet, drizzle a little Sherry vinegar over them...this will accentuate their sweetness. (When I made this salad I added a teaspoon or two of Sherry vinegar). Season with salt and pepper. Set aside. (See notes.)

In a small saucepan with a tight fitting lid, bring the water to a boil over high heat. Add the quinoa along with a pinch of salt. Return to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and cook until tender—12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes. Spread the cooked quinoa out on a baking sheet to cool.

Zest one of the oranges and place the zest in a large bowl. Cut the stem and blossom ends from the oranges. Working with one orange at a time, place the fruit cut side down on the cutting board and following the contour of the fruit with your knife, remove the peel and cottony pith—working from top to bottom, and rotating the fruit as you go. When both oranges are all peeled, hold them one at a time over the bowl (to catch the juices), and carefully slice between the membranes and the fruit to release the segments. When all of the segments have been released, squeeze the membrane to release the juices into the work bowl. Repeat with the second orange.

Add the lemon juice and the garlic to the orange segments and juice. Halve the avocados and remove the pit. Scoop each avocado half out of its peel in one piece (use a large spoon). Place each half face down on the counter and cut cross-wise into 1/3-inch thick slices. Transfer all of the avocado slices to the bowl with the citrus and toss so the avocado slices are dressed with the citrus juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Using a mandoline, thinly shave the fennel halves cross-wise. If the arugula leaves are very large, run your knife through them a couple of times to create pieces that are more bite-sized. Place the beets, cooled quinoa, shaved fennel, arugula and olives in the bowl.

Drizzle the olive oil over all and season with salt & pepper. Gently toss the contents of the bowl, being careful not to break up the avocado. Taste and correct the seasoning with lemon juice, sherry vinegar, salt & pepper and olive oil—the salad should taste lively and bright. Serves 6.

• If you like, dress more arugula with a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of olive oil and salt & pepper. Serve the salad on a bed of the dressed arugula.
• The beets can be made ahead and refrigerated. If the beets are already roasted, this salad can be made from start to finish in about half an hour.
• Please taste and carefully adjust the lemon and sherry vinegar in this salad. The amounts needed will vary greatly depending on the variety and sweetness of the oranges and beets that you choose to use.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

English Gingerbread for an American Kitchen

One of my favorite recipes for gingerbread is English cookbook author Delia Smith's "Damp Gingerbread".  I first discovered this recipe in Laurie Colwin's essay—More About Gingerbread—published in the January 1993 issue of Gourmet Magazine.  You can also find it in Colwin's wonderful little book, More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen.  Colwin description of this gingerbread—"moist and velvety"—would probably have been enough to get me to try it.  But the fact that the recipe was of British origin really tipped the scales in its favor.  When I found the recipe I had only recently returned from cooking school in London and was missing many of the foods that I had discovered there.  I have made this cake many times since.  Even though I will never stop collecting recipes for gingerbread (I love gingerbread), this one is especially nice—simple, spicy, "moist and velvety."

Recently I was struck by the desire to make the recipe for "Damp Gingerbread" a little more user friendly for American cooks.  One of the things that makes this recipe particularly British is that it uses Lyle's Golden Syrup.  Golden syrup is a British product—a syrup produced during the sugar refining process.  It is sometimes called "refiner's syrup".  To my knowledge, there really isn't an American equivalent.  

Molasses—also produced during the refining process—is what Americans typically use in gingerbread.  Less sweet than golden syrup, molasses is also much darker and has a slightly bitter edge to it.  American gingerbread recipes are tailored to work with the characteristics of molasses....not refiner's syrup.  In order to make this version of gingerbread, you really do need Lyle's syrup.  

Finding the syrup is not too big of a hardship—it is widely available in the states.  The problem arises from the fact that it is expensive and the original recipe requires just a bit more than one jar.  If you want to make this cake, you have to purchase two jars...and then you will have a lot left...but not enough to make another cake...  There are of course other things to do with golden syrup—most Americans just aren't in the habit of doing these things.  Altering the recipe to use exactly one jar of Lyle's Golden syrup seemed like a good way to make this recipe more appealing to American bakers. 

After several trials, I did finally come up with a recipe that uses one jar and has the taste and texture that I was aiming for.  However, I find that I am unable to explain why my recipe works.  Gingerbread, as it turns out, is a deceptively simple cake.  This particular one is astonishingly easy to make (using something Irish Cookbook author Darina Allen calls the "molten method"—a simple two step operation of mixing melted fat and sugar syrup with the dry ingredients, followed by the egg and dairy), but understanding what is going on in the realm of chemistry is beyond me.  I found that the right flavor is dependant not only on the sugar syrup (or molasses) and spices, but also on the interaction of the leavener with the (acidic) syrup/molasses.  The unfortunate reality is that many recipes for gingerbread produce very tasty cakes that sink in the middle.  (If you take a random look at blog posts on gingerbread you will frequently find statements to this effect: "Tasted great....sank in the middle.")  Typically a sunken center is a sign of over-leavening.  Adjusting the leavener to prevent this produces a cake with a slightly dryer texture and a flavor that is disappointingly mild—which I find to be unacceptable.  

If you make the gingerbread recipe as printed below, it will produce a "moist and velvety" cake with the intense flavor that you expect from gingerbread.  It is also possible that it will dip just slightly in the center.  Since in the process of testing the recipe I produced several cakes that had what I could only call craters in the center, I consider this a victory.  If you make the cake...and it does sink a isn't the end of the world.  This is such a homey sort of cake, it is unlikely that you would ever present it at the table as a whole cake.  Certainly anyone enjoying the slices you give them would never know that there was a slight dip in the center.  You could also cover the cake with a nice frosting of some kind—in which case the cake could be made to appear level.  As a bonus, the recipient of the center square would get a bit more frosting than everyone else.  I can assure you that I would be more than happy to take that piece. 

English Gingerbread Cake

1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter
1 jar (11 fl.oz./1 1/3 cup) Lyle's Golden Syrup
2 c. (230 g.) all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
1 T. ground ginger
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. cloves
1 egg
1 egg yolk
3/4 c. (180 g.) buttermilk

Butter a 9-inch square baking pan, line with parchment, butter the parchment and then flour the pan.  Set aside.

Melt the butter with the golden syrup in a medium saucepan and set over moderate heat.

In a small bowl, whisk the egg and yolk together.  Whisk in the buttermilk.  Set aside.

Place the dry ingredients in a large bowl and whisk to combine; make a "well" in the center. Pour the hot butter/syrup mixture into the "well". 

Whisk the dry ingredients into the syrup mixture, moving from the center out, until the batter is smooth and well-blended.  Switch to a rubber spatula and stir the egg/buttermilk mixture into the batter until thoroughly combined.  

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. 

Transfer to a 350° oven and bake until the cake has just begun to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean—about 40 to 45 minutes.  Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes. 

Run a knife around the outside of the pan and turn out onto a wire rack.  Cool the cake, right side up, on a wire rack.   Serves 9 to 12.