22 February 2010

A winter salad to love

Tossing a handful of decent greens, chopped veggies, nuts and a drizzle of olive oil will no doubt produce a respectable salad. But when you stop thinking salads are limited to raw vegetables, great things will happen, especially in winter when the bounty of summer seems only a distant memory.

I was to bring salad along to two different events over the weekend, and mostly because I'm lazy, I didn't make the time to shop especially for those events. So, I decided that some beets, arugula and blood oranges would have to do because that's what I had in the house. And I was not disappointed after roasting the beets, pickling some onions and zesting that blood orange.

The salad was delicious with the sweet beets and blood oranges balanced with the peppery arugula and the slight tang of red wine vinegar from the pickled onions. Not bad for lazy winter day, eh?

Another perk of this salad was how well it traveled. I took it about three blocks down the street in the basket of the jogger stroller for one event and then about 50 miles away to another tucked in a bag in the back of the car. All of the toppings rode snugly in half-pint jars sealed with a lid, the onions still swimming in vinegar and the oranges in olive oil. Just before chow time, toss them all in a large bowl with arugula and enjoy. Winter may not be such a bad season after all.

Roasted Beet, Blood Orange and Arugula Salad

2 medium-sized beets, peeled and trimmed
1 large blood orange, zested then segmented
1/2 small onion, thinly sliced
4 to 5 handfuls of arugula
red wine vinegar
olive oil
salt and pepper
cheese (optional) such as Beechers or other farmhouse cheddar broken into small clumps

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place the beets in a baking dish, wide end down, then drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast beets until tender throughout, about 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven and completely cool.

Place thinly sliced onions in a small bowl or half-pint jar. Add just enough red wine vinegar to cover onions. Set aside for at least one hour, preferably a couple of hours. Onions will be limp and pink when ready.

Zest the blood orange and put zest in another small bowl or half-pint jar. Add about two tablespoons olive oil to zest. Add a healthy pinch of salt and a little pepper. Segment the orange and transfer the segments directly into the jar with the oil mixture. Cover and set aside. Refrigerate if it is more than two hours before serving.

Thinly slice cooled beets either on a mandolin slicer or carefully with a chef's knife. Set aside beets, covered and refrigerated until ready to eat.

To prepare salad, let any refrigerated ingredients come up to room temperature. Then place arugula in a large bow. Dump in the orange and oil mixture. Add beets, separating as you go, as the thin slices will stick together. Pull the onions out of the vinegar with a fork and add to the greens. The vinegar on the onions will be enough for the dressing. Add cheese if you want then toss the whole thing together. And at the end of the meal, I suggest using a chunk of bread to mop up the beet-orange-vinegar liquid that will coat the bottom of the bowl.

15 February 2010

A cookie recipe to write down

It's pretty common around our house that when about 9 pm rolls around and we're snuggled on the couch enjoying an episode of whatever TV show via Netflix has us captivated at the moment, Seth will look at me and ask, "Do we have any dessert?"

We often settle for a sliced pear, toast with Nutella or ice cream topped with strawberry jam. But some nights we eat warm chocolate chip cookies, and those are the nights when just about everything in the world seems right, even if for just a moment.

Seth asked for cookies on a recent evening when I had none to offer. But the next rainy afternoon seemed like just the day for baking cookies. It was then that I realized I didn't really have a go-to recipe for chocolate chip cookies. It's one of those recipes that you can find anywhere, like say the back of a bag of chocolate chips, so why would you need to write one down? Well, it turns out there is a good reason.

Most of those standard recipes will suffice. They'll produce a nice golden cookie studded with chocolate. But every once in a while we eat a chocolate chip cookie that reminds us that even the ordinary can be extraordinary.

I remembered a recipe I'd read nearly two years ago from the New York Times about the best chocolate chip cookie. A quick online search and I'd found it precisely. Although I didn't bake them when I first discovered this recipe, I remembered what set them apart -- a sprinkle of sea salt atop each mound of cookie dough. The recipe also calls for cake flour. Cake flour has a lower protein content than, say, all purpose flour. The lower protein content means the flour will produce less gluten and, in turn, be lighter and fluffier than higher-protein flours. I used cake flour, and I was rewarded with a soft cookie that spread nicely in the warm oven.

Any cookie, no matter the recipe, just tastes better warm, so bake only what you need, freeze the remaining dough, already mounded into cookies. That way, you just pull them out and bake one, two or twelve cookies at a time.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Jacques Torres Originally published in the New York Times, 2008

45 minutes (for 1 6-cookie batch), plus at least 24 hours’ chilling

2 cups minus 2 tablespoons

(8 1/2 ounces) cake flour

1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt

2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter

1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar

2 large eggs

2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract

1 1/4 pounds bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content (see note)

Sea salt.

1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.

4. Scoop 6 3 1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin.

Yield: 1 1/2 dozen 5-inch cookies.

* When I made them, I halved the entire recipe and made smaller cookies (about 3 inches) and wound up with about 18 cookies.

08 February 2010

Grapefruit Cake

I was intrigued recently when a friend on Facebook updated her status to say she was making a grapefruit cake. I usually just slice mine in half and sprinkle a little sugar on top for a winter breakfast treat. But when I started to think of using grapefruit just as you would any other citrus, I got excited. Cakes, sorbets, salad dressings and fish dishes. This is clearly not just a breakfast food.

Thankfully Ellen responded promptly to my Facebook request for the recipe and within a day I had one baking in my oven. After reading through the recipe, I quickly realized this wasn't some sexy cake with pillowy peaks of icing that belonged on the pages of a food magazine. It was a humble cake, baked in loaf pan and drizzled with a thin icing.

The cake reminded me of a lemon bundt cake my grandmother made a few times, but that cake had an overpowering lemon flavor that must have come from Jell-O powder or something else clearly not once a lemon.

But this cake was better. In fact, the grapefruit flavor was very subtle and grew slightly stronger in the days after it was baked. That humble little cake was really beautiful with its delicate, dense and slightly sweet flavor. The interior was peppered with grapefruit zest and the top was sticky moist with a grapefruit syrup.

The fact that the cake resembled a loaf of sweet bread was alright by me. It made me feel a little less indulgent as I shoved a piece in my mouth right over the sink for a mid-morning snack.

Call it dessert or call it breakfast, but this is a cake recipe to keep around.

Grapefruit Cake
Thomas Keller’s Ad
Hoc at Home

2 cups flour
1 ¾ teaspoon baking powder
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 eggs
1 cup whole milk
¾ cup canola oil
1 tablespoon grated pink grapefruit zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Grapefruit Syrup
1 cup strained fresh pink grapefruit juice
2/3 cup granulated sugar

Grapefruit Icing
¾ cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fresh grapefruit juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 10x4 or 9x5 inch pan or lightly oil it.

Sift flour and baking powder. Stir in the salt. Set aside.

Combine the sugar and eggs in a mixer and beat at medium speed for 3 minutes until the mixture is thickened. Beat in the milk, then the oil, grapefruit zest and vanilla. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture, mixing just to incorporate.

Spread batter in the pan. Put the pan on a small baking sheet and bake for 30 min. Turn the pan around and bake for another 30 min. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack.

Meanwhile, combine the grapefruit juice and sugar in a small saucepan, bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Simmer one minute. Set aside.

When you remove the cake from the oven, using a long skewer, poke deep holes every ¾ inch or so all over the top. Immediately begin brushing the syrup over the cake. It may be necessary to wait for the syrup to soak in, but continue until you’ve used all the syrup. Let the cake cook for about 10 min.

Unmold the cake onto a cooling rack. Turn it right side up, and let cool to room temperature.

Stir the powdered sugar and grapefruit juice together in a bowl until smooth. Using a soon, drizzle the icing on a diagonal over the top of the cake, allowing it to drip down the sides. Slice and serve. Enjoy!

01 February 2010

Tortillas + Fish = Quick Dinner

Tortillas have been a pantry staple in my house for some time, and lately I've been reaching for them more and more.

Add avocado and salt for a tasty snack. Or scrambled eggs and sharp cheddar for breakfast, or cut into strips and pan fry for a soup or casserole topping. There's good reason tortillas are a staple to Mexican cuisine -- fresh, fried or stale, they're the start of many a meal.

They saved me one night last week when I was staring at the fridge trying to decide what to cook while my son, starved for attention, tugged at my leg. I needed to come up with some dinner, and quick.

That's when I thought: tortillas + fish + veggies + canned beans.

I'm not offering a formal recipe, but more of an account of my meal. The idea is that the dish is easy to make and flexible, so I give you the basics and then you adapt it to your own pantry and skills set. Simple enough?

I sliced a white fish fillet into strips about 1/2 inch thick. Then, the fish was tossed in a mixture of mostly cornmeal with a little flour, salt, cumin and coriander -- that's right, skip the messy, wet step of typical frying. Preheat a frying pan with a shallow (about 1/4 inch) dose of oil like vegetable or canola. Once the oil is hot, drop the fish strips in. Fry until golden, and then turn to cook second side (just a couple of minutes total cooking time).

I placed my fish strips on warm tortilla along with some sauteed veggies, although shredded cabbage would have been tasty, too. Then I topped the whole thing with a sauce made from mashed avocado, lime juice and yogurt. Warmed, canned beans made it a square meal.