Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Pear and Fennel Salad with Caraway and Pecorino

Ottolenghi characterized this salad as one that would make a real statement at the start of a meal. I can't agree more. I served this salad together with the squash, quince and Stilton quiche for a group of book-club friends at my house the other day. To my surprise, the wonderful freshness of fennel and the sweet flavor of ripe pears are not lost to the strong and commanding flavor of the quiche. Even the color of the salad works nicely. It stays quietly in the background. The demure off-white color of fennel and pears and the light green of arugula do not outshine the colorful quiche. This salad has a distinctive flavor that stands smartly on its own. It was such a hit with the ladies that I decided to post it here.

I am familiar with the use of caraway, dill, cumin, fennel and anise seeds in breadbaking. These spices have settled harmoniously on my spice rack for quite a while. Up till now, I seldom use them in salads. But Ottolenghi has other and better ideas.

It seems to make sense in pairing any one of these dry spices, which are closely related, with fresh fennel. Looking closely, the idea of substituting caraway with cumin, dill, fennel or anise seeds in this salad, both from a flavoring and textural perspective, may be flawed. Fennel and anise have a similar licorice flavor that caraway doesn’t. Caraway and dill have similar flavor, but different in aroma and size. Caraway is much smaller. Dill seeds have a more pungent and bitter flavor than caraway, making them more suitable for pickling than for dressing a salad. Cumin has a flavor all its own. I am curious as to how Ottolenghi came up with caraway seeds for this salad. Whatever it is, his selection of spices is pinpoint perfect. As far as I can taste, and tell, caraway provides a distinct visual contrast and gives off a sweet subtle aroma — a faint reminder of rye bread. Masterful!

Caraway Seeds: No Substitution 

What a wonderful combination of a few common ingredients: tossing ripe pears, fresh fennel and arugula together with a touch of roasted caraway seeds and quietly transforming the ingredients into a spectacular salad that would stand up to any dish.

Much to rejoice in the joy of discovery and, above all, of breaking bread and sharing delicious food among a bunch of great friends!

This salad and a soup dish are making their way to the April potluck party at IHCC. There will be many interesting dishes on the table from other IHCC participants. Please make a visit and enjoy!

Spicy Chickpea and Bulgur Soup

This is a simple and nutritious soup that you can be put together almost at the last minute — if you have a can of chickpea and some bulgur wheat hanging around. If you don’t, a can of beans and other grains, such as farro and freekeh, or rice, would work as well. Like any soup, the widest category of foods can be included. As long as there's enough fluid to eat with a spoon, it is a soup. And anything goes!

Bulgur is considered whole grain. It is usually sold parboiled and dried, with only a very small amount of the bran partially removed. Its high nutritional value makes it a good substitute for rice or couscous. Texture wise, it is more like couscous than rice. Compared to unenriched white rice, bulgur has more fiber and protein, a lower glycemic index, and higher levels of most vitamins and minerals.

This soup is convenient to make and uses mostly everyday items you already have in the fridge or pantry. Gather the aromatics: onions, carrots and stalks of celery. Line up the spices: cumin, coriander and caraway seeds. You are ready to go. This soup is tasty given the heat from harissa that can be dialed up or down based on your desired taste. The spiciness of this soup makes it so much more interesting from a flavor balance perspective. It tickles my taste buds and elevates the soup from an everyday comfort variety to something remarkable.

This recipe is adapted from Ottolenghi's Plenty More. He suggests serving the soup with a creamed feta paste. I also see adding Parmesan cheese as an alternative savory component to the soup.

This soup and a salad dish are joining the April potluck party at IHCC. There will be many interesting dishes on the table from other IHCC participants. Please make a visit.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Rothschild Souffle

I’ve never had a bad day in Paris; I’ve never had a bad meal in Paris either. A jovial and romantic place where it's impossible to be tired of. Since it is not feasible to make frequent trips there, the next best thing would be to re-create its sensational food experience.

My daughter and I and another mother-daughter pair went to Le Soufflé on Rue du Mont Thabur in Paris, not far from Westin Vendome, several years ago. It is a lovely small restaurant that serves mainly soufflé, as you can tell by its name. Savory or sweet soufflé, for every course of the meal. The restaurant is very French but without the pretensions. Perhaps a bit touristy: you can get an English menu without even asking. Reservations were hard to come by. The place was bustling with locals and tourists, even in the early evening hours.

Up till that time, I did not know soufflé could be served in so many different ways. We had the best tasting — pillowy, tall, airy, creamy with a semi-liquid core — souffle we’ve ever had. It blew my mind. I want to go back there where our most indelible food experience of one dish was created. Maybe I shouldn’t go back. I want the fond memory to endure, to be forever.

Better yet, I can make Rothschild soufflé at home with a recipe by Jacques Pepin. Seriously? I’ve never made soufflé before. It’s finicky and tricky to do, as I was led to believe. It is a restaurant dish, best to be left to the professionals. In the back of my mind, I always want to try making soufflé, and to confront my fear of yet another potential failure. Today, I’m ready for the challenge.

I chose Rothschild souffle and for two reasons: its history and the technique.

Soufflé Rothschild, which originally contained real gold and was aptly named in honor of the richest man in France at the time in the early 1800s. It consisted of a pastry-cream base lightened with beaten egg whites and flavored with chopped crystallized fruits macerated in Danziger Goldwasser, a liquor containing suspended gold crystals. Instead, I used dry white peaches macerated in peach schnapps in my version.

Jacques Pepin’s recipe substituted pastry cream with a simpler béchamel sauce. A béchamel (equal portion of butter and flour, thickened by milk) is the base of many crèmes and veloutes, and the mother sauce that I want to be able to master and improvise with ease.

I succeeded in getting the rise out of the souffle by following Pepin's straightforward recipe. I say to you: "Jacques, you have my utmost admiration and gratitude for getting me over the hump." I did a happy dance in my kitchen. The moment was just as sweet, if not better, than that at Le Souffle.

Here to C'est Magnifigue! There’ll be many exciting dishes to explore at the IHCC site. Please take a look.

Rothschild Souffle with Peaches

Food and Wine, Jan 2014

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Fried Rice Cakes with Creamed Leeks and Egg

My interpretation of the 3-ingredient challenge was not quite on the mark with Pepin’s scallops on spinach with walnut sauce. Please consider this as a redo for the current IHCC mystery box challenge. This recipe should do it: Fried rice cakes with creamed leeks and egg from Totam Ottolenghi. (The recipe, shown below, is listed on his website here.) The three ingredients that've met the challenge are: rice, gruyere, tarragon and — an extra one to boot, capers.

This recipe is perfect when you have leftover rice, for a light meal or a side dish anytime of the day. Gruyere adds savoriness to the rice cakes without overpowering the other ingredients. Leeks are more subtle and refined than onion, linked with gentle, even genteel cooking, such as chilled vichysoisse in a fine china bowl of yesteryear. On the other hand, leeks are a little more demanding to work with. They collect grit between its layers as it grows. No other vegetable needs the attentive cleaning in the sink. Opening and discarding the outer layers, slitting the leek down its length like a fan and swishing it around under the tap can be therapeutic at times. Other times, I buy trimmed leeks from Trader Joe’s. Steamed and softened in butter at moderate to low heat, their flesh should remain pearlescent. A leek scorched is a leek ruined. Browned leeks do not taste right, so be gentle. Leeks are very pleasing, especially with eggs. Creamed leeks make a fine dish, taking on a welcoming rustic note. They are my favorite bite of the dish.

Frying and flipping little rounds of rice patties can be tricky. I added more eggs so that they held together a little better. Or use rice that's more moist than dry. Getting the eggs right is a whole story in itself. I’ll leave that later for a featured egg dish. Together with rice cakes and creamed leeks, the egg brought it all home and gave the dish structure. The runny yolk a little theatric.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Steamed Scallops on Spinach with Walnut Sauce

Steamed Scallops in Walnut Sauce served with Country Bread
Very few ingredients and the straightforward steaming technique exemplify the beautiful simplicity of this dish. Pepin’s steamed scallops on spinach with walnut sauce can be found in Essential Pepin where he showcased more than 700 of his all-time favorite recipes over many decades of cooking and teaching. The book is like an encyclopedia full of morsels of fantastic recipes, from the simplest to the most elaborate. For now, I’ll focus on the simple ones.

On the ingredient list, there are less than five (not counting salt and pepper) in this recipe. They are: scallops, spinach and walnuts, as reflected in the title, plus olive oil and lemon. It doesn’t get more streamlined than that — as far as ingredients go.

Scallop and walnut are two of mystery ingredients. I would need to find at least one more ingredient to satisfy the IHCC mystery box challenge for this week. I hope it is not considered cheating by serving country bread, freshly baked out of my oven, with this dish. There is yeast, naturally, in bread. I used natural levain, built from a sourdough starter, and not the commercial yeast, for the country bread. Met the three-ingredient challenge! See how other IHCC participants reveal their challenges, visit here.

For this dish to work, scallops, the star ingredient, have to be super fresh and handled delicately. I bought only four firm pieces of sea scallop, respecting my pocket book and making sure they were of the best quality. Steaming is something I have a great deal of successes in my kitchen. Can’t take all the credit for that; I have to admit. I may have taken an easy way out since I get plenty of help from a trusty combi-steam oven.

The steam oven setting for scallops is 195°F/ 90°C for five minutes. Push a few buttons; the oven does its magic. The machine is an engineering marvel. Utterly magical. It has never disappointed me. True to be told, I had my share of bad and inconsistent results from searing scallops on the stovetop. So when I uncovered Pepin’s recipe of steamed scallops, I knew it'd get me closer to the dream dish.

The steamed scallop came out of the oven with a clean, unadulterated and sweet flavor. Not quite like a raw scallop sashimi. But it was the closest to that priced fresh taste from a cooked scallop than any I’ve eaten for a long time. I’m convinced steaming is the way to go, probably the best way to extract and enjoy the delicate sweetness and liveliness of fresh scallops. Thank you, Jacques Pepin.

The rest of the ingredients may seem like sideshows after the scallops. Now I think about it: may be I should have dipped the scallops in wasabi and light soy sauce, like eating sushi. Next time!
In addition to spinach, I used a blend of tender baby kale, chard and spinach I had on hand. Cooked them over high heat in a large saucepan with some olive oil for about 2 minutes or until wilted. Pepin arranged the scallops on top of the spinach and steamed them for another 3 minutes. Instead, I put the cooked spinach mix on the serving plates and prepared the scallops separately in the combi-steam oven.
The walnuts were placed in boiling water to soften. Pepin explained that boiling walnuts makes them taste like fresh walnuts. Green walnuts are more delicate and fruity than the mature nuts we commonly find in the markets. They work in the sense that you are getting pure delicate flavor, nothing to overpower the scallops. In my view, a crunchy element is missing in this dish. What about roasting the walnuts for a few minutes until crispy after boiling them? A twice-cooked walnuts, if you will. Or add some croutons!

Walnut Sauce
  • 8 walnut halves, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 tsp grated lemon rind
  • 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
For the sauce: Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the walnuts. Bring the water back to a boil, and continue boiling for 30 seconds. Drain. Combine walnuts with the rest of the ingredients in a bowl and set aside. To serve, drizzle the sauce on the scallops.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Beet Chocolate Bouchons

Fun to eat bouchons with your fingers

We know beets; we know chocolate, of course. But what the heck are bouchons? They mean corks, shaped by a silicone mold used to make these little brownie-like cakes. Bouchons have a distinct tall look. They come out of the mold instantly with just one flip of the wrist. That’s what I like about silicone mold—the ease of operation. You can easily use small cupcake molds for this purpose. The height gives these bouchons a lofty and hefty structure. You do a double take; you taste the earthy note of beet in these cakes. You are sold. The earthy and playful nature of the beet chocolate bouchons are indisputable.

Beets are my favorite root vegetables. I use them often in my vegetable cooking. (Here is an example: beet avocado and pea salad.) I usually roast a bunch of beets, all at once. Much cleaner than boiling them in a pot of water, which turns lavishly red. Wrapped each beet with aluminum foil and placed them on a sheet pan. Put them in a preheated 400°F oven for roughly an hour and keep them refrigerated for later use.

Beets blend well with dark chocolate. I love the addition of vegetables in desserts. A healthful way to eat more vegetables while indulging in a rich chocolate cake.
This chocolate-beet cake also comes with a story. The story was told in Nigel Slater’s Tender, a cook and his vegetable patch. Tender is a 600 pages long master piece, the length of book I’d normally stay away. Nigel Slater is such a remarkable writer with an engaging casual writing style. You enjoy the time you spend reading about his garden project, his kitchen diaries and his recipes, while feeling inspired page after page. He draws you into his world. I want to dig my fingers into the dirt and grow my own vegetables and herbs. Smell the scent and the change of season in the air. I feel confident already that I'm a better cook, because of his simple recipes and uncomplicated instructions, at least being inspired to become one.

Cakes of various shapes enlivened with thick creme fraiche and crackle of poppy seeds

He wrote: “It is true that I am rarely happier than when making chocolate cake. I especially like baking those that manage to be cakelike on the outside and almost molten within…. There are other ways to moisten a cake, such as introducing grated carrots or, in this case, crushed beets… This is a seductive cake, deeply moist and tempting. The serving suggestion of crème fraiche is not a nod to the sour cream so close to beets’ Eastern European heart, it is an important part of the cake.”

Whatever I write here may seem totally inadequate next to how Slater described this cake. So I’ll let the cake and the recipe speak for itself. I’ll seep a cup of tea and savor the incredible, yet subtle, taste of the beet chocolate bouchons. Words are somehow falling short!


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Cumin and Gruyere Cheese Bread

Artisan breads have a distinct look about them. All those wonderful characteristics of crunchy crust and irregular crumb, we never have enough of, were discussed extensively in an earlier post on whole-wheat multigrain levain bread. I thought I had all the ground covered on what I considered to be desirable qualities in artisan breads, until this cheese bread came out of the oven.

The blisters on the crust of this cheese bread were huge. Almost as huge as the smile they put on my face. They has also brought me new knowledge and awareness about blisters, as pieces of cheese caramelize on the surface of the bread, and how tasty they are. Crusty, cheesy and yummy!

You won’t need to sniff this bread, as you would any other bread. The assertive scent of cumin and Gruyere was unmistakable. The creaminess of the Gruyere moistened the interior of the bread. Gave it an earthy savory note without being overpowering.

If you are after deep flavor in your bread, I can’t imagine a stronger one than a cheese bread. This bread recipe is adapted from Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread, but my choice of Gruyere and the addition of cumin took on a different tack from the original recipe. Clearly, the nature and quality of the cheese used will have a definitive effect on the bread flavor. Hamelman recommends Parmesan, or a less expensive Asiago or a combination of both. The choice is yours. With this recipe, the bread will come out equally successful, as I’ve tested, irrespective of your choice of cheese, as long as they are hard cheeses with low water content.

The best part of the bread: the blisters on the crust

This cheese bread goes well with soups and salads. It's lovely to serve it with fresh fruits and nuts. Any leftover is best toasted, which brings back the taste of the cheese. Bon appetit!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Pan-seared Duck Breasts in Red-Wine Balsamic Sauce

Would you consider it fast food if a dish can be prepared in less than 20 minutes? Is it possible this is also a fancy restaurant dish, not served at a fast-food joint?

In France, it’s common that every home cook would have a few simple duck recipes in their repertoire. Julia Child has more than a dozen duck recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I would’ve never thought of attempting to make a dish like: boned stuffed duck baked in a pastry crust on page 571. I looked at that recipe repeatedly. It is so inspiring though that may be one day I might. Honestly, that would be a very good day indeed if it arrives.

When I found this quick pan-seared duck recipe (sauteed duck in vinegar sauce) with a few basic pantry ingredients in Essential Pepin, I was hooked. I wanted it to be the first dish I made on this blog to celebrate Pepin’s remarkable breath as a chef and his contributions in bringing classic French home cooking to our kitchens. Thankful to those at IH Cooking Clubs in helping to spotlight Jacques Pepin starting this month. See all the wonderful dishes from other participants at IHCC.

I am a lover of duck breasts more than breasts of other poultry. Duck breasts taste complex and flavorful, more like steak than poultry. I buy a magret de canard, and it comes from a Moulard, a duck that is a cross between a Muscovy and a Long Island Peking duck.

Since I like my steak rare to medium rare, I like my duck cooked to the same level of doneness (internal temperature about 135°F). The duck meat should look pink and succulent.

The recipe calls for seasoning duck breast with salt and pepper. Then heat butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add duck breast, skin side down initially, when the butter is hot and cook for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, shorter or longer to your desired doneness. Transfer the seared duck breast on a rack on a sheet pan and rest in a preheated 250°F oven. (Pepin preheated oven to 180°F which may be too low.) The skin should be brown and crisp when it's out of the oven. Allow at least another five minutes for resting before the duck is cut.

Next step is to use the drippings in the skillet to make the sauce. Add the chopped onion and garlic and cook for 15-20 seconds. Add dry red wine, balsamic vinegar, bringing to a boil, stirring to melt the solidified juices, and cook until the liquid is reduced to about 1/4 cup. What surprises me are the next two ingredients to be added to this classic French sauce: ketchup, A1 steak sauce and water. (This must be an adaptation for the American cooks.) Bring to a boil and cook for another minute. Drain off any liquid that has accumulated around the duck and add it to the sauce.

In my opinion, it’s good to slice the duck breast about 1/2 inch thick on the diagonal, which makes it tender. Strain the sauce with a fine-mesh strainer if you prefer a smooth and silky sauce. Drizzle the duck with the red wine and balsamic sauce. Sprinke with fresh chives and serve. I used parsley because that's what I had.

A few tips: I'd add another step at the beginning: rendering the duck fat. Score the duck skin in a crosshatch pattern with a sharp knife, cutting into the layer of fat and careful not piercing into the meat. It’s important when there is a thick fat layer. Should there be enough fat left in the skillet than is needed to make the sauce, I'd save the duck fat for later use. Duck fat is good fat and adds complex flavor to potatoes, grains or beans. If there are duck leftovers, I would dice and incorporate them in a salad or a sandwich with artisan bread, like what you would with bacon. They add instant elegance to any dish!

You’ve got a great meal served to you from your favorite French bistro, and better, in the comfort and intimacy of home.