Thursday, November 24, 2011

Apple and Cheese Empanadas

Empanadas may not sound like traditional Thanksgiving fare, but they fit right in on tonight’s plate. Apples, raisins, cheese, what’s not to like?

I cheated a bit and bought pre-made frozen empanada wrappers (Goya Discos). They were easy to use and baked up wonderfully – flaky, tender, delicious.

As is always the case with simple recipes, the quality of the ingredients goes a long way. We bought fantastic apples and cheese at Union Square Market – the Newton Pippin apples from Red Jacket Orchards (which my dad called “the best apple he’s ever eaten”) were tart and crisp with a startlingly bright and intense flavor, and the Dorset cheese from Consider Bardwell Farm melted beautifully into the filling, and had a dish-defining but by no means overwhelming funkiness to it. I can’t wait to make these again.

Apple and Cheese Empanadas

¼ cup golden raisins
3 medium tart, crisp apples, such as Newton Pippin or Granny Smith
2 Tablespoons butter
½ cup Calvados
¼ cup grated soft and pungent cheese, such as Dorset, Gruyere, or Raclette
¼ tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp cumin
¼ tsp kosher salt
6 Goya Discos, or other empanada wrappers
1 egg yolk
Lemon wedges, for serving

1.) Place the raisins in a shallow bowl, cover with Calvados (if ½ cup Calvados does not cover the raisins, add more) and set aside. If you can, do this a few hours in advance to cooking, so the raisins plump up.

2.) Peel, core, and finely dice the apples

3.) Place the butter in a pan over medium-high heat, and let it cook until it has browned (the foam should be uniformly golden brown). Add the apples, stir to combine.

4.) Cook until the apples are soft and nicely browned.

5.) Add the Calvados and raisins. NOTE: THERE MAY BE MASSIVE FLAMES. You are flambe-ing the Calvados, the flames will die down when the alcohol burns off. Just be prepared. Make sure there is nothing flammable above or near the frying pan. If flames don’t erupt when you add the Calvados, induce them by tipping the pan so that the gas flame catches the alcohol, or, if you have an electric range, light the alcohol using a long match.

6.) Once things have calmed down, season to taste with cinnamon, cumin, and salt. The amounts listed above are approximate. You should taste the seasonings, but the apples and raisins should not be overwhelmed.

7.) Scrape the apple mixture into a large bowl, add the cheese and stir to combine.

8.) Preheat the oven to 400°.

9.) Lay out the empanada wrappers and place a heaping tablespoon of the filling in the center of each one.

10.) Fold an empanada in half, cupping it in your left hand. Wet a finger on your right hand and run it along the outer edge of the wrapper. Gently press the two halves of the wrapper together, forming a half-moon shape. Starting at one corner, fold a small section of dough over and gently squeeze it. Fold a second, overlapping crimp, press, then repeat until the entire empanada is sealed.

11.) Poke a few holes in the empanada with the tines of a fork. Whisk the egg yolk, then brush a small amount of yolk onto the top of the empanada (this will give it a nice lustre when you bake it).

12.) Repeat with the remaining empanadas, place on a parchment or wax paper lined cookie sheet and bake 10-15 minutes, until the tops are nicely browned.

13.) Serve with lemon wedges.

Cranberry-Chipotle Glaze

I loved how this sauce turned out. It paired well with duck, but I could see it as both a general-use hot sauce (on chicken wings, fried eggs, whatever) and an alternative to cranberry sauce on the Thanksgiving table.

Cranberry-Chipotle Glaze

½ cup cranberries, picked over (remove any mushy cranberries. To test the quality of a firm cranberry, drop it on a hard surface. If it bounces, it’s a good one).
1 chipotle pepper packed in adobo sauce, plus 1 Tablespoon adobo
¼ cup grade B maple syrup
Zest of 1 navel orange
Juice of 1 navel orange
Zest of ½ lemon
½ cup mulled cider (or, if you haven’t been mulling, regular cider)
¼ cup Calvados
Pinch kosher salt

1.) Chop the chipotle pepper, then combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan.

2.) Cook until the cranberries burst and are very soft. Strain through a fine meshed sieve, pushing down on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible.

Spice Steamed Duck with Cranberry-Chipotle Glaze

Happy Thanksgiving! It was a wonderful day, I woke up, cooked, ate, cooked, ate, cooked, ate, ate and now I’m thinking of fixing myself a drink. Beethoven’s been on the radio all day, and my parents have been great company. The meal was quite non-traditional, but I tried to include some Thanksgiving flavors (cranberry, apple, cinnamon, clove), and, while it wasn’t perfect (it’s never perfect), I have to say I was very happy with how everything turned out. The first post will be on the bird, then the cranberry sauce, followed by the empanadas, and finally a note on Jean Georges Vongerichten, whose new cookbook was my source for today’s breakfast, dessert, and snack recipes.

So, the duck. This method for cooking duck is from Mark Bittman’s fantastic How To Cook Everything. The bird is poked all over with small holes, then steamed with spices in the steaming water, and then glazed and roasted, resulting in flavorful and tender meat. A lot of the fat cooks off in the steaming, although there was still plenty of fat left on the bird (we ate around it, mostly).

I believe I made the following mistakes: 1.) the duck wasn’t far enough away from the boiling water during the steaming (i.e. the roasting rack wasn’t high enough), so parts of the bird were actually submerged in the water, causing meat and skin to fall off, 2.) The holes I poked in the skin weren’t deep enough, 3.) There wasn’t enough salt on the bird (these last two reasons probably both contributed to the lack of crispyness). Still – yum. Duck is hard to screw up, and the flavor combinations from the spice-steam and the glaze were very nice.

Spice Steamed Duck with Cranberry-Chipotle Glaze

10 whole pieces star anise (or enough broken pieces to make up 10 whole)
25 pods green cardamom
2 sticks cinnamon
20 cloves
1 4 ½ pound duck
1 recipe Cranbery-Chipolte Glaze (see above)

1.) In a medium skillet, toast the spices over medium-high heat until they are browned and fragrant. Grind the spices into a powder using a spice grinder (i.e. a coffee grinder which you only use for spices), a mortar and pestle, or improvised grinding tools (I used a cast iron pan and an ice cream scoop).

2.) Remove any giblets from inside the duck, cut off any excess fat, and, using the point of a sharp knife, prick the skin all over with small holes, being careful not to pierce the meat (which is about ¼ inch from the surface of the bird).

3.) In the bottom of a roasting pan, combine the spices and enough water to fill the pan up 1 to 2 inches.

4.) Place a rack in the pan, then place the duck on the rack, breast side up. Cover and set the pan over two burners, both on high.

5.) Put a kettle of water up to boil. When the water in the roasting pan gets low, replace it with boiling water, then put another kettle up. Continue this process for 45 minutes, then remove the duck from the heat and let rest for at least 15 minutes.

6.) Preheat the oven to 375°. Place the duck, breast side down, on a rack in the roasting pan. Brush all over with the glaze.

7.) Roast 15 minutes, brush with glaze, flip it over, brush again with glaze, then raise the heat to 425°. Roast another 15 minutes. Carve and serve with the leftover glaze in a serving pitcher.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Calvados-Spiked Mulled Apple Cider

I’m home in NYC with my parents for Thanksgiving, and it’s just the three of us. For dinner tomorrow, a whole turkey seemed like way too much food, so we decided to go with duck. The menu plan blossomed out from there, and I’m absurdly excited to spend most of tomorrow cooking (spice steamed and cranberry-chipotle glazed duck, apple and cheese empanadas, braised bok choy, and a tarte tatin for dessert). This weekend, I’ll post all the recipes, with the exception of the tarte tatin which comes from this cookbook (although I will write a post on the genius behind the book).

While I was planning the menu, I tried to include the same ingredients in multiple recipes, for two reasons. One: shared flavors in each dish will help give the meal cohesion, and two: I didn’t want to spend too much money on ingredients that my parents will never use – while they love food as much as I do, they prefer eating it to cooking it, and every time I come home I see that the mirin, or the chestnut honey, or the cheesecloth that I bought ages ago is still sitting in the pantry.

So, here’s a recipe I decided to make when I realized that I’d have leftover spices and Calvados tomorrow (Calvados in an apple brandy, which I got excited about when I read this excellent article about it in the New York Times). The duck will be steamed with these spices, the empanadas and the bok choy will both be flavored with Calvados, and the glaze basically includes one of these drinks dumped into it. I just drank one, and it was delicious and a half. No single flavor stood out (well, apple, but that doesn’t count), and they all blended into warming, lingering complexity. Feel free to omit the alcohol, but, let me tell you, the brandy really makes this drink special.

[Sorry about the lack of pictures for the next few entries, I left my camera in Syracuse, yeesh]

Calvados-Spiked Mulled Apple Cider

10 whole pieces star anise (or enough broken pieces to make up 10 whole)
2 sticks cinnamon
40 cloves
15 pods green cardamom
½ gallon apple cider (I used Red Jacket Orchards cider. It’s available all over NYC, including the Union Square Market, which is, in fact, the most magical place on Earth)
5 long strips of orange zest, removed with a vegetable peeler, any white pith scraped off with a sharp knife (the pith is bitter and adds no flavor, it should never be included in any recipe that I know of)
3 long strips of lemon zest, removed with a vegetable peeler, any white pith scraped off with a sharp knife
Calvados, to taste (probably one or two shots per mug of cider), I used Christian Drouin Sélection, which was reasonably priced and wonderful.

1.) In a medium pot, toast the star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom over medium-high heat until they are browned and fragrant.

2.) Add the cider and citrus zests and bring to the liquid to a simmer. Do not let it boil, as this will extract all sorts of bitter compounds from the spices.

3.) Simmer for 2 hours, adjusting the heat if necessary. Taste periodically – you may want to increase or decrease the simmering time, depending on how strongly spiced you like your cider.

4.) Remove from the heat. Strain through a fine-meshed strainer. Add Calvados to mugs, then pour in hot cider, stir and serve (note: if you are reheating, heat the cider, then add the Calvados. Make sure it’s not scalding hot, as the alcohol could evaporate off).

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sweet Potato Coconut Drop Biscuits

We had a lot of fun making some cookies today. Daina had the great idea of organizing a cookie party, which focused around baking and decorating some delicious cut-outs. On the side, we decided to wing it with some sweet potato coconut drop biscuits, adapted from a recipe Daina had on hand.

I almost never bake by myself. It's not worth it (or often, not possible) to bake a single-person-sized batch of anything, and most baked goods get exponentially worse as they age (a loaf of crusty bread, right out of the oven, tastes even better than it smells. Give me a bowl of garlic-rosemary olive oil for dipping and I'll call you on the way to Heaven. And don't talk to me about warm Tollhouse cookies. Nothing should be that delicious). But baking in groups is wonderful. Many hands make light work, everyone gets a few warm cookies, and no one leaves with an aching stomach.

If I were to sit down and come up with a sweet potato coconut cookie, this might not be the exact recipe I'd land on. I'm posting this recipe because a.) I will never post an untested recipe on this site, b.) they were delicious,  c.) they are quite a bit healthier and lighter than the cookies I might have baked and d.) these cookies were one of those "what do we have lying around? OK let's use that!" recipes - it's one of my favorite ways to cook, and is worth preserving for posterity.

That being said, here are a few changes you might try:

For more coconut flavor: (and a much heavier cookie) you could try experimenting with coconut oil (1/4 cup butter and 1/4 cup coconut oil?) and/or mash the sweet potatoes with 1/3 cup of coconut milk.

Instead of slivered almonds: you could use toasted, chopped pecans (or walnuts) and maple chips (I don't love maple chips, because they are artificially flavored. Born and raised in New Hampshire (the home of the world's best maple syrup - don't listen to those shifty Vermonters), I get a bit feisty when it comes to real maple syrup). In lieu of the chips, you could try mixing in chunks of maple candy and see what happens. The candy would melt quite a bit more than chips, possibly leaving holes in the cookies, I'm not sure. I couldn't find any recipes using maple candy chunks online, so let me know if you ever try it out (I'll let you know if I try it, too!). Make sure to stir in the candy at the end, after the batter is mixed, otherwise it will break up and you're just adding maple sugar (not that there's anything wrong with that).

That being said, here's the recipe, exactly as we made it.

Sweet Potato Coconut Drop Biscuits:

1 1/4 cup mashed sweet potatoes, we used 2 medium potatoes
1/4 cup almond milk (milk would also work)
1 1/4 cup Bisquick (or the Bisquick substitute we used, see below NOTE: if using Bisquick substitute, add an additional 2 tblsp butter (or oil))
2 tsp coconut extract
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup raw sugar (white sugar would also work fine)

1.) Preheat oven to 350.

2.) Mash the potato flesh with the milk. We used microwave-ready sweet potatoes, but you could bake them as well (which results in more evenly baked flesh, we had some hard, undercooked chunks, but that wasn't an issue since we only needed 1 1/4 cups). Prick the potatoes all over with a paring knife (or the tip of a larger knife) and roast on baking sheets at 450 for 35-45 minutes. Make sure to put the potatoes on a baking sheet! They ooze out dark, caramelized sugars, which are easy enough to clean off sheets, but a real pain to get off the bottom of your oven.

3.) Toast the nuts by placing them in a single layer in a frying pan and cooking over medium high heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until lightly browned and fragrant (if you are using slivered almonds, you won't be able to put them in a single layer, and therefore should shake more frequently, this is one reason to use chopped nuts instead). Remove any burned nuts as they will add quite a bit of bitterness to the dough. Note: this is a technique everyone should master. There are very few recipes which include nuts that won't be improved by toasting them first.

4.) Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer until well combined and smooth. The dough should be sticky, but not too sticky. If you tap it gently with your finger, no dough should stick, but if you press down more heavily you should get a nice coating of orange cookie dough.

5.) Using two tablespoons, form drop biscuits by scooping a spoonful of dough, then scraping it onto a greased baking pan with the second spoon (note, if you're having a lot of trouble getting the dough off the second spoon, it's probably too wet, and needs more flour). The cookies should be about 1 inch apart, as they will expand while baking.

6.) Top each cookie with a sprinkling of raw sugar, and bake in 350 oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the bottoms are nicely browned, and a toothpick comes out clean from the center of a cookie. Feel free to taste-test for done-ness.

7.) Cool slightly, enjoy warm and with friends.

Bisquick substitute, makes  about 2 cups:
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tblsp baking powder
1 tsp salt

1.) Combine all ingredients.

Cruelty and Conscience

Foie Gras has come up twice in the past two days: I read this New York Times article on Ludo Lefebvre's all-foie tasting menu at his restaurant, Animal, in anticipation of California's foie gras ban taking effect, and I was sent this menu by a friend who's visiting Montreal (healthy!)

It seems to me that the wrong discussion is taking place. It shouldn't be a question whether or not shoving a tube down a goose's throat in order to force feed it and fatten up its delicious liver is cruel. Of course it's cruel, and of course it hurts the animal. Anyone who argues otherwise is lying or deluded. It's unfortunate that the above article's only pro-foie voices are either arguing this illogical point or are comically obnoxious (although earnest and fiercely passionate) frenchmen (an impression I got of Mr. Lefebvre from Top Chef Masters, and which this article cements - really, Ludo, foie gras is to the French as kimchi is to Koreans? You're comparing an absurdly rich, decadent delicacy to pickled cabbage which is eaten with almost every meal? REALLY?)

Here's what bugs me about this whole discussion: yes, there is no way, by definition, to make cruelty free foie gras, and I'm certainly open to arguments for vegetarianism, or to limiting ourselves to cruelty free meat, or dramatically reducing our meat consumption. But the large (LARGE) majority of meat that we eat (and yes, I am part of we) is raised in absolutely horrifying conditions, and banning foie does not seem like a step in the right direction, to me. It's like McDonalds having carb-free options - putting an easy band-aid on a relatively small problem can actually divert attention away from the bigger, tougher, more deeply entrenched problems. Banning foie gras might make us feel good, but by doing so, we're giving ourselves permission to ignore the fact that the cow that died for our burger has spent it's life in a place nowhere less horrifying than Hell on Earth.

It may seem silly posting about such a high end ingredient. I'm certainly no Fat Cat; I've only ever tasted real foie once, around five years ago (full disclosure, it was one of the best dishes I've ever eaten: a "Foie Gras Brulée" at Jean Georges in NYC (if you're ever in New York, go to the Nougatine room at Jean Georges for lunch - $32 for three shockingly good courses - it's one of the best deals in the city), which was a piece of silken, luscious foie gras with a crispy bruléed crust, paired with an sticky-sweet, bitter grapefruit marmalade which scraped the fat from the mouth, so that every bite of the foie was just like that revelatory first one), but it's hard to even say (or type) "foie gras" without sounding like a pompous ass.

I guess I'm trying to use this issue to illustrate a bigger point - we're in a world that needs changing. To fix the way we think of and consume food, we need to fundamentally change our attitude towards health and consumption, to cross a massive chasm. I worry that acts like the banning of foie gras are tiny steps towards that chasm, getting us closer to the edge, shrinking the distance we have left to get a running start and, someday soon, leap across.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Peach Cobbler with Crumb Topping and Cinnamon

It’s October, and it’s raining, what better day to think about cooking fruit (with cinnamon, of course)? I’m not much of a baker, so I really love cobblers. They’re delicious, but they’re also very forgiving. Unlike most deserts (and like most savory dishes) you can taste the filling as you go, and adjust the seasonings if you need to.

Last night, I made a peach cobbler, so that’s the recipe I’ve included. However, feel free to experiment with it, even if it’s your first time making a cobbler. The recipe below is relatively bare bones, so I wouldn’t recommend omitting anything (unless you change the type of fruit, or you’re a crazy person and really don’t like cinnamon), but here are some ideas on things you could add:

Change the fruit:
Apples are an obvious choice, but pears, plums, cherries, all sorts of berries, or even mangos could be great. Combinations are fun too, go nuts.

Change the dried seasonings:
Cinnamon goes with almost any fruit, but there are lots of other wonderful autumn-y seasonings. Nutmeg is classic, as are allspice (which is actually a dried berry, not a combination of spices as some people (e.g. me, up until embarrassingly recently) think) dried ginger, cardamom, and mace. A hint of cayenne pepper can be delicious, too. You can either mix spices together so that they blend and complement each other, or emphasize one. Ginger and pear is wonderful, (you could add minced, fresh ginger, as well!) as is apple-cardamom or cherry-cinnamon-cayenne.

If you add dried seasonings to the fruit mixture, add them to the crumb topping, too!

Change the liquid:
There are lots of wonderful alcoholic liquids which could add tons of flavor to your cobbler. Dry white wines can add an elegant touch (i.e. less homey, you might even think about taking out the cinnamon (GASP) and adding ginger), and fruit-flavored vodka (either the fruit you’re using or a complementary fruit) can add a lot of flavor. I’d use vodka, rather than rum, because when the alcohol cooks off you’re left with a more pure fruit flavor. There are also some amazingly delicious liqueurs out there, such as Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur (with pears!), St. Germain elderflower liqueur (with blackberries!) or any number of orange liqueurs (with anything!) such as Cointreau. Or you could try apples and bourbon, or mangoes and Pyrat rum.

Change the sweetener:
In addition to the white sugar, you could try different types of honey, maple syrup, or sugar (palm sugar, brown sugar, etc.). If you add a liqueur, that will also sweeten the cobbler.

An IMPORTANT note on “taste and adjust seasoning”:
You might see this phrase in a lot of recipes, including my own (often it refers to salt and pepper, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion, for a later post). When you taste your cobbler, you should adjust proportions in two main ways:

Adjusting for taste balance:
The cobbler should not be too bitter, too sour, or too sweet. In general, if you taste an unpleasant bitterness, add sugar. If you add acid (i.e. sourness, a small squeeze of lemon juice, in this case) the flavors will “brighten”, becoming more sharp and distinct. If the filling tastes at all bitter or sour, or if it tastes too sweet (you’ll feel the sweetness in the back of your throat), change the ratios and re-taste.

I strongly recommend a very fun experiment—make a bowl full of a test “cobbler” in the microwave—just water and diced apples. Add sugar, lemon juice, and cinnamon (which is bitter), a tiny bit at a time, and keep tasting to see what the effects are (drink water in between tasting). What is the interplay of sour, bitter, and sweet? How do they interact? Can you find the perfect balance?

Adjusting for flavor balance:
You should be able to taste every flavor in the dish—cinnamon, honey, citrus, and fruit. If you can’t taste something, add a little bit more. This is one of the hardest things about cooking, especially because the balance can change as the dish cooks more (for example, the peach flavor will get more pronounced as it bakes). Professional chefs talk about “layers of flavor” in a dish, where each ingredient hits the palate, one after another, with every bite.

Because I had to pretty dramatically adjust the taste and flavor balances, the below measurements are inexact. I also made an enormous-party sized cobbler, so I’ve halved the recipe.

Peach Cobbler with Crumb Topping and Cinnamon:

For the filling:
7 large, somewhat ripe (but not too soft) peaches. Ideally, they should be about two days away from ripeness.
Zest of 1 naval orange
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp lemon juice
Juice of ½ naval orange
¼ c white sugar
¼ c honey
½ tsp cinnamon. Ideally Saigon cinnamon.
1 tbsp cornstarch

For the topping:
¼ cup (½ stick) butter, at room temperature
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup light brown sugar, tightly packed
½ tsp cinnamon.

1.) Preheat the oven to 400°.

2.) Peel the peaches and chop them into bite sized pieces.

3.) Combine all filling ingredients except for the cornstarch in a large pot, and cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until the peaches soften and are heated through.

4.) Taste and adjust seasoning (see above!). Add the cornstarch, and set aside.

5.) Combine the topping ingredients in a large bowl, and mash with a fork until well combined.

6.) Pour the fruit mixture into a baking dish, top with the topping, and bake for 40-45 minutes.

7.) Turn off the oven, but leave the cobbler inside for 30-60 minutes. This will help the cobbler tighten up.

8.) Remove from the oven, let cool, if necessary, and serve with vanilla ice cream.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Challah Pan Stuffing with Sausage, Corn, Poblano and Sage

This was shockingly delicious. I need to stop myself from fixing a third plate.

I called this a pan stuffing rather than a bread pudding since, for most of us, bread pudding connotes dessert, which has nothing to do with sausage or poblano peppers (well, a poblano ice cream might be pretty fantastic on a sweet cornbread, but I digress). However, the methods used in this recipe are much closer to a bread pudding than a stuffing—the main difference being that a bread pudding has way more eggs and milk, resulting in a rich, custardy dish.

This recipe is a bit time consuming, but I feel it is worth it (let me repeat, shockingly delicious). The two most tempting steps to skip might be infusing the milk and making the fried sage garnish. I hope you don’t, as these are two of the coolest steps, and the most applicable to other recipes (I learned both from Jerry Traunfeld’s superb The Herbfarm Cookbook. If you enjoy cooking with fresh herbs, this is a must read). Fried herbs are a great garnish to many dishes (the crunchy fried sage is awesome on top of a velvety squash or pumpkin soup), and you could even serve them as a fun snack before a dinner party. And I love infusing milk with fresh herbs. It’s a technique that works especially well in desserts. It’s not very sexy having little green dots speckling a lucious dessert, so why not infuse the milk (or cream—in fact the infusion works better the more fat is in the liquid) with speckless flavor? Imagine a berry cobbler with mint whipped cream, or strawberry cupcakes with basil buttercream. Yum.

Possible substitutions and additions:

Regular milk for the goat milk – I love the “goatiness” (goat milk tastes very much like goat cheese) of this dish, but if you can’t find, can't afford, or are grossed out by the goat milk, feel free to replace it.

Smoked paprika (also called Spanish paprika or pimenton) for the powdered chipotle – This would tone down the spicyness. However, I don’t recommend using sweet or Hungarian paprika, which is much less smoky than the Spanish variant.

Other bread for the challah – If you can’t find challah, use any light white bread with lots more crumb than crust (the crumb is the inside of the bread). Brioche would be delicious, although the final dish would be preposterously rich.

Goat cheese – crumbling some goat cheese on top of the stuffing right before it goes in the oven would be an excellent decision flavor wise, and a not-so-much excellent decision calorie wise, I leave it in your capable hands.


2 medium poblano peppers, with relatively smooth surfaces (not too many divots or creases)
Canola oil for rubbing
1 1 lb loaf challah
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for rubbing and more for frying the sage
1 quart whole goat milk
1 small bunch sage, with 2 large, pretty leaves removed for each diner
2 sausage links (I used spicy turkey sausage)
4 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 medium sweet onion, in medium dice
2 medium tomatos (alternatively, I used 7 small camapri tomatoes), in medium dice
2 cups fresh corn, cut off the cob
8 large eggs
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
¼ tsp ground chipotle pepper, plus more for dusting

1.) Preheat the broiler. If you have a toaster oven, preheat its broiler (so you can toast the bread, step 5-6, at the same time as you broil the peppers).

2.) Drizzle canola oil over the peppers, then rub the oil all over their surfaces.

3.) Place the peppers under the broiler. Cook, turning regularly, until they are blackened and blistered all over, about 10 minutes.

Remove from the oven and cover with a kitchen towel until cool enough to handle.

4.) Peel the skin off the peppers and remove the stems and seeds. Dice the flesh into medium dice and set aside.

5.) Preheat the oven to 350°.

6.) Cut off the bottom crust of the challah, then cut the remaining bread into 1 inch cubes. Place on a baking sheet, drizzle with the olive oil, and toss to coat. Bake for 30 minutes, or until nicely toasted and golden brown. Keep the oven at 350°.


7.) Meanwhile, bring the milk to a boil (make sure it doesn’t overboil!) Take it off the heat once it starts to bubble.

8.) Place the bunch of sage in the hot milk, press it down with the back of a spoon if it pokes above the surface, and cover. Let sit away from the heat for 30 minutes, then strain, pressing down on the sage to extract as much liquid as possible, discard the solids.

9.) Meanwhile, heat a pan over medium high heat, then remove the sausage from its casing and crumble into the pan. Stir, breaking up the sausage, until it starts to render it’s fat.

10.) Add the garlic and onions, cook until they start to soften and are glistening.

11.) Add the tomatos, corn, and poblanos, stirring well after each addition.

12.) Cook until the vegetables are soft and have lost their raw taste, 8-10 minutes. Combine with the toasted bread.

13.) Whisk together the infused milk, salt, pepper, chipotle, and eggs until well combined.

14.) Rub a 13” x 9” x 2” casserole dish with a little bit of olive oil, add the bread/ vegetable mixture, then slowly pour the egg/milk mixture on top. Dust the surface with ground chipotle. Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the custard has firmed up (but not dried out).

15.) About 5 minutes before taking the stuffing out of the oven, heat some olive oil (about ¼  cup, or enough to generously coat the bottom of the pan) over high heat. When it is hot, add the reserved sage leaves, 6-8 at a time, and fry for 2-3 seconds, then transfer with a fork to a paper towel and sprinkle generously with kosher salt.

16.) Cut the stuffing into squares, serve garnished with the fried sage.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Adventure, Excitement, Food

As you may know, I love food, and I love to try new things. If I see a vegetable I’ve never heard of, I’m probably going to buy it, and I’m not a great cook because I keep experimenting with new recipes, never perfecting what I know (don’t worry, every recipe on this site has been made at least twice, (which might explain the delays between postings)). So in the spirit of adventure, here are a few food products I’ve recently discovered.

Found in the Syracuse area:

I had a really fantastic day today, full of culinary adventures with good friends. At Syracuse’s Italian Festival, I had a nice plate of calamari.

They weren’t frying to order, but instead of giving me a plate of sad, soggy, used-to-be-good food, they embraced the softness of the crust by adding soft, cooked, spicy red peppers and a delicious balsamic sauce, then lettuce for a crunchy textural contrast and to soak up the dressing.

And, if you haven’t been to the CNY regional market yet, you really have to go. It’s wonderful, and it runs all year. The produce is beautiful:

Including some sure signs that fall is here:

And there are some great, local, prepared products as well:

Meadowood farms in Cazenovia, NY makes an absolutely stellar sheep’s milk feta cheese—creamy without being too soft, crumbly without being too hard, and tasting amazingly fantastic. It’s won some awards from the American Cheese Society, and it absolutely deserves them.

Cheeky Monkey is a small business with a cult following in Syracuse. They make a spicy tomato garlic dipping oil (there’s a less tasty, less spicy version as well), which is essentially a chunky, oily dressing (emulsified with a bit of vinegar). It’s delicious, and adds a lot of flavor to sautéed vegetables (it was great with fennel, celery, onion, and scrambled eggs) or a quick sandwich (delicious with turkey, tomato and cheddar—bacon would have been welcome at that shindig, as well).

The Brooklyn Salsa Company’s products are a bit more widely available, and their Curry salsa is absurdly delicious. Granted, I’m a sucker for a well-balanced spicy curry and for coconut milk, but it is really good. Use it as you would any salsa (as a dip for chips, as a topping for some unusual pork and/or potato tacos) or mix it in with a dish—it was wonderful with some sautéed corn, tomatoes, onions, and ground lamb.

Found in Ohio, at most Krogers supermarkets, and scattered around the country:

On the trail, I met two good friends from Cincinnati (miss you Pixel! Miss you Chatter!) who turned me on to two amazing Cincinnati specialties:

Skyline Chili is pretty synonymous with Cincinnati, and it’s scrumptious. It’s available canned, and has a much different texture than the chili you’re probably used to. It’s more loose and liquid, like a normal chili that hasn’t been cooked long enough. However, the texture works great in a number of Cincinnati specialties—it’s closer in texture to a tomato sauce, so it works great on (hilariously named) pasta dishes, and it oozes together with lots of other fatty ingredients in one of the all-time great tailgating recipes. When I tasted it, I knew it reminded me of something, but couldn’t quite place it. Then, when I found a “copycat” recipe online, I realized that it reminded me of Rick Bayless’s life changingly good recipe for stuffed chilis, specifically the tomato broth spiced with cinnamon. The combination of tomato, cinnamon, and ground meat is central to both dishes, which both have wonderful complexity and depth of flavor.

Graeter’s Ice Cream is too good, it’s just too damn good. They still use the old small batch French Pot method of ice cream making, which makes for ridiculously creamy ice cream, and their ingredients are top notch, including a choclatier-quality milk chocolate which they pour into many of their ice creams as they are being spun, resulting in some huge shards of lovely, rich chocolate as well as little flecks in every bite. I would do some unspeakable things for a pint of Black Raspberry chip, right now.

Found in Syracuse and beyond:

Topher Lawton pointed me towards Lawry’s Seasoned salt. The primary flavors are onion and celery, which classically go with kinda everything. It was great in a burger, great on a toasted mozzarella and carrot sandwich, and turned microwave popcorn into greasy handfuls of heroin.

Biscoff Spread (a.k.a. Speculoos spread in Europe) looks like and has the texture of creamy peanut butter but tastes pretty much exactly like Graham crackers. Why are you still reading this. Get in the car, it’s at Wegmans. Great on toasted cinnamon raisin bread.

Dogfish Head makes some very, very good beers, some OK beers, and some pretty terrible beers. Punkin’ Ale is one of their best, and it’s only available in the fall. I saw it at the store and it was in my cart before I even had time to get excited. But, since then, I have gotten deliriously silly with excitement. Drink one and taste the leaves changing.

A note on the name of this blog

From late March until early August of this past year, I hiked 1500 miles of the Appalachian Trail. It was the single greatest experience of my life. It’s difficult to describe what the hike was like, or why it was so transformative, (although I try—almost every story I’ve told since arriving in Syracuse starts with “On the Trail…”) but I can write a little bit about the food.

As hikers, food was always on our minds. Whether planning out what was for dinner (usually something like a 3500 calorie conglomerate of instant ramen noodles, instant mashed potatoes, Knorr Pasta Sides, pre-cooked bacon or summer sausage, and mountain water, all served in a single pot and eaten with a titanium spork), when our next snack break was, or what sort of terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad fast food we were going to eat when we stopped in town to resupply—food which I craved like I’ve never craved anything before, like I was a pregnant woman, but which repulses me now that I’m not burning 9000 calories a day and sweating out my weight in salt. Many of the meals which I remember most fondly would probably make my stomach turn now (two bags of Parmesean Spinach pasta side with precooked bacon and pouched salmon, a dozen hot dog buns with cold chili and Dorito crumbs (given to me by a wonderfully kind Trail Angel—someone who parks at a road crossing and serves passing hikers free food), or a truly absurd amount of Taco Bell, with Wendy’s as an amuse bouche and Long John Silver’s as a digestif).

Or I thought about meals I had eaten—a favorite time-passing game was mentally listing countries, then states, then cities that I’ve visited, in alphabetical order, and trying to pick a particularly memorable food moment from each one. Then I’d re-index the memories by food or ingredient, also, of course, in alphabetical order (I don’t know why it took me 25 years to figure out that library school might be a pretty good fit). I thought about the different consistencies butter can have, or what types of berries would taste best with what type of herbs. I planned endless recipes, thinking about what I would cook when I got off-trail. So that brings me to the name of this blog.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines off-trail as follows (usage, pronunciation, and etymology removed, emphasis my own):

off-trail, adv. and adj.

A. adv.
Off a trail or path; away from an established route.

B. adj.
That is or takes place away from a trail; spec. (of a sport, activity, etc.) conducted away from an established or conventional route. Also (and in earliest use) fig.: different to that which is accepted or usual; unorthodox.

While I was hiking, off-trail was a place I never wanted to be, a place that terrified me. Injury or illness could send me there, and we were constantly hearing stories of the weak or the unlucky, people who we had last seen happily hiking past us over mountains, but who we might never see again. They were gone forever. Off-trail. Now, off-trail is a state of mind, a return to normalcy. But it is just that fact—that I’ve returned from the woods—which means that the world will never be truly normal again. The world will always be “different to that which is accepted or usual” because that’s what it was while I was hiking. For the rest of my life, I will be someone who used to be on the Trail. When I live my life off-trail, when I shower every day, or sleep indoors and in the same place for more than one night running, or cook a meal with fresh vegetables and five pans, I will always be reminded of how lucky I am, how abundantly rich my life is, but, at the same time, how little I actually need to be truly, euphorically happy.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Spicy Pickles With Vietnamese Flavors

Recently, I've been experimenting with preserving food. I live alone, so I often can't eat vegetables fast enough, and I end up throwing them away. That drives me crazy. In this blog, among the recipes, reviews, and ruminations on cooking, I'll periodically explore various preservation techniques, keeping my fridge full and my trash can empty. I'm starting with pickling.

Pickling is a wonderful way to preserve a vegetable's flavor and crispness, while infusing it with any variety of fresh flavors. Today, I made pickles with vietnamese flavorings—chili, lime, mint, cilantro, and coriander (an interesting aside: cilantro and coriander are actually the same plant! In America, we call the leaves cilantro and the seeds coriander, but you may see "Cilantro seeds" in a Latin market, or "Coriander leaves" in an English cookbook).

I started with fresh ingredients from Syracuse's fantastic farmer's market (note: the ingredients listed below are slightly different than those pictured. The list is correct. I used too many vegetables, i.e. more than fit nicely in one 1 quart mason jar), along with some brining ingredients from the pantry.

For heat, I included both hungarian wax peppers, which are moderately spicy (less spicy than a jalapeno) and a habanero pepper, which is extremely hot. Feel free to tone down the heat by omitting the habanero, or replacing the wax peppers with anaheim chilies.

Spicy Pickles With Vietnames Flavors:
For the pickles:

3 medium pickling cucumbers
1 small bunch cilantro
15-20 leaves mint
1 habanero pepper
2 hungarian wax peppers

For the brine:

Juice of 4 limes
Enough rice wine vinegar to bring the total acid (lime juice + vinegar) to 1 1/2 cups.
1 1/2 cups water
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp kosher salt
2 1/2 tbsp white sugar

1.) Chop the cucumbers to your desired thickness (I like about 1/4 inch thick slices) and set aside (feel free to cut wedges, long slices, dice the cucumbers, or leave them whole, they're your pickles!).

2.) Thinly slice the wax peppers and mince the habenero. Combine and set aside. For milder heat, remove the white pith and seeds from the peppers. The pith is the hottest part, followed by the seeds, and then the flesh.

3.) Chop the cilantro and cut the mint into thin strips, which are called chiffonade (if you'd like some instruction on chopping herbs, Serious Eats has posted a wonderful slide show, which happens to highlight cilantro and mint). Combine and set aside.

4.) Combine all the brine ingredients in a small saucepan and place over high heat. As soon as the liquid just starts to boil:

remove it from the heat and let cool for 5 minutes.

5.) In a 1 quart mason jar, place a layer of cucumbers, followed by a layer of peppers, then a layer of herbs. Press down to make sure everything is tightly packed, then repeat the layering process until the jar is full and packed with vegetables.

6.) Slowly pour the cooled brine into the jar until it is full to just below the brim. All the vegetables should be covered. Cover and refrigerate.

Your pickles will be delicious after even a few hours, but they will keep in the fridge for months, getting more and more intensely flavored as time goes by.

These pickles liven up a sandwich (such as roast pork, turkey burger, or tuna fish), go into salads (such as a salad of corn, black beans, and tomatoes, or rice vermicelli noodles, shredded carrots, scallions and chicken thighs), or can be served along side a piece of breaded, pan fried snapper or a roasted chicken. Try to pair them with dishes or flavors you might find in Vietnamese or Mexican cuisine, and incorporate flavors from the pickles (mint, cilantro, lime, chili) into the dish. You can even use the pickle juice as an ingredient, maybe as the base for a salad dressing or to finish a sauce. Experiment and, as my great-grandmother Clara used to say "Enjoy, enjoy."