Thursday, December 26, 2013

Pork Loin Braised in Milk, Bolognese Style

In September the great Marcella Hazan died, and like most cooks, nay eaters, I was saddened to hear of her passing.  I have been known to cook from her cookbooks (yes, here and here and here).  Many others have written about her death, with much gratitude surrounding the way that she taught them to cook among other things.  I add my tribute to her as well.

While I have said a lot about her background in some of those earlier posts, one thing I haven't yet written about is the night we almost saw Marcella Hazan.  She's of such celebrity status that the almost sightings are as elevated an experience as the actual sightings, so celebrate we must.  Many years ago, Oliveto's, an Oakland retaurant within walking distance, held a night of cooking with Marcella Hazan.  She apparently consulted on the menu and I imagine did a little bit of bossing around in the kitchen--actually I suspect that's mere fantasy.  She was far too much of a fan of Olivetto's to do any bossing around.  In fact, she had this to say about the restaurant: 
"My test of a restaurant’s food is to ask “How soon after having a meal there would I want to go back?” If I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, I could eat at Oliveto in Oakland every day. Paul Canales, Oliveto’s chef, has found and taken unfailing command of what everyone who cooks struggles to discover: the straight road to pure, sincere, deeply satisfying flavor. I could choose from one of Paul’s menus by throwing a dart at it, knowing I could never make a mistake."  

Wow, I stand corrected.  Nope, she certainly did no micromanaging.

Anyway, those many years ago, a dear friend of ours was down from Seattle, so we marched right up to Oliveto's where we ate our fill.  However, more importantly, we were introduced to ribollita, something we had not yet known was what would make our lives feel complete.  And when I speak to you of ribollita, I am not speaking of the soup, which is itself good, but of the two-to-three day old ribollita that you pour over a slice of good bread in a skillet and cook until the liquid has been cooked completely out of it, and all you have left is a heap of pan fried, broth- and tomato-soaked, bean-smeared bread that makes you wonder why anyone would eat it as a soup. 

We did not meet Marcella, nor did we even glimpse her at one of the nearby tables, despite the rumors that she was in the restaurant that night.  Yet we ate knowing that she had given her approval to our meal.  That was thrill enough.

When I turned to celebrate the divine Ms. Hazan, it was not the ribollita or the Bolognese sauce (one of my favorites) that I reached for, but for one of comfort food that is easy to make.  Given that this recipe needs only seven (yes, seven) easy-to-procure ingredients and one pot, this was an simple one to choose.  While it is not a pretty little dish, it is a comfy one.  It's a tasty pork shoulder braised in milk, which curdles into these golden, chewy, salty nuggets that lift a simple meat dish to a new level.  

And the bonus:  the meat and curds are equally tasty the next day (or even the day after) on toasted bread for lunch.  A sandwich worth raising in salute to one of the great chefs we lost in 2013. 

One Year Ago: Prawn and Ginger Dumplings
Two Years Ago: Duck Braised with Red Wine and Prunes
Three Years Ago: Sweet and Sour Pork with Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Pork Loin Braised in Milk, Bolognese Style
Adapted from  Marcela Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking

4-6 Servings

1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 1/2 boneless pork shoulder butt
Freshly ground pepper
2 1/2 to 3 cups whole milk
2 to 3 tablespoons water

1.  Choose a heavy-bottomed pot that can snugly accommodate the pork. Heat butter and oil on medium high.  When the butter foam subsides, brown the meat, fat side down first, then all sides evenly. If the butter becomes very dark, lower heat.

2.  Add salt, pepper and 1 cup milk. Turn heat down so that milk simmers slowly. Cover the pot with the lid slightly ajar. Cook at a lazy simmer for approximately 1 hour, turning the meat occasionally, until the milk has thickened into a nut-brown sauce. The exact time it will take depends largely on the heat of your burner and the thickness of your pot.

3.  When the milk reaches this stage of being thick and nut brown-- and not before (Marcela cautions)--add 1 cup milk. Simmer for 10 minutes, then cover the pot. After 30 minutes set the lid ajar. Continue to cook at minimum heat, and when you see there is no more liquid milk in the pot, add another 1/2 cup of milk.

4.  Continue cooking until the meat feels very tender when prodded with a fork and all the milk has coagulated into small nut-brown clusters. Altogether it will take between 2 1/2 and 3 hours. If before the meat is fully cooked you find that the liquid in the pot has evaporated, add another 1/2 cup of milk. Repeat if it should become necessary.

5.  When the pork is tender and all the milk in the pot has thickened into dark clusters, transfer the meat to a cutting board. Let it settle for a few minutes, then cut it into slices about 3/8 inch thick and arrange them on a warm serving platter.

6.  Tip the pot and spoon off most of the fat. There may be up to a cup. Be careful to leave all the coagulated milk clusters. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of water and boil away the water over high heat using a wooden spoon to scrape brown bits from the bottom and sides of the pot. Spoon all the pot juices over the pork and serve immediately.

    Thursday, November 28, 2013

    Turkey Day Gratitude

    In a repeat of the last two years, I give to you my annual gratitude post, in no particular order...

    1.  Two Thanksgiving Dinners this year.

    Thanksgiving is complicated--living now on the West Coast, I don't see my family for Thanksgiving anymore.  The husband's family celebrates the eating of a turkey in a big way, and once I started dating the husband, I made the decision to spend Thanksgiving with them.  I love the early start time, the walk through the garden with a glass of wine, the extra long table (made by putting a giant piece of plywood on the table and then covering it up with a beautiful tablecloth), the lounging on the couch, the new surprises of guests (sometimes friends from New York or Utah, this time a friend from Seattle).  There is no television, no talk of Black Friday deals.

    This year, I went back to Illinois last week.  My sister threw a pre-Thanksgiving dinner, complete with two roasted chickens, the requisite mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts, fluffy rolls, and cherry pie (my mom's favorite).  Of course, at some point, talk turned to politics, and for a moment I was worried--worried that somehow this really lovely feeling was going to end.  But it didn't, because I realized that, indeed, I could be fully myself around my family and they could be fully themselves.  While we disagree--boy, do we--they know exactly where I stand and I know where they stand.  And we were all just talking, being who we truly are.  It was a wonderful thing to learn the late autumn before you turn forty.

    2.  The Beaches

    I love them.  I still cannot get enough of them.  However, I should probably call it the ocean rather than the beach.  I don't need to be in the water, I just love to be near it. 

    3. Seeing my BFF

    It doesn't matter--Las Vegas; Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; and Montgomery, Illinois--I have seen my best friend (whom I have known since I was four!) three times.  Not all of the visits were due to happy occasions, in fact one was due to grief and just the need to lay eyes on her, but all of them were out of love.  Sure, I lost money in Vegas, pissed and moaned about the heat in Wisconsin, and barely got to spend enough time with her in Illinois, but in each place, we got to stay up a little too late, take gratuitous selfies (be they by the Bellagio, on a lake dock, or in the Yorkville Subway (sandwich shop, not train)), shop, and just be together.  We are different people, she and I--I like to sit around and read; she likes to get out and see what needs to be seen--and we have loved each other for a very long time. 

    4.  Eating Right

    This year, I did a cleanse.  It seems weird to perhaps be thankful for a cleanse, but after a summer of over-indulgence, I decided to return to some of the ideas behind that cleanse.  So now every morning, I have a smoothie.  Every lunch I have a salad.  While I haven't been cooking as much as I would like for dinners (the sweet siren song of pho or sushi is often too loud), my daily breakfasts and lunches are filled with fruits and vegetables, and people, I do feel much lighter, healthier, and better. 

    5.  A Little Retreat

    This year, the husband's parents have purchased their soon-to-be-but-not-quite-yet retirement home up in Fort Bragg, California.  Actually, it's up in the redwoods just north of town, and you cannot see a neighbor at all (but there are plenty of banana slugs).  I have gone up twice now, where the husband and I have begun to nest in the room that the in-laws have so wonderfully dubbed ours.  At night, you can just hear the ocean (see #2), and the fog settles in.  It's cold--the only heat is a big wood-burning oven that eventually makes the whole house toasty--and dark.  And it is a little retreat from the world. 

    6.  Running

    Coupled with the eating right, I have been running again.  Currently my knee is bothering me something fierce, but I have been out there--in fog and sun, on pavement and gravel, near water and in the neighborhood--running as much as I can.  And I relove it.  Again and again.

    7.  My Running Partner

    This may seem an odd photo to associate with her, but this little surprise awaited us after we finished shuffling through a fundraiser run for her.  But let's rewind.  Last year, she was diagnosed with cancer.  This year she beat it.  I don't have the words to describe any of it.  I wish I did.  And just as she received the news that she was cancer free and had run (slowly, yes, she and I) to raise money for her treatment, my car was broken into, her purse and keys stolen, and her house robbed.  It all felt too much.  But it turned out that it wasn't.  In fact, this, too, could be bore.  Now we run together--she much faster and for much farther distances than I.  Now we're planning another half marathon.  Now she's back in Illinois visiting her family and friends and I have just returned from there.  I guess it's not true when I say that I have no words... in fact, I have many ways to describe 2013 for her--most of which involve heavy profanity--but the end of this year has turned out just the way I like it.

    8. Seeing my dad

    It's true.  He showed up almost two hours early for this game, but he has been to only four professional baseball games in his life.  Three of them with me.  I cannot blame him for a little excitement.  We hunkered into our seats, ordered the requisite beers and dogs, and settled in for a game.  He, too, has had his health scares--and continues to have them--but that July afternoon in the East Bay sun, we cheered on the A's, snapped some pictures, and got to spend some time together.


    9.  My little family

    Here they are in all their weird, scrawny, cuddly glory.  The Beag (see scrawny cat above) is still here--blind and smelly--but here.  Our backyard remains an impressive mess.  The new cats remain skittish.  The husband busts out the original dance moves from time to time (only to be matched by my own).  I love them all.

    10.  Home(s):  Both in Illinois and California

    This last visit back to Midwest, one of the nephews wondered why I would live in California if all of my family is back in Illinois, there with him.  Indeed, he asks a good question, for I miss my mom and my dad and my siblings and my nieces and nephews, and my heart almost broke.  But my family is here, too.  Perhaps more flights back to Illinois: now that I own a winter coat again (thanks to my BFF for taking me shopping in the 28-degree weather last week), I have no more excuses. But there is no denying when the plane begins its final descent over those East Bay hills just as the November sun is setting, I am just as much home here as there.  It's good to have two homes.

    It's time now to end this post, go for a run, and head over to the in-laws.  What a pleasure it is to think about ten things I am truly grateful for. 

    Happy Thanksgiving to you all.  

    Sunday, November 3, 2013

    Butternut Squash Soup with Coconut Milk, Miso, and Lime

     Squash soup.  Sure, everyone trots out their favorite recipe for the humble gourd this time of year, and I am no exception.  One of my favorites (detailed here) includes white beans and kale, while another (which I really do need to write into a post) requires a boiled cashew base with a chipotle cream.  However, after a time, these old favorites can feel a little tired, and I am a firm believer in varying up your squash soups.  Have one that is just plain comforting (see above link) or have one that has a little Mexican flair (as in the chipotle cream drizzled one--I know, I know, I really do need to make a post here).  This one, which comes straight from my new birthday cookbook, Vegetable Literacy from the marvelous Deborah Madison, is clearly Asian inspired, what, with the coconut milk, ginger, miso, and sesame oil.  Now a newly christened favorite, this version of squash soup will now be part of my fall rotation.

    My father sent this cookbook my way in order to celebrate my turning 39 in September, and since then, I have been enjoying it tremendously.  The book opens with  pretty little end papers (carrot blossoms, perhaps, as a nod to the two-year carrot gone to seed and then bloom in the introduction?  mustard blossoms?), inviting you in for a feast of both images and recipes.  From the pleasingly photographed food (courtesy of Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton) to the simply explained recipes, this book is presented in such a way as to make you want to and believe that you can cook.  Madison breaks the book into 12 families of edible plants and then she has a hey day. 

    The cucurbit family--that of squashes, melons, and gourds--has been my focus lately, given the season and all.  Madison explains that many of the family are inedible but are highly functional, taking on the role of water carrier, pipe, birdhouse, storage vessel, instrument, and penis sheath (?!).  Her focus, of course, is the edible ones, which are high in carotenoids (a key antioxidant), Vitamins A and C, potassium, manganese, folate, some omega-3 fatty acids, and various B vitamins.  She also cautions that these vegetables are very effective in the remediation of chemically contaminated soils, soaking up from the ground all of the unwanted contaminants.  Yay for squashes doing a great job in cleaning up the ground.  However, you're best bet is to buy organic rather than conventionally farmed squashes, as the organic farm is less likely to have soil contaminated by the sprays routinely used to grow conventional vegetables.


    The truth is, I am not a huge fan of cooking winter squash, mostly because I am a lazy, impatient cook.  I grow frustrated with peeling butternut squash (see, I said I was lazy) and I hate waiting for the squash to roast when I want to make my soup now.  As in right now.  This recipe requires one to both peel and to steam different parts of the squash, but I found it much more manageable: the peeling kept me busy while the rest of the squash was steaming, so I found my impatience dwindling.

    On a side note, when I went grocery shopping for this recipe, I chose the smallest butternut squash I could find.  It was a full six  pounds.  The recipe calls for two pounds only.  So I cubed the neck, as the recipe calls for, and then I froze most of it, hopefully curbing my impatience and laziness next time I want to make squash soup.  To freeze squash, do spread out the chunks on a baking sheet first so as to avoid one giant clump of squash cubes.  Then toss the frozen squash cubes into a freezer-safe container.  Go to it.

    The final verdict on the cookbook:  If you have a garden or you spend a lot of time at the farmer's market (or if you have a garden that turned into a farm), then this is a cookbook for you.  However, if you're also just looking for more ways to cook vegetables--as in really cook vegetables where you can coax the best flavors out of them--then this is also the cookbook for you.  Go get it now.

    And on the squash soup:  whoo boy, this is quite tasty.  It is spicy and sweet and salty and satisfying.  Brew up a batch for yourself.

    One Year Ago: Split Green Pea Soup
    Two Years Ago: Chicken Lasagna with Greens
    Three Years Ago: Vegetables in Oaxacan Pumpkin Seed Sauce

    Butternut Squash Soup with Coconut Milk, Miso, and Lime
    Adapted from  Deborah Madison's Vegetable Literacy

    4-6 Servings

    1 butternut squash (about 2 pounds)
    2 tablespoons light sesame oil
    1 large onion, finely diced
    1 heaping tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
    2 teaspoon crushed Aleppo Pepper*
    1 teaspoon turmeric
    ½c cilantro stems or leaves, chopped fine
    1 can (15 ounces) light coconut milk
    juice of one lime
    ½c white or brown rice**
    1-2 teaspoons coconut butter**
    2 tablespoons white miso
    Toasted Sesame Oil
    Cilantro sprigs for garnish

    *The Aleppo Pepper is a Turkish chile pepper with moderate heat and cumin undertones.  I substituted 1 teaspoon ancho chile pepper, 1/2 teaspoon cumin, 1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika and 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika.  I have no idea if it tasted anything like the aleppo pepper, but it was damn tasty.

    1.  Cut the squash in half crosswise, just where the neck of the squash joins with the round (seeded) end. Bring a half inch or so of water to a boil, lower to a simmer and place the seeded end in (unpeeled and uncored). Put a lid on and steam until soft, about 15 minutes, while you continue with the recipe.

    2.  Peel the neck and cut into ½-inch pieces.

    3.  Heat the oil in a deep soup pot, and then saute the squash cubes together with the onion and ginger. After a few minutes, add the aleppo pepper, turmeric, cilantro stems, and about 1½ teaspoons salt.  Cook for about 3 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the coconut milk and three cups of water and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and cook, covered, for about 20 minutes.

    4.  Meanwhile, check on your round end of the squash. When tender, remove the squash and when it’s cool enough to handle, cut it in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and discard. Then scrape the soft flesh from the skin. Puree the flesh together with a cup of the soup liquid until smooth. Pour the puree back into the soup, and add the lime juice.  Taste for salt and lime juice

    5.  While the soup cooks, also cook the rice. Boil 1 cup of water, then add the rice, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and bring back to a boil.  Then turn to the lowest heat and cook covered for about 15-20 minutes. When finished, stir in the coconut butter.

    6.  When the soup is done, dilute the miso in 1 cup of the soup liquid, mashing it until smooth. Return this cup to the soup and heat through if necessary.

    7.  To serve, add a few drops of toasted sesame oil to each bowl and coat the sides.  Then ladle the soup into bowls and add a little rice to the center. Finish with cilantro sprigs.**

    **I did no such thing with the rice.  I like my squash soup to be solely squash soup; however, I can see what she's going for here.  If you need to make a hearty meal, make it with the rice.  Ignore the rice otherwise.

    Sunday, October 13, 2013

    Ottolenghi's Salmon Steaks in Chraimeh Sauce

    Oh, what a sauce this is.   What a glorious, glorious sauce.

    And it comes from our new Jerusalem cookbook, from one of this blog's favorite chefs and current culinary darling, Yotam Ottolenghi.  I need not detail that this blog has featured recipes from Ottolenghi here and here and here and here,  but I will anyway because, whoo boy, I love these recipes. 

    This sauce comes from the Sephardic Jews, who resided on the Iberian peninsula until the Spanish Inquisition.  After their expulsion from Spain in 1492, many Sephardic Jews were folded into the Mizrahi communities in Northern Africa and the Middle East.  Such intermingling of people and cultures has produced some culinary superstars; this being no exception.  Indeed, you can taste the Spanish, Moroccan, and Libyan influence on this sauce.

    Sephardim pride themselves on their chraimeh recipes, and often serve them at Rosh Hashanah and Passover celebrations (whereas Ashkenazim might serve gefilte fish).  The husband father's family is Jewish, his grandparents immigrated from Germany in the early 1930s.  Come Rosh Hashanah, despite the fact that he does not practice, the husband is greeted in the street by strangers with a hearty Shanah Tovah, a celebratory Happy New Year, or a simple Shalom

    Whether you celebrate Rosh Hashanah or not, this is a dish you want to break out for any party or (why not?) just a standard weekday dinner.  It's so very, very good.  The sauce is the star, and you might even want to double or (gasp!) triple the sauce just so you have some more around (freeze it!) next time you need a sauce fix.  Your choice of fish doesn't matter much.  We used salmon, but you could use halibut or tilapia or grouper or sea bass or flounder or amberjack (which apparently is most commonly used in Jerusalem) or whatever.  Serve as a starter, warm or at room temperature with challah or any good white bread for dipping and lots of lemon.

    Then lick the plate clean. 

    One Year Ago: Breakfast Bomber Sub
    Two Years Ago: Roast Pork with Onion and Apple
    Three Years Ago: Good Earth Bread

    Ottolenghi's Salmon Steaks in Chraimeh Sauce
    Adapted from  Jerusalem: A Cookbook

    4 Servings

    scant 1/2 cup sunflower oil (or another mild oil), divided
    3 tbsp all-purpose flour
    4 salmon or sea bass steaks, about 1 lb
    6 loves garlic, coarsely chopped
    2 tsp sweet paprika
    1 tbsp caraway seeds, dry toasted and freshly ground
    1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
    1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (or even a little more--we found that we could have withstood a little more heat)
    1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
    1 green chile, coarsely chopped
    2/3 cup water
    3 tbsp tomato paste
    2 tsp sugar
    2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
    lemon wedges and cilantro for garnish
    salt and pepper


    1. Heat two tablespoons of oil over high heat.  Place the four in a shallow bowl, season generously with salt and pepper, and toss the fish in it.  Shake off the excess flour and sear the fish for a minute or two one each side, until golden.  Remove the fish and wipe the pan clean.

    2.  Place the garlic, spices, chile, and 2 tablespoons of the oil in a food processor, and pulvarize to form a thick paste.

    3.  Pour remaining oil into frying pan, heat well, and add the spice paste.  Stir and fry for 30 seconds, ensuring the spices do not burn.  Add the water and tomato paste to the spices to stop the cooking process.  Bring to a simmer and add sugar, lemon juice and salt and pepper.  Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper as needed.

    4.  Put the fish in the sauce, bring to a gentle simmer, cover the pan and cook for 7-11 minutes, until it is just done.

    5.  Serve warm or at room temperature.  Garnish with lemon wedges and cilantro.

    Saturday, October 12, 2013

    Ottolenghi's Raw Artichoke and Herb Salad

    Well hello again.  It's fall.  It's my favorite season of the year, and generally it means squash soup and apple butter and warm blankets and sweaters.  However, the weather has been warm during the day (but brisk at night), so instead we have Ottolenghi's raw artichoke and herb salad.  This is a good thing.

    We have a new cookbook, my friends.  And we all know how much I love new cookbooks, and it's even better to have a new cookbook from Ottolenghi, given that I am quite a fan of his other cookbook (see here and here and, yes,  here).  This cookbook celebrates the variety of foods from Jerusalem, where Greek Orthodox monks, Russian Orthodox priests, Hasidic Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, Sephardic Jews, Palestinian Muslims, Christian Arabs, Ethopian Copts, and Russian nuns (to name a few) all come together in this global city to create, as Ottolenghi says, "an immense tapestry of cuisines."  Ottolenghi, with his business partner Sami Tamimi (Click here for a lovely tale of the two and of their London shops), explore the commonalities of cuisine and the divergences in this rich cookbook, where artichokes, cucumbers, mint, tomatoes, pickled vegetables, herbs, olive oil, lemon juice, olives reign supreme.

    Thus, it is not surprising, given the culinary chops of these two and the depth of culinary culture of this city, that this herb salad is so delightful. In this recipe Ottolenghi sings the praises of the artichoke, advocating for an afternoon set aside to buy too many (in fact "great numbers") and to trim and clean them, storing all of the ones you don't use in the freezer for a rainy day.  Not bad advice.  And this salad is recommended as an accompaniment to anything fatty and hearty, such as lamb shawarma or latkas.  Yum.

    Here are the negatives to this recipe:  I found there was a little too much oil, but I think my palate has changed to want a less olive oil.  And here's the kicker:  for all of their hype, the artichoke hearts were underwhelming.  Can you believe that?  After the work of shedding their leaves and peeling the base and shaving what's left, it was surprising to find that I didn't love them.

    Here are the positives:  light, refreshing, and quite tasty.  I might play with the choke--maybe sun chokes?  Maybe just long curls of cucumbers?  But the mint is lovely, and you'll be happy to know, because who isn't, that mint has lots of potassium.  I am a huge fan of arugula.  Couple that sweet, cool mint and that sharp arugula with the distinctive taste of cilantro, and, people, you have the base of something very, very good.  But try it once with the artichoke hearts.  See if you like it better than I did.

    One Year Ago: Breakfast Bomber Sub
    Two Years Ago: Roast Pork with Onion and Apple
    Three Years Ago: Good Earth Bread

    Ottolenghi's Raw Artichoke and Herb Salad
    Adapted from  Jerusalem: A Cookbook

    2 Servings

    3 large globe artichokes
    3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided
    4 tablespoons olive oil
    2 cups arugula
    1/2 cup torn mint leaves
    1/2 cup torn cilantro leaves
    1 ounce pecorino toscano or romano cheese, thinly shaved
    Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


    1. Prepare a bowl with water mixed with half of the lemon juice.

    2.  Remove the stem from one artichoke and pull off the tough outer leaves.  Once you reach the softer, pale leaves, use a large, sharp knife to cut across the flower so that you are left with the bottom quarter.  Use a small, sharp knife to remove the outer layers of the artichoke until the base (or bottom) is exposed. Scrape out the hairy "choke" and put the base in the acidulated water.  Discard the rest, then repeat with the other artichokes.

    3.  Drain the artichokes and pat dry with paper towels.  Using a mandoline (or a large, sharp knife), cut the artichokes into paper-thin slices and transfer to a large mixing bowl.  Squeeze over the remaining lemon juice, add the olive oil, and toss well to coat.  You can leave the artichoke for up to a few hours if you like, at room temperature.

    4.  When ready to serve, add the arugula, mint, and cilantro to the artichoke and season with a generous amount of salt and pepper.  Toss gently and arrange on serving plates.  Garnish with the pecorino shavings.

    Thursday, August 15, 2013

    Alton Brown's Blueberry Muffins

    As I mentioned in a recent post, the niece recently visited foggy California from muggy Illinois, and kid loves her blueberry muffins.  Thus, we decided to have a taste test of two different blueberry muffins.  This time around, we tried Alton Brown's method.

    Now Alton Brown, Food Network star, is a master of the science of cooking for a popular audience.  Further, his approach is often humorous, and his written voice is quite distinct and quite funny.  I recommend his cookbooks for their science and their irreverence.  A fine combination.

    The husband, admittedly, made these; I did not.  He woke up early one morning before the niece and I were awake.  He padded around the kitchen, mixing and measuring. He reported that the recipe was a snap and that he followed it basically to a t.  He did have to make a decision regarding the amount of blueberries to include, given that Brown suggests 1-2 cups of the "extras."  The husband chose 1.5 cups, and we believe he chose wisely.

    According to Brown, a true muffin should have a coarse crumb (or texture) rather than a tender cake texture.  There should be an unevenness to that very texture, and the bubbles created by your leavening agents (in this case the baking powder and baking soda) should be haphazard and varied in size.  However, if you over mix, you get tunnels in your muffins, and who wants that?  I mean, really.  But how do you know if you have over mixed?  Alton Brown suggests you stop mixing 10 seconds before you think you should.  You want there to be small lumps in the batter and even little streaks of flour.  These are all aspects of the muffin I can get behind, especially when the husband is the one doing the mixing.

    Finally, given that this was a taste test, you may be interested in the results.  The niece and I both preferred this blueberry muffin to the Cook's Illustrated (which is actually America's Test Kitchen, who are the editors of Cook's Illustrated) version.  We found that version to be a little bit dry and not sweet enough.  Despite having a full 1/2 cup less sugar, Alton Brown's version seemed sweeter to us.  Perhaps it was the use of yogurt instead of sour cream?  And these seemed much more moist.  I am going to attribute that to the extra egg yolk, but I may be just making stuff up now.  Or as my father-in-law calls it: floating one of my bogus theories (of which I have many).  I just don't know why these tasted better, but they did.  Maybe it was the cook.
    Sempervirens Falls

    Our campsite

    Anyway, these muffins came with us on a camping trip with the niece to Big Basin, a wonderful state park about two hours away (with a long, windy road not conducive to those (like the husband) who get a little car sick).  I love the quiet of this redwood park, even though it is well-used and you certainly will never feel fully alone.  Generally, though, you can find some secluded campsites in Wastahi and Huckleberry, and those fellow campers around us were super friendly, including our campsite neighbor who offered to loan us his little red wagon to carry in our supplies.  

    We settled into our campsite, ringed by massive redwoods, and spent three days sitting by the fire, taking afternoon naps, reading good books.  During the second day, we took an easy hike along Shadowbrook Trail to see Sempervirens Falls.  As we were walking on the trail, we could hear the water, and we slipped ourselves down some stairs to a solid platform overlooking this little basin. Oh, the falls were lovely, with its sparse July trickle of water coming down.  Many others swear by the Berry Creek Falls trail, which is indeed a beautiful 10-mile hike; however, this time around, we wanted a simple hiking experience.  I recommend this trail for those who are more interested in lounging their afternoons away around a too-early-in-the-day fire (which would be me).  Indeed, we got back to camp well in time for a snack of blueberry muffins and Honey Nut Cheerios (I don't judge the niece's snack combinations and neither should you) and a good hour of reading.

    And at night, we ate smores and laughed.  And laughed and laughed.  So much so that in the middle of the first night while tightly rolled in our separate sleeping bags, the niece, the husband and I were gasping for breath in the pitch dark, trying not to disturb our camp neighbors.  It was good, so good to laugh so hard.   

    I think it's clear that I miss the niece, who is safely ensconced back in Illinois and about to start 8th grade.  Luckily, I now know which blueberry muffin recipe I prefer, thanks to her love of the blueberry muffin and our willingness to indulge in a little taste test.

    Winner:  Alton Brown

    One Year Ago: Zuni Fideus with Wild Mushrooms and Peas
    Two Years Ago: Devil's Food Cake
    Three Years Ago: Peach Cobbler

    Blueberry Muffins
    Adapted from  I'm Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking

    12 Muffins

    Dry Ingredients
    1/2 cup sugar (or 3 3/4 ounces)
    1/2 cup vegetable oil
    1 large egg
    1 large egg yolk
    1 cup plain yogurt

    1 1/2 cups blueberries

    Wet Ingredients
    2 1/4 cup flour (or 11 ounces)
    2 teaspoons baking powder (or 1/4 ounce)
    1 teaspoon baking soda (or less than 1/4 ounce)
    Pinch of salt


    1.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

    2.  Prepare a muffin tin by using non-stick spray and set aside.  (Brown recommends Baker's Joy or AB's Kustom Kitchen Lube (his own recipe).  We use Pam, but it's made by ConAgra, so there's that.)

    3.  Assemble the dry ingredients by pulsing them together in a food processor for 5 seconds.  (You want to sift these ingredients because during storage, the dry ingredients compact.  You want your dry ingredients to be aerated to assist in the leavening process.)  Add the blueberries to the dry ingredients.

    4.  Whisk together the wet ingredients in a separate bowl.

    5.  Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until the batter comes together.  Do not mix smooth.

    6.  Spoon the batter into the prepared tins.  The cups should be full.

    7.  Bake for 18-20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted all the way to the bottom of the muffin comes out clean.

    8.  Remove the muffins from the oven and immediately turn the muffins on their sides so that steam can escape the pan.  (This prevents your muffins from becoming soggy and heavy at the bottom.)

    Sunday, August 11, 2013

    Cook's Illustrated's Blueberry Muffins

    The niece, who came to visit for two weeks in July, is a blueberry muffin hound.  Consequently, we made two batches of blueberry muffins.  One set was for the beach.  The other set was for camping.  

    Having her visit was so delightful.  She is almost 14 years old now, and she is funny, sassy, and a bit ridiculous: meaning that she fits in right here.  There was much singing (our operatic renditions of our daily activities were something to behold) and much face making and the occasional need to "dance it out" in the car when I grew frustrated by my belief that I had donated an unyet worn pair of shoes to Goodwill (which turned out not to be the case).  There was a trip to Romeo and Juliet.  There was shopping for the latest in teen wear (turns out to be the same thing I wore in 1992 (who knew flannels and combat boots were making such a strong comeback?)).  There were many beaches. 

    As in, a lot of beaches.

    Ocean Beach (San Francisco)
    Drake's Beach (Point Reyes)
    There's just something about the beach that calls to her (and my) Midwestern heart, and she poked sea anemones, collected shells, wrote her name in the sand, waded out into the surf, prodded beached jelly fish, pointed out sea lions and otters, and sat by herself for an hour and a half, watching the sun go down and turning all of Monterey that beautiful shade of blue.  Something happens to her at the beach, and I like being able to see it.  She is all long legs akimbo and wide smiles.  Occasionally, she even lets me put my arm around her.

    Perkins Park (Pacific Grove)

    Hopkins Marine Station (Monterey)
    Upon arrival in California, she requested blueberry muffins.  Well, I can provide, for I love me some muffins of the blueberry sort (the other thing she requested was no baseball games, and sadly, I acquiesced on that one, too).

    We decided we would try two different versions of the blueberry muffin and conduct our own little taste test.

    We began our experiment with the Cook's Illustrated The New Best Recipe Cookbook version.  In general I would argue that you cannot go wrong with this cookbook.  Around these here parts, we refer to the cookbook as the science cookbook or the geek cookbook, as this cookbook loves its science-y explanations and its multiple versions until it hits on just the right recipe.

    As expected, this recipe spent some time trying to find the proper flour (bleached flour lacked the flavor they wanted and cake flour was too light for the heavy blueberries), just the right wet ingredients (they settled on sour cream to play off of the berries) and the perfect blueberries (they recommend wild blueberries, as they are smaller and, thus, less likely to take over the muffin.  I used fresh, regular-sized berries, and they were fine).  They adjusted leaveners and instructed one to be vigorous in the whisking of the wet ingredients to produce the lift needed in the muffin but cautioned not to overmix (a simple folding of the wet ingredients into the dry ones, leaving sprays (but not pockets) of flour).  In short, they did their homework.

    Not surprisingly then, the niece and I gobbled these up, some on the beach, others in the kitchen.  They were lovely with melted butter, and even better with a tiny grit of sand and the salt air.

    However, our final verdict was that while these were solid blueberry muffins, they could have been sweeter and were just a scotch dry (hence the melted butter).  The lack of sweetness is a bit odd, as I will soon be posting the Alton Brown version which has 1/2 the sugar and we liked his version a little better, but both of us agreed this version should have been sweeter.

    Nonetheless, in the end, these blueberry muffins displayed a lovely crumbly, lumpy top and a nice texture.  We approve.  

    Now I just need to fly her back to California, for I miss her already.  We need to go back to the beach.

    One Year Ago: Soba Noodles with Eggplant and Mango
    Two Years Ago: Mussels Linguica
    Three Years Ago: Peach Cobbler

    Blueberry Muffins
    Adapted from  I'm Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking

    12 Muffins

    2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached, all-purpose flour
    1 tablespoon baking powder
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1 large egg
    1 cup sugar
    4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
    1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) sour cream
    1 1/2 cups blueberries (recommended: smaller wild blueberries)--fresh or frozen


    1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a standard, 12-cup muffin tin and set aside.

    2.  Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl until combined.

    3.  Whisk the egg in a second medium bowl until well combined and light colored, about 20 seconds.  Add the sugar and whisk vigorously until thick and homogeneous, about 30 seconds.  Add the melted butter in 2-3 additions, whisking after each addition to combine.  Add the sour cream in 2 additions, whisking just to combine.

    4.  Add the berries to the dry ingredients and gently toss just to combine. (If you are using frozen blueberries, add them frozen (not thawed) to the flour mix.) Add the sour cream mixture and fold carefully with a rubber spatula until the batter comes together and the berries are evenly distributed, about 25-30 seconds.  Do not over mix.

    5.  Divide the batter among the greased muffin cups.  

    6.  Bake until the muffins are light golden brown and until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean, 25-30 minutes, rotating the pan from front to back halfway through the baking time.

    7.  Invert the muffin tin over a wire rack, stand the muffins upright, and cool 5 minutes.

    Monday, July 22, 2013

    The Best Shepherd's Pie

    I have just returned from the land of heat:  Illinois.  I am back in my own element now: the fog, the cold, the sweater in July.  Oh, it is good, good, good to be home again.

    It has slowly been happening, the metamorphosing into a Californian--the ache for sea and fog, the smell of salt in the air--but it has happened, indeed.  Yesterday to get my fix of water and fog, I took the niece, who is visiting for two weeks, and the husband to the Berkeley Marina for a short walk.  The bay was littered with boats, more so than normal because the America's Cup is here this year. Someone was flying a red kite with multicolored streamers and four smaller kites (that looked like puffer fish) attached to the main line.  The wind was strong, and admittedly cold, but I linked arms with the husband and the niece, and we walked along the rocky embankment with barely a view of the city because of the fog.  Oh, the fog.  Ah, Northern California in July.  Welcome home.

    But this was only a quick fix, as there was much to be done yesterday.  Grocery shopping needed to happen, the unpacking of the bags, the doing of the laundry, the catching up on the email.  But once all of the dust had settled, I sent the niece and the husband to the movies and I slowly made, what is purported by The Country Cooking of Ireland to be, the best shepherd's pie while I listened the Giants lose to the Diamondbacks.  The cooking was leisurely, the baseball was disappointing, but by then the sun had come out, the backyard had warmed up, and I was standing in my kitchen chopping mushrooms and onions, browning beef and lamb, adding a little salt here, a lot of pepper there.  It was nice to have the knife back in my hand, to rest my hip against the counter, to swing around to open the refrigerator door.  It was nice to be back in my kitchen.  As often happens on vacation, everyone wants to go out to dinner when I visited, so there has been no cooking for the past two weeks.  Puttering around the kitchen with baseball on in the background was a return home as well.


    I asked the niece to choose a cookbook, and I then would choose the dish.  Given that she is half Irish, she gravitated to this one, The Country Cooking of Ireland.  I have cooked from this cookbook here (boxty) and here (liver in a whiskey cream sauce which was so, so much better than you might imagine it would have been).  It's a lovely cookbook, and I would like to procure another of the Country Cooking of ______ series, but I cannot decide which one to grab next.  ItalyFranceGreece?  So many options. 

    Finally, I did make some adjustments, which I modified in the recipe below, but if you want to live by the original, here's what I changed:
    • Neither the niece nor I like cooked carrots, and the original recipe calls for 1 1/2 chopped carrots. Thus, I substituted 3 cups of sliced mushrooms for the carrots.  I like the way mushrooms add more of that savory flavor, but the carrots would have added a sweetness.  Turns out the niece doesn't like cooked mushrooms (it's a texture thing), but she picked them out of the meat, and the husband ate them.
    • After I made the meat mixture, I poured off the fat.  This is not a light dish--nor should it be; it is shepherd's pie, for goodness sake--but reducing some of the fat here and there does not hurt.  By reserving the drippings and skimming the fat, you still preserve some of the flavor.
    • This is not an adjustment, but a note.  The cookbook calls for steaming the potatoes rather than boiling them:  the steaming leads to a drier potato--perfect for mashing.  This was the first time I had prepared mashed potatoes this way, and I have to say it was lovely.  Not only were the potatoes moist (unlike, say, the dryness that can result from baking them) but the skins slid right off--a bonus, because then I ate the skins with a little salt as a snack.
    • To make the mashed potatoes to serve, heat the cream to a simmer--this will keep the potatoes warm.  However, since I was making the mashed potatoes to put atop meat and then to put in a 350 degree oven, I didn't worry about heating the cream ahead of time.  But if you have come here just for the mashed potato recipe--and I won't blame you at all if you just make the potatoes; they are creamy and salty and satisfying--warm the cream first.  You could also use milk to cut the fat (which I should have done).

    In all, this is quite good shepherd's pie.  I will leave it to you to determine if it is, indeed, the best.  However, I know it tasted wonderful after a foggy morning and a productive day.  It's good to be home again.

    One Year Ago: Soba Noodles with Eggplant and Mango 
    Two Years Ago: Mussels Linguica
    Three Years Ago: Grilled Duck Breast with Peach-Green Grape Chutney

    The Best Shepherd's Pie
    Adapted from  The Country Cooking of Ireland

    Serves 6

    1 3/4 lbs russet potatoes
    3/4 cup heavy cream
    4-6 tbsp butter, softened
    salt and pepper 
    2 tbsp olive oil
    1 onion, diced
    3 cups mushrooms, sliced
    3/4 pounds ground lamb
    3/4 pounds ground beef
    1 tbsp tomato paste
    1 tsp Dijon mustard
    1 cup beef, lamb, or chicken stock
    2 tbsp butter
    salt and pepper

    To make the mashed potatoes:
    1.  Put the potatoes in a large pot, with the larger ones on the bottom, and add water to come halfway up the potatoes.  Covert he pot and bring to a boil over high heat.  When the water begins to boil, carefully drain off about half of it, reserving 2 Tbsp of the water you pour off.  Return the pot to the hear,cover it again, reduce the hear to low, and let the potatoes steam for about 40 minutes.  Turn off the heat, cover the potatoes with a clean, damp tea towel, and let sit for 5 minutes more.

    2. Remove the potatoes from the pot with a slotted spoon and carefully peel them while they are still hot.  Return them to the pot with the softened butter.  Mash them well; continue to mash while slowly pouring in the cream mixture.  Season generously with salt and pepper, and finish by whisking the potatoes vigorously.

    To make the meat mixture:
    4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

    5. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the onions and mushrooms and cook for 10 minutes or until the onions are soft but not browned and the mushrooms have released their juices.

    6.  Raise the heat to high and add the lamb and beef, and cook until well browned, breaking up the larger chunks.

    7.  In a fine mesh sieve over a bowl, drain the meet and onion mixture.  Return the meat and onion mixture to the skillet.  Reserve the drippings and place in the freezer.  Once the fat has hardened, remove the fat and return the drippings to the meat mixture (this can be done after the next step).

    8.  Return the meat mixture to high , stir in the tomato paste and mustard, then add the stock.  Reduce the heat to low, season with salt and pepper to taste, and simmer for 30 minutes until the stock is mostly but not completely evaporated.  (Return the reserved drippings to the meat mixture).

    To combine:
    9.  Transfer the meat mixture to a round or rectangular ovenproof baking dish.  Cover the meat with mashed potatoes, flattening the top with a knife (make a wave or crosshatch pattern in the top of the potatoes, if you like).  Brush the top with melted better, then bake for 50 minutes.